Bow Down to Her on Sunday, Salute Her When Her Birthday Comes: Coronavirus Chronicles, Part 40

Bow down to her on Sunday
Salute her when her birthday comes
For Halloween, buy her a trumpet
And for Christmas, get her a drum

From “She Belongs to Me,” by Bob Dylan

Noah’s birthday, Mother’s Day, and my birthday are all clustered together. Depending on when Mother’s Day falls in any given year, it’s three celebrations in a span of nine to twelve days. North has commented more than once that they are the only one in the family who does not get any presents during this span of time. I clean up, with presents from multiple people on two occasions. No one actually bowed down or saluted me, but that would have been weird, and sufficient tribute was paid.

Mother’s Day Weekend: Friday and Saturday

Friday was Noah’s last day of classes and he was finished by mid-afternoon so he had time to read and vacuum and play his drums before dinner. We got pizza and gelato and watched the beginning of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds, which we drew out of the pile of index cards with the titles of films we’ve agreed to watch. There’s a complex nomination and veto process but I won’t go into that now. Coincidentally on a celebratory day for him, it was one of Noah’s picks. He’s interested in the works of Hayao Miyazaki. This the fourth of his films we’ve seen this year. (The others were The Castle of Cagliostro, Spirited Away, and Ponyo.) Anime tends toward the weird, which is part of the charm, but this one was probably the strangest of the four. I think as a whole, Miyazaki leans into the fact that it’s animation, so anything can happen. It was a little hard to follow in places, but very imaginative and visually appealing, and it had pacifist, environmental themes I appreciated.

Saturday Beth worked in the garden, digging up a weed tree stump and daffodil and tulip bulbs we’ll relocate so she could make space for a new tomato bed. North spent much of the day in Zoë’s back yard (and porch when it rained). Noah and I read about thirty pages of The Light Fantastic, one of his birthday books, from the Discworld series—over the course of the weekend we read almost half of it—and watched the last available episode of The Handmaid’s Tale. I made oatmeal-raisin muffins because we had some leftover oatmeal from breakfast and then I made some progress on The Sympathizer, which I’m reading for book club. Noah and I made vegetarian Bolognese for dinner. (Crumbled cauliflower stands in for the beef and the sauce is made rich with butter, milk, and parmesan and salty with tamari.) And then we all watched the end of Nausicaä, which was a fun way to end the day.

Mother’s Day Weekend: Sunday

We scheduled the opening of Mother’s Day’s gifts for Sunday evening because Beth had a busy day. She went grocery shopping in the morning, leaving before the kids were up, and she was home just long enough to drop off the groceries and eat lunch, then she was out of the house from one p.m. until eight p.m., because she was taking a kayaking class at Seneca Creek State Park. It’s a new kind of outdoor exercise for her and something she’s wanted to try for a while. Later she told us she saw a lot of blue herons and turtles (these were the children’s symbols at their nature-based preschool—North was the Great Blue Heron and Noah was Painted Turtle) so the kids were there “in spirit.”

While she was gone, I finished putting away the groceries, made myself a nice lunch—farmers’ market strawberries and Brie I’d put on the grocery list for just this occasion on crackers with apricot jam—and then I read the Outlook section of the Post, continued to chip away at The Sympathizer, and did some cleaning in the kitchen, not as much as I intended, but hey, it was Mother’s Day. Beth picked up takeout Burmese on her way home. I told her to choose the restaurant because my birthday would be in two days and I’d be choosing then. The restaurant was quite backed up with people waiting for takeout orders and she had to wait almost an hour.

But she finally got home with the food. When I unpacked it we found we were short a noodle salad and two orders of sticky rice. Beth called and the restaurant agreed to deliver the rest of the order. We ate our entrees and while we waited for the rest of the food to come, Beth and I opened our presents from the kids. Beth got two dark chocolate bars, coconut-almond and plain—from one of her favorite chocolate companies and a tofu press. I got a Starbucks gift card and Stephen King’s latest, Later. Because my book had gotten bent during shipping, Noah put it in the tofu press in an attempt to flatten it. Just as we were finishing, there was a knock on the door and the rest of our food arrived.

After dinner, Beth, Noah, and I watched an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is our normal Sunday evening activity, but also my favorite part of most weekends. (In fact, I announced at dinner that part of what I’d like for my birthday on Tuesday, was to watch an extra episode of Buffy, not on a Sunday, which seemed like a luxury.) Beth teased me right before we started the show, asking if I really wanted to watch it, saying sometimes she couldn’t tell. I maintain there’s nothing wrong with being clear about what you want.

The Day Between: Monday

Monday North went back to school, after a week at home. There continues to be no yoga in yoga, but students had the option to walk around the track and some of them, including North, did. They struck up a conversation with a girl who was also walking laps and in history, they apparently had a lot to say about redlining. In-person school is so much better for their personality and learning style—I’m happy they’re going in, even if it’s only four days out of every ten.

Another notable thing that happened that day was the Brood X cicadas started to emerge. Beth mentioned seeing some shells on the yard waste bags she’d put out for collection when she went for her early morning walk. When I went for my mid-morning one I saw a few shells on our fence and a nearby telephone pole, and a freshly emerged white cicada on a cherry tree trunk. I also saw direct and indirect evidence of cicada predation. Little sparrows were flying around with cicadas nearly as big as their heads in their beaks and the sidewalk was littered with cicada bits from messy eaters. It wasn’t until I got home, though, that I saw that in our side yard, in the little wildflower meadow I’ve instructed Noah not to mow, nearly every daisy stem had a shell or a live cicada (some turned black, some still white) on it. It was quite a sight.

I took pictures and sent Noah out with his camera to take more. When I revisited the flowers an hour or so later, it was like a buffet, with birds were swooping in from all directions and taking their lunch to the sidewalk along the side of the house to eat. The cicadas don’t seem able to fly yet, so I’ve only seen them either where they shed their shells or lumbering clumsily along the ground or sidewalk.

As if that wasn’t enough excitement, the Pfizer vaccine was approved for twelve-to-fifteen year olds that afternoon. Beth was right on it when she saw the notification and she thought she’d managed to snag an appointment for North after school on Wednesday. However, the system cancelled it because apparently they weren’t making appointments for under-sixteens yet. (But just a couple days later Beth was able to make another appointment for this afternoon, at Six Flags. Now between us, we’ve been vaccinated in an out-of-business furniture store, a stadium, and an amusement park.)

Beth baked my birthday cake and the frosting in the afternoon and that evening North frosted it. I’d requested a chocolate cake with cookies and cream frosting and that’s what Beth made.

Birthday: Tuesday

North went to school again on Tuesday (which still seems novel enough to mention explicitly), bearing their Japanese tea bowl, an in-progress ceramics project. Even though in-person school has meant the disappearance of yoga in yoga class, it has meant the introduction of ceramics in their ceramics class. Up to now it’s been a sculpture-with-found-materials class. I’m not quite sure why the students couldn’t have been working with clay before now, as there have been occasional days when the school distributed materials for various classes on a drive-through basis, but I am focusing on the positive. North is working with clay, which was their reason for signing up for this class. And the teacher even asked if they were an experienced potter and when North said no, he said they had a knack for it.

I had a fairly normal, if abbreviated work day. I read a Raymond Carver story on the porch for book club, rode the exercise bike, finished a blog post about a line of stress relief and sleep products. I knocked off early and Noah and I walked to North’s bus stop, which is several blocks from the house and more to the point, about halfway to a Starbucks, and I claimed my birthday reward (and bought a bunch of other items, as the kids were with me). North had to be back at the house by four for therapy and I thought the timing would all work out pretty well, but then the bus was ten minutes late, so we had to hustle. We got home with our booty (I got a chai latte and a blueberry scone) with a minute or two to spare. When North was out of therapy we watched an episode of Locke and Key, because it was dinner-making time and I wasn’t making dinner.

We ordered takeout Mexican. I didn’t even have to tell Beth I wanted the spinach enchiladas because that’s what I always get, but we also had plantains, and I got a virgin mango daiquiri, which isn’t part of my usual order. North tried one, too.

As happened on Sunday, part of the order was missing, so we ate in courses and while we waited for the rest of it to arrive, I opened presents. North made me this lovely painting of cherry blossoms (there are real dried blossoms incorporated into it), Noah got me Gods of Jade and Shadow, and Beth got me Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s Love Over and Over (which disappeared off Apple Music last summer or fall and I’ve been missing ever since) and two more books, Pull of the Stars and Station Eleven. I did ask for more books about pandemics, in case you’re wondering.

My mom called while we were eating dinner and we had a brief conversation, during which I thanked her for her gift, a Starbucks card, and she thanked me for my Mother’s Day gift, a gift tray of nuts, and later in the evening, my sister, brother-in-law, and niece called and serenaded me with their rendition of “Happy Birthday” and enquired about my day.

Beth instructed the kids to take care of their own dishes (I am the family dishwasher) and she did hers and mine and after a break for digestion, we had the delicious cake. Beth got the frosting just right, I have to say. It tasted just like the inside of an Oreo, maybe because of all the mashed up Newman’s Os in it.

And then we watched Buffy, just like I wanted.

Now the Boy is Twenty: Coronavirus Chronicles, Part 39

So the years spin by and now the boy is twenty
Though his dreams have lost some grandeur coming true
There’ll be new dreams, maybe better dreams and plenty
Before the last revolving year is through

From “The Circle Game,” by Joni Mitchell

Noah’s twenty, as in two decades, as in not a teenager any more. I’ll let that sink in for a moment. Okay. Ready to proceed?

This is how I opened Noah’s birthday blog post last year:

So, back in the Before Times, we thought it was sad Noah would be at school for his nineteenth birthday and we were wondering whether to order him a cake from a local bakery or if it would be better to have the cake late, but at home, where we could all partake. So, that’s a decision we won’t have to make until next spring. (He’ll be at school a year from now, right?)

Well, that decision got kicked back another year. Noah’s at home, has been at home for almost fourteen months. And it does seem as if his college experience has lost some grandeur coming true so far, but there are two years left and he will be back on campus next year. He’s registered for classes and he has a housing assignment. He’s taking Cinema Production II, Media Law and Politics, Utopias and Dystopias in Emerging Media, and Band for non-music majors.

The loss of a year plus half a semester on campus makes me glad we encouraged him not to graduate in three years. He had enough AP credit to do it, but the timing of the required classes for his major would have made it difficult. All that work taking AP classes in high school wasn’t for nothing, though. It got some requirements out of the way and allowed him to take the classes he wanted to take right off the bat, plus he can take a slightly lighter class load, which is good for our deep but slow thinker. His thirteen-credit schedule for next semester reminds me of when he was in seventh grade and having a challenging year academically and Beth asked him what his ideal class schedule would be and he said, “All media and band.” So, eight years later, he’ll be living the dream.

He’ll be living in an on-campus apartment with a roommate. He’s never met the roommate– they were matched by the college. All he knows about him is that he’s a non-smoker from New Jersey. It will be nice for him to have a little more space and a kitchen, though he’s going to stay on the meal plan at least for the fall semester.

Noah’s birthday was yesterday. The timing wasn’t ideal. It’s the last week of classes before finals and Monday is his busiest day. All four of his classes meet, the first one starting at nine a.m. and the last one finishing at 8:30 p.m., so it makes for a long day. In the morning I asked him if he thought he could take a break to go for a walk get his Starbucks birthday reward from the one closest to our house and he said no, so I offered to pick it up for him if he ordered it on the app, as I had to go to the post office and that would take me near a different Starbucks. While I was there getting his guava-passionfruit drink and lemon pound cake, I got myself a birthday cake pop, because it was someone’s birthday, if not mine. But I didn’t get a drink because I wanted to get a Thai iced tea from Kin-Da. Beth and I had Thai for dinner the night I went into labor with Noah (two decades ago!) and now I have Thai food on or near his birthday whenever I can. Since I can no longer have caffeinated drinks at dinner if I want to sleep at night, I usually steer clear of Thai iced tea, even though I am fond of it. So I was pleased to have an opportunity to have it around noon instead.

Around 5:35, at my encouragement, Noah took a study break and went down to the basement to practice his drums for twenty minutes. He’s taking online lessons at the local music school and doesn’t practice as much as when he was in a highly ranked high school band with a driven teacher, but I’m always glad when he does because I think it’s good stress relief for him.

For dinner we got takeout from Noodles and Company because it’s one of Noah’s favorites. I got the Pad Thai, of course. He got buttered noodles with broccoli and tofu, which is his standard order (well, sometimes he gets carrots instead of broccoli). Then he opened his presents. He got a fancy tripod with flexible legs that you can wrap around irregularly shaped things like tree branches, gift cards for Amazon, Starbucks, and Panera, and five books: The Magicians trilogy, (which I thought would be fun, since we watched the television series early in the pandemic), the second book in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, and The Space Between Worlds. When we were done, he went back into his room to attend his last class of the day.

After he emerged, we had cake and ice cream. Beth made the cake, chocolate with fresh strawberry frosting, a family favorite, and North frosted it. It was delicious, as always. My mom, who has now been a grandmother for two decades, called to convey her birthday greetings shortly after we finished eating.

Noah got his second shot last Friday (in the Ravens’ stadium again), so by the time he’s finished his finals a week and a half from now, he’ll be fully vaccinated. He’ll be heading out to Wheeling to visit Beth’s mom until Memorial Day for some well-deserved R&R.

When he gets back, I hope he leaves the house more often than he has been. At the very least he’s got some money to spend at Starbucks and Panera. I also hope we’ll go back to hiking in nearby parks and flying the drone on the weekends like we did last summer and fall because I really enjoyed that, and he did, too. And he may have a summer job, assisting the local filmmaker who he worked with on Hugo Cabret’s Big Fix last fall. Mike is married to one of Beth’s colleagues at CWA and Noah’s worked with him on a few other small projects over the last several years, starting with filming the CWA contingent at the Women’s March in 2017. When Beth ran into Mike at a rally in support of the PRO Act (to protect the right to organize) last weekend, Mike said he was short-handed and he thought he could employ Noah. It’s not for sure yet, but I’m hoping it works out. It sounds like the perfect way to spend his last few months at home.

And when he goes back to school, he’ll have new dreams, maybe better dreams to pursue.

Anticipation: Coronavirus Chronicles, Part 38

We can never know about the days to come
But we think about them anyway
And I wonder if I’m really with you now
Or just chasin’ after some finer day

From “Anticipation,” by Carly Simon

Things are slowly starting to seem, well, not normal exactly, but as if normal is on the horizon. Hopeful signs are everywhere on the pandemic and other fronts. Here are a few, plus one not so hopeful one:

Vaccination

Just a little over a week after Beth and I got vaccinated, Noah got his first shot. Like us, he had to travel outside Montgomery County, which does not seem to be getting its fair share of doses. I guess I shouldn’t complain, though, since the state seems to have enough, and it’s a small state so no site is that far away. Beth drove him to the stadium in Baltimore where the Ravens play. His second shot will be on Friday, so when that’s taken effect in mid-May, three out of four of us will be fully vaccinated. Now we just need to wait for a vaccine to be approved for twelve-to-fifteen year olds, which may happen soon. If North and their peers are able to get vaccinated sometime this summer, that should mean school will be more like regular high school in the fall, with the whole class and the teachers all in the same room at the same time. The mind boggles.

My sister and her husband are partially vaccinated, too, and they bought their airline tickets to come East to visit my cousin Holly in Pennsylvania and then to join us at the beach in Rehoboth in mid-July. All the adults in the beach house will be vaccinated, which is the condition we set.

Celebrations

Zoë had an outdoor birthday party the second weekend in April. It was in her grandparents’ backyard, which is bigger than her family’s backyard. It also has a zipline. There were about ten guests, which is probably the biggest group of teens North’s been in since drama-camp-in-the-park last summer. Beth said when she went to pick them up afterward, North seemed really, really happy. Then about two weeks later North went to Miles and Maddy’s birthday party, which took place around their family’s firepit. North has a lot of friends with spring birthdays so their dance card has at least one more upcoming birthday party plus a quinceañera on it in the next month and a half. This is a happy thing because last spring there was a dearth of parties and now they are happening, albeit in different forms than they would have pre-pandemic.

Mini-Vacation

The third weekend in April, Beth and North went camping in West Virginia, where they stayed in a camper cabin and explored Harpers Ferry and Shepherdstown. Until Noah started college, Beth used to take each kid on a solo camping trip every year (Noah in the fall and North in the spring), but this was the first camping trip during the pandemic. When Beth decided to go, it occurred to me wonder why they hadn’t camped earlier, as it seems like a pretty covid-safe activity. Beth said she’d been worried about crowded campground facilities, and sure enough they encountered several drunken, beer-toting and unmasked women in the bathroom (as well as unmasked but presumably sober folks in the camp store). Of course, North couldn’t avoid the bathroom, but when only one person needed to go inside somewhere, like the camp store or a grocery store, Beth did it. They also ate at a restaurant (outdoors) for the first time since last summer, when we did it in Ithaca. Beth and North both found this very cheering.

I felt really unsettled when Beth and North left for their trip, even knowing it was just for two days, because we are always all together now and have been for over a year. The only nights the four of us haven’t spent under the same roof have been the ones North spent in the hospital with one mom or the other last summer. I have to say, I prefer a camping trip to that.

Left to our own devices, Noah and I read six chapters of Ninth House and watched four episodes of Death Note, and two movies. On Friday we ordered pizza and watched Pan’s Labyrinth. We were originally going to order from a place that used to be our go-to for pizza, but which we haven’t patronized in a long time. However, in the process of ordering we discovered they don’t deliver anymore—it’s carryout only. The name of the place is Pizza Movers. Think about that for a second. As Noah said, “It’s right there in the name. They’re supposed to move the pizza.”

The next night we made penne with an asparagus-cherry tomato sauce. After dinner, I made banana pudding on a whim, and then we watched Daughters of the Dust, which Noah needed to watch for a cinema class he’s taking. So, even though I did miss my wife and youngest, I can’t say I suffered terribly. It was nice to have so much one-on-one time with my firstborn.

It also made me think about all the little trips that will have us split up in different combinations over the next several months. After his finals in mid-May, Noah is going to go to Wheeling to visit Beth’s mom for two weeks. North will probably do the same thing some time this summer, though we haven’t set a date. North may also be able to start sleeping over at friends’ houses when kids in their age group start getting vaccinated (and after we’ve compared ground rules with other parents). Plus, their sleep-away camp will be in session this year in August, whether campers are vaccinated or not. The biggest change, of course, will be when Noah goes back to college, also in August. I imagine I will be simultaneously overjoyed and gutted when that happens, so I guess it’s good we’ll have these little practice separations first.

Occupation

The day after Beth and North got back from camping, Beth did an unusual thing. She went to her office. She’s been back there a couple times, but only to fetch things she needed. The office will be slowly reopening, possibly allowing some people to opt into returning starting in June. She wants to ease into this transition and she had a dentist appointment in the city that day, so she decided go into the empty office to work. She said the Metro platform was “less crowded than I remember” and the office was nice and quiet, which was probably because she was the only one on the whole floor.

Presentation

Beth was trying to get home from the office by 5:20 because Noah was participating in an online undergraduate symposium and she wanted to see him give his paper on what plot changes would be needed to resolve the philosophical paradoxes of time travel in Back to the Future. She ended up having to watch part of it on her phone on the bus and the rest of it at home on my computer, where I was already watching. I was glad when she got home because I’d been unable to access his complicated graphics representing branching timelines and she got them on the screen. If you know Noah, you’ll understand what I mean when I say it was all very Noah. He sounded confident while he presented and he came in within the time limit. (He’d spent a lot of time editing the paper down to ten minutes.) Beth said all the oral presentations he gave in his high school communications magnet program paid off.

Education

Meanwhile, the same Monday Beth went into the office and Noah gave his paper was also the first day of in-person classes for the first group of ninth graders, the ones who are in the red group. North is in the blue group, so they had another week to wait. The most notable change was that three of their four classes (Japanese, Algebra, and History) all met for the full hour of assigned class time, or nearly so, and this has been a pretty rare occurrence during remote schooling. However, the yoga teacher announced at the beginning of class she was going to focus on the in-person students, so she took attendance and dismissed the online students. I wondered if that was just a first day thing or if North will only have yoga now every other week. Three days later, which was the next time yoga class met, it was the same. I wasn’t thrilled about that, but I figured it is what it is.

On Tuesday, North’s English, Sculpture, and Biology classes all met for the full hour or within a few minutes of it. Even in the advisory period, during which students usually check in and are immediately dismissed, the students stayed for twenty minutes, during which they got information about people running to be student members of the school board. I am hoping this pattern of longer classes points toward more academic engagement for North this quarter, whether they’re in the classroom or at home. That would be welcome.

When I asked North what seemed different with students in the classroom, they said the obvious things, that the teachers were wearing masks and they were switching back and forth between talking to the in-person group and to the online students. They also said the Algebra teacher wandered too far from his mic sometimes and was hard to hear.

Reproduction

On Tuesday afternoon I noticed that there was no dove sitting on the nest on the ledge of our porch. The mother and father bird have been taking turns on it continually for more than three weeks and I’d been afraid the eggs might be duds. (This did happen one year.) So I climbed up on the porch wall and had a peek and there were two tiny, fluffy chicks in there. I didn’t see the chicks again for five more days, as usually one parent (and sometimes both of them) was usually sitting on the ledge at angles that hid the babies.

Deliberation

Just about an hour after I first spied the chicks, the triple guilty verdicts in Derek Chauvin’s trial were announced. It won’t bring George Floyd back, but as a friend of mine, a white woman with two mixed race kids about the ages of mine, said on Facebook, it’s “three small steps in the right direction.” I don’t want to imbue one verdict with too much meaning, but I think Naomi got it about right. It did make me feel hopeful. And I don’t even want to think how depressing it would have been if this egregious case had gone the other way.

More Education

North went to school, in a school, for the first time in thirteen months and thirteen days today. (Their last day of in-person school, in March 2020, was Friday the 13th.) That spooky detail aside, it went pretty well.

Because the students who opted to remain all-virtual plus the red team, which goes to school on alternate weeks, were at home, the class schedule was the same as it was when everyone was virtual—four one-hour blocks a day, with breaks between them so those four hours of class occur between nine a.m. and two-thirty p.m. However, on the first day North needed to be there early because there was a tour of the building for ninth graders at 7:45.

Beth was driving them to school so they wouldn’t have to be on the bus at the crack of dawn and I got up a little earlier than usual to see them off. I took the traditional first-day-of-school photo at the back gate instead of the front gate because that was the gate they’d be walking through to get to the driveway. That small difference (and the fact that it’s April and not August) should remind us of the strangeness of this year when we look back at the picture—though I doubt we’ll need any reminding.

North came home on the school bus, arriving a little before 3:30. It’s a long ride because we live out-of-boundary for their school. They said their day was “not horrible.” They recognized someone from their middle school art class on the tour. There were only two to six in-person students in each class. They took a quiz in Japanese and got an A. In Algebra, they came up with a way to solve a problem that was different than what the teacher had in mind and he praised their ingenuity. They were allowed to eat lunch outside and they did. They were pleased with the pesto and fresh mozzarella sandwich and fruit salad they’d packed. Turns out the yoga teacher isn’t teaching the in-class students either, at least not today, and she took attendance and had them sit on the bleachers with no explanation. I am baffled by this and hope it doesn’t continue. Tomorrow North will have their other classes. The Biology teacher isn’t teaching in-person, so they will attend on their laptop in the school building, but the other classes will be in person.

Predation

While North was at school, I checked on the nest and it was empty, and I know those chicks were too little to have fledged. There was no bloody, feathery mess to clean up, as happened the first time we had doves on the porch, but something must have carried them off. I took it hard, as I’d gotten attached. I always do. I hope their end was quick.

Life is fragile and uncertain, as we’ve all come to appreciate this year.

Anticipation

I know the pace of re-opening varies a lot depending on where you live. Some of you have had in-person classes since fall or have being going in and out of lockdowns, some of you are still waiting to be vaccinated, and one of you is anxious for the U.S.-Canadian border to open because your son is at school on the other side of the border. It seems like we’re all in different phases of the pandemic, and of course, no one knows if the rate of vaccination will be able to outstrip the appearance of new, more virulent variants. But despite all this, most days I am more hopeful than not that finer days are on their way. I hope you are, too.

Making Christmas: Coronavirus Chronicles, Part 28

You think I’d be used to things not happening by this point in the pandemic, but I’m finding I miss the usual busyness of this time of year, the school concerts and plays and holiday parties. I feel like Mrs. Claus in The Year Without a Santa Claus when she complains to Santa about the lack of seasonal activity, saying “it just isn’t natural this time of year.”

Of course, we have not been completely idle or really very idle at all. Beth’s very busy with work and I’ve been less busy but also working, and the kids have been attending classes, or in Noah’s case, taking finals. He had his last two classes on Monday and because Ithaca has no reading period, he dived right into finals the next day. He had a presentation in his audio production class on Tuesday, a computer science exam on Wednesday, another assignment for that class on Thursday, and asynchronous philosophy exam and an essay for ethnomathematics both due on Friday. I excused him from most of his chores during the last week of class and exams week, so North had to clean the kitchen and I had to clean the bathroom and sweep the porch. The fact that this felt unusual shows how much I’ve gotten used to his help around the house since he’s been home.

We’ve also been decorating and baking. Beth started putting up the outside lights last weekend and finished this weekend and she and North decorated the living room with pine garlands, strings of lights, candles, and various nutcracker, Santa, and snowmen figures. I made gingerbread dough last Sunday and baked a tray of cookies, then Beth and North helped cut and decorate two more on Monday. I froze the rest of the dough so we can take it with us to Blackwater Falls State Park, where we’ll be spending Christmas. Meanwhile, Beth and North made pizzelles, and North and I made peanut butter cookies with Hershey’s kisses and buckeyes. We were planning to give away cookies and candy, so we baked earlier than usual.

North’s been engaged in various holiday-related craft projects. Last month when the long-delayed Billie Eilish concert that was supposed to be their birthday present back in March was finally cancelled, we got them a replacement for their old 3D pen as belated birthday present. They’d recently started using the old pen, which had been lost for years, when Noah reorganized his bedroom (which used to be North’s room) and found it, but then it broke shortly after they starting making things with it again, so a new one seemed like a good gift. When it broke they were right in the middle of making a model of the Eiffel Tower and the surrounding park and after they got the new one and finished that they started making ornaments and other little holiday trinkets.

North also made ten-day Advent calendars for everyone with little treats or gifts in each bag. On Tuesday, the first day, I got a dark chocolate square and a mini Reese’s peanut butter cup, Noah got a couple peanut butter cups and a Hershey’s miniature, and Beth got a blue ornament of West Virginia with a gold heart in the center that North had made with the 3D pen and it went on that way. On the third day, I got a packet of salted caramel-flavored sugar from a tea and spice shop I like and on the fifth day, some coffee scrub soap, purchased in Rehoboth over Thanksgiving at our (and Joe Biden’s) favorite soap shop.

It snowed Wednesday, the first snow of the year, unless you count some flurries the week before. We got about an inch and a half before it turned to freezing rain, but it was pretty and novel. I took two walks that day, my normal morning walk just as it was starting to snow, and a shorter walk with North in the afternoon. That was a soggy walk as the snow had turned to rain by that point and the snow on the ground on the path by the creek was slushy and muddy. But North walked fifteen or twenty minutes without any mobility devices, which was encouraging.

When we came home I shoveled the walk so the slush wouldn’t refreeze overnight and then North braided my hair while I worked a little, trying not move my head too much as I looked back and forth from computer screen to printouts. Then North and I made bulgur chili for dinner and peanut butter cookies to add to our stockpile of sweets. After dinner, Beth and I divided up the three kinds of cookies for distribution to friends. I thought we had a lot, but once we started filling up bags and tins, the pile dwindled quickly.

Thursday my friend (and North’s preschool music teacher) Becky came over for a porch visit. I made tea and set out three kinds of cookies. The day was cold but sunny and our yard was bright with snow, so it was nice to sit outside and talk and catch up.  Becky’s been working as Zoom coordinator, overseeing online school for two first graders and organizing activities for them when they’re not in class so their parents can work. That was interesting to hear about. Just before she left, our Christmas lights came on, giving the twilight a cheery feel.

Friday Noah finished his last exam so we had time to watch a Christmas movie that night. This set off a long discussion over our pizza dinner about what Christmas specials and movies we would watch this year and when because there are a lot in our regular rotation, and North doesn’t like to watch them after Christmas, but also wanted to watch one (The Polar Express) that’s not in the watch-every-year family canon that night. Noah argued we should watch all the obligatory ones first to make sure we don’t miss any. So Beth got out a piece of paper and wrote down all the specials and movies and all the available time slots between now and Christmas and determined we could make it work. Interestingly, there’s no disagreement about what’s in the canon and what’s not. So we watched The Polar Express.

Saturday afternoon we went for a long drive, going from house to house dropping off cookies and buckeyes. We went to the houses of two of North’s friends (Zoë and the twins Miles and Maddie), where North got out of the car and had five-minute outside visits with them, exchanging gifts as well as dropping off sweets. We also left some on the doorsteps of several other family friends. As our final stop, we got warm drinks, lemon cake, and chocolate toffee almonds from Peet’s. Noah and I made a cheesy spaghetti pie for dinner, which was very popular, and then we watched The Year Without a Santa Claus, which is canonical.

Today Beth did a huge grocery shopping so she can minimize time spent in the grocery store in West Virginia and I finished a batch of get-out-the-vote postcards for the Georgia Senate runoffs. It put me over my year-end goal of one thousand postcards since September 2018, when I started writing for Postcards for Voters. Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, also canonical, is tonight’s entertainment.

We’re leaving for Blackwater in a few days, but before then I’m having my friend Ellen from book club over for tea and some buckeyes I set aside for her porch visit. And North is planning to make a special dinner for Yule—a soup made with tomatoes and oranges (red and orange ingredients to honor the return of the sun), a cranberry-apple drink and honey cakes for dessert. North’s been a pagan since last February and sometime between the election and Thanksgiving they decided to start covering their hair (which they’re growing out) as a religious observance, in case any of you who’ve seen photos on Facebook in the past month were wondering about that. We will also be opening some of our Christmas gifts that night so we can fit everything in the car and to mark the holiday.

Happy Solstice! May the new season bring you health and happiness.

Clues: Coronavirus Chronicle, Part 15

When you last left us, almost two weeks ago, North was sitting in the shallow water at the edge of Cayuga Lake, in Ithaca, New York, and they were unable to stand, even with support. They’d lost control of their thigh muscles, though they had some strength in their hips, glutes, calves, and feet. Though a combination of pushing with their lower legs and us guiding them they could scoot on their bottom and we got them to the picnic table just feet from the water where we’d eaten lunch, though the pebbly incline was a challenge.

North had been complaining of occasional muscle weakness prior to this incident, but nothing on this scale. We hoped it would pass, like the other times, which never lasted more than a half hour, but in the meantime, we needed to get them back to the house. The car was parked in a lot that was in sight, but with North unable to walk, it might as well have been on the moon. There was a service road that came close to the table so Beth went to ask the staff at the park entrance if she could drive on it, but they weren’t authorized to let her (they were young and seemed afraid to break rules).

Beth returned to the table just as a park police officer drove by and after she explained the situation, he (rather reluctantly) said she could drive on the road. Here Beth got annoyed because he wasn’t a teenager with a summer job and he didn’t have to make it hard. Anyway, we got North from the table to the car—I honestly don’t remember how—and drove back to the house.

After some time passed and North’s condition did not improve, we had to decide whether or not to go the ER. You may find it strange that we didn’t for another two days, but we’ve been through a lot of mysterious maladies with North and Beth and I both thought it would be better to get home and take them to Children’s where they’ve been going since they were eight years old. The doctors in neurology and at the pain clinic have the big picture—the month and a half of not speaking (third grade), the year of broken bones (fifth grade), the complex migraine that left their hands and feet paralyzed (also fifth grade), the fracture that left them on crutches for nine months (seventh to eighth grade). We wouldn’t have to try to explain the whole saga to someone new. Also, having had two overnight ER visits with North over the past few years, no one was eager to repeat that experience.

So that’s why we decided to stay at the house. We switched beds so Beth could sleep with North in our bed and I slept in North’s bed. The next day, North still couldn’t move their legs. Beth went to a medical supply store (two actually) while North attended the first and second sessions of an online summer school class they’re taking. Beth returned with a walker, the kind with a seat, that we could use to transport North to restrooms on our drive home. The car was too packed with the contents of Noah’s dorm room to fit a wheelchair.

We left our AinBnB in the early afternoon. “Goodbye, Ithaca. Hope to see you again soon,” Beth said, as we pulled out of the driveway.

“Goodbye, Ithaca,” Noah said, sounding wistful.

A quick diversion on that topic: since we left Ithaca, Maryland has been put on the list of states from which New York will not accept visitors unless they quarantine for two weeks on arrival. Ithaca College’s current policy is that students from these states cannot return to campus until their home states come off the list, which now consists of thirty-one states. I wonder if the list continues to grow if Ithaca will go entirely online for the fall, but as of right now the plan is still a rolling schedule of arrivals from early September to early October, and hybrid classes you can attend in person or remotely. (And while we’re talking about school, our K-12 school district is completely online at least through late January, we recently learned.)

But back to this story… We got home Monday evening. While we were driving, we’d gotten a call back from the doctor who manages North’s case at the pain clinic, or rather a call from someone else saying she was in surgery and couldn’t call back until the next day.

When she did call, late Tuesday morning, she said to go to the ER at Children’s rather than get an appointment at the pain clinic. Beth and North went and to our surprise, because it’s never happened before when we go to the ER, North was admitted. They got a COVID test (negative) and a series of exams and around eight p.m., they got a room. It was a really nice room, spacious because it’s usually a double, and with a view of the Washington monument and the Capitol. Beth came home to get some things for North and then she returned and spent the night in a fold-out chair in the room.

All the next day, North saw more medical personnel and had more exams. I got to the hospital just in time for the MRI. Only one parent per patient is allowed in the hospital at a time and I’d come to relieve Beth. To get there I had to take public transportation (a bus, a train, and a shuttle), which I hadn’t done since March (well, until the previous day when I’d taken a bus to go get some groceries from the Co-op in Beth’s absence).

The MRI took a long time because it was actually two MRIs, one with contrast and one without and they had to change North’s IV in between because it wasn’t working. It was freezing cold and very loud in the room, but North didn’t complain and it was much louder (and hot) in the machine, so I won’t either.

After the MRI, North felt a migraine coming on, probably from the noise, and because it took an hour and a half and two requests to get a nurse to come with painkiller, it developed into a full-blown one, which I haven’t seen in years. (They’ve gotten very good at detecting them and heading them off.)

After they’d recovered, we had dinner in the room and played Sleeping Queens until Beth came to take me home and then return to the hospital. She said as I’m the lighter sleeper I’d never get to sleep with all the lights and noise of a hospital, which was generous of her.

Wednesday was also the thirty-third anniversary of our first date, which we usually celebrate, but we didn’t really this year. As she was leaving the house either the first or second time she went to the hospital that day, Beth said it was not the anniversary either of us would have envisioned, but then she paused and noted we were talking about kids pretty early on in the relationship (even though we took a long time to have them) so maybe it was appropriate.

We found out the next day the MRI hadn’t turned up any physical reason for North’s immobility. This didn’t surprise us or the neurological team. They concluded it was a similar to the misfiring that causes North’s chronic pain, but this time in response to stress, rather than an overreaction to a physical injury. Possible stressors include: the pandemic, the physical and psychological toll of being in pain since February, the car that crashed into our fence in late May (North was just a few feet away), and Matthew’s death. 

That all seemed to make sense on the surface, but as North pointed out, when it struck, they were swimming, and actually feeling pretty relaxed, as any kind of water is their happy place. I find it interesting that it’s their legs that are affected because that’s what happened to Matthew and North was the one who found him half-paralyzed. The doctors (who are not literature Ph.Ds) find the symbolism less compelling. More to the point, they think that physical therapy can get their brain and their legs communicating again. If that happens, all the clues and theories don’t really matter.

Beth and were texting and talking about all this on the phone all day. When I returned to the hospital in the afternoon, not much was going on by that point, except people coming to take North’s vital signs and a social worker who dropped by. We played Clue and Sleeping Queens again and were just about to try ordering dinner again (the line had been busy earlier) when a nurse came by with discharge papers. We were surprised as we didn’t think that was even on the table until the next day, and last we heard, the neurological team was debating discharge to home or to a rehabilitation hospital.  Also, we had a prescription for physical therapy (starting the next day) but not for a medication that had been discussed. And we didn’t have the signature we needed for a handicap parking permit. But we were all eager to have North home and Beth had already acquired a wheelchair, a grab bar for the shower, and a shower stool. So we decided to call with our outstanding questions the next day and just get out of Dodge. (We did order and eat our dinner while we were waiting for some more paperwork.)

Weighing on our minds all through this was the fact that we had a house in Rehoboth one block from the beach rented for a week, starting Saturday. We decided Beth would discuss it with the physical therapist the next day and I joked we were a flight risk. “We are so a flight risk,” Beth said. That evening, with North in our custody, it was starting to seem possible we would actually go.

To be continued…

Somewhat Normal: Coronavirus Chronicle, Part 14

Pirates of Penzance

On the second Wednesday of July, North knocked on the door of Noah’s room, where he and I were reading in the air conditioning. When I yelled, “Come in,” they lunged into the room brandishing a wooden sword they’d just finished covering in aluminum foil.  It was a prop for their role as Frederick, the reluctant pirate in a half-day, outdoor drama camp production of Pirates of Penzance.

The camp was two weeks long and held in a park, with socially distanced blocking and choreography. Because there was only half the time as usual to prepare for the show, campers were making some of their props and costumes at home and the performance would be more of a revue of selected songs than a shortened version of the play.

There were contingency plans for rain, including rescheduling camp hours during the weekend or on July 3 (which they had off because it was a federal holiday), rehearsing in bathing suits, or rehearsing at home on Zoom. However, there was no morning rain the first week and this pattern held for most of the second week. By Wednesday evening, however, the director, Gretchen, had become concerned about forecasts for all-day thunderstorms on Friday, performance day. After hurried consultation with all the families of the campers (half as many as usual to keep distancing manageable), she settled on a plan of having an extra rehearsal late Thursday afternoon and to perform Thursday evening, rather than Friday morning.

This meant North was at camp from nine to noon, at a physical therapy appointment in the city at 1:45, then at another camp session that started at five and lasted until the performance began at seven, which was followed by a distanced cast-parent pizza party in the park. This is a normal level of activity for North in non-pandemic times, but quite unusual these days.

At showtime, the audience set up our blankets and chairs in family groups. The show began with a song with complicated choreography using parasols. All the actors were double-cast as daughters of the Major General and as pirates. I was glad the kids and I had watched a 1983 film version of the show—with Kevin Kline as the pirate king, Angela Lansbury as Ruth (the lady pirate), and Linda Ronstadt as Mabel—the night before camp started because I had no familiarity with the show and otherwise I would have had trouble following it.

There were nine actors, aged thirteen to sixteen, and two were Gretchen’s daughters. Gretchen used the fact that the sisters could stand next to each other to help fill in holes in the blocking in more natural-looking ways, to the extent anything in a show like Pirates is natural. (Gretchen had them work on operatic gestures and other techniques of melodramatic acting.) Here’s a clip of North’s first scene as Frederick, reassuring the frightened maidens that he’s no longer a pirate and therefore not a threat.

The scene that got the most laughs was probably the one in which the pirates are hiding behind rocks and there was one pirate left without a rock and when he tried to share one, the other pirates whipped out their swords and admonished, “Six feet!”

It was a fun show and pleasant to watch outdoors as the heat of the day began to ebb. One of the moms had organized a big pizza order and it wasn’t until shortly before it arrived that Beth and I realized we each thought the other had conveyed our order to her. So Beth had to place a separate order for us and go get it, but we were eating pretty soon after everyone else. We were seated within conversational distance of the mom of a girl North’s known since preschool and Zoë had come to watch the performance, so we all had people to talk to while we waited.

Something Gretchen said while she was introducing the play stuck with me. She was talking about the camp experience and how nice it was to have “a little semblance of something somewhat normal.” That’s why we let North attend this camp, though so much time unmasked and with other people, even standing far apart, did make me nervous.

Ithaca 

We did another somewhat normal thing the next day—we set out on a summer road trip. The official purpose of the trip was to clean out Noah’s dorm room (which he finally had permission to enter) but we decided to make a long weekend out of it.

Beth was scheduled to work Friday morning because we’d expected North to still be in camp, so she did, and we left around noon. We had a picnic lunch about an hour north of home and arrived in Ithaca about 7:30. At the house we met the two friendly resident cats, a calico named Opal and an orange tabby named Leo. By the time we’d unpacked, procured some pizza, eaten it at the house, and cleaned up from dinner, it was time for bed, past time actually. We were up until about eleven, which for me is late. We’d had a longish wait in the rain outside the pizza place, but while we were waiting a passerby informed us and the other little clusters of people that it was “the best pizza in town,” so that was encouraging.

No one slept well because it’s an odd feature of the AirBnB that none of the windows had any dressings except blinds in the bathroom and a sheer bit of fabric on our bedroom window. So we were mostly up with the sun.

We had breakfast in the house and in the late morning Beth and Noah headed to his dorm, while I had a nap. Only two people per family were allowed in and the appointments were spread out so they didn’t see another family the whole time they were there, except one heading into another dorm. (Noah did hear one on another floor of his dorm.) When they came back to the house, Beth said the whole process was “easy peasy.” They brought take-out back with them and Noah was so happy to be reunited with his camera that he started taking pictures of North eating their lunch before he had his.

We spent the afternoon in a series of parks. We hiked part of the trail to Taughanook Falls, but North got tired, so we turned back and drove to the overlook instead. Before we left the trail, though, we waded into the almost dry river, scrambling over the pocked riverbed, full of puddles.      

At Ithaca Falls, there was deeper water to wade and swim in so we stayed there a long time. This was the third or fourth waterfall of the day and it was here Beth said, “There’s another beautiful waterfall around every damn corner.” It’s true. Ithaca is ridiculously lovely. There a reason they said “Ithaca is gorges.” (I swear I’m going to buy that t-shirt someday.) There was a conveniently located log in the water that afforded a nice view of the waterfall so we sat there awhile and Beth said, “This is the best log I have ever sat on.”

We went back to the house where Noah showed us his photos of the trip so far and he and I read a chapter of Homeland. Then we got sushi and ate it at Stewart Park in a pavilion with a view of Cayuga Lake. On the way home we picked up ice cream from Purity, Ithaca’s most famous ice cream parlor and a family favorite.

Everyone slept better because we draped a quilt over the curtain rod in our room and piled pillows in front of the windows in the kids’ room. We had another outdoorsy day planned, but first we fortified ourselves at Waffle Frolic, which is the sort of restaurant where you can get ice cream, Nutella, or frosting on waffles. There are also healthier options, but that’s what we went with, though we did use buckwheat waffles as a base and added fruit and eggs on the side, so the meal was not devoid of nutrition. There were outdoor tables and it was our first time eating at a restaurant during the whole pandemic. It was hard to hear the staff calling out names to pick up food at the counter, but once we got our food it was quite pleasant.

We visited the Ithaca farmers’ market and the food co-op where we gathered food for a picnic. The farmers’ market is under a long wooden roof, with built-in stalls. It’s less extensive than the Takoma Park farmers’ market in terms of produce on offer, but there were more craft stalls. It’s always interesting to see another town’s market.

Next we drove around looking for a place we could swim. It had rained hard the night before so a lot of swimming places were closed because of presumed poor water quality. We ended up at Long Point State Park, also on Cayuga Lake. When we entered the park, and we asked if swimming was allowed, the young man in the booth said, “We can’t say you can, but we can’t say you can’t, and we won’t come get you if you do.” This was a surprising response, as we’d gotten a clear-cut no at the last park we’d tried. A little ominous, too, given what happened later, but we decided to go for it. We ate our lunch at a picnic table and then swam in the pebbly-bottomed lake, ringed with ridges of evergreen trees.

As at all the parks, Noah took a lot of pictures. I’d been thinking about how film and photography help him to connect to nature. In other words, it answers the question “What is the purpose of this activity?” he asked us at this very lake about a year ago.

We’d planned to move on to another park, one where drones are allowed, so around two p.m. North and I started to get out of the water. (Beth and Noah were already out.) Once I was out, North called me back to the water, to help them get to their feet, but when I pulled them up, their legs wouldn’t hold them.

To be continued…

Airplane Mode: Coronavirus Chronicle, Part 8

Noah’s finished with his first year of college. His last exam was an oral presentation he gave on Thursday afternoon. The class was Media Industries and he and his partner chose to design Buzzfeed-style quizzes about television shows they watched as children. His quiz was on Cyberchase, which he loved in elementary school. He said watching old episodes to make the quiz was a nostalgic treat (and I think he may have watched more than he strictly needed to make the quiz). But sadly, none of his classmates watched this show in their younger years, so even though a classmate volunteered to take the quiz to demonstrate its use, the poor kid had to guess the answers at random. I imagine the point was the graphic design, however, and not how well his peers could score on it.

Noah had been conscientious about wearing clothes for his classes for most of the seven weeks of remote learning, but toward the end his standards slipped and he gave his final presentation in pajamas. (I suppose I should mention the top looks like a black sweatshirt and based on my college teaching days, I guess that’s dressy enough for a final.)

That same day, we had a pop-up café in the house. We made up menus the night before and the parents cooked for and served the kids lunch, which we ate in the living room, and the kids served the parents dinner, which we ate in the back yard. Grilled cheese was the most popular lunch entree and fried-chicken style tofu was the most ordered dinner. This activity was, of course, North’s idea. As is often the case, they had to talk us into it, but it ended up being fun. Afterwards, we played Settlers of Catan, or everyone but North did, as they don’t care for that game.

Friday we got pizza from Roscoe’s. I told Noah he could choose since it was his first day of summer break, but he sweetly pointed out I never got a chance to choose pizza for my birthday, so we chose together. I also got to choose the movie for family movie night and I went with the Dead Poets Society. I’d never seen it and I have to say, parts of it have not held up well, the sexual politics in particular, but parts of it still appeal.

On Saturday afternoon, Beth and Noah and I went to fly his drone again. This time it didn’t feel as strange to get in the car, as I’d done it six days earlier, but it seemed to make both Beth and me happy and expansive. We talked about things we’d like to do someday, both fantasies that are unlikely to come true (a mustang convertible for her, a beach house for me) and things we might actually manage (visiting Provincetown during some future Memorial Day weekend, as we did many times in the 1990s and meeting up with the friends from we used to see there).

Noah was the car’s DJ and he was playing Airplane Mode. He’d been playing this band the last time we went to fly the drone and I asked him if this was his theme music for this activity. He said no, it was just a coincidence, but then he said he’d search for another thematically named band for the return trip. I suggested Jefferson Airplane, in jest—I doubt he has any Jefferson Airplane on his phone.

On our way out, we stopped at a UPS store so I could return a duplicate birthday gift. I so seldom run errands these days it feels unsettling, but everyone in the store wore masks and stood behind the pieces of tape on the floor, marking out six-foot increments. There’s a Starbucks in that plaza, so we got treats. I tried out the iced pineapple matcha drink. I recommend it, if you like that kind of thing. It’s a pretty green color and it felt very festive to sip in the car.

This trip we visited the Triadelphia reservoir. There are a number of little recreation areas along the shore where you can launch a boat, fish, or picnic. We stopped at two of them. There was a playground in a wooded area at the first one, closed off with snow fencing, and Noah sent the drone in there and flew it between the chains of a swing. He also landed it on a trash can and tested the limits of how high it can go. The second location was more open. There were some people grilling and picnicking but the tables were pretty far apart and we went to the back of the field to distance ourselves further and give Noah room to fly without bothering anyone. At one point I saw a bird heading straight for the drone, but when it got close it did a 180, possibly disconcerted by the loud buzzing noise it makes.

Flying the Drone from Noah Lovelady-Allen on Vimeo.

It was fun to get out of the house again and hang out in a pretty place on a warm May day and watch Noah take enjoyment in his new gadget and imagine ourselves traveling even further someday.

On the way home, Noah played twenty one pilots.

Updates: we know a little more about move-out at Ithaca. It will start in early June and last for six weeks. New York state residents will go first, then people who live within a four-hour radius of the college, and then everyone else, but it’s all contingent on conditions where you live. (There are benchmarks to meet.) If we get to go, we’ll be in the last group, so sometime in July. Sign-up slots become available next week. It all seems reasonable and prudent, but given that it will be awhile before Noah gets his things, we bought him some more summer clothes and a fan for his room to replace the one he left in Ithaca.

Also, the stay-at-home order in the District has been extended until June 8, so it will be June 22 at the earliest before Beth goes back to her office, not that she’s in any hurry.

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.

Mixed Pie

Noah seems to be doing well at school. He reports his work load feels more manageable than it was in high school and he has some free time, which he’s used partly for socializing. He’s mentioned playing cards and going out to dinner in town with people. He’s also involved in an extracurricular activity—he applied for and got an editing position for a show on ICTV, the student-run television station. This all makes me really, really happy.

It still seems strange and often hard not to have him here, particularly when we went to the Takoma Park Folk Festival without him two weeks ago, after having gone with him almost every year since he was a toddler. But we went and it was still fun. Plus, I can’t say I really minded having only one Back-to-School Night to attend.

Having fewer meetings is just as well as I have been really busy lately with work. Both jobs picked up at the same time—I’m back on retainer with Sara– and even though it still adds up to part-time work, it feels like a lot. It seems I’m always rushing to prepare for a conference call or an in-person meeting at EPA. (Okay, I’ve only had two of those, but I haven’t been to a work meeting in ages, so it was a notable event for me.) I’m also spending a lot of time running North to aqua therapy or physical therapy at the rehabilitation hospital or appointments at the gender clinic, which are both in the city and something of a schlep.

We’ve had some time for recreation, too, though. Last weekend we went to a housewarming at Zoë’s folks’ gorgeous new house, where we saw a lot of people we know, unsurprisingly, as North and Zoë have known each other since kindergarten. And this weekend North entered the annual Takoma Park Farmers’ Market pie contest.

North’s entered this contest every year since they were seven or eight years old. They won “most unusual” pie when they were ten with their cantaloupe pie, but not since then. This year they decided to try a savory pie, a mushroom one. The filling was button, cremini, oyster, portobello, and shiitake mushrooms with a gravy-like sauce and the crust was whole wheat with parmesan.

We had some fun trying to name it. On Saturday, I told North, “It’s tempting to call it Magic Mushroom Pie, but you probably shouldn’t.”

“No!” North exclaimed. My next suggestion was “Marvelous Mushroom Pie,” but they thought that still sounded “druggy.”

Later North was talking about how high the mushrooms were piled in the skillet, so I suggested, “Mile-High Mushroom Pie,” and North said to Beth, “I think Mommy wants people to think there are drugs in my pie!”

In the end North called it “North’s Mixed Mushroom Pie with Cheesy Crust” and it came out very well. The filling was well seasoned and moist without being too wet to hold together when it was sliced and the crust was hearty enough to contain the filling. The judges must have thought so, too, because there was a tie for first place in the kids’ category and the Mixed Mushroom Pie was one of the winners. We actually found out before the winners were announced because the judges set the winner cards next to the winning pies ahead of time. But when they announced the winner, North got their picture taken with the mayor, and was awarded a ribbon, a free farmers’ market tote bag, and two five-dollar tokens to use at the market.  Then we got in line and bought six slices of pie, three for lunch, and three for dessert. We all got North’s pie for our first course, then I had a slice of peach pie, Beth had lemon custard with blueberries, and North had chocolate cookie pie.

It’s always nice to win something, but this one came at a particularly good time for North. They’ve been saddened and stressed by a few things lately. Highwood, the theater where they’ve been acting for the past couple years seems to be imploding. Of the two main staff people, one got another job and moved away and the other one was fired, and then most of the board quit. It’s unclear if it will be able to rise from the ashes or not, but there’s no fall musical in rehearsal right now, and North had been planning to try out for that. Highwood is a big part of North’s social world and it “leaves a hole,” as Beth said in discussing it with another Highwood parent. North’s taking an acting class at the rec center (the same one they’ve taken a few times before) and I’m sure they’ll enjoy it but it’s not the same thing as being in a full-scale production of a play. I’ve been suggesting they join the drama club at school, too, but it hasn’t started up yet.

There’s been some small progress with their leg pain—the aqua therapists at the rehabilitation hospital are impressed with their stamina in the pool and they’re using a cane instead of crutches on their better days—but it’s not as much progress as any of us would like. Some people’s reactions aren’t helping. North didn’t participate in gym class for nearly the whole second semester of seventh grade and at our request, their current gym teacher is having them walk around the track while other students are running or playing games. It’s not ideal but it’s an improvement over sitting and watching. So it was quite annoying that one day last week when they were walking around the track a fair distance behind their own class and another class came running by them the teacher for that class (who was North’s gym teacher in sixth and seventh grade) said “everyone knows” that they’re faking. And there have also been occasional comments along this line from students. North is sensitive about these accusations so that’s getting them down. But I’m happy to report when we told North’s counselor what happened she spoke to the teacher and he apologized to North. (The counselor is kind of fierce and we all think she may have read the teacher the riot act.)

So overall the beginning of eighth grade has been something of a mixed bag. On the plus side, North, who’s been negative about math for a couple years, likes their geometry teacher and her class, which is great and North’s also enjoying taking art for the first time since elementary school and having Zoë in some of their classes, unlike last year when they didn’t have any together.

Today is both the fall equinox and North’s half-birthday, so after dinner we had the traditional half-birthday cupcakes. We picked them up at a bakery over the weekend. I got carrot cake, Beth got chocolate chip, and the celebrant got red velvet. The weather is still hot here. The predicted high for today is 92 and I see a lot of 88s and 89s in the extended forecast, but I know eventually it will get cooler and the leaves will start to turn and it will feel like fall. I hope as that happens we see some other turning points at the theater and in North’s recovery.

August and Everything After

In August and everything after/I’m after everything
From “August and Everything After,” by Counting Crows

Sunday: Camp and Cousins 

“I’m ready if you are,” I said to Beth around 9:30 on Sunday morning. We were packing up the car for a four-day trip during which we’d pick North up at camp, spend a little time in Ithaca together as a family, and then drop Noah off at college. As soon as the words were out of my mouth I wondered if I really was ready for this trip, but ready or not, it was time.

We arrived at Camp Highlight around 12:30. Beth and Noah packed North’s things into the already full car while North drifted around the crowd saying goodbye to campers and counselors. It wasn’t goodbye for long, though, as we saw some of them again almost immediately. A bunch of campers and their families were meeting up at diner for lunch and North successfully lobbied us to join them. Beth, Noah, and I got our own table, while North went to sit with a big group of campers. Camp Highlight is a camp for kids of LGBT+ parents, which made me wonder if the staff noticed the sudden influx of middle-aged gay and lesbian couples along with their eight-to-fifteen-year-old kids in red t-shirts, but maybe it happens every year. It was difficult to peel North away and get back on the road, but eventually we did.

Our next stop was a few hours north at my cousin Holly and her daughter Annie’s house, near Wilkes-Barre. Holly grew up out West, but in the four years she’d been living in Pennsylvania, we hadn’t seen each other. In fact, we hadn’t seen each other in twenty-one years. I’m sorry about that, as I never got to meet her husband Mark, who died last November of cancer.

Holly’s house is a charming old farmhouse painted pale yellow and filled with old furniture and eclectic decorations, including her own paintings. We had what Holly called “a quick but lovely visit.” We chatted and ate. Holly set out a huge spread—cheese, olives, fruit, green beans, hummus, chips and salsa, and chocolate. We hardly needed dinner that night. And that was a good thing because we got to our Air BnB outside Ithaca later than expected. There was food provided for guests in the fridge, so North had eggs and potatoes, Noah made a baked potato, and I just had a bowl of cereal and we all went to bed.

Monday: Lake Cayuga

The next day we explored our surroundings. The house had a big yard with a hot tub (broken, sadly), a koi pond with goldfish and frogs, and a hammock. There was also a garden with vegetables you could pick and an apple tree with a couple of ripe apples and many unripe ones. There was a meditation room with a curved glass wall and ceiling overlooking the nearby hills, which you could also see from the porch. It was really delightful. We are already thinking about staying there again.

We were about a half hour from Ithaca and we drove into town to have breakfast at the famous Ithaca Bakery, which we hadn’t managed to hit on our previous two trips there. Beth got the rosemary-salt bagel on the recommendation of friend whose kid is a sophomore at Ithaca and she didn’t regret it. Next we hit Wegman’s for groceries and some prescriptions for Noah that Beth had ordered to arrive there. And sure enough, they were waiting for us.

We went back to the house, where we relaxed (the kids watched an episode of Dr. Who, finishing a season they’d been watching for months). Then we packed a picnic lunch and went swimming at Cayuga Lake. Shortly after we arrived, Noah, who’s not exactly the outdoorsy type, asked “What is the goal of this activity?” He did wade a little and throw rocks in the water, which he always enjoyed as a little boy. Mostly, though, he sat in the shade and looked at his phone while the rest of us swam. We stayed until late afternoon and then returned to the house.

Noah and I finished up Pet Semetary, the last book in our mother-and-son book club, at least for a while, and then Beth fried some green tomatoes from the garden and we had green beans (also from the garden) and deli macaroni and cheese with it. We ate out on the porch, enjoying the view and the pleasant temperatures. It had been quite hot and humid at home, so Western New York was a welcome change. After dinner, we drove into Ithaca to have dessert at Purity Ice Cream.

That night we had our last family poetry reading, a bedtime tradition we’ve had since Noah was in first grade. I don’t know why this was harder for me that finishing our book, maybe it was because the end of Pet Semetary isn’t all that suited to melancholy nostalgia, what with all the violent death and ill-fated resurrections. Or maybe finishing our last summer novel (of seven) and our last poetry book on the same day was just too much. The book was Honeybee, by Naomi Shihab Nye, and the last poem we read (out of order because it was seven pages long and we’d skipped it the night before when we were pressed for time) was called “Last Day of School.” It’s about a woman revisiting her old elementary school and it ends, “there will never, never be a last day of school.” After Noah finished reading the poem, I dissolved into tears and Noah gave me a long hug.  I know most fifty-something moms’ and teens’ reading lives are not as entwined as mine and Noah’s have been, and it could seem odd, but for me it’s been a beautiful gift.

Tuesday: Move-In Day and Robert H. Treman State Park

The next day Noah packed up all his belongings and we drove up to the college, with a pit stop for breakfast at Waffle Frolic on Ithaca Commons. Noah stood in lines to get his i.d. and his dorm room key and then we moved him into his room. It was a very smooth process and there were a lot of orientation staff there for the express purpose of helping carry things up to the rooms. We met his roommate and the roommate’s brother and mother, but only briefly because you’re only allowed to park in the small lot for fifteen minutes so we had to leave pretty soon after they arrived. We did some on-campus errands, including getting a photo by the famous fountain and buying a lot of Ithaca College swag at the campus store: a t-shirt for Beth’s mom and sweatshirts for me and North; I also felt I needed a mug, pencils, and a car magnet. We went to Student Health to see about the process for having Noah’s ADHD meds shipped to campus and visited the mail room for small packages and the other mail room for large packages—he had both. The large package was a box fan for his window.

Later on the Ithaca parents’ Facebook page we heard people complaining about the heat on move-in day, which made us shake our heads and decide that these people were definitely not from the Washington, D.C. area. It was a little warm in Noah’s third-floor room, but I didn’t even break a sweat carrying things up there. The roommate brought a narrow, vertical fan that stands in the middle of the room and Noah had his fan, so I think they’ll be fine until it gets cool, which I hear happens pretty quickly. (We almost returned Noah’s fan because he and his roommate initially couldn’t fit it into the window, but the next day they moved some furniture so it could tilt it into the window frame.)

Noah didn’t want lunch—we’d had a late breakfast and his was a waffle sundae that to his regret he couldn’t finish, so we left him there to unpack and attend a hall meeting and a dorm cluster meeting. Left to our own devices for the rest of the day, we ate lunch at the house (North opted for Taco Bell drive-through) and then went to Robert H. Treman State Park where you can swim in a bitter-cold swimming hole with a waterfall at one end. We’d been there last year on our visit to Ithaca but North wasn’t with us then and we thought they’d enjoy it. Well, they enjoyed it, to put it mildly. They swam for two hours in the 64-degree water, swam against the current to the waterfall and back three times, and did countless handstands. It was good to see them so active in the water and it made me hopeful about their aqua therapy, which was set to start later that week.

While we were discussing dinner plans, North pointed out we’d eaten at the house two nights in a row and we were on vacation. Beth asked what they’d like to eat and North found a sushi place on the Commons where we had a feast of bubble tea, hot and sour soup, seaweed salad, edamame, agedashi tofu, and of course, sushi. We got cucumber rolls because they’re North’s favorite and a kind that had thinly sliced mango and avocado on the outside and sweet potato inside. We walked to Sweet Melissa’s for ice cream afterward, though I skipped dessert because the bubble tea had been pretty sweet and there was leftover mochi at home.

Wednesday: On Our Way Back Home

There were events for parents most of the next day, but we decided we’d attend a couple before lunch and be on our way. Breakfast was provided, so we ate in the gym and Noah joined us after he’d had breakfast in the dining hall. We listened to some speeches from college administrators together and then the students were divided into small groups and left while we listened to more speeches—mostly about how not to be helicopter parents— and then we ate a buffet lunch. I’m not quite sure what the students did in their groups because we didn’t get a chance to talk to Noah much after that. He had a pretty tight schedule. We were initially hoping to go back to his room so we could drop off some clothes he’d left at the Air BnB (he’d put a few things into the week’s worth of camp laundry I did for North on arriving there and I hadn’t taken the clothes out of the dryer). Anyway, there was never time for that, so we brought the bag of clothes to give him as he was entering a session for new students of the School of Communications. We said goodbye quickly in the hallway outside the auditorium.

In the weeks and months before Noah left for college I’d imagined that moment of parting many times and it wasn’t anything like I expected, rushed and without tears. For a while it looked like we might not be able to find him at all and we’d have to leave without saying goodbye. He might have preferred that—he tried to say goodbye via text—but that would have been more than I could have borne.

After

Leaving a kid at college is hard to describe, such a mix of happiness and sadness. It’s not like anything I’ve ever experienced. We had two days at home as the threesome we’ll be most of the time for the next five years. North went to their first aqua therapy session, finished their summer reading homework, and made soft pretzels. Beth and I worked, North and I walked to Little Caesars and brought home a pizza (something they’ve been wanting to do all summer) and we all watched a movie called Lemonade Mouth. Then yesterday morning, Beth drove North to Wheeling, where they’ll spend the last week of their summer vacation with Beth’s mom. I stayed behind, alone in the house, which was sometimes lonely and sometimes restorative. I read the newspaper, had lunch out, mowed the lawn, cleaned the kitchen, went to the farmers’ market, and wrote this. Beth got home this afternoon and she and I will practice being empty nesters for a work week, until we leave on Saturday to spend Labor Day weekend in Wheeling and collect North.

I miss Noah terribly. How could I not? But I’m also proud and excited for him as he steps away from us and finds out what August and everything after will look like.