About Steph

Your author, part-time, work-at-home writer.

Doing Quarantine Right: Coronavirus Chronicle, Part 4

So we’ve been under a stay-at-home directive for eight days now. I thought it wouldn’t make much of a difference—for everyone except North—because we’d already been pretty much sticking close to home, only going out for walks and shopping, both of which are allowed under the directive. The difference for North is that our one-friend rule has been replaced by a no-friends rule, so their almost daily, hours-long rambles with Zoë are a thing of the past. They’re still in touch with friends, of course, as they are a teen with a phone, but it’s not the same as being together. It’s not easy being an extrovert under quarantine.

But even though I’m not the extrovert in the family, I have noticed some differences for me under the slightly tighter rules. I took a daily walk pre-COVID and I do it now, too, but the old walks were often errands (and often led to getting a cup of coffee). I’d amble down to the co-op if we were out of milk, or take the bus to the post office and stroll home, stopping at a coffeehouse or bakery along the way. Now that we’re limiting non-essential trips, grocery shopping is a once-a-week affair that Beth does on Sundays and I don’t do my mid-week re-stocking runs anymore. And last week when I need to mail a packet of non-urgent clippings to Sara, I weighed it on the kitchen scale, found a chart of postage rates online, and used stamps, adding an extra one to be safe and crossing my fingers it would arrive. I miss feeling like I have a purpose when I leave the house (and I miss the coffee). I get a little frustrated with my walks to nowhere, so yesterday I took an hour-long round-trip walk to the library to return a book to the book drop. The book wasn’t even due until May because the library has extended due dates, but I was happier feeling I was going somewhere.

Because Beth drives, she’s the one who’s valiantly handling most of our forays into the outside world. She’s noticed gradual changes in how businesses are operating. At the hardware store, they’re now limiting how many people can be in the store at once. Someone at the door tells you when you can enter. When we ordered takeout pizza from Roscoe’s two and a half weeks ago, you’d go inside to pick it up, but we ordered again on Friday and now they just stack the pizzas on the tables outside the restaurant and you grab it and go without seeing anyone inside. The co-op has switched to an online-order only system. When your order is ready they email you and you drive up into the lot, call out your name, and open the hatch of your car for a store employee to put your groceries in your car. For my part, while I was walking home from the library I looked inside a convenience store and noted the clerk was behind a clear plastic barrier that didn’t used to be there and he was wearing a mask and gloves.

For the most part, we’re settling into our new routines. Noah’s in his third week of online classes and North is in their second. Yesterday was the first day North had any synchronous class meetings and, not surprisingly, there were some bumps. They forgot their art class until I reminded them and missed the first ten minutes. And then their password to get into their English class didn’t work. (They texted a friend who couldn’t get in either, so it wasn’t just them.) Today went better. They successfully logged into all three classes that met via videoconferencing and their Spanish class had 100% attendance. So far, English has been the least well-attended class, at less than 50% attendance.

Sunday night I asked Beth if she ever worries she isn’t doing quarantine right. I’m usually not that susceptible to comparing my life unfavorably to other people’s, based on their Facebook feeds. I realize everyone’s just showing a partial picture and I remember the parts I’m leaving out and assume my friends are doing the same. But now, as everyone’s trying to stay positive, there are a lot pictures of family hikes, home-baked goods, crafts, puzzles, newly started gardens, and home improvement projects. And I start to think, wow, we are really not doing as well as that.

The thing is, I’m trying to stay positive, too. I seem to be doing it mostly with pictures of flowers, because spring is so beautiful here, and it can’t hurt to notice it. (Some of the flowers are even ones I planted myself years ago.) There’s some danger in attaching too much symbolic importance to nature, though. That tulip I showed you in my last post (along with half my tulips) was eaten by deer early last week. Nevertheless, I’m presenting you with a picture of our first iris I took on Friday.

But I keep wondering if we are not being sufficiently wholesome. We’re watching an awful lot of television and North’s on their phone all the time and the kids seem to be trying to subsist on boxed mac-and-cheese and we’re all probably eating too many sweets and not even baking that many of them ourselves—though there was North’s birthday cake, which Beth made from scratch, and Beth and North made a batch of chocolate chip cookies. Despite having the kids more available for chores than usual (neither of them seems all that busy with online school), the house is as messy as usual. But with everyone home all the time, maybe the fact that it’s not worse than usual could be considered a win.

Beth said she didn’t worry much about those things, which makes sense because fretting about media time and nutrition is really more my department. She is more preoccupied with logistical and moral decisions about how to interact with the outside world. Should we wear masks? (North is in the process of making us some. Beth’s is finished and she wore it grocery shopping Sunday.) Is it a good thing we’re supporting a local business by getting pizza every other Friday or is it an unnecessary trip into town? What about going to the hardware store for seed-starting soil so we can get the garden going? Is that really essential? Are we endangering the people who work at these places or keeping food on their tables?

I don’t know if we’re doing this right. But I can tell you a few things North did on Sunday. Knowing how I miss my lattes, they tried to make an approximation from instant coffee, boiled milk, sugar, and vanilla. Then they spent an hour on Caribou, reading stories to their seven-year-old cousin Lily-Mei, creating a joint drawing, chatting, and laughing. Then they dropped Zoë’s birthday present and a hand-painted card off on her doorstep. One of the books they read to Lily-Mei was a Thomas the Tank Engine book about kindness. And kindness—to each other, and to ourselves when we start to get self-critical—has got to be part of how we do quarantine.

Plus, North says watching television and eating ice cream is exactly the right way to do quarantine.

You Say It’s Your Birthday: Coronavirus Chronicle, Part 3

You say it’s your birthday
It’s my birthday, too
They say it’s your birthday
We’re gonna have a good time

“Birthday,” by John Lennon and Paul McCartney

When we were returning from the National Arboretum two Sundays ago, we noticed some across-the-street neighbors having a family dance party in their front yard, with a Beatles tune blaring from the car in their driveway. It wasn’t until I was inside the house that I realized what song it was—“Birthday”—and that seemed auspicious since it was North’s fourteenth birthday the next day.

North couldn’t have a party, of course, so just as with the Billie Eilish living room concert, they came up with innovative solution. They’ve been doing this a lot. When their trans kids’ support group March meeting was cancelled, we walked to Starbucks—this was almost two weeks ago, when Starbucks was still open—and they got an iced chai. This was because right before group we often stop at the coffeeshop in the atrium of the hospital where it meets and they always get either a mango smoothie or a chai. And once they’d had their chai, they texted someone from group and chatted a bit.

North’s birthday celebration was what we dubbed a “slow-motion party.” One, or in one case two, friends at a time came over for a brief visit and a slice of birthday cake on the porch. It actually started two days before their birthday because two friends couldn’t come Monday. The cake wasn’t baked yet on Saturday, so North cut down a cupcake recipe and made three cupcakes, one each for Jay, Miles, and themselves. Jay and Miles are twins, so figuring they only bring one family’s worth of germs, we’ve let North see them together. They brought a big stuffed bee for North, who is fond of bees.

On the night before their birthday, we tasked Noah (who’s always the last one up at night) with blowing up the balloons of the “Happy Birthday” banner and hanging it up, so North could see it as soon as they woke up. I missed them spotting it because I went outside to fetch the newspaper right before they emerged from their room, but apparently, they came into the kitchen and started talking to Beth and Noah, angled in such a way that they couldn’t see it for quite a while, as Beth and Noah waited and waited for them to see it. When they did, they were very excited about it. It was shiny and extravagant and just right.

That morning North got a birthday email message from the eighth-grade class administrator at their school. That’s never happened before, so I guess they are sending them to all the kids whose birthdays fall during the school shutdown, which is a nice gesture.

In the morning, Charlotte came, bearing a Venus fly trap, and had her slice of cake with North on the porch. Casper came in the early afternoon. Zoë was the last guest, and she stayed a few hours, even though it was as damp, chilly day. At dinner time, Beth, Noah and I joined them and we ate a dinner of tacos and fruit salad together, spread out on our spacious porch.

After eating, North opened their present from Noah, a battery-powered flour sifter, and from us, a little pot of mixed succulents. Both of these things were on their list, but they were surprised to get a gift from us, as we’d told them the Billie Eilish tickets (which will be honored at a future, unspecified date) were expensive enough to be their only gift. We cracked, though, under the pathos of all the postponed birthday fun. We’ve also promised North a birthday party sometime in the future. I thought it would be fun to do it three months after their birthday, because 14 ¼ would look cool on the invitations. But if that’s not possible, maybe a half-birthday party is in their future.

By coincidence, a lot of North’s guests also have March or April birthdays. Zoë’s having a party in a park with just three guests (we made an exception to the one-friend-at-a-time rule so North can attend this event because Zoë is North’s best friend).* Miles and Jay are having a virtual party via video conferencing and are promised a trip to a resort with a few friends during the Time After we’re all wistfully awaiting.

After Zoë left, we let North pick the television and they chose Blackish, so we watched a couple episodes and then their birthday was over. Well, sort of over. We left the banner up all week and I let North menu plan dinners for the whole week, starting one day before their birthday—we had lasagna, tacos, breaded tofu sticks with applesauce, tater-tot-topped pot pie, fettucine alfredo with broccoli, pizza, and tortellini with broccoli. Gifts continued to arrive in the mail throughout the week, too. My mom sent a box of bee-themed gifts, which included a ceramic honey pot in the shape of a beehive my grandmother made in a ceramics class she took in the seventies. I didn’t remember it when Mom told me about it, but I recognized it as soon as I saw it. There was also a honey dipper, an oven mitt with bees on it, a beehive ornament, and a book about bees.

And in non-birthday related news…

On Tuesday, Beth’s office announced everyone would keep working from home through the end of April. Beth said it would be nice if they really go back on May Day, since she works for a union. Speaking of Beth’s work, she’s been slammed because there are so many health and safety issue for employers and the union to negotiate. I’ve been busy, too. Turns out health writers are in demand during a pandemic. Go figure. Actually, the busyness is partly coincidence. Only one assignment—a completed newsletter that switched topics from detoxification to immunity and had to be rewritten on short notice—was spurred by current events. The rest has to do with my other job, as the editing for EPA has picked up.

Noah completed his first week of online classes Friday. The more lecture and discussion-based classes (Environmental Studies, Media Industries, and Computer Science) are translating better to a remote format. More hands-on classes like Audio and band just aren’t going to be much like they were intended to be. Audio is turning into a discussion class with some optional assignments for students who own the program they use. (Some students didn’t buy it and were using it in the lab on campus.) I’ve encouraged Noah to do these assignments, not for his grade, but because it’s probably a better way to get the practical skills he needs out of this class. Meanwhile, and most disappointingly, band has turning into a writing-about-music class. I’d hoped the teacher would have them record themselves playing at home, or something like that, but that wouldn’t work because some students left their instruments on campus when they thought they were leaving for a week, rather than for months.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday our school district announced schools would be closed for at least four more weeks. Online classes start for North this week. During the two-week hiatus in between school closing and online school starting, they worked on some review assignments for English, history, and science the school district provided. They didn’t do any geometry because those assignments were in a subfolder and they didn’t see them (we just discovered this snafu) and there was no Spanish because their Spanish immersion classes have a unique curriculum that I guess serves too few students for the district to accommodate. They brought home a sketch book from art class and drew in it, too.

Overall, though, the work was pretty minimal. I’m hoping when formal online school commences on Wednesday, they will have more to do. As the only extrovert in the family, it’s hard for them being in a house full of very to moderately busy people and not having much to do themselves. (I am going to require them to do the geometry on Monday and Tuesday, in addition to the learning-to-use-the-software assignments they have those two days.)

Meanwhile, spring continues to progress. We had a very mild winter, especially in February and March, so all the flowers seem to be blooming in a compressed time period, the ones we usually have now, like daffodils and cherry blossoms (these past peak, but still pretty), plus tulips which we usually see in April and even irises, which are usually make a late April or early May appearance. It’s unsettling if I think too hard about what it means about climate change, and maybe we all should be thinking about climate change in addition to our current predicament, but for now I’m not going to look a gift tulip in the mouth.

*Update: I wrote this over the weekend and things have changed. This morning the governor issued a stay-at-home directive that takes effect tonight. Marylanders are not supposed to leave the house except for essential work or to shop for food, pick up prescriptions, or take short walks (alone or with people in our households). So, North and Zoë are getting together one last time this afternoon, and Zoë’s party in the park is scotched, (as are our tentative plans to drive to the Bay next weekend).

Everything Has Changed: Coronavirus Chronicle, Part 2

I was listening to Taylor Swift’s Red yesterday and the line “Everything has changed” from the song of the same name struck me hard. It really has, hasn’t it? Every passing week seems so distant from the last one. I wonder how long it will be like that.

So, the first day with everyone home was Monday, six days ago. Here’s a tally I put on Facebook at the end of the day:

2 out of 2 people with jobs worked
0 out of 1 person with schoolwork did any (due to technical difficulties, now solved)
1 out of 1 person who plays a musical instrument practiced
3 out of 4 people spent some time outside 
No one yelled at any one else
No one cried (as far as Steph knows)

Let’s take these one by one:

2 out of 2 people with jobs worked

Beth and I both worked from Monday to Friday (and she worked over the weekend, too). On Monday, she had a workstation on the dining room table, but by Tuesday she’d moved into our bedroom, as my desk is in the living room and there are no doors between those two rooms. Between my liking (almost needing) to play music while I work and her not being able to concentrate with it on and the fact that she’s on the phone a lot, it’s better for both of us to be at opposite ends of the house.

The new arrangement required moving a fair amount of clutter out of the bedroom and installing a new desk in its place. I’m hoping there’s a long-term improvement in the appearance of the room once we no longer need the desk, which is kind of wedged between the bed and a bookcase. If so, it will be thanks to Beth, who did almost all of the reorganization work.

For me, working from home with everyone else here too has been harder than it seems like it should. After all, I have no little kids. Everyone is capable of entertaining themselves and the kids are pitching in with the extra housework. They do yardwork, fold laundry, vacuum, clean the bathroom and kitchen, and cook, and Noah cleaned the bottom third of the fridge the other day. (God, the dishes, though! There are so many dishes! Sometimes it seems as if I’m doing them all day long. Maybe that’s why it’s harder to get work done.)  And I’m used to having the place to myself during work hours, so it just seems as if my concentration is always being broken. Plus, I’m frequently interrupting myself to check on North and make sure they’re doing something productive and not stuck to screens all day.

0 out of 1 person with schoolwork did any (due to technical difficulties, now solved)

Speaking of North, they’ve been working on the review assignments they have for school, but there have been some ongoing technical blips that make some of the work hard (or maybe impossible) to do. It’s understandable. The teachers had to throw it all together at the absolute last minute and it shows. This should in no way be taken as a criticism of the teachers, who did their best under trying circumstances. Meanwhile, the school system sent out a message today saying it was unlikely that students would be returning to school a week from now– no surprise there– and that a more formal system of online learning will take effect then. I’ll welcome that, as North could use the structure.

Meanwhile, Ithaca closed for the rest of the semester on Tuesday. Online classes start tomorrow. I don’t check on Noah much because he’s technically an adult and if he wants to watch movies all day, that’s his business. But theoretically, he’ll have more to do soon, though it’s hard to figure out how his audio production class and band will work remotely.

1 out of 1 person who plays a musical instrument practiced

After finding out he wouldn’t be going back to school, Noah stopped practicing his drums. “What’s the point?” he said. “There’s not going to be a concert.” He’s also wishing he’d brought his camera and other filming equipment home with him. We won’t be allowed on campus to clean out his room until May. I’m sorry he doesn’t have the creative outlets of music and filmmaking right now, but he is taking photographs with his phone and I’m hoping once the sting of the missed concert fades, he’ll start drumming again. The drums are still in the basement, waiting for him.

We did have a musical event here on Wednesday night. On the evening when we would have gone to see Billie Eilish, North organized an in-house concert. They asked for glow-sticks and we ordered some online for them. I was expecting we’d each have one to wave while we watched Billie Eilish videos, but North had something more extensive in mind. There were fifty glowsticks in the package (plus necklaces and rings) and North laid them on every horizontal surface of the living room, and they strung little white lights on the television cabinet. There was a concession stand with pretzels, Cheetos, and Sprite. Everyone got a hand-painted concert t-shirt and an assortment of glow sticks. We danced briefly and then settled in to watch a selection of videos. It was kind of magical. North really knows how to bring the party.

3 out of 4 people spent some time outside 

Taking a walk is part of my daily routine and that hasn’t changed. North’s been walking a lot, too, because of our “you can only socialize outside” rule. They meet up with Zoë most days and they roam around for hours. They read their step counts off their phone to me today and they’re definitely walking more than any of us. Noah will occasionally go on walks if someone invites him. Beth’s not getting out as much as she’d like, but she goes for walks sometimes, too. Other than Noah clearing weed trees out of the garden plot and North planting some flower seeds, we haven’t done much in the garden.

I’ve been taking a lot of nature pictures to keep my spirits up. That’s not hard, with bumblebees landing on daffodils in my front yard, mourning doves brooding on a new nest on the porch, and cherry trees, redbuds, and magnolia trees in bloom. Occasionally I find the exuberance of early spring in the Washington metro area jarring, under the circumstances, but mostly I find the beauty to be a comfort.

We didn’t know if we’d be able to go see the Tidal Basin cherry trees (which reached peak bloom on Friday) and practice social distancing at the same time, because the paths around the water are pretty narrow, and it can get very crowded. But there are two dozen cherry trees on the block just around the corner from us we’ve been enjoying.

We were also considering doing a Tidal Basin driving tour today. However, after crowds of people flocked there Friday and Saturday, city authorities closed Metro stops and roads that lead to the Tidal Basin, so we switched plans and went to the National Arboretum. It turned out to be a good choice. It’s much bigger, so people were spread out enough for it to feel safe, and it was lovely. The cherries there seem to be of more varied species, so the bloom is not as synchronous as at the Tidal Basin, but plenty were in bloom. They are also taller, have more slender trunks, and are planted in more wood-like groves.

No one yelled at anyone else

We’ve been doing pretty well on this count. There was some snapping on the first day, but we pulled back from the brink.

No one cried (as far as Steph knows)

I don’t know about anyone else, but I didn’t cry until Friday. It was before I got out of bed that morning, and I don’t even remember what set me off because that was two days ago– who can remember that far back these days?  I guess the stress was getting to me. I had an infected cold sore on my lower lip late in the week. I never get cold sores, so I was looking them up online and learned that they can be brought on by stress. So, okay, that makes sense. It was looking pretty bad for a while and Beth thought I should do a video consult with an urgent care doctor, but then it cleared up.

Overall, though, we are lucky. Beth and I both have jobs that can be done from home. We’re all together and life goes on, even in a crisis. North turns fourteen tomorrow, without a party, but as with the concert, they’ve figured out a way to approximate a party. I’ll tell you all about that soon.

Lovelady-Allens in the Time of the Coronavirus, Part 1

Well, things have gotten alarming, haven’t they? Here are all the headlines from the Metro section of Thursday’s Washington Post.

“National Cathedral, more than 200 other local churches to close for 2 weeks: Some services to be live-streamed: Episcopal Diocese of Washington plans to continue social work; church-run schools will weigh closures”

“Schools step up closure planning: Sidwell Friends shifts online as others will shut to prepare and clean”

“Cherry blossom fest events curtailed: Organizers cancel some, postpone others amid coronavirus worries”

“College students scramble as in-person classes axed: Georgetown and U-VA are among schools that are moving to online-only teaching”

“Aiming to keep doors open amid outbreak, nonprofits weigh difficult decisions”

No doubt there’s been a similar cascade of church, school, and special event closings and cancellations where you live. 

On Wednesday night, in the middle of what was supposed to be Noah’s week-long spring break, we found out he’d be home an extra three weeks at least. Break’s extended for a week, then there will be two weeks of online classes and then the college will re-assess. His school year’s been extended a week as well, to recoup the time from the extra week of break, which I’m assuming faculty are using to try to figure out how to turn their classes into online classes. I have a lot of professor friends, having been one myself back in another lifetime, and right now they’re all saying on Facebook that this is basically an impossible task.

Then Thursday afternoon the governor announced all Maryland public schools would close for two weeks, starting next Monday. (North’s class went on a field trip to the National Geographic museum to see a Jane Goodall exhibit that day and the very next day, the museum closed.) There were supposed to be packets of work to bring home Friday, but North came home empty-handed. Apparently, the packets didn’t arrive at the school. There’s review material available online, but it’s optional. Not for North, of course, because we’re that kind of parents, but for the student body in general. Apparently, the missing packets were not that extensive, though. One of North’s friends who goes to another school finished hers over the weekend.

Beth’s office is switching to telework, too. They had a trial run on Friday, after which they decided everyone would stay home for two weeks. So it’s looking like the house is going to be a lot fuller than usual during my work weeks for the next few weeks, with all four of us home. I have a little trepidation about that, especially as my office consists of a desk in the corner of the living room. But Beth’s in the same boat (or worse, having no desk at all) so we can commiserate.

Once we knew everyone was going to be home a while, Beth and I found ourselves wrestling with a lot of questions. First was how strictly to impose social distancing on ourselves, well mostly on North, the only extrovert in the family. If it’s too dangerous to be at school, should they be at friends’ houses? Or at the Billie Eilish concert we bought tickets for as an early birthday present? And in the event the concert was cancelled, could they have the slumber party they requested as a consolation prize?

One of these questions resolved itself. The concert was postponed with a promise to honor tickets at a later date. That was a relief because it spared us from having to be the bad guys (and yes, that was a pun). And we decided no party, but our current stance on hanging out with friends is one at a time, if they stay outside and don’t touch each other. This needed specifying because North is physically demonstrative with friends.

Even before all this, it was already kind of a strange break for Noah. Every other break he’s had in college so far we’ve immediately or almost immediately gone somewhere—Hershey Park during fall break, Rehoboth during Thanksgiving break, Blackwater Falls State Park during winter break.  But this time because North wasn’t off school we didn’t make plans to go anywhere. (And now that both kids will be off at the same time, overnight travel seems ill-advised.)

So he’s been having a low-key break. Beth fetched him from Ithaca a little over a week ago, because his last class was too late in the day for him to take the bus he usually takes. Last weekend and the following several days we all went about our normal routines while he watched a lot of movies and television. He didn’t even have any homework to do, other than occasionally practicing his drums for band. (He ended up with a surprisingly light course load this semester.)

Monday he had a dentist appointment and did some yard work for me, then he was sick for two days—no fever, no cough—and he pretty much laid low. By late Wednesday afternoon he was recovered enough for a walk to Starbucks when North got home from school. Thursday he did some more yard work. Friday he did some housework and got a haircut. Over the course of the week we read The Rest of Us Just Live Here and started The Caledonian Gambit.

One thing we did plan for Noah’s original break and had decided to go ahead with was a maple syrup festival at Cunningham Falls State Park. We decided that since it mostly an outdoor event, the risk was relatively low. And if we’re going to be even more restricted in our movements later (because who know how this is going to turn out?) we thought it would be nice to have an outing. But the festival, which was scheduled for today, was cancelled.

Noah and I spent the day at home. We read some more and, because we have time for a new television series, watched the first two episodes of Counterpart. North spent the afternoon with Zoë, roaming around Takoma. Beth was mostly at home, but ventured out to drop North off and pick them up and do a little grocery shopping. Among other things, we needed pies for Pi Day.  We now have Dutch apple and chocolate cream. Beth had also been to the grocery store yesterday and reports that they’d been low on frozen vegetables, canned beans, and potatoes yesterday and today they were almost completely wiped out of fresh produce. (Tip for locals, the Co-op is pretty well stocked.)

Here are today’s Metro headlines.

“Metro reducing rail and bus services”

“Local cases: Where the area stands”

“All of region’s schools to shutter: Coronavirus move is a first: extended closures pose huge range of challenges”

“This is the scariest thing”

“Buying, hoarding and some fighting, too”

“Md. Legislators prepare for possibility of session ending soon”

Among all the bad news, we do have a little good news. North found out today they got into their first-choice high school in the second chance lottery. We are still waiting to hear from the VAC, but North’s very happy.

Meanwhile, North has made the following homebound schedule for themselves:

  1. Drink four glasses of water
  2. Drink a cup of tea
  3. Meditate for five minutes
  4. Listen to a song that I like
  5. Read a book for fifteen minutes
  6. Listen to an audiobook for fifteen minutes, not as part of my bedtime routine
  7. Eat a meal I enjoy
  8. Take a bath every other day
  9. Take a walk
  10. Swing in the hammock for ten minutes
  11. Find an online course to take and do some of it
  12. Call or facetime a friend
  13. Draw
  14. Journal
  15. Sew teddy bears
  16. Listen to an audiobook as part of my bedtime routine

Noah and I plan to read every day and watch our new show on days when my work permits. Beth and I are going to try to do something outside every day, including getting the garden started. And we’re going to make a list of chores for the newly available teenage labor force.

So, we’re hunkered down for the long haul. We’re all feeling well, we have each other, and we have pie.

How are you?

Vault Year

Two leap years ago North was in kindergarten in a Spanish immersion program and I wrote a blog post, called “Leap Year” about how kindergarten is a year of social, cognitive, and physical leaps. That year North learned to spend a longer day away from me than in preschool, they learned to speak Spanish, and they learned to read and write in both English and Spanish. Plus they learned to jump rope and pump on the swings. It felt like a big deal.

Then one leap year ago Noah was in ninth grade and I wrote another blog post, called “Hop Year” about how the transition from middle school to high school had gone smoothly and how being in a high school humanities-based magnet program wasn’t that different from being in a middle school humanities-based magnet program .

Well, here it is, four years later and Noah’s in the midst of another transition, this one bigger than starting elementary or high school. He’s living away from home, managing his own life, taking the first steps of young adulthood. I thought I should write a leap year blog post about that. “Vault Year” seemed appropriate, given the magnitude of the changes.

The problem, of course, is that he’s not here, and while we do text, he’s not what you’d call forthcoming with detail, so I’m not sure I know enough about his life to fill up a blog post. (Maybe that’s why when the Ithaca College magazine comes, I read it with more curiosity than my own alma mater’s magazine.) But here I am, giving it a try.

By the way, if you’ve got your own college student or soon will, my blog friend, Swistle, has two sons in college and recently wrote about communicating with college students. Here’s her take on it.

Here are some things I know:

  1. He applied to be a video editor at ICTV, the college television station. He got his pick of several shows and chose two—one he describes as “a Ghostbusters knockoff” and another one that’s “a sitcom about artists.” But there are so many editors he hasn’t had a chance to work on either show yet, which is frustrating. Something similar happened last semester. He may have only edited one episode. When he worked on his high school’s news show during his junior year, he was editing it on a daily basis. I wish he was getting more hands-on experience outside of the classroom.
  2. He’s playing percussion in a band for non-music majors. It meets once a week and he says the band teacher is “less intense” than his high school band teacher, who used to send them and the parents extremely long, online pep talks every week that contained gems like this: “How do you make a strong, sturdy blade? …… You have to plunge it into the fire and Keep Hammering…” (I’ve kept some of the messages in my email for their entertainment value.) Noah’s been practicing in his room with just his drumsticks and when he comes home for break he wants to bring his portable practice pad—which he used in elementary school before he got his own drum kit— back to school with him to facilitate this.
  3. His favorite class is Intro to Media Industries, which, according to the course catalog, is about the ethical, legal, technological, economic and creative issues raised by new media. He says it’s interesting. Overall, his workload is lighter than last semester.
  4. Left to his own devices, he’s most likely to spend his free time watching movies or television in his room. But he’s got a couple friends and one of them is able to convince him to go out and do things once in a while, like go to an Oscars viewing party.

I think that’s it. I’m tapped out. But that’s kind of the point of this year. He’s making his own way and we don’t know every little detail of what’s going on with him. And I think it’s going well. He seems happy, his grades were good last semester, and I expect the same this semester, though I haven’t asked. I think he’s still considering taking next semester off to volunteer for a campaign (either for whoever wins the Democratic primary or maybe something down ballot), but I’m not sure.

I can ask him in person soon because he’ll be home for spring break in a week. I’m looking forward to seeing him. We have no big plans, because North will be school that week, but we’re thinking of going to a maple sugar festival at Cunningham Falls State Park the Saturday before he goes back to school. It’s a little ironic, as Western New York is more maple sugar country than Western Maryland is, but it sounded fun.

Meanwhile, North thinks I should do my next leap year blog post about their senior year of high school, even though it’s the last year of something and not the first. It’s the year before the leap, they pointed out. It’s possible by then they’ll know where they’re going to college, or at least have it narrowed down to a few choices. It seems a lot closer and more real than it did when Noah was in middle school and I was barely thinking about college. Now that we’ve launched one kid, it seems like something that actually happens, not some abstract theoretical concept.

Of course, there’s still high school to get through. Thursday after school North proposed a walk to Starbucks because they didn’t have an afterschool activity and it was a sunny day, if a bit chilly, and we both had Starbucks gift cards from Valentine’s Day burning holes in our pockets. While we were there we talked about the pros and cons of the school they were assigned in the lottery, their first-choice school, and the Visual Arts Center. They won’t hear the results of the second chance lottery for a month and the VAC will be accepting students off the waitlist for another two months, so nothing has changed since the last time I wrote about this. North is simultaneously impatient to know where they’re going and sanguine about all the options. No matter how it turns out, I’m looking forward to seeing how their high school years unfold. I know now how fast they will go by.

Taking the Waters

Saturday

The day after Valentine’s Day we drove out to Berkeley Springs, where we were spending the long weekend. We arrived around noon and had just enough time to get lunch—vegetarian sliders for Beth and me and naan pizza for North—before our one o’clock appointment at the state park spa. 

There’s a warm spring in the park, which was used first by Native Americans, then colonists, including George Washington, who visited as a teenager and then returned throughout his life. You can see the outdoor tub he used. The spring water is tepid, a constant 74.3 degrees, and runs through a series of little canals in the park. There’s also a water fountain where you can fill bottles for free.

Inside the spa buildings, you can get various treatments, but we were there to take a Roman bath in a big, private, tiled bathtub filled with heated spring water. There’s a bench on one of the short sides and there was plenty of room for the three of us. We visited Berkeley Springs on the kids’ spring break several years ago and I remember it was a little crowded with four, but that could have been because the kids kept splashing each other. North said the water was hotter than they remembered, but it was about how I remembered it. You do feel very relaxed when you get out.

After our bath we browsed the shops in downtown Berkeley Springs. North, who has become a Wiccan—did I mention that? I don’t think I did—was particularly interested in checking out the crystal shop, but didn’t want to buy anything on our first day. We also wandered around an antique mall, where I found the issue of Life magazine from the week my mother was born and took a picture of it for her. It had a photograph of a young woman in short braids and a flight suit on the cover, with the caption “Air Force Pilot.” It was cool to see. There were also some non-antique things for sale, including Trump 2020 socks—less cool.

After window shopping, we checked into our room at the Capacon State Park lodge. Beth and I read for a while and North amused themselves with their phone until it was time to leave for dinner. The restaurant was still decorated for Valentine’s Day. There were heart-shaped balloons and a scattering of rose petals on every table and we were given three red roses. We had a very nice meal—starting with warm brie with apple slices, apple butter, and walnuts. I had a vegetable-pasta dish with smoked mushrooms and a creamy sauce made of pureed squash and crème brule for dessert. I was really pleased to see that on the menu because I had actually been thinking I was in the mood for crème brule as we were driving to Berkeley Springs.

Back in our room, we watched half of To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You to follow up on having just watched To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before on Valentine’s Day at home. (North thought we should watch a romantic movie, so we let them choose one.) Then we went to bed, but we didn’t sleep well, at least Beth and I didn’t, because the people in the room next door were conversing loudly into the wee hours. (They were square dancers staying at the lodge for an event and I’d said to Beth earlier that surely they’d go to bed early because they were an elderly bunch for the most part—but apparently we go to bed earlier than elderly square dancers.) This was unfortunate because I also had trouble getting to sleep at home on Friday night and after two consecutive nights of suboptimal sleep, I was really tired the next day.

Sunday

But I soldiered on. We had breakfast in the lodge restaurant and then we headed out for a hike along the C & O Canal and through the Paw Paw tunnel. This tunnel was bored through a ridge  in the nineteenth century to allow the canal to bypass a series of bends in the Potomac. It’s over three thousand feet long and very dark inside. There’s a muddy path—the ceiling drips—with a railing and it takes about fifteen minutes to walk from end to end. Beth lit the way in front of us so we could avoid stepping in puddles.

When you emerge the towpath continues beside the canal which has a steep rocky slope on either side. It’s made of shale, and there are frequent landslides, so there are nets to protect you from falling rock and in some places, the park service has scaled off loose rock and screwed metal plates into the rockface. (Someone had scratched Trump 2020 onto one of these. But it was not completely Trump country. We saw a Tulsi Gabbard lawn sign, of all things, one day.)

It was a mild, sunny day, probably in the forties, and there were a lot of rapidly melting icicles covering the rock and more or less continuously breaking off and shattering on the rocks or slipping into the water. If you looked closely you could see water running under the sheets of ice or in some cases inside hollowed out icicles. There was a place where the water splashing from a little waterfall had coated dried grass with a what looked like a spiky crown of ice. The last time we walked this path was in the spring, so I’d never seen all the different ice formations before. It was kind of magical.  A little further down the canal, there was open water and we saw a bunch of salamanders wriggling in it. 

Heading back toward the tunnel, North gathered up a bunch of shale shards and we threw them into the canal, trying to break the ice. It took a while to get one to go through, but eventually we both sunk some to the bottom of the canal. Back in the tunnel, North had the flashlight and they shone it on the opposite wall to reveal a lot of sleeping bats.

We returned to Berkeley Springs and had a late lunch at a café with really good coffee. I later said to Beth it tasted like the coffee at Mayorga, a coffee company that used to have a coffeeshop in our neck of the woods. Beth exclaimed that it was Mayorga coffee. She’d seen the bags of coffee beans. She then pronounced me a “coffee savant.”

After lunch we visited Give Purrs a Chance, a cat café and adoption center. Actually, we went right before lunch to see if there was food there, but it was heavy on the cats and light on the café, with no food on offer, so we left to eat and returned. I’d never been to a cat café before. This one is in a Victorian house. The cats have the run of the place, with one room reserved for shy cats and another one for kittens. We visited all the rooms. When the staff person asked us, “Do you want to see the kittens?” and we said yes, she said, “No one ever says, ‘No, I don’t want to see the kittens.’” We spent a lot of time in that room. North particularly liked a tiny, feisty, black kitten named Agnes. There was a staff person in the kitten room who asked everyone who came in “Do you have cats at home?” and then, “How many?” and no matter what you said, he’d answer, “That’s not enough.”

The whole house was furnished with cats in mind. There were pillows on the floors and upholstered chairs, and a castle made of cardboard with a lot of little rooms with pillows or cat beds inside. It was like a big dollhouse, full of cats. There were also a lot of empty shelves on the walls, spaced so that a reasonably good jumper could go from one to the other, all the way across the wall and we saw a cat named Connie do just that. Overall, I was impressed with what a nice place it would be for a cat who likes (or tolerates) strange people to live. Much nicer than the cage in a shelter where we got our cats. 

Before we left, North selected two balls to buy for our cats, who turned seventeen sometime this week. (We don’t know their exact birthday—the shelter said mid-February when we adopted them, so North assigned them Valentine’s Day and sometimes we remember to get them gifts on or around that day.)

We went back to the hotel and watched the rest of our movie. I had a headache that had gotten worse over the course of the afternoon and was starting to make me sick to my stomach. I almost stayed behind when Beth and North went for Chinese because I wasn’t sure if I could eat, but I’d just taken a painkiller and I thought my appetite might return when it kicked in, but it never really kicked in, so I just sat with them and didn’t order any food.

We went back to the hotel and I went straight to bed. It was 8:15 when my head hit the pillow and I was asleep not much later than that. North had the idea for me to sleep in the twin bed so Beth and North could watch something on the laptop on the queen bed. It worked out pretty well. Beth says the square dancers were at it again, but my body was determined to sleep and only heard them briefly around 10:45. I slept almost eleven hours. I can’t remember the last time I got so much sleep in one night, maybe before kids. Beth also got a better night’s sleep, thanks to earplugs.

Monday

I woke up feeling a lot better. We had breakfast at the same café so I had another fabulous latte, along with a breakfast sandwich on a biscuit. Then we went to Coolfont Resort, where we swam in the salt water pool and soaked in the hot tub. There was a nice view in the hot tub room, a couple evergreen trees right outside the window, with a ridge in the background.

We went back into Berkeley Springs one last time, North made a lot of purchases at the crystal shop, including a crystal apiece for Beth and me. I got clear quartz, which is supposed to help me be productive and self-aware. Beth got rainbow moonstone which is supposed to help with stress. While we were there, I picked up a birthday present for my niece—a wooden magic wand with a woman’s face at the top with crystals emerging from her head. The crystals look like icicles, my sister thought, when I texted her a photo, and she thought Lily-Mei would like it because she’s obsessed with Frozen. From there we went to a cheesemonger’s and bought some local mozzarella, some Manchego, and some amazing Dutch aged Gouda.

We picked up some other foodstuffs on the road and found some tables along the canal where we had a picnic lunch. After we ate, North threw rocks at the ice on the canal again, and then we drove home.

Beth said afterward that it was strange to be on a road trip without Noah. I felt the same way. It wasn’t our first weekend getaway without him, but I doubt he would have come on the church retreat we attended in September, so we both missed him more on this one. But at the same time, it was also nice to have a little trip as a threesome. 

We’ve been home and back to work and school for a few days. Beth’s been to the dentist, North goes to the orthodontist tomorrow, and we’ve all been to a trans kids’ and trans kids’ parents’ support group. North tried out for a part in the spring school play. Life rolls on. But I often find myself thinking about the waters of Berkeley Springs and its environs, in Roman baths, in canals little and big, in the Potomac River, and in swimming pools and hot tubs. 

Happy in Winter

Imbolc and Groundhog’s Day

Saturday morning Beth, North, and I were talking about the collection of early February holidays that fell that weekend: Imbolc (Wiccan), Candlemas (Catholic), and Groundhog’s Day (secular) and about how they are all related to each other and mark the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. It’s not spring, but a time to look forward to spring.

North was supposed to have Jade sleep over on Friday night but she was sick and had to cancel. (All three of us have been sick, too, with different symptoms, united only by a cough.) North and Jade had been planning an Imbolc ceremony, so North asked if Beth would do it with them. (On that particular day I was the sickest of the family and had retreated to bed.) There was music involved and maybe some kind of craft, though I never saw evidence of it. Finally, they left an offering of juice, milk, honey, grains, nuts, and bread on the porch.

And then two days later, the Groundhog predicted an early spring. My daffodils seem to agree. They are poking out of the ground and some of them have yellow-green heads formed. Now they sometimes stay stalled like that just a couple inches above the ground for several weeks at a time, but I’d welcome spring, whenever it wants to come. Still, I am also sorry for Beth, who loves snow and has had to make do with two measly snowfalls, both a half-inch or less. There was some patchy snow on the ground at Blackwater Falls State Park when we were there at Christmas, but it didn’t snow while we were there either. But here’s the thing—those tiny snowfalls resulted in one snow day, one early dismissal, and one two-hour delay, so I can’t quite find it in my heart to wish for any amount of snow. Still, as I reminded Beth, we’ve probably got a month and a half left in the snow danger opportunity season.

As we were discussing the dearth of snow at dinner Saturday night, North said it must make me happy and I said, “Can I really be happy when Beth is unhappy?”

And then North, who can sometimes get right to the point, said, “So you can’t be happy in winter no matter what?”

I hadn’t thought of it that way and I said, “Maybe not.” But on further thought I decided it wasn’t true. After all, I’m not always thinking about the weather. And even with a number of challenges to happiness (being sick, missing Noah, the continuing erosion of democracy exposed by the toothless impeachment trial), we still had some nice moments over the past couple weeks.

Lunar New Year and Winter Greenhouse

This past weekend I was mostly taking it easy and trying to recover from my flu-like illness. You can put that squarely in the not-happy-in-winter column. But the weekend before that, after North’s cold was mostly better and before Beth and I were felled, we did a lot of fun things. We welcomed the Year of the Rat by going to see Winter Lanterns, a celebration of the Lunar New Year outside the Kennedy Center. It featured a collection of over one hundred large colored lanterns in various shapes—traditional Chinese symbols like a dragon and pandas, all the signs of the Chinese zodiac, plus other animals, flowers, and mushrooms. It was gorgeous and we all enjoyed walking through the display. And Beth only said, “This would be better if there were snow,” once.

In addition to the lanterns, there were white lights outlining the branches of the willow trees that grow outside the Kennedy Center, and an art installation of metal poles with lights on them. If you connect two of them by touching both, they light up more brightly. It also works if two people each touch a pole and then hold hands. That was very cool. Plus there were food trucks, and we got a funnel cake for North and a Nutella-banana crepe, which Beth and I shared.

Saturday we went to see A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and on Sunday we went to Brookside Gardens, where we explored the warm and colorful conservatory, and then wandered on the outside paths. The landscape was mostly winter-bare, but I did spot snowdrops and some yellow acony. We walked through the labyrinth and tried to meditate, as the sign recommends, but the three little girls tearing through it soon after we started made that somewhat difficult. How can you be mad in a situation like that, though, when you’ve had your own small children? You can’t.

High School Update

I wasn’t going to say anything about where North’s going to high school until it was settled, but it may not be settled for a while, so here’s an update, which goes in the ambiguous column. Those of you who don’t live in Montgomery County, Maryland probably need a refresher about this whole complicated process: There’s a lottery to determine which high school you’ll attend if you don’t end up in an application program. Everybody enters this, ranking five possible schools. If you choose your home school as your first choice, you are guaranteed a spot, but they still make you fill out the form. Then if you want to apply to a magnet, you do that, too. If you get in and accept, your lottery results are moot. North had entered the lottery and applied to the Visual Arts Center magnet last fall.

Sometime in early January, North got their lottery results and they got into their second choice school. They were a little disappointed but within a few hours they had started to convince themselves of the good points of this school, principally that it’s one of two high schools that their middle school feeds into (assuming you go to your home school) so they would be more likely to know people than at their first-choice school. Since they seemed to be talking themselves into being happy about this outcome I decided not to say anything about the second chance lottery. Yes, there’s a second chance lottery. Students who don’t get their first choice are allowed to throw their hats back into the ring after all the application program spots are filled and there are some vacancies at all the schools. But after several days of mulling it over, North decided they did want to enter the second chance lottery and they did. We’re supposed to hear back sometime in late March. 

So then, on Friday, North heard from the Visual Arts Center magnet and they are waitlisted. The VAC expects to finalize the class by late April, so it could be almost three months before we know for sure where North is headed. But North’s genuinely happy to be on the waitlist because it’s very competitive and they didn’t expect to get in at all.

Crocuses and Poohsticks

Monday I was still sick and I had a scattered, unproductive day. As a result, when North got home from school, I hadn’t taken my daily walk yet, so I asked if they’d like to take one with me. They said the crocuses were in bloom down by the creek and we should go there. Usually I’m the one who notices that and takes them there. Ever since North was tiny they’ve loved to walk on the muddy path by the creek when it’s lined on both sides with thousands of tiny purple flowers. It was kind of a sweet role reversal to have them take me. We even played Poohsticks after I mentioned how the little wooden bridge reminds me of that doing that when they were little. They did not actually remember playing this game, but once I explained it, they said, “Let’s play.”

So for a little while, instead of looking forward, to spring or to high school, we looked back.

Hitting the Road

We have pizza every Friday night—we either go out, get delivery, or heat up frozen pizza. Because Noah came home from school on a Friday night and he had not eaten much all day, we got him Sbarro at Union Station, and after that I started measuring his time at home in pizza. Pizza #2 was at the lodge at Blackwater Falls State Park two days after Christmas; pizza #3 was frozen pizza at home I dressed up a bit with parsley from my winter herb garden, vegetarian sausage, and some veggies we had on hand; pizza #4 was delivery; and the fifth and final pizza was frozen again. This seemed kind of anti-climactic and I considered suggesting we go out, but Beth was having a busy week at work and she’d come home early the day before to go see the school play at North’s school—North was not in it, but some of their friends were—so I didn’t. It was after we’d eaten that last pizza and then settled in for our last Friday night family television night that it began to seem like he really would leave in a few days. (We watched three episodes of Speechless and finished the first season, which we’ve been watching for about two years. It only ran for three seasons so I joked we might finish it in another four years.)

I know most of you with kids in college didn’t have yours home for a whole month, so I should not complain. He had a nice stay and I got to spend more time with him that anyone else because for the last two and a half weeks, Beth and North were at work and school and he and I were at home together. Of course I was working, too, but we found time to watch television, read, take walks, and run errands together. He was useful around the house, too, cooking, cleaning, folding laundry, and doing a little yard work. Thanks to him, the digital clock in the dining room that runs slow now displays the correct time, the blades of the ceiling fan in our bedroom are clean, and the air-conditioning units are out of the windows and down in the basement.

Because he doesn’t volunteer a lot, a month was about how long it took to get some minimal information about his classes and his social life out of him, but it seems like he had a good first semester. He has a couple friends, he enjoyed his classes, and his grades were good. (About a week and a half ago, I had coffee with a mom of one of Noah’s preschool classmates and while we were talking the mom of one of his best friends from kindergarten saw us and came over and we all talked about our brand new college students. All three kids seems to have adjusted well to college life and all three brought home dirty laundry. It was good to hear about his long-ago friends and how they’re doing.)

Saturday was the fourth annual Women’s March, so Noah also got to attend a protest in D.C. before he left. Beth had asked him to come film the CWA contingent, and I came along, too. North was not interested in marching on a day with sleet in the forecast, so they spent the morning at their friend Norma’s apartment and roaming around downtown Silver Spring together. 

After we dropped North off at Norma’s building, we drove to the Metro and took it to the city. I saw women with pussy hats approaching the station at Brookland and there was a group of women sitting behind us talking about picketing Mike Pence’s house who I thought were almost surely headed where we were headed. Another group of women holding hand-made signs but piled up in a way you couldn’t read them were probably also headed to the march either to participate or possibly counter protest—the annual March for Life is on Friday, and there are some early arrivals around town.

At Beth’s office building, people were gathering in the lobby, making signs, and partaking of hot drinks, juice, and snacks. It was not as big a crowd as CWA had at the first Women’s March, but there was a decent turnout, especially from one New York local. They were easy to identify because they all had matching jackets. They’d been on the road since six a.m. and seemed energetic and happy to be there. Several of them had brought their kids.

We socialized with people Beth knew, especially Mike who’s married to the CWA Secretary-Treasurer and is a photographer who’s mentored Noah from time to time. Mike and Sara’s oldest daughter Rose applied to the Visual Arts Center (where North also applied) for high school, so we talked about that and how Noah’s first semester of college went. When it was time to get going, Sara gave a short speech about what it meant to her to be at the march with her three girls, who stood with her, displaying their signs. June, the middle daughter, is ten years old and running for President in 2048. She has professional-looking buttons made already. I look forward to voting for her.

Then we set off for Freedom Plaza, as snowflakes sailed lazily through the air around us and then melted on the sidewalk. Shortly after we arrived, the snow turned to freezing rain, as predicted, but it was more like freezing drizzle, so we didn’t get soaked. There were speeches, but we were too far away from the stage to hear much, except for Las Tesis singing “El violador eres tú”, so we people-watched and read signs instead. I have to say “Any Non-Criminal 2020,” was my favorite because it matched my feelings about this Presidential race. There are some candidates I like more than others, but my bar is pretty low. (Noah and I watched the debate on Tuesday and I thought everyone came off pretty well, though he and I had similar reactions to the Warren-Sanders spat. It’s puzzling to try to imagine what actually happened because it doesn’t sound like something he’d say and she doesn’t seem like one to flat-out lie.) As always, there were also a lot of pussy hats and baby Trump balloons and someone had made a MAGA cap out of an umbrella by covering it with red cloth and attaching a bill, but instead of MAGA, it said, “IMPEACHED.” To make things complete, there were also some anti-abortion protesters with bloody fetus posters and a man with a bullhorn who got right up into Beth’s face, yelling about abortion.

Once the marching started, there were the usual chants. I always like “Tell me what democracy looks like. This is what democracy looks like.” Based on when I could hear his voice, Noah seemed to like “Say it loud, say it clear. Refugees are welcome here” best. (Sometimes it was “immigrants are welcome here.”) People were also chanting, “We need a leader, not a creepy tweeter,” and “Hey, hey. Hey ho, patriarchy has got to go.” Beth said she thought that seemed like a tall order, and she’d settle for getting rid of the current President as a start.

After a while, a group started to sing, “This Little Light of Mine,” and then “We Will Overcome” and it was nice to sing something uplifting after all the chanting. The march couldn’t go in front of the White House, because Pennsylvania Ave. was blocked off and we’d gotten separated from the CWA contingent, so we abandoned plans to have Noah film the group in front of the White House and we split off from the march before it was quite done. We ducked into a Potbelly where I waited in line for almost twenty minutes to use the restroom and then we found a nearby Noodles and Company where we enjoyed a hot lunch. (I got tomato soup and mac-n-cheese with broccoli and it was quite restorative after a couple hours in the cold and wet.)

We came home and Noah and I finished the fifth and final season of Orphan Black, and North’s friend Jade came over, and after she left we all went out to dinner at Vicino, Noah’s favorite Italian restaurant and he got baked ziti, which is his favorite dish there. After North went to bed, the rest of us watched an episode of Dickinson. We’d decided we were all about finishing series or at least seasons of series before Noah left.

Sunday after various people went grocery shopping, swimming, and to the library, we continued our binge-watching. The four of us knocked out the last three episodes of the first season of Blackish, which we’ve also been watching for years. This show is in its sixth season, plus there are two spinoffs, so chances are we will never finish that one. But we were undaunted and after North went to bed, we watched the last two episodes of Dickinson.

Monday morning, Beth made a send-off breakfast of banana-chocolate chip pancakes. As we ate, we decided to skip our annual MLK day service project because the timing of Noah’s bus which left at eleven made it difficult, as most organized projects take place in the morning. North suggested we give money to an anti-racist organization in lieu of direct service and we decided on the Southern Poverty Law Center.

After breakfast, I folded the last load of laundry with Noah’s clothes in it and handed him a stack of clothes. I also prepared a bag of snacks for the bus ride to Ithaca, since there’s not always time for meals when the bus stops at rest stops. I sliced apples and carrot sticks, and put tortilla chips and walnuts in bags.

“Steph made you healthy snacks and I got you a candy bar,” Beth observed to Noah. “Who loves you more?”

At ten a.m., we left for Union Station and dropped Noah off at the bus bay thirty-five minutes later. There were a lot of parents hugging their college-aged kids and one mom trying to get on the bus with something her son forgot. We got drinks at one of the Starbucks inside the station afterward and while we were sitting just off the ornate lobby partaking of them, Noah texted to say he’d forgotten his brown bag of food. My impulse was to rush to the car and get it, but it was the exact time the bus was supposed to leave and when we got back to the car it wasn’t there anyway. He’d left it in his room. Well, so much for providing him with something healthy… I ate the apple slices and carrot sticks with my own lunch.

So, as I write, Noah’s on a bus, speeding toward Ithaca and his second semester of college. He’ll be playing percussion in the non-music majors band, which means he’ll have a musical outlet, which makes me happy. He’s also taking a computer science class, an environmental science class, Intro to Audio, and Intro to Media Industries (which is about the ethical, legal,  technological, economic and creative issues raised by new media). We’ll see him in early March when he comes home for spring break. As I told him as he got on the bus, I’ll miss him but I’m proud of him.

28/7

Noah’s still home and as a result, we’ve been trying to watch all the things with him, in different combinations. We all went to see Little Women last weekend (four thumbs up), and he and I went to see Parasite a few days ago (thought-provoking and recommended if you’ve got the stomach for some violence—the end is a bit of a bloodbath). On the small screen, the four of us continue to make incremental progress on the first seasons of both Speechless and Blackish, both of which we’ve been watching for years; Beth, Noah, and I have started Dickinson (which is very strange and very good); and Noah and I are nearing the end of the fifth and final season of the crazy complicated and addictive drama Orphan Black, which we started last summer. Noah and I are reading, too. We finished American War and we’re more than halfway through The Testaments. I think we’ll manage to finish it before he goes back to school on MLK day.

We had a little snow in the middle of last week, about a half inch, that resulted in an early dismissal and a two-hour delay, but North went to school for at least part of the day every day, which I count as a win this time of the year. Plus, it was the kind of snow that clings prettily to tree branches, and turns lawns white, but doesn’t stick to the sidewalks, so there was nothing to shovel. Noah and I took a lovely walk through the falling snow on Tuesday afternoon and ended up at Starbucks, where I got a mocha and he got his standard winter drink—the caramel apple spice. He enjoys the idea of hot apple juice with whipped cream (and the reality, too).

And speaking of things that happen in January, Beth and I had an anniversary this weekend. On Saturday it was the twenty-eighth anniversary of our commitment ceremony and the seventh anniversary of our legal wedding. This means we’ve now been married for a quarter of the time we wanted to be. I am looking forward to watching that fraction get bigger with time.

Beth was awake and looking at her phone before I woke up on Saturday and when I started stirring she told me Facebook had made us an anniversary video, which means it wished us a happy anniversary before either of us had wished to each other. Ah, modern life…

Beth took North to therapy and then they ran some errands while Noah and I watched Orphan Black. In the late morning, I started making our anniversary cake, which we served at our commitment ceremony and I’ve made on almost all our anniversaries since then. (In the early years I forgot once or twice.) It’s a spice cake, with a lemon glaze. Last year I mixed things up by making an orange glaze and there were protests. North went over to Zoë’s house around noon and after the remaining three of us had lunch and Beth did a little work, we watched three episodes of Dickinson, then Noah and I read a couple sections of The Testaments and I frosted the cake, adding some red sugar, leftover from Christmas baking.

Beth and I left around four o’clock to go on our anniversary date—Harriet and dinner at a Burmese restaurant. It was interesting to see this movie when we did because on New Year’s Day, Beth, Noah, and I went on a first day hike on an Underground Railroad trail at Woodlawn Manor Cultural Park. It’s a guided hike, with two interpreters providing background about the Underground Railroad in Montgomery County as you walk through the woods. I recommend the hike, if you’re local. It’s usually not done in the winter, though—they added a New Year’s Day hike this year—so you’ll have to wait until spring if you want to do it. It’s not dramatized, but it’s full of interesting stories and it really makes you think about what it would be like when you’re walking in the very place escaped enslaved people once did. I also enjoyed the film, despite some hokey moments. Harriet Tubman’s story is a truly amazing and inspiring one. (Beth said it made her annoyed all over again that she’s not on the twenty-dollar bill yet.)

After the film we went to dinner at Mandalay, which is one of our stand-by restaurants. There was a surprisingly long wait, but once the food came it was delicious, as usual, and the wait gave us time to talk. It was a very nice date.

We returned to the house to find Noah, North, and Zoë (who was sleeping over at our house) watching a movie in the living room. It had fifteen minutes left, so Beth and I exchanged cards and gifts while we waited for the teens to be available to eat cake. I got Beth a new wallet, and she got me two books, The Girls and My Sister, the Serial Killer, both of which look good, plus a roll of postcard stamps. I asked for these, to help me get back on track writing for Postcards to Voters. I imagine it’s going to be a busy year for that. When I opened my card from Beth, she asked me if she’d gotten it for me before. I said yes, that I’d kept it on the windowsill near my desk for a long time.

It wasn’t until the next morning, when I opened the old card that I noticed that inside she’d written:

Happy 26/5
Beth

And in the new card, she’d written:

Happy 28/7
Love,
Beth

When I showed it to Beth and North, North said “You’re so basic.”

Beth protested she wasn’t basic, she was “unchanging, like a rock.”

“You’re my rock,” I told her, giving her a hug. And then she said she supposed this was going in my blog, and of course, she was right.

At dinner that night, I showed the cards to Noah and the teasing began anew. I noted she had changed a word, adding “love” in this year’s card. Beth said it was evidence that her “ardor has increased.” And then she predicted, “Two years from now it will be “lots of love.”

Stay tuned to see if that’s how it turns out. I’m pretty sure we’ll be eating the same cake.

Walkin’ Around the Christmas Trees

Friday-Sunday: Before Blackwater 

North’s last day of school before winter break was the Friday before Christmas. This was also the day Noah was returning from college and we had a party to attend, so it was a big day.

The party was for the family of a preschool classmate of North’s. They moved to Switzerland three years ago (around the time we were all wishing we could move to Switzerland) and they come back to the States for visits occasionally. When they’re in the D.C. area, someone from the Purple School will host a party so they can see as many people as possible in a limited period of time. It was good to see the family of honor and a few of North’s old classmates, all teenagers now, and their families. The hosts made an excellent squash and black bean chili and the expats brought Swiss chocolate and there was a gingerbread cookie decorating station and a charming five year old who wanted to decorate more cookies than she was allowed to eat so she started circulating through the room offering thickly frosted cookies. It was a fun party. Unfortunately, Beth didn’t get to stay long because she was coming from work and by that time North and I had been there an hour and a half and North was impatient to get to their next social engagement, a sleepover at Zoë’s, plus we had stuff to do at home before Noah’s bus arrived, so she couldn’t stay long.

Beth and I arrived at Union Station around 9:25 and had about a half hour wait for the bus. We got Noah some pizza and a chocolate milk at Sbarro, because we knew he probably hadn’t had time to procure himself much food for the ride. Sure enough, all he’d had since breakfast was a rest stop soft pretzel. The reason for his hasty departure was that he had an unfinished, overdue paper he’d been working on until he left (and on the bus and for two days after he got home). The paper was for his ideologies class and he said he’d been reading Mein Kampf on the bus and hoping no one thought he was a Nazi. He ate his pizza in the car and drank “this mysterious liquid,” a comment that made me hope he’s not drinking soda every day at school. When we got home, Beth and I went to bed while he did whatever it is college students do at night.

The next morning at 11:30, when Beth and I set out to get a Christmas tree, he was still in bed, though he answered the text Beth sent to say we were leaving. We drove to Butler’s Orchard, where we go berry picking in the summer. We’ve never gotten a tree there, maybe because it’s forty-five minutes away, but they had a much nicer selection than Christmas tree lots generally do four days before Christmas, so we may make it our go-to place. We browsed in the farm market, got some apple cider and garlic dip mix, and then picked out a tree. We found one we liked a lot—six feet tall and very full and bushy.

Our next stop was Wegman’s, where we intended to buy eggnog and mushroom ravioli for dinner and where we checked out with $55 worth of groceries. We don’t live near a Wegman’s so we succumbed to the temptation to splurge on several kinds of fake meat they don’t carry at the co-op, cranberry stilton, pomegranate kernels, and lunch at the deli. I got a slice of mushroom-truffle pizza and a pomegranate soda and it was very good.

North came home from Zoë’s in the late afternoon and we all had dinner around the same table, which was nice. Then we opened presents from my mom and Sara because there’s never room in the car for all the presents and it made a nice little solstice celebration. We capped it off with a viewing of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Sunday Noah emerged from his room shortly before eleven, and spent most of the day working on his paper. At dinner he said he was stuck, so I read his draft and gave him some ideas. We were all hoping he’d finish it that night, so he didn’t have to work at Blackwater. He’s already done that enough times. I told him he should have a college student’s break and not a high school student’s break. Meanwhile I did three loads of laundry (a lot of which was his) and swam and packed.

Monday and Tuesday: Blackwater, Before Christmas

Hike: Pendleton Overlook and Pendleton Lake

Monday morning brought us the happy news that Noah had turned in his paper the previous night while the rest of us slept. It was three days late and shorter than it was supposed to be, but as I often used to tell him in high school (and middle school and elementary school), “Done is beautiful.” We packed up the car and hit the road for West Virginia around 10:15. There wasn’t much traffic and even with a stop for lunch, we arrived at 2:30. We waited in the lodge for YaYa and when she arrived, we checked into our cabin.

We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing and for dinner we had takeout from Panera—vegetable soup, bread, and mac-n-cheese that YaYa had picked up on the road. Then we watched Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. We’d saved all our Christmas specials except those we’d watched over Thanksgiving break until Noah was home again (at his request), so we had a lot. During the song, “First Toymaker to the King,” both kids sang along with brio. They knew every word.

On the morning of our first full day at Blackwater, North and I took the first of many walks while Beth and YaYa went grocery shopping. North took me to a path they’d found another year we’d stayed in a cabin nearby. It goes to a rocky outcropping with a view of the river canyon, dense with evergreens. It’s similar to the other overlooks, but smaller, more private, and without a protective railing. It was a little scary watching them stand closer than I would to the edge, but I stopped myself from saying anything because they weren’t really that close. Next we proceeded to an official overlook and North put a quarter into the swiveling binoculars to better view the lodge across the canyon and the narrow waterfall going down the canyon side. Then we took a path to Pendleton Lake, which was almost completely frozen, despite the current mild temperatures. North slid on the ice near the edge of the lake, and I watched from the earthen dam between the lake and the creek that empties out of it. There were some interesting ice formations on the creek side, near the culvert where the water comes out of the dam.

Back at the house, we decorated the tree with our ornaments and YaYa’s, too. It was like decorating a tree always is, with everyone exclaiming over ornaments that remind us of years, or decades past, and getting all nostalgic in a Christmassy way over them.

After lunch, the kids and I made gingerbread from the dough I’d made at home and transported with us. This is another nostalgic activity as the recipe is my mom’s and I’ve been making it first with my sister and mother and then with my kids since I was old enough to handle dough. We go different directions with the decorations from year to year, though. This year we used dried fruit, nuts, seeds, and hard candy. I discovered pepitas make good eyes and a cashew is just the right shape for a smile. North made a very satisfactory turtle shell out of green hard candies that melted into an approximation of a diamondback pattern. And as we always do, we made initial cookies for everyone. YaYa got two, an A for her real name and a Y.

Next North and I went swimming and hot-tubbing at the lodge. The hot tub was more of a tepid tub, but it was still relaxing. There was no one else there and the tub was big enough for me to float on my back.

Before our dinner of chili and corn bread (cooked by Beth), we watched A Miracle on 34th Street and afterward we watched The Year Without a Santa Claus. It was nice to watch something we don’t watch every year (the former) and something we do (the latter).  In between viewings, the kids opened a pair of new Christmas pajamas each, green and white stripes with a red collar for Noah and red and white stripes with a green collar for North. (I feel lucky that at thirteen and eighteen they still go along with this.) Just before bed, Noah treated us to a very dramatic reading of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” and YaYa said he really should take an acting class in college someday.

Wednesday: Christmas Day 

Hike: Lindy Point

Christmas morning, as we woke singly and in pairs, we emptied our stockings of oranges, candied nuts, and other treats. Everyone was up by eight and we ate the lemon-cranberry muffins North had made for breakfast and then opened presents. A great many books, mugs, packages of tea, socks, and bars of soap were exchanged. Noah’s big present was an Apple watch. He was pleased with it and over the course of the next several days kept using it to check the temperature, note his movement goals, or dictate texts. He said it made him feel like Dick Tracy, though further questioning revealed he wasn’t actually sure who Dick Tracy was. North’s big presents were a papasan chair (which was actually at home because it was too big to bring with us, but we gave them a photo of it) and a weighted blanket, which they immediately and happily threw over themselves. “I will never need another blanket,” they said. YaYa especially liked the calendar Beth made of pictures of the kids, but what grandmother wouldn’t?

Around noon everyone but North left for a hike to Lindy Point. The day was lovely, sunny and cool but not cold—Noah and I didn’t even wear jackets. It was in the fifties most days we were there, actually, and there was not much snow, just the patchy remains of a past snowfall on the ground when we arrived, and that was all but gone when we left. Everyone was a little disappointed not to have a white Christmas, but the upside was pleasant temperatures for hiking and we did take walks every day. The year before had been snowy but bitter cold, which limited our outdoor time.

The trail to the overlook was narrow and lined with towering rhododendrons. It took us to a wooden platform on a rock outcropping that affords more views of the river canyon. Noah gave all his womenfolk a scare edging around the outside of railing to get photos from the angle he wanted. YaYa couldn’t watch. But he didn’t plummet down into the canyon, and we went home and had lunch and started one of the book he got for Christmas, American War. It’s set in the future during the second American Civil War and the plague years afterward. Then I read one of my Christmas books, Stephen King’s latest, The Institute.

Christmas dinner was YaYa’s signature spinach lasagna—she and Beth cooked every dinner we didn’t have takeout or eat out and that was a nice treat for me, as the primary cook in my family. We intended to watch Christmas is Here Again after dinner, but the internet was spotty in the cabin and it wouldn’t download, so we watched It’s a Wonderful Life instead because it was already downloaded and it was a more than adequate substitute. We haven’t been doing nightly poems since Noah left for college, but we are making an exception for Winter Poems, a book we’ve been reading read every winter for many years. We read the first five poems that night, including this one by Rachel Field I’ve always liked, which begins:

Something told the wild geese
            It was time to go
Though the fields lay golden
            Something whispered,– “Snow.”

And ends…

Something told the wild geese
            It was time to fly,–
Summer sun was on their wings
            Winter in their cry

 And then Christmas was over.

Thursday to Saturday: Blackwater, After Christmas

Hikes: Pendleton Overlook and Pendleton Lake (new route), Blackwater Falls

The day after Christmas I did three loads of laundry in the cabin’s tiny washing machine. Noah and I read some more of American War and I read some more of The Institute. Everyone but Noah had lunch at the White Grass Café and the kids went sledding on artificial snow in 56-degree weather while the mothers and grandmother watched from the bottom of the hill. They each went down four times. One the second run, they shared a sled to see if they’d go faster that way, but they concluded, in Noah’s words, that it was easier to steer, “when there’s one consciousness,” so they went back to separate sleds after that.

After sledding, Noah and I went back to the cabin and everyone else went to browse in the shops of  Davis, a nearby town. When they came home, we all did our own thing in the house for a while until Noah and YaYa went for a walk in the sunset before our dinner, which was a vegetable-white bean-quinoa soup. Christmas is Here Again had successfully downloaded so we watched our final Christmas movie.

Friday we went to the lodge for a late breakfast and from there Beth, North, and I proceeded to the pool, while Noah hung out in the lounge with his laptop editing the many pictures he’d taken so far on our trip and YaYa went back and forth from the pool deck to the lounge. I’d forgotten my goggles so I did backstroke for a half hour. I would have swum longer but it gets boring doing just one kind of stroke, so I went over to the hot tub, slipped on the steps, and fell into it. Luckily, I wasn’t really hurt, but it did give me a little scare.

Later Noah and YaYa retraced the steps of their walk from the day before because Noah wanted better light for pictures and for the rest of the afternoon some people read and some people watched Solo, and some did both and North did neither because they were having a long phone conversation with Jade in their room, as they did many days of the trip. (The two have become quite close recently.)

In the late afternoon I took a walk along the cross-country ski trail that runs behind the cabins. The grass was wet and muddy and I fell, soaking the knees of my jeans twice in quick succession, but I discovered a new route to the lake, which was still mostly frozen and quite scenic in the dusk. I was near the Nature Center and behind it I discovered two little skulls, one white and one green, wrapped in shrouds and mounted on sticks. I wasn’t sure if they were leftover Halloween decorations someone failed to remove. Or perhaps they were the ghosts of Christmas future.

When I got back to the cabin, Noah, Beth, and YaYa had finished watching Solo, and Noah was dragging the denuded Christmas tree back to the woods behind the house. We set out for a pizza place nearby, but there was a forty-minute wait so we went back to the park and had dinner in the lodge restaurant where we had breakfast.

There was a reading at the lodge by Ann Pancake, a West Virginian writer, starting shortly after we finished dinner, so we stayed for that, or the oldest three of us did, while the teens stayed in the lobby playing games on their phones. Pancake read three autobiographical essays, one about her childhood, one about visiting home as an adult, and one about her father’s dementia. I haven’t been to a reading in a long while, and I’d forgotten how much I enjoy them.

Saturday morning we packed up the house, checked out, and went for our last hike of the trip, down to Blackwater Falls, the majestic waterfall that gives the park its name. You descend down a wooden staircase with several viewing platforms along the way. As we progressed, we tried to remember which was the platform where North lost a croc over the edge when they were very little and which was the one where Noah and YaYa sat on a bench and played his West Virginia-opoly game, a board game he made in fifth grade. (All the properties are places in West Virginia and he and YaYa were trying to play it in all of those locations, mostly during his summer visits to her. I don’t know if they ever completed this quest.)

About halfway down, North (who had twisted an ankle a couple days earlier), Noah (who’d slipped on the wet boards, gone down and hurt his leg), and YaYa (who’d been hesitant about the hike to start with) all decided to stay where they were and view the falls from there. Beth and I went all the way to the bottom, where the boards were coated with slush and ice. There were big icicles hanging from the lower rockface as well and the boulders in the river below the falls were all encased in ice. It all looked impressively wintry given that daytime temperatures had been in the fifties for at least several days.

Around eleven we said our goodbyes to YaYa in the parking lot and drove back to Maryland. Noah will be home for another three weeks, and Beth and North go back to work and school on Thursday. I have to work starting today, but I’m planning to meet an out-of-town friend for coffee this afternoon, attend the neighbors’ annual New Year’s Eve party tomorrow, and go for another hike, this one along the Underground Railroad trail with Beth and Noah, on New Year’s Day, so there’s still a little time for celebration left.