The Year and a Half of Living Cautiously: Coronavirus Chronicles, Part 53

I remember saying a while back I was going to take the Coronavirus Chronicles subhead off my blog after Labor Day when the kids were back in in-person classes and Beth was back in her office. Well, the kids are back, but Beth’s office is continuing to allow remote work at least through mid-October and possibly permanently. She goes in to her office occasionally, but most days she works at home. My main reason for leaving the caption on, though, is that with the delta variant, everything feels more precarious than I thought it would by now. Our lives are returning to something pretty close to normal, but the pandemic isn’t over. Unvaccinated people are still dying at a pretty fast clip and I’m not taking it for granted that the kids are going to stay in school.

In March I did a covid year in review and since we’re at least potentially at an inflection point now, I thought I’d recap the last six months. Here’s hoping the next time I do something like this, it’s to mark a more definitive end of covid.

Meanwhile, here’s what we did in the last third of the pandemic to date:

March: North turned fifteen and gained the privileges of drinking coffee and watching some (vetted) R-rated movies. They celebrated with a pre-birthday campfire with Zoë and a backyard party with their three closest friends. During the three-day overlap of the kids’ spring breaks, we spent a long weekend in Deep Creek, where we explored waterfalls and the Maze Rocks in Garret State Forest. Beth and Steph got their covid vaccinations, driving back out to Western Maryland to get them.

April: We went to the National Arboretum to see the cherry blossoms for the second spring in a row, as it was too crowded for safety at the Tidal Basin. Noah got his first shot. Beth and North went camping. Noah gave a paper on the philosophical paradoxes of time travel in Back to the Future at an online undergraduate symposium. North started going to school in person, four out of every ten days.

May: Noah turned twenty and did not gain any special new privileges. The brood X cicadas emerged and completely charmed me. Beth took up kayaking. I turned fifty-four. (No new privileges for me either.) North got their first shot. Noah’s sophomore year of college ended and he spent two and a half weeks in West Virginia with Beth’s mom. While Beth and North were dropping him off, I spent a restorative weekend at home alone. Then we all road tripped to pick him up over Memorial Day weekend and seeing Beth’s mom for the first time since Christmas 2019 was nice, too.

June: Once we were all fully vaccinated, we went to the movies for the first time. North attended a quinceañera and a lot of friends’ birthday parties, which were larger and more frequent now that their peers had been vaccinated. North finished ninth grade and attended an outdoor drama camp, culminating in a performance of several songs from West Side Story. Our eighteen-year-old cat Xander came down with a serious skin and ear infection (which continued into July) and we were all quite worried, but he pulled through. The death toll for covid reached 600,000.

July: Noah and I started going kayaking with Beth. There was no Fourth of July parade or fireworks in Takoma, so we all watched the DC fireworks from the roof of Beth’s office building. Noah spent two days assisting on a film shoot and then helped edit the film. North spent a week volunteering as a counselor at a day camp at their old preschool. Beth and I celebrated the thirty-fourth anniversary of our first date. We spent a lovely week at the beach with both our mothers, my sister, brother-in-law, and niece. While there, my mom got to celebrate her seventy-eighth birthday with both daughters and all three grandchildren. Also, Beth and I went kayaking with Sara’s family in the Bay and I got to take my niece Lily-Mei on her second-ever trip through the Haunted Mansion. It was the first time I’d seen any of my relatives in two years and it was wonderful to be reunited with them. After we got home from the beach, we went berry picking and came home with blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries, which we baked into a kuchen and a cobbler.

August: The kids and I took a walk through the creek and Noah stepped on a beehive while climbing over a deadfall and ended up with at least fifteen stings. North spent a week at sleepaway camp, and served as head of house, a leadership position that involved running meetings and serving as a mentor to younger campers. Noah got his pandemic mane shorn after seventeen months. We drove him up to school while North was at camp and spent a few days helping him move into his apartment and enjoying Cayuga Lake and the many waterfalls around Ithaca. On the way home, we visited my cousin Holly and picked North up from camp. A week later, North went back to school. The United States pulled out of Afghanistan, leaving it in the hands of the Taliban.

September: I wrote and mailed thirty postcards to California voters, urging them to vote no on the gubernatorial recall. It was my first batch since the spate of special elections that followed the November 2020 elections. I was diagnosed with diabetes. (My intake appointment with the diabetes coaching program is next week.) Noah was assigned two shows to edit on ICTV and applied to join the drone club. North tried out for the school play and applied to be the stage manager (they went to callbacks on Tuesday) and they came kayaking with Beth and me for the first time. The Takoma Park Folk Festival was cancelled for the second year in a row. (Well, there was an online version, but the draw is that it’s live music.) The Takoma Park annual pie contest is cancelled, too, which is sad for North because they are a two-time winner.

We’ve weathered another six months of covid. The U.S. death toll is currently at 665,235. The vaccination rate is not what it should be, with only 57% of Americans fully vaccinated, but there are more every day and with luck, vaccinations for kids under twelve will be approved sometime this fall.

In many ways, for our family, things are better now than they were six months ago. We are all fully vaccinated, the kids are back at school, and the cascade of medical problems North had from July 2020 until February 2021 (paralysis, non-epileptic seizures, urinary difficulties) are pretty much cleared up. All they have left are some minor tics. They’ve just finished the round of cognitive behavioral therapy they started a year ago for these problems, but since they still have chronic pain that limits how far they can walk, we’re going to pivot to addressing that. They had a two-hour, online intake appointment at the pain clinic a week ago and they’re going to start CBT, with a different therapist, for coping strategies. I’m feeling hopeful about that.

In what may be a sign that covid is less ever-present in my mind, I only read one book about a pandemic (Station Eleven) in the past six months, though I do have The Pull of the Stars in my pile.

How are covid conditions where you live? Does life feel normal, semi-normal, or anything but?

There and Back Again: Coronavirus Chronicles, Part 50

Thursday: Goodbye, House

“Goodbye, house,” Noah said as he walked down the porch steps on Thursday morning. The car was packed and we were ready to hit the road for Ithaca. It hardly seemed possible that he was going back to school after all this time (seventeen and a half months!) at home, but he was.

We left around ten, passing the time with podcasts, and at lunchtime we pulled off onto a dirt road near a boat dock on the Susquehanna River where we ate a picnic lunch in the car, consisting of food we brought from home and acquired at a Sheetz.  We got back on the road and arrived at our AirBnB around six.

We got settled in and headed to downtown Ithaca for dinner. There was an hour wait at our restaurant of choice, so we ordered to go. Even so we had a forty-five minute wait, but it was a beautiful evening, much cooler and less humid than at home—I’d actually changed into a long-sleeved t-shirt when we arrived—so we didn’t mind much. We found a table on the Commons, a pedestrian mall downtown, and ate our Bahn Mi sandwich, spring rolls, sweet potato and kale taco, and Gouda mac-n-cheese. We got two cookie dough-stuffed brownies and each of us had half of one (and saved the last half for later).

Back at the AirBnB we watched This is Spinal Tap because North had recently vetoed it as a family movie night choice (we’d watched The Vast of Night the week previous while North was at camp for the same reason). I hadn’t seen Spinal Tap since the 80s and I think it holds up reasonably well.

Friday: Moving In, Hiking, Shopping

Noah’s move-in time was eleven, but he’d heard this wasn’t being strictly enforced, so after breakfast at Waffle Frolic, he went to check in and receive the key to his on-campus apartment. These are like dorm rooms, but bigger and with a kitchen, a bathroom, and a little balcony. Later we saw someone complaining on the Facebook IC parents’ group that the apartments were small and dingy, but we thought it was pretty nice. Perhaps our expectations of what college-run apartments would look like were lower more realistic. Noah’s roommate hadn’t arrived, so he picked a bed and a desk and started to unpack. Beth and I left him to that and went to the campus store where I restocked my supply of Ithaca College pencils and bought a Park School of Communications t-shirt. We all had salads for lunch at the food court. There were little signs you could put on the tables that said either “Join Us” or “Prefer to Eat Alone.” Beth was quite taken with those.

After lunch we went to Cayuga Lake so Noah could fly his drone over it, while Beth and I strolled along the shore. He says there’s a drone club and he’s thinking of joining it. I hope he does, because it would offer him the opportunity to meet other students who share his interests, the chance to fly different kinds of drones, and transportation to places he could fly. He could also get FAA-certified, which would be a good credential to have, and he could possibly pick up some photo shoot jobs.

Next we went for a hike along the gorge trail to Taughannock Falls. It’s a nice flat trail that leads to a 215-foot waterfall. We’ve done it a couple of times before, but it’s a really spectacular sight. We’d been to this park the day North lost function in their legs last summer (though it didn’t happen there—it happened in Cayuga Lake), so that was on our minds as we walked along the wooded trail.

Wegman’s was our next stop. We filled a grocery cart full of food to stock Noah’s kitchen, mostly frozen food and non-perishables because he’s still on the meal plan, so he won’t be cooking for himself full time. In the checkout line I saw a box of chocolate-covered sea salt caramels and asked him, “Do you need these?”

“I don’t know. Do I?” he said, with a half-smile.

“I think you do,” I said, and added them to the conveyor belt. I can’t be with him every day now, but I can make sure he has caramels, pretzel chips, cashews, pasta, his favorite cereals, and frozen pizza. (He also let me put some frozen broccoli in the cart.)

We ordered pizza and ate it in the AirBnB. While we waited for Beth to bring it back, we read A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor, which, as I predicted we hadn’t quite finished when we left home. I checked my Goodreads page and it was the thirtieth book we read together during the pandemic, mostly fantasy and science fiction because that’s what he likes best. I feel tremendously lucky to have been able to share that many books with him during this strange time.

We’ve always gone out for ice cream the night before school starts, but since we wouldn’t be there the night before classes, Noah said any time that weekend would be okay and we went to Purity Ice Cream that night. I got a hot fudge sundae with black cherry ice cream, Beth got coffee, and Noah got raspberry chocolate chip. It was very good. There was a sign on the wall saying the place is for sale. I asked Beth if she’d like to run an ice cream parlor in Ithaca and she said yes. I imagine a lot of people who go in there enjoy that fantasy.

Saturday: More Hiking, Kayaking, More Shopping, and Goodbye

Beth and I were leaving early Sunday morning so Saturday was our last day with Noah, and like the day before, it was a busy one. Noah had to wait for delivery of the belongings he had in storage, so Beth and left him there to go on some adventures. Interestingly, his roommate still had not arrived even though the move-in days were Thursday and Friday. So he checked his assignment online and he no longer had a roommate. So now he’s waiting to see if he will be assigned a new one or if he’ll have the apartment to himself.

While Noah was waiting for his boxes, Beth and I hiked to bottom of Buttermilk Falls then back up again. We went down a steep, muddy path through woods, with occasional glimpses of the creek and its many falls and we went back up the other side, up stone stairs closer to the water. It was a challenging hike both ways. By the time we’d descended three-quarters of a mile, my legs were shaking with the effort of not slipping and falling. But then we were rewarded with some really beautiful scenery. The climb up was hard, but not as hard as I feared when we were going down. It was steeper at the beginning, with a lot of steps, then more flat stretches between the steps in the middle and at the end.

Before returning to Noah’s apartment, we ran some errands. We visited the farmers’ market to get some produce to bring home with us and I got Noah a basil plant to put on his balcony. He had not asked for a basil plant, but it’s his favorite herb and he accepted it with what I think was fond amusement. We also got some more groceries at the food co-op for him and some breakfast items for ourselves at Ithaca bakery to help facilitate a quick departure the next day.

The three of us returned to Cayuga Lake to kayak. Noah wanted to stay on shore and send his drone over us before joining us in the water, but it was too windy to fly. (The drone is finicky about weather and will not take off if it does not like the wind speed or temperature.) I don’t know if it was the wind or the fact that there had been a lot of rain recently so the lake was overflowing its normal banks, but the water was quite choppy, more so than the Chesapeake Bay when we kayaked there in July. We turned around and explored an inlet where the water was calmer. It was nice to be on the water one last time together this summer.

While we were kayaking Beth got a call from Moosewood, where we were supposed to have dinner. Someone on staff had tested positive for covid so the restaurant was closing down for a few days. We ended up getting Thai instead. (While we were waiting for it, Noah and I finished our book in his apartment.) We ate our spring rolls, noodles, veggies, and fake meat at a picnic table by the lake, near a stand of huge willow trees. I was thinking we should have had ice cream that night instead of the night before and then I remembered there is another ice cream place Noah and I had not tried, though Beth and North did on a previous trip, so I suggested a repeat of end-of-summer ice cream and no one objected. We went to Sweet Melissa, where we all got soft serve. (Mine was a pineapple sundae.) There was no seating so we went to sit on the steps of a nearby church to eat.

We took Noah back to his apartment. At that point, lingering would have been painful, so we made our goodbyes quick. Beth and I got back to the AirBnB around eight, which gave me enough time to do some packing up and to fall apart a little and for Beth to put me back together before bedtime. I recommend marrying someone who can do that for you sometimes.

Sunday: Home Again

We were out of the AirBnB by 7:30 the next morning, on the road to my cousin Holly’s house near Wilkes-Barre. We needed to pick North up at camp between 12:30 and 1:30, so we were on a tight schedule, but we had a nice visit with Holly and her daughter Annie. Holly put out a lovely spread of fruit, yogurt, smoked almonds, and muffins. A lot has gone on in our lives in the two years since I’ve seen Holly, so an hour didn’t feel long enough, but it was good to talk to her, especially since she may be moving back to California soon.

Once we arrived at Camp Highlight, we found North and heard from friends and counselors that they are “smart and witty” and “have leadership skills.” North served as head of house (the camp is divided into four houses, like Hogwarts) and North was in charge of leading house meetings and their house’s efforts in the lantern games, which is inspired by the Olympics but involves non-athletic competitions as well. North’s house came in second overall and they were proud that it was first in making bags out of t-shirts that will be filled with items to be donated to homeless people. They said they liked arts and crafts best and they had a handmade candle, a bar of soap, a circular collage, and a dreamcatcher to show for it, plus many friendship bracelets we didn’t see because they’d given them away. The zipper on their swim top broke so they didn’t get to swim all week, which is too bad, because they love to swim.

We stopped at Panera for a late lunch, which we ate outside, after wiping the morning’s rain off the benches. We got home in the late afternoon. “Home again,” North commented when the car pulled into the driveway.

We’ve been home three days. Unsurprisingly, I miss Noah intensely, enough to make it hard to concentrate on work, but it’s not as bad as the first time he left, perhaps because it’s tempered by my gratitude that he’s in the place he chose for this part of his life after an interruption of almost a year and a half.

I’m hopeful about the school year for both kids. I’ve texted a little with Noah and he says his initial class meetings were good. He’s taking a class on Media Law, one on utopias and dystopias, Cinema Production II, and band. North found out yesterday they got their preferred electives (Psychology and Theater). They go back to school, in person, on Monday. Fingers crossed both kids get to stay in the classroom, and yours do, too.

August, Slipping Away: Coronavirus Chronicles, Part 49

August slipped away into a moment in time
‘Cause it was never mine

From “august” by Taylor Swift

August is a bittersweet month. Even when the kids were younger and I was checking the days off until school started (sometimes in my head, sometimes literally on my work wall calendar), there was a little bit of me that was sad to see the long, lazy afternoons of eating popsicles and blowing bubbles on the porch and reading under the biggest tree in our yard and splashing in the inflatable pool come to an end. Once their day camps were over for the summer, we’d often have one last hurrah in the form of a trip to the county fair or an amusement park and that would be what made it feel as if summer was really over.

August took on a whole new intensity two years ago when Noah was about to leave for college. I was excited for him to embark of the adventure of his young adult life and at the same time undone by the idea that he was actually leaving. And then last August we were mired in North’s cascade of medical problems and unsure when or if Noah would go back to school for his sophomore year. (The answer was never. He did it entirely online, at home.)

And that takes us to this year. North’s at sleepaway camp right now. Both Ithaca and MCPS are planning on full-time, in-person classes for the fall. We’re leaving to drive Noah to school on Thursday, his classes start the following week, and North goes back to school the week after that. But I have a nagging worry that sometime this fall, the Delta variant will send one or both of them back to virtual classes (attended from Noah’s apartment in Ithaca and/or our house). Time will tell. Meanwhile, the kids said their goodbyes when we dropped North off at camp Sunday (more on that later). When we pick them up from camp, he’ll be gone.

I am happy that North got to go to camp and both kids get to return to a more normal high school and college experience, masks, social distancing and all. But, of course, I am sad that after seventeen months at home, Noah will be leaving again. Sometimes it seems like he never left and that we’re doing this milestone all over again, with all its joy and heartache.

The first time it occurred to me to count the days until our departure for Ithaca, it was twenty-five days away. Now it’s two. In the past couple weeks there have been a lot of lasts.

  • The first Tuesday in August, Beth, Noah, and I played Settlers of Catan. We’ve been playing it once or twice a month since early in the pandemic. Beth won. She nearly always does, but Noah often gives her a run for her money.
  • Later that week, all four of us finished the second season of Dickinson. We watch television shows in a lot of different combinations, but we’ve been gradually finishing up or coming to stopping places in the shows Noah watches with one or more of us. First it was season two of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, then season four of Blackish, then Dickinson. And finally, just yesterday, Noah and I watched the series finale of The Leftovers.
  • The following Saturday, Beth, Noah, and I went kayaking. We set out from Jackson Landing in Patuxent River Park in Prince George’s County. It’s a very pretty stretch of water and we saw a heron up close, osprey, and a lot of red-winged blackbirds. The water was glassy smooth when we started out, but soon it started to rain and then there were spreading circles all over its surface. As the rain got harder, there were bubbles where the drops hit the river. We went down a narrow inlet so shallow Noah and I both ran aground. I saw a frog in the water there—it swam right into the side of my kayak. My guess is it was a young and inexperienced frog. We turned back a little earlier than we might have if not for the rain, but we were on the water almost an hour and a half and then we had Noodles & Company and Starbucks for lunch.
  • Two days later, the kids and I went on a creek walk, which is something we usually do near the end of the summer. (It was our only creek walk of the pandemic, as North wasn’t walking well enough to do one last August, but I guess it was still technically the last one.) We hadn’t been in the water long when we noticed there were two big deadfalls blocking our path. We all scrambled over the first one (pictured), but the second one was probably twice as tall and looked like too much of a challenge, so North and I decided to get out of the water and go around it. But Noah tackled it and soon he was sitting on top of it, looking satisfied, while North and I looked on from the path next to the creek. Then all of a sudden he was yelling and running down the side, losing both of his crocs in the mud at the bottom. Apparently there was a beehive in the branches and he’d disturbed it. He ended up with around fifteen stings, including five on just one wrist. (I tried to count them later, but I kept losing track.) When he reached us, his swim top was covered in live bees, probably a dozen or so. I sent North to go fetch his crocs out of the mud—they almost lost one of their own in the process—while I slowly, carefully brushed each insect away. Noah has longer nails than I do, so he used them to remove a few stingers. When that was done, I looked back and an ominous cloud of bees had risen over the deadfall, but North already had all four crocs in hand and had moved a safe distance away. We washed the shoes in the creek and walked home on the path, in order to get back more quickly. One bee followed us for a long while, circling my head. At home, Noah found another in the bathroom, which may have come in with him. I captured it with a plastic cup and released it outside. Once he’d washed the mud off himself, I checked him again for stingers and put baking soda paste on his stings. He was in pain for a couple hours, even having taken some ibuprofen, so I pampered him a little, making him fried tofu cubes for lunch. Beth, who was out while all this happened, brought him some M&Ms after I texted her about it. Eventually he recovered enough to fold laundry and play his drums and go about the rest of his day.
  • We had our last family activity night on Tuesday. It was Beth’s turn to pick and she went with a game of Taboo. We usually pair one kid with one parent but this time we played parents against kids and Beth and I wiped up the floor with our offspring.
  • Wednesday was my last cooking night with everyone at home, so I made a family favorite—skillet mac and cheese. I served it with sauteed kale from the garden and I made a peach-blackberry cobbler with some of the berries I froze after we went berry picking last month.
  • Friday was our last family movie night. We watched My Girl, which I’d put in the pile of index cards we draw from every week. (I picked it weeks ago, before Noah’s mishap with the bees.) The weekend prior Noah had his last turn and we watched The Castle in the Sky, an anime film by Hayao Miyazaki. These have been a running favorite of his—we’ve seen five of them while he’s been home. Before that we watched Footloose (the original 1984 version, not the remake) because Beth was aghast that I had never seen it and of course, the kids hadn’t either. She says it’s a “magnificent cultural artifact.” North’s last contribution was Yes Day.
  • We would have liked to go to the Montgomery County Fair on Saturday, but North’s camp had instructed all the campers (who took and mailed in covid tests four days before camp started) to avoid large crowds after taking their tests and the Montgomery County Fair is as big as most state fairs, so we couldn’t in good faith go and then send North to camp, where half the campers are under twelve and unvaccinated. Instead, we had our last droning excursion. Right before we left the kids compared notes and North was surprised to learn Noah was going to fly the drone and that it wasn’t just a trip to go swimming in the South River at Mayo Beach Park in Anne Arundel County while Noah was surprised to learn “there was a water component” to the outing. I don’t know if the kids just heard what they wanted to or if they were really incompletely informed. I thought I mentioned the river to Noah. Anyway, we had a picnic lunch (Beth made her signature tofu salad and North made lemonade) and then Noah flew the drone and we had a long soak in the salty, muddy water of the tidal river. The beach was uncrowded and the day was hot and muggy (after a miserably hot week) so it was nice to be in the water, far away from the other swimmers. Afterward we went to Rita’s and got Italian ice and soft serve. It was a nice day.

Sunday morning we left to drop North off at camp. It’s in central Pennsylvania, about a two and a half hour drive away. We listened to the first few episodes of Edith, a fictionalized podcast about Edith Wilson and had lunch at a pizza place near camp. We ate out on the patio, all alone. There was another family eating inside in a big room all by themselves, and a lot of unmasked people sitting close to each other at and near the bar. None of the waiters wore masks either. It felt as if we’d driven more than a couple hours from home.

At camp, North was greeted warmly by counselors who remembered them from two and three years ago. We registered, visited the nurse to drop off North’s meds and for a lice check, and then we brought their things to their cabin, where Noah and North said goodbye for (fingers crossed) a few months. Right before we got home, we made a detour to Value Village to buy kitchenware for Noah, who’s living in an on-campus apartment this year. If I needed any reminder that he’s really leaving soon after all this time at home, that was it.

This week he’s been taking care of loose ends; he got his first haircut in seventeen months and applied for a passport. (He wants to study abroad the fall semester of his senior year, in Australia.) He had his last online drum lesson of the summer this evening. Tomorrow afternoon I’m going to play hooky and go to the movies with him. We’re going to see Green Knight.

In one more last, Noah and I are still reading the last book of our mother-son pandemic book club, A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor. We’ve got ninety pages left, so we will probably end up taking it to Ithaca and finishing while we’re there. Beth and I are staying a couple days after we arrive, to enjoy the natural beauty and fine dining in and around his college town, and to spend just a little more time with our firstborn before he resumes the on-campus portion of his college life.

Before the Beach: Coronavirus Chronicles, Part 46

Greetings from the beach! We just arrived yesterday so I’m not here to tell you about our seaside adventures. But never fear, there will be a long post about that eventually. Right now I’m here to tell you about a few things we did before we got here.

Cat

Xander had a checkup two Fridays ago. His skin and ear infections were improved but not completely cleared, so he got an antibiotic shot and Beth gave him eardrops for another week and he seems to be healed up. While he was there they took blood and did a workup to get a general sense of his health. His thyroid is fine, his liver and pancreas enzymes are elevated, but pretty good for an eighteen-year-old cat. His blood sugar was a little high, but the vet thought it could be the stress of a vet visit. He has a heart murmur and a galloping heart, however, and we are considering taking him to a feline cardiologist to see if it’s something that can or should be treated. The fact that Matthew died of heart disease and they were brothers made the vet suggest that.

Kayaks

The next day, the Saturday before we left, Beth, Noah, and I went kayaking again. It was a pleasant outing, this time at Seneca Creek State Park. We saw a heron, a big black bird we couldn’t definitively identify (but I think it might have been a cormorant), dragonflies and turtles galore, and a beaver dam. And there were wild blackberries at the edge of the parking lot to eat when we’d finished.

I’m still not great at getting the boat to go in the direction I want it to—I’m always drifting off to one side or the other and having to correct course and that slows me down so I lag behind Beth and Noah. Still, I think I improved over the previous week. And given my difficulty moving objects through space in general—I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was nine and I still can’t drive despite efforts to learn in my teens and again in my thirties—I think I’m as ready to kayak with the dolphins as I’m going to get.

Camp

Starting Monday, North spent a week of mornings and early afternoons as a junior counselor at tinkering camp, at the kids’ old preschool. My kids have been students, campers, and now volunteers at that school on and off since 2005. The theme for the week was journeys so the campers, aged five to eleven, went on daily field trips to ramble in nearby woods or to sled down the hill by the hospital (did you know you can sled on grass?). They made a time capsule to be opened in fifty years, a sort of imaginative journey through time. They also learned to start a fire with a magnifying glass. I’m not sure how that fit into the theme but from my experience sending my kids to this camp when they were in elementary school, I can say that if there wasn’t fire and/or sharp tools it wouldn’t be Tink camp. The week’s activities also included making ice cream sundaes, a water fight, melting Starbursts over a fire, and plenty of free play.

One of North’s preschool classmates was also a junior counselor and two of the campers were younger siblings of North’s peers.  In addition to playing with the campers, North was helping Lesley catalogue the preschool’s library of eight hundred books. North enjoyed their time at Tink and is considering doing it again next summer, when they might be paid in money instead of student service learning hours (an MCPS graduation requirement.)

Cure (Temporary)

My first mumbled words to Beth after her six a.m. alarm went off on Thursday were “no more itchy spots.” Almost a week earlier I’d gotten a poison ivy rash on my left hand and right arm while weeding in our front yard, between the fence and the dogwood tree. There’s so much undergrowth there I didn’t even see the demon vine.

About five days after I got the primary rash, on Wednesday, I’d started breaking out in itchy welts all over my body and I thought the rash was spreading. But when I considered the fact that the welts would appear and then disappear and then I’d have a whole new set somewhere else, I started to think I was having a separate problem, maybe hives, as a secondary effect of the poison ivy. I took an antihistamine at bedtime and I’d woken the next morning itch-free. (Even the poison ivy blisters were relatively quiet.) That lasted only lasted a few hours, though, so I took another antihistamine and it quelled the new hives. I’m still taking it because the welts keep coming back.

Commemoration

Beth’s first words to me that same morning were “Happy anniversary!” It was the thirty-fourth anniversary of our first date, back when we were mere lasses of twenty. I was actually exactly Noah’s age, twenty years and two months, on that fateful day.

We exchanged anniversary gifts after we’d both returned from our respective morning walks. I was curious to see what Beth had gotten me because a few weeks ago we confided to each other that we each had an idea (me) or two (her) but that we wondered if the other might buy the same thing(s). So we told Noah our ideas and he was supposed to tell Beth which of the two things to buy. He said if there was overlap, he would have Beth buy the gift that wasn’t the one I was getting and if there was no overlap, he’d flip a coin to choose one to tell her to buy. He seemed pleased to be asked to perform this service and said it was “like a cryptography challenge.”

So, I got her Alison Bechdel’s The Secret of Superhuman Strength, which as it turned out was on her list, too, and she got me Anna Sales’ Let’s Talk About Hard Things. The Bechdel seemed like a romantic choice to me, because like Beth and me, Alison Bechdel went to Oberlin (graduating several years before we arrived) and that’s sometimes reflected in her work. Beth and I also both listen to Sales’ podcast Death, Sex, and Money, which I recommend if you’re not already listening to it. We were not planning any other anniversary commemorations because we were leaving for the beach the next morning, but we are hoping to go out to dinner one night while we are here.

Commencement of Travel

In addition to our anniversary, Thursday was the day people in our party from parts West began to travel our way. My mother, sister, brother-in-law, and niece flew from Medford, Oregon to Phoenix to Philadelphia, where they would stay the night before driving to Delaware. Beth’s mom flew from Pittsburgh to National Airport, arriving in the afternoon. Beth and Noah picked her up and let her settle into her hotel room before we went out to dinner.

Code

For the rest of the afternoon, everyone went about their business: work, pre-trip laundry, packing, drumming. Noah was waiting for Mike to drop by with a hard drive containing footage from a short fictional movie about the misadventures of someone buying cryptocurrency. Mike and Noah had been on the film crew the week before—Mike was the director of photography and Noah was his assistant. The film is called Pass Code. The director hopes to shop it around at festivals. Noah was supposed to edit it our first few days at the beach. Even though the timing wasn’t great, I was still glad Noah has some work, because before the film shoot he hadn’t had any since the middle of May (when he did a big video editing job during finals week). He did put in some long days at the shoot, though. He was gone fourteen hours the first day and fifteen the second, though I understand some of that was hanging out at the end. I’m just as glad for him to have the opportunity to socialize (with other people who love film) as for him to have paying work.

Cosmopolitan Dining

Mike’s van pulled up to our house just as we were leaving for dinner and he handed off the drive. We met YaYa in Silver Spring, where we went out for tapas. She said when she visits the DC metro area, she feels the dining options are enticingly sophisticated. Over salmon, a cheese plate, torta española, several vegetable dishes, flan, tres leches cake, and churros, she renewed her ongoing but so far unsuccessful campaign to get North to read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and we discussed movies we’ve seen recently. Then we went back to the house to pack some more.

Continuation of Travel 

The following day North went to camp, but only for part of the day. We picked them up at 11:30 (two hours early) and hit the road. By five we were at our beach house. Mom, Sara, Dave, and Lily-Mei arrived while we were still unpacking the car. Once we’d gotten everything inside the house and sorted out who would sleep in which room, we ordered pizza and while we waited for it to arrive, Mom, Sara, Lily-Mei and I took a walk to the beach, put our feet (well in Lily-Mei’s case more than her feet) into the ocean and enjoyed each other’s company for the first time in two years.

When You’re a Jet: Coronavirus Chronicles, Part 44

When you’re a Jet,
If the spit hits the fan,
You got brothers around,
You’re a family man…

From “Jet Song” by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim

Monday

North’s musical drama camp was held outdoors for the second year in a row and that meant I was keeping an eye on the weather, both for heat and rain. In late June in Maryland, you’re likely to get both. Last year, all the rehearsal days were able to go on as scheduled for the two-week camp, but the final performance had to be pushed up a day because of a predicted storm.

This year the camp was just one week. Monday was supposed to be hot and humid and Tuesday rainy, but the rest of the week looked pleasant. Monday was indeed hot and humid—the county issued a heat warning from one p.m. to seven, but camp ended at one, so North would only be out in the worst of it for the time it took them to walk home from the park. It’s only about a fifteen to twenty-minute walk, so when they didn’t get home until 1:40, my assumption was camp had run late. (That wouldn’t be unusual.) But when North got home, they collapsed into the easy chair by the front door and informed me they’d hurt their knee during one of the dance numbers.

When they tried to get out of the chair, the knee was stiff and painful and for the rest of the day they were using both forearm crutches to get around the house. (These days they use crutches only when they leave the house and usually just one.) This was discouraging, because while they still have chronic pain, they’ve gone a long time without an injury that exacerbated it.

While they were resting in the chair, I was straightening up in the living room and decided to take all the spring birthday cards (North’s, Noah’s, and mine) and the Mother’s Day cards down from the mantel. When I took down our birthday card to North I remembered they’d never registered on the Donor Sibling Registry site and I asked if they wanted to do it. They said yes, so I handed them the card with their donor number written inside and after filling out the online forms and entering my debit card number, they found they have thirteen half-siblings on their biological father’s side, all born between 2003 and 2007, including one half-brother who is within a month of their age. However, all the messages were from parents and none were more recent than 2013. North left a message in hopes of hearing back, but I warned them it might not be realistic to expect anything soon as no one seemed to be monitoring the site closely.

That night we watched the first half of West Side Story and North let us know which songs in that part would be in the revue (“Jet Song” and “Gee, Officer Krupke”). They hadn’t been cast yet, but some of the possibilities Gretchen, the camp director, was considering for them were Tony, Diesel (called Ice in the film), and Velma. I was impressed with the idea of them being Tony but they pointed out it would be mostly songs, with just a little dialogue, and everyone sings, so there really wouldn’t be any leads. This did turn out to be true.

The show was going consist entirely of songs the Jets sing together because the group of kids who come to this camp year after year tends to be mostly white and the optics of a bunch of white kids playing the Puerto Rican Sharks wouldn’t be good. In another adjustment, North and two other kids talked Gretchen into cutting these lines from “Gee, Officer Krupke”: “My sister wears a mustache/My brother wears a dress/Goodness gracious, that’s why I’m a mess!” Gretchen tried to argue for historical context and satire but the kids thought in a three-song performance that just wouldn’t come across. They did keep this lyric: “’Cause ev’ry Puerto Rican/’S a lousy chicken!” which North said was unnerving to sing repeatedly in a public park, with passersby.

Tuesday

Tuesday morning was rainy as expected. Gretchen emailed early in the morning to say camp would end early, at noon, or possibly 11:30, and it would be held mostly on her sheltered patio– as her back yard borders the park where camp takes place—but they’d probably have to spend some time dancing in the rain. North was still having difficulty getting around so I helped them get their script and lyric sheets printed and in their backpack and I made their mid-morning snack (a fruit salad) and packed it. Beth drove them to camp.

Three hours later, Beth brought them home. They weren’t soaking wet and said the campers had spent most of the morning sheltered on Gretchen’s patio, working on lines and sewing the letters JETS onto the backs of the hoodies they’re all wearing as costumes. Eventually, they’d embroider the names of their characters on the front. In North’s case, this would be Tony, as they’d be playing the lovelorn Jet after all.

North said the campers did leave the shelter to dance for about an hour when it wasn’t raining too hard. I asked if they’d been able to dance at all with their hurt knee and they said they managed to adapt some of the moves. Because Gretchen’s known North since they were three, she has plenty of experience adjusting her choreography for North’s various mobility challenges, often with very little notice. I figured it would all work out.

After camp that afternoon, North reported, much to our surprise, that the mother of one of their half-sisters had already sent them a brief message. So we know the girl’s first name, and that she’s eighteen years old, but not much else about her. North wrote back and is waiting to hear more.

We finished watching West Side Story that evening. I noticed that in the movie, Tony’s not in “Cool,” the last song in the lineup (and neither is Riff, because he’s dead). I asked North if they’d be in it, because I guessed with just three songs, Gretchen would put everyone in all of them, and I was right.

After the movie was over, we discussed how the body count is lower in West Side Story than in Romeo and Juliet and North observed it’s odd that all these gang members seem to have classical ballet training. But I have to say that even as problematic and outdated as parts of it are, it’s still a compelling film, with a tight plot (thanks, Shakespeare) and so many wonderful songs. It will be nice to have seen it recently, if Beth and I make good on our intention to go see the Rita Moreno documentary soon or if we see the new West Side Story when it comes out this winter.

Wednesday-Thursday

By Wednesday afternoon, North was walking around the house without support. They said their knee wasn’t very painful but still pretty stiff. (They felt steady enough on their feet to make  a blueberry sauce for some vanilla ice cream we had on hand.) While the kids and I watched an episode of Shadow and Bone, North embroidered a T and an O on the hoodie they’d be wearing in the show. They did the N and the Y while I made dinner.

After diner, North received another message from the mother of a different half-sibling (age seventeen) and this mom passed on the kid’s email address, so the ball was rolling on getting in touch. By Thursday afternoon, North was scrolling through the newly found half-sibling’s Instagram feed and showed us some pictures. There’s a slight resemblance, especially in the shape of their faces, though Noah says he can’t see it. This one, who I’m going to call Alexis for now, though that’s not her name, has two moms and lives in Michigan and uses female and gender-neutral pronouns interchangeably. Because the sperm bank we used is located in Virginia and there are so many siblings I’ve been wondering if any will live nearby. I guess we may find out soon.

Thursday night, shortly before we went to bed, I noticed that our cat Xander’s belly was bare of fur and the skin looked inflamed and was oozing in places. That re-arranged our plans for the next day.

Friday

After Beth dropped North off at camp, she and I headed for the animal hospital with Xander because there were no appointments available at our regular vet and the hospital takes drop-ins.

When Matthew got sick last summer, they had people drop their animals off and leave and they’d call you when it was time to come back. Beth had called and found out that you’re still not allowed inside, so we expected something similar. Instead they wanted us to wait in the garage. (I could see the privacy screen in the corner was still there, which brought back bad memories of Matthew being euthanized in that very parking garage. I guess they’re still doing it there.)

Beth called inside and found the procedure was different now. She talked to someone on the phone who asked questions about Xander’s condition and medical history, then a tech came to the car to get him and take him inside and we were told to wait, and given an estimate of two hours. To make a long story short, it was more like four hours, and Beth had not brought her laptop because she didn’t expect any wait. She had to write something for work and was trying to draft it on her phone, “like a young person,” but it wasn’t going well, so I went to a nearby CVS and got her a pen and a notebook, so she could write on paper, like an old person. Shortly after that, almost an hour and a half into the wait, I caught a Lyft home, leaving Beth to write and take calls in the car, because we thought at least one parent should catch the drama camp performance, which was at 12:30.

I had just enough time to 1) talk to Beth on the phone and find out the vet thought it was itching from some kind of skin condition that was making Xander lick and scratch his skin raw, but that they needed to run some tests, 2) charge my phone for ten minutes or so, and 3) find some camp chairs before Noah and I left for the park. He had his camera, a tripod, and a microphone to record the performance. We got there about fifteen minutes early so we could talk to Gretchen about where he should set up and we caught the tail end of a final run-through of “Gee, Officer Krupke.”

The performance started twenty minutes late because we were waiting for all the parents to arrive, so I had time to read my texts from Beth about Xander. The lab tests showed he had both a bacterial infection on the skin of his stomach and a fungal infection in his ears (which have been looking kind of scabby). That he has two separate kinds of infections made me wonder if his immune system is suppressed for some reason, other than being old. He’s eighteen and showing his age in various ways—he’s arthritic and half-deaf and possibly a little senile. (He’s still plenty strong, though, as we learned when we gave him his medicine.) So, in the short run, he should be fine, but it’s a reminder he’s no spring chicken. The day before his vet adventure he spent almost the whole day napping on a chair in the back yard, enjoying the sun.

The actors waited in the shade of a tree and I could hear North talking about how the high of performing always makes the rehearsals worth it. This might have been for the benefit of the two newbie campers, aged ten and twelve. The rest of the cast ranged from fifteen to almost seventeen and they’ve all been acting together for years, in North’s case since they were five.  All the actors were in black hoodies and black or denim shorts or pants. North’s hoodie was actually part of their Halloween costume, and had glow-in-the-dark paint spatter on it. (I didn’t see the point in buying a second black hoodie and North agreed.)

The show consisted of a wordless prologue and the three songs, with a bit of introductory dialogue. Gretchen incorporated the playground equipment into the choreography at the very beginning. The kids emerged from the corners of the playground or slid down the slide or climbed down a ladder to converge near a bench. It was a good use of the space. Based on the dancing in the prologue, I asked North later if any of the actors had ballet training because I wondered if a couple of them might have, but North said no.

North had a solo in “Jet Song,” singing the first two lines in the stanza quoted above. They also had to take two stage falls in “Cool” and managed it well. “Gee, Officer Krupke” was last, which surprised me a little because it put the songs out of order, but without much plot to link them, it probably didn’t matter. The kids skillfully mined the song for it comedic content, especially Grace, who was playing A-rab, the much analyzed boy at the center of the song. It also let the show go out on a high note, because it really is a fun song.

Here’s the show, if you have a spare fourteen and a half minutes and you’d like to see it.

Watching it after the fact, I’m impressed with how much choreography the kids learned in a week. In a way the camp has come full circle. It started as a one-week, half-day camp when the kids were tiny and as the shows got more ambitious it grew to a two-week, full-day camp in which they produced scaled-down versions of shows that were recognizable as plays, not just a few songs from a play. But the pandemic and older kids’ busy schedules have shrunk it down to something resembling its original form. However, preteens and teens can learn a lot more complicated lyrics and dances in that amount of time than when they were preschoolers and kindergarteners.

After the show was over, the actors wanted to linger in the park and socialize. There’s a post-performance pizza tradition, so Maggie’s mom ordered pizza from Pizza Movers, which caused North to point out what we’ve all lamented many times this spring and summer, that they no longer offer delivery, so they can’t really be said to move the pizza. Maggie pointed out “They move the pizza from the kitchen to your hands,” but the general consensus was that this wasn’t good enough.

Noah and I didn’t stay for pizza, because in all the commotion of the day I’d forgotten to bring money and I was already letting North freeload off Maggie’s mom, and there weren’t a lot of other parents staying, which might have been what the kids wanted. Gretchen’s been saying this might be the last year of the camp. She said the same thing last year, but in case it is, I wanted to let them enjoy each other’s company, after North’s eleventh year of putting on a show with a gradually changing, but largely stable group of kids.

Some of these kids North’s known even longer, as North met Gretchen’s daughter Grace in Gretchen’s preschool drama class when they were both three and they met Maggie in preschool when they were both two. Speaking of Maggie and preschool, both North and Maggie are going to be counselors at tinkering camp at their old preschool the same week in July. I’m glad North has these long-lasting connections, even as they find new ones through school and activities and now the sibling registry. Keeping old friends and meeting new family members is a good thing.

Beth got home shortly after Noah and I did, with Xander. We rubbed his belly with antibacterial wipes and gave him an oral antibiotic, but it turned out the anti-fungal eardrops weren’t in the bag of supplies, so Beth had to drive back to the animal hospital after dinner to go get them. Xander is family, too, and we want to take good care of him, for as long as we’re lucky enough to have him.

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…

Art in Autumn

I’ve been low in spirits pretty much all month, so it was nice to have two artistic events to look forward to this week. North’s acting class had its showcase on Monday afternoon and they had a piece in a middle school art show we went to see on Thursday evening. (Actually, the whole week was busy—in between the acting showcase and the art show, we had a trans kids’ and parents’ support group on Tuesday and my book club met on Wednesday.)

Acting Showcase

I had a scattered, unproductive work day on Monday, but I finished the Jason section of The Sound and the Fury (my book club book), did two loads of laundry, made a batch of vegetable stock, and got dinner mostly prepped before I left the house at 4:25, so I guess the day wasn’t a total loss. My bus was late, but I’d left plenty of time, so I still arrived at the community center ten minutes early. I waited on a bench outside because I wanted the fresh air, even if it was overcast, chilly day.

North’s been attending this acting class since mid-September. It’s the same one they’ve taken four times, starting in fifth grade. It’s run by the director of the musical theater camp North attends every summer. When I entered the auditorium, I recognized most of the kids from past classes and camps. It was a small group this year, only six kids. They’d been working in pairs, on three scenes from three different plays.

North and Gretchen’s daughter Grace went first, doing a scene from Leaves, an Irish play about how a family reacts to the attempted suicide of its oldest daughter. North and Grace were playing the two younger sisters, who are discussing their sister’s return home in what starts as a muted, moody exchange that turns emotionally explosive. They both did a very good job, but they’ve been acting together since they met in a preschool drama class when they were both three, so I suppose it’s not surprising they have good onstage chemistry. (I especially liked them together in Into the Woods as Little Red and Jack a couple summers ago.)

The other two scenes were from The Man in the Moon and Dead Poets’ Society and they were also well done. After the scenes were finished, Gretchen had the actors discuss the acting concepts they drew on while they worked on the scenes (substitution, subtext, objectives, obstacles, beat changes, etc.)

Finally, the audience was invited onstage to participate in some improv games with the actors. I declined, even though most of the mothers (and one younger sister) did get up on stage. As I told my exasperated child, it’s their job to act and mine to write about it. That’s our division of labor. The games consisted of a group-written story, constructed by having each person contribute one word at a time, and a game in which you have to create a scene entirely out of questions. That last one looked hard.

North had been on the fence about enrolling in the class this year—it was tiring last year going straight from school to acting class to play rehearsals and they didn’t know they weren’t going to be in the fall musical at Highwood until the theater closed quite suddenly in September.  I’m glad North did take the class because when they didn’t manage to sign up for an audition slot for the school play, it ended up being their only acting activity this fall. We have Grace to thank for it because she’d been cajoling North via text until they finally said yes.

Art Show

Thursday we had an early dinner and drove out to the high school that houses the Visual Arts Center (to which North’s applying) to see a middle school art show featuring pieces from twelve different schools. Art teachers at these schools selected artwork to send and North’s art teacher chose North’s mandala. It was one of only two mandalas she chose.

When we arrived, people were congregated in a hallway in front of a portable screen. The mistress of ceremonies called all the middle school art teachers up front to be recognized, and then explained that a retired middle and high school art teacher had judged the art. There were twelve categories and four to six winners in each category—first place, second place, third place, and one or more honorable mentions. As the winning art appeared on the screen the MC explained what the judge had liked about each piece and then had the artist come up front for a photo. It was interesting to hear the judge’s thought process and very supportive and affirming. North didn’t win a prize, but as they say, it’s an honor to be nominated. (The other mandala from their class won third prize in the Color category.) After all the awards had been given out, we went into the room where the art was displayed. We went to each school’s display and at North’s school, they pointed out a friend’s artwork they wanted us to see.

After the show, we went out for frozen yogurt and I asked North what they’d learned about mandalas before they made them. Nothing, they said. So I looked it up on my phone. I learned they are geometrical configurations used in the Hindu, Buddhist, Jain religions in India, and the Shinto religion in Japan and that they represent variously: balance, unity, harmony, a spiritual journey, or cosmic and psychic order. Thanks, Wikipedia! North’s mandala is full of rainbows. (Look carefully at the spokes.) So I guess they got some of those concepts in, even without detailed cultural instruction.

Art can bring us all the things the mandala symbolizes. Over the course of the past several weeks, I’ve been savoring The Sound and the Fury, a book I haven’t read since I was a first-year college student, thirty-four years ago, and which was a pivotal book for me as a reader in ways I still remember clearly. I’m glad North has artistic outlets, too. While not every book, play, or painting takes us on a spiritual journey, every time we open ourselves up to art, there’s always a chance it will.

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.

Seize Some More Days

Last Weekend of Sweeney Todd 

As I mentioned earlier, North’s last performance of the summer was last Sunday when Sweeney Todd closed. There were only two performances that weekend, a Saturday evening show and a Sunday matinee because Highwood had two shows running at once, and And Then There Were None had the theater on Friday evening and Saturday afternoon.

North wanted to see And Then There Were None because they thought their friend Cam was in it and I have a soft spot for the novel because I went through a big Agatha Christie phase in middle school, then I taught it in a class on genre fiction, and then Noah and I read it when he was in middle school. So, of course, I went with them. Highwood had to vacate its quarters on short notice earlier this year because of structural problems with the building and they’d been operating out of temporary space. The last few shows have been performed in a storefront-type space on the first floor of a medical building in downtown Silver Spring. We saw North’s friend Sadhbh play the title role in Macbeth there in May. When we arrived at the ersatz theater, got our programs, and took our seats it became apparent Cam wasn’t in the show, but Sadhbh was. That was just as good, so North wasn’t disappointed. (North thinks they may have lost track of who was who in a group chat.) It was a good production, just slightly scaled down from the novel. I was impressed with how Sadhbh breathed life into Emily Brent, given how flat Christie characters tend to be. Her judgmental glares were quite comic.

The next day I was back at the theater, this time with Beth and Noah, to see Sweeney Todd. North was in the ensemble. They didn’t play a named character but they sang in all the group scenes, died onstage as one of Sweeney Todd’s victims (sliding very nicely out of the barber chair) and had a few lines sung as a duet in “Not While I’m Around.” Some of the Toby’s lines in this song had been reassigned to North and another actor–the two were supposed to portray Toby’s conscience. This was a last minute adjustment that made North happy because they’d hoped to be cast as Toby. It’s a pretty song and well suited to North’s voice. If you’re familiar with Sweeney Todd, or any Sondheim really, you know how complicated the music is. The kids did a great job with it. The actor playing Mrs. Lovett was really excellent in the role. My only complaint was that the instrumental music was too loud, causing me to miss some of the dialogue and song lyrics.

After Sweeney

So, after a month jam-packed full of drama camp, choir camp, rehearsals, and performances, it was suddenly all over. The end of North’s summer break will be travel-heavy. They’re spending a week at sleepaway camp in Pennsylvania, then they’ll road trip up to New York with us to drop Noah off at college, and then spend a week in West Virginia with Beth’s mom. In a span of three weeks, they’ll be home just a couple days in between Ithaca and Wheeling. But before all that, they had a week relaxing at home.

Well, kind of relaxing. We packed a bunch of appointments for both kids into that week. Noah had his penultimate drum lesson of the summer, went to the psychiatrist who prescribes his ADHD meds, and got his hair cut. Both kids went to the dentist, but different dentists because Noah’s no longer going to the pediatric dentist as of this summer. North went for an evaluation at the rehabilitation center where they will be doing aqua therapy for their leg. We met with the physical therapist who will coordinate their care and got twelve appointments scheduled from late August to mid-October. The therapy pool has limited hours so they’re going to be missing a lot of school, which concerns me. The next day we went to the physical therapist North’s been seeing since March for a final visit. We’d decided it was better to have all the physical therapy coordinated in one location so we’re saying goodbye to her.

North worked on summer homework. They’d finished their summer math packet sometime in July but I had them to do some extra online review of algebra concepts and they finished the book they chose from the summer reading list, Outrun the Moon, historical fiction about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The kids cleaned the bathroom, kitchen, and porch, vacuumed and mowed and I taught Noah how to sew on a button so he can do that for himself at school.

We also found some time for fun. The kids recorded the audio for a music video of a new song of North’s, “Sweet as Cola,” on Monday and they shot the video on Wednesday and started editing it on Thursday. On Tuesday the three of us went for a creek walk, an annual late summer tradition. I wasn’t sure how steady North would be in the uneven surface of the creek bed on crutches, so we did a modified, shortened version. But they were actually fine and faster than me. I’ve been slow and careful in the creek since I fell and hurt my knee in there a couple years ago. It was nice to do even an abbreviated version of the walk. I found myself thinking nostalgically of one of the first times I took the kids to wade at that exact spot ten years ago.

North spent part of Monday and most of Thursday with Zoë, with whom they hadn’t had a non-camp week in common since June. From Friday morning until Saturday afternoon, Lyn and North had what Lyn’s mom called “an epic hangout.” They went to downtown Silver Spring by themselves to have lunch and see The Lion King. Later, Noah and I met them for pizza. North went to watch Lyn’s aerial silks class and then the two of them came back to our house and slept in a tent in the backyard. The next morning I took them both to the pool.

We dropped Lyn off at home around 3:30 and drove to the Montgomery County Fair. We spent the late afternoon and evening there, looking at farm animals, eating fair food, and riding our favorite rides. We finished with the Ferris wheel, the four of us in the little car suspended high above the ground, looking over the colored lights of the fair on a mild summer night, before our August travels scatter us in different directions.

Seize the Day

As Beth, Noah, and I walked toward the music school building at the University of Maryland for North’s choir camp concert on Friday afternoon, I said that after Sunday we’d be all finished with this summer’s performances.

“Yah!” Beth said.

“They’re not that bad,” Noah joked and Beth explained her comment had not been about the quality of the performances, which we always enjoy, just the logistics of rehearsals and performances. The past week had been one of the more hectic weeks of the summer with North at chorus camp in the daytime and Sweeney Todd rehearsals and performances at night. (And it happened to be a week when Beth was out of town for a week-long business trip to Las Vegas. She’d only returned the evening before.)

It’s true one of the ways I mark our progress through any summer is in performances. And by that metric, we’ve zipped past a film camp screening, five performances of Sweeney Todd, and choir camp concert since I last wrote. We have just two performances of Sweeney Todd to go (one of which is in progress right now).

Film Camp

Exactly a week after North was in Wicked at musical theater camp, the kids at the film camp where Noah was a counselor screened their films at Rhizome, a local art space where the camp was held. It’s a clapboard house with a front porch decorated with strings of large colorful beads, a screening room on the first floor, and gallery space upstairs. The house and the neighborhood offered a lot of diverse spaces for filming. In addition to the porch and interior of the house, the kids used a nearby alley and a small plaza in front of an office building and the lobby of the same building.

The camp director was Noah’s media teacher in tenth grade and he’s the faculty sponsor for Blair Network Communications (the school television station) and Silver Lens (the documentary team). Noah was on BNC his junior year and Silver Lens his senior year so he and Mr. M know each other well. For two weeks Noah helped him teach a small group of middle schoolers how to write scripts, film, and edit.

On the third Friday in July, the audience gathered in the screening room. Mr. M and some of the campers spoke about their experiences at camp and then Mr. M showed some of the practice film they shot while working on camera skills. There were two short feature presentations, interconnected films, the first about the persecution of animal-human hybrids (I’m guessing some of these kids saw Sorry to Bother You) and the second about the hybrids’ rebellion. Each film was about eight minutes long. In addition to his behind the scenes roles, Noah played two goat hybrids, a lawyer, and a pro-hybrid human protester. The films were a lot of fun and afterward Mr. M was effusive in his praise of Noah. One of the campers chimed in that he’d been “invaluable.”

Camp Mommy

Both kids were home the following week. Whenever there’s a week like this in the summer, we call it Camp Mommy.  North went to the U.S. Botanical Gardens with their Highwood friend Lyn and we made soft blackberry cookies for a family friend who was in the hospital. (They were kind of like scones, but crumblier.) The kids and I took walks together most mornings before it got too hot. They did house and yard work and North helped with dinner most nights and thought to bring in the laundry one afternoon while I was on a conference call and it started to thunder. Noah started deep cleaning his room and stripping it of knickknacks he no longer wanted (a lot of which were actually North’s, abandoned two years ago when they got their own room).

We took most of the castoffs to the fairy tree near the playground. Wait, your neighborhood doesn’t have a fairy tree? It’s a tree that’s hollow at the bottom where people leave toys and decorative items and then other people take them home. I am a habitual contributor as the house is still full of the kids’ old toys and this is more fun than taking them to the thrift store. One day when we went to drop off seven child-sized bracelets, we found someone turned the collection of items there into an art installation. A large Batman doll was seated on a brick, with a rubber duck keyring dangling from his wrist and a Chinese rabbit we’d left there earlier suspended over his head. I put one of the bracelets around his neck and scattered the rest on the ground around him.

Tech rehearsals for Sweeney Todd started that week so it was nice North didn’t have any place to be in the morning after late nights at the theater. And right before Beth left for Las Vegas we developed a cascade of interconnected plumbing problems that lead to multiple visits from plumbers and a contractor, the removal of our dishwasher, and water damage to a basement wall. So, that week and the next I spent a lot of time coordinating with workers and washing dishes by hand. Noah said I was “partying like it’s 1899.”

Choir Camp

This was North’s most transportation-challenging week of the summer. Sweeney Todd opened that Friday and I had to figure out how to get North home from the theater late at night with Beth out of town. I ended up finding rides for every night, so I didn’t need to take a Lyft out there to pick them up. Thanks, Lane! Thanks, Yulia! Starting Monday, North was in choir camp in College Park in the daytime. They had to miss the first day (Sunday) because they had a Sweeney Todd matinee, so I went up there to collect their music and find out what electives they had (songwriting, theater, and ukulele). Getting to College Park is a little trickier than North’s other day camp, which is in Takoma Park, but after Noah and I helped them navigate the trip there and back on Monday (it involves switching buses at a transit center) they were able to get themselves to camp and back on Tuesday.

To make matters more complicated, Monday and Tuesday were days off at the theater, but Wednesday there was a brush-up rehearsal and a show on Thursday night so they had to go straight from camp to Silver Spring, grab some dinner there and then go to the theater. Wednesday I picked them up at camp and accompanied them to Silver Spring and took them out for pizza and bubble tea before rehearsal started. Thursday they made the same trip alone (and even figured out a better two-bus route than the bus-train-train one I’d used the day before). This was good because it meant I could be home for the contractor, who at 7:56 a.m. had changed his arrival time from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Beth got home that evening, after seven and a half days away, and we were all very happy to see her. She ate dinner and crashed, napping until it was time to go get North at the theater. The next day she worked from home and we all set out for the concert a little after one p.m. This was our eighth year of going to band, orchestra, and chorus concerts at the University of Maryland so we knew what to expect. The fifth to seventh grade orchestra played first, followed by the eighth to tenth grade orchestra. (Orchestra and chorus camps take place the same week; band camp is the week previous). The chorus performed last.

Their first song, North’s favorite, was “Seize the Day” from Newsies. (It should surprise no one their favorite piece was from a musical.) The junior counselors who were accompanying the chorus on various instruments all wore newsboy caps, which was a nice touch. Next was a pretty sixteenth-century Italian song, then a traditional camp meeting song, “No Time,” (which North sang one year in Honors Chorus) and a traditional South African song with an accompanying dance. This was possible because rather than standing on risers, the singers were on wide platforms built into the stage, so there was room to move around and stomp. North managed the forward, backward, and side to side steps on crutches and even stamped lightly. The last song was Harry Belafonte’s “Turn the World Around” with steel drums to give it a Caribbean sound. It was an uplifting tune and I found myself thinking of the Democratic debates I’d stayed up late to watch earlier in the week, allowing myself to feel a little bit hopeful and wondering which candidate can turn the country around. It sorely needs it.

After the concert we went out for ice cream at the University’s ice cream parlor, then later that evening out for pizza. On the way home we saw a rainbow. I wondered if it was a good omen.

We’re going to see the closing performance of Sweeney Todd tomorrow. Then the kids have another week at home together before North heads off to sleep-away camp. I think the second session of Camp Mommy will feature a creek walk, a trip to Langley Park for a pupusa lunch, and the filming of a music video. I may also take North and Lyn to a movie and to splash in the fountain in Silver Spring.  It’s not looking like I’ll have much work for either Sara or Mike, and honestly, this week I don’t mind. Noah has only two and a half weeks of summer break left and North has four. I want to seize every day.