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.

Party On: Coronavirus Chronicles, Part 43

Beth asked me recently when I’d take the Coronavirus Chronicles subtitle off my blog posts. At the time, North was still in hybrid school so it seemed the pandemic was still having a noticeable effect on our day-to-day lives. Now school’s out and it’s expected to be 100% in-person for the next school year and most (but not all) of the camps North would normally attend are a go this summer, so their life is creeping back to normal. Noah’s still living at home, but he’d probably be here for the summer even if the pandemic had never happened. Beth’s still working from home, except for roughly one day at week when she goes into the office. So I may keep the designation on my posts until September, when Beth goes back to the office full time and both kids are attending school in person. I think that’s when things will feel truly normal again.

Things are trending in that direction, though. As of Thursday, we’re all fully vaccinated, which means we’ve been doing things like going to Ikea to browse and sit in chairs instead of just ordering one online (Wednesday), going to the movies (Thursday), and attending a large, partly indoor party (Saturday). Plus I’ve stopped keeping my contact log, as of a few days ago. All these things feel deeply strange, but in a good way.

The end of the school year was a little anticlimactic. There was none of the normal end-of-the-year bustle of concerts, plays, award ceremonies, or other special events to attend. The last couple of days of school are always light on academics and heavy on parties and movies, but even that was different. North’s last day was Tuesday. They had a Japanese oral exam on the Thursday before that and on Friday they took a biology exam and glazed their last piece of pottery. And then on Monday and Tuesday literally nothing happened. Their English teacher had promised to screen a film version of Romeo and Juliet, but for some reason didn’t. They just had to check in and out of each class for two days, except for history during which the students chatted with the teacher about things like what their Hogwarts houses were. I asked if that seemed like a party, sitting around making casual conversation, and I got a firm no. The lack of activity of any sort, academic or otherwise, was disheartening and seemed emblematic of all the lost opportunities of this year. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that going to school in person, even part-time, made the fourth quarter the best one of this strange school year for North. It helped them engage more than they had earlier in the year.

Thursday we went to see In the Heights to celebrate the first day we were all fully vaccinated. If you’re local, it’s playing at AFI, which has recently re-opened, and we saw it in the main theater with the big screen and the art deco decorations, which was a perfect atmosphere for our reintroduction to movie theaters. It felt downright festive to sit in a dark, cavernous space and eat popcorn we didn’t make ourselves and watch a movie with people not related to us.

Saturday afternoon Beth, North, and I went to the new bubble tea place in downtown Takoma because they were serving rainbow boba in the tea for Pride, but I guess you had to request it because while other people had multi-colored boba, ours were the standard black. We got rainbow-frosted cupcakes, though, and there were rainbow flags all over the patio, so there was no dearth of pride there. (Or anywhere else in downtown Takoma, which is festooned with pride flags of all sizes and which has multiple rainbow crosswalks. Just walking down the street is like a party.)

From bubble tea, North and I went straight to a real party at Zoë’s house, while Beth headed to a goodbye party for a colleague. We had two parties at the same time– that’s how celebratory things are getting around here– so we had to divide and conquer. North’s actually attended a lot of birthday parties recently, even before being fully vaccinated—two I can remember this month, plus a quinceañera, and an end-of-school party. (Between North going to school and socializing in larger groups or our trip to Wheeling in late May or maybe from taking the bus more often, I caught my first cold in sixteen months a couple weeks ago. It was mild and totally worth it.)

The party was nice. I saw a lot of people I hadn’t seen in a long time, parents of North’s friends from elementary and middle school, and we talked about how we’d weathered the pandemic, what our kids were up to, work, and summer plans. People played cornhole and jenga and some of the adults got a bit tipsy. We arrived around three and by six I was feeling like I’d had enough and I was considering leaving North there and going home, but a lot of people left around then and it started to feel more intimate and introvert-friendly. We ended up staying past ten, when Beth swung by from her party to take us home.

North’s first camp starts tomorrow. It’s musical drama camp, the same one they’ve attended every year since they were five.  It’s being held in a neighborhood park, as it was last summer, and considerably scaled down (a week of four-hour days instead of the two weeks of six-hour days it ran pre-pandemic). They’re doing West Side Story, not a production of the play so much as a revue of songs from it, as they did for Pirates of Penzance last year. I’m glad it’s happening at all, though. It’s largely the same group of kids who come back every year and it will be good for North to see them again.

Chorus camp is cancelled for the second year in a row and it’s the last year North would have been able to attend, as it’s for rising fifth-to-tenth graders, so that’s sad. But their sleep-away camp is on and I think that’s the one North cares about most. They’re also going to volunteer as a counselor at a tinkering camp at their old preschool for the first time and they’re excited about that. North attended this camp for several years when they were in elementary school and Noah’s been a counselor there, so it’s a family tradition.

For me, the most exciting part of our (almost) post-pandemic summer will be seeing my mother, sister, brother-in-law, and eight-year-old niece, and Beth’s mom and possibly her aunt, when we share a big house at the beach for a week in mid-July. It will be the first time I’ve seen my extended family in two years. I hope your summer is also full of festivities and joyous reunions. Happy solstice!

A Quiet Weekend: Coronavirus Chronicles, Part 42

Friday

We pulled up to North’s school around 1:20 on Friday. We’d sent them to school with a note authorizing them to skip the last period of the day (advisory) so we could hit the road for the Memorial Day weekend, which we were going to spend in Wheeling with Beth’s mom, before bringing Noah home. The idea was to go straight to Butler’s Orchard, where we’d pick up some strawberries to take with us so I could make my traditional Memorial Day weekend strawberry shortcake at Beth’s mom’s house. Beth was going to participate in a work call from the parking lot before we got the berries. Thinking of this, I remembered we hadn’t brought a cooler. We were far enough into the trip that I was remembering all the things I forgot. So far the list was a cooler and an umbrella—is this slowly growing mental list of forgotten things how you start all your road trips? It’s how I do. But the day was cool and drizzly so it was unlikely to get too hot in the hatch of the car, so I thought the strawberries would be okay.

North emerged from the doors of the school and we drove to the berry farm, arriving just in time for Beth to get on her call. North and I settled in at a nearby picnic table with our phones, a section of the newspaper, an anthology of short stories, and some mixed nuts. (Beth thought it might be a long call.) We noticed that although we could hear cicadas, they were considerably quieter just thirty miles from home, and we didn’t see a single one.

When it started to rain in earnest, North and I went into the market and browsed. Then Beth joined us and we got four quarts of strawberries, so there would be enough for snacking, and sharing with relatives, and some to bring some home with us. And because we were in a touristy type of farm store, we got treats, too—apple cider doughnuts to bring to Beth’s mom’s, plus cookies, corn nuts, strawberry milk, and strawberry slushy for the car, and some cheese that caught Beth’s eye.

Unsurprisingly on the Friday before Memorial Day, there was a lot of traffic leaving the DC metro area and then there was heavy rain, so the drive took longer than usual. We left the berry farm a little after three and didn’t arrive in Wheeling until around nine. We listened to a bunch of podcasts—Code Switch, Throughline, Shortwave, Radio Lab, Seizing Freedom, and Hidden Brain. We stopped at a rest stop and at a Sheetz to get dinner to eat in the car.

Everywhere we stopped, including Butler’s, it was startling how few people were wearing masks. I wasn’t sure if this was because of the new CDC guidance or our change of locale; likely it was both. At Butler’s I noticed most of the customers (many of whom probably live closer to the city) were masked while most of the staff (who probably live upcounty) were not. At the rest stop there was a sign asking everyone to mask and most people did. At Sheetz there was a sign saying mask if you’re unvaccinated. But of course, there’s no way to tell, and honestly sometimes I assume it’s the masked people who are vaccinated and the unmasked ones who aren’t. (Swistle, I know you feel the same way.) Being fully vaccinated, I guess I shouldn’t worry, at least not for myself, but it’s hard to shake off more than a year of conditioning.

We arrived at Beth’s mom’s house, reunited with YaYa and Noah, socialized for an hour or so and then we went over to Beth’s aunt Carole’s house (two doors over) to meet the stray cat that had taken up residence on her porch.  Beth and I left for our hotel, leaving the kids to spend the night at YaYa’s house. Again, there were many unmasked people in the lobby, including the desk clerk. The only masked person besides Beth and me was the janitor. (Though over the course of the weekend, we did see more masked folks at the hotel, a minority, but a sizable one.)

Saturday

I had some trouble sleeping that night, or rather getting back to sleep, because there were two dim lights over our bed that either came on in the middle of the night or which I noticed for the first time when I woke at three-thirty in the morning. I didn’t want to start messing with random light switches while Beth was asleep so I moved to the couch, which was in a darker area of the room. I made it darker still by draping an extra blanket over the front door, where light spilled from the hall. I secured the blanket to the bottom and sides of the door with throw pillows. My barrier kept falling apart, but I finally got it secure. Sometime after I’d fallen asleep on the couch, Beth woke up and turned off the lights and I came back to bed. In case you hadn’t gathered from this story, I am very sensitive to light when I’m trying to sleep.

We had breakfast at the hotel breakfast bar, which was my first time eating inside with strangers, another experience that felt strange even if it was perfectly safe. We didn’t eat a big meal because we knew there was homemade cinnamon bread waiting at Beth’s mom’s house. Next Beth went to use the exercise room, and then we went back to YaYa’s house and ate said bread, which was delicious.

The day was downright cold for late May, with highs in the low fifties and intermittent drizzle, so we had a nice lazy day, not leaving the house except for Beth who went to the grocery store to get whipping cream for the shortcake. We watched Noah’s drone footage and photos from the past two weeks from Wheeling Park and Oglebay Park and the Ohio river (he got some interesting footage of coal barges from above) and a picnic Noah and YaYa attended with a bunch of relatives for Beth’s uncle’s eightieth birthday.

At one point I was sitting on the couch looking at some nature photographs on the wall, and one of them especially, a fallen rhododendron leaf half-frozen in ice, struck me as something that Noah would take when I realized he probably did. I asked if they were his and he said yes. YaYa had five of the pictures he took at Blackwater Falls State Park two Christmases ago blown up and printed on canvas. They came out nicely. (I should say here I haven’t been to YaYa’s condo since Labor Day weekend 2019 and that was before Noah took these pictures.)

I read and watched television with Noah, trying to pick up the thread of The Light Fantastic and The Handmaid’s Tale after two weeks. And I made the shortcake. Beth read The New Yorker and North napped for a big chunk of the afternoon.

Carole came over bearing a tray of crudites and we had pizza and veggies for dinner with shortcake for dessert and Carole and Andrea exclaimed over what good strawberries we get in Maryland and after Carole left with a box of berries we gifted her, we all watched The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which I recommend if you think you’d like a quirky, coming-of-age, odd couple, road-movie-in-the-woods from New Zealand.

Sunday

Sunday was cool and overcast but not rainy. Beth spent the morning at Oglebay Park, kayaking in Lake Schenck and walking. I swam in the hotel pool. It took a while to convince myself to do it, even though I’ve been missing swimming, because swimming laps in hotel pools that aren’t really designed for lap swimming often means dodging kids moving in unpredictable directions and that’s not the kind of swimming I’ve been missing. When I got down there it didn’t look promising. There were four kids splashing in the tiny pool, but then one of moms sitting poolside said “Five minutes” and though it I knew it would be longer than that—I’ve said “five minutes” plenty of times myself—in fifteen minutes not only had her two kids gotten out of the pool but the other two did, as well. Apparently, the two families were there together. And I had the pool to myself long enough to swim sixty laps and soak in the hot tub.

I came back up to the room and showered, but Beth wasn’t back yet, so I blogged a bit and then she texted to say she’d met up with Michelle, a friend from high school, so I ate some leftover pizza we had in the mini fridge for lunch and curled up with the short story anthology I hadn’t picked up since we were at the berry farm. I was in the middle of a D.H. Lawrence story. I finished that and continued to work my way through the Ls: LeGuin, Lessing, London. It was past two before Beth returned. We went back to her mom’s house and in various combinations, napped, read, and watched television for the rest of the afternoon. It was that kind of weekend, not chock full of activity. I could say the weekend was low key because we were contemplating the terrible cost of war, but though I do often think about that on Memorial Day, I wasn’t really this year. It was more that it seemed like it was enough to be re-united, with Noah after two weeks, and with Beth’s mom and aunt and a good friend, after much longer separations.

Noah made a spaghetti frittata for dinner and I made a salad to go with it and Michelle came over for dinner and stayed a couple hours and we talked about pop culture and life during the pandemic and friends and family and ate leftover shortcake. It was nice to see her. After she left, Beth, Noah, and I watched an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (We’re hoping to finish the second season before Noah leaves for school in August, but we’ll have to go a little faster than our current pace of an episode a week to manage it.)

Monday

We checked out of the hotel early Monday morning and went shopping for picnic supplies because we were planning to leave Wheeling after lunch and have a picnic dinner somewhere along the way home. Our first stop was a newish wine and gourmet food store Michelle had recommended to us, where we got flatbread crackers, three kinds of cheese, and olives for the picnic, plus olive oil and sour cherry jam to take home. I commented to Beth as we left that was a little ironic we were loading up on fancy, imported foodstuffs for this patriotic holiday. But we went to a supermarket next and got domestic watermelon, cherries, yogurt, and potato salad. Masking was universal in the gourmet store and spotty in the supermarket.

Back at the house, we saw Carole again, read, and ate lunch, then we hit the road around one. The weather was better for driving than Friday, still cooler than average, but sunny. We hit traffic around four-thirty, but we were expecting that and we had a bunch of podcasts to pass the time. North opted out to listen to something on their own, with earbuds, so Noah, Beth, and I took turns. Noah picked one that consisted of listening to four men play a role-playing game for two and half hours (which is more fun than it sounds like); Beth picked an interview with Rhiannon Giddens; and I picked a few, including an episode of This American Life consisting of stories about grief. Because it was issued the day before Memorial Day, I kept expecting one of the stories to be about a dead soldier, but they didn’t go there. There were two about people who died of covid, however.

We picnicked at Black Hills Regional Park, where we heard and saw cicadas for the first time in a few days and stopped for the first ice cream of the season. Baskin-Robbins has indoor seating now and the only outside table was occupied, but North’s not fully vaccinated yet so it seemed more prudent to eat our ice cream in the car. Then we drove the last little bit of the journey, and were home by eight, our quiet weekend over.

Emerging: Coronavirus Chronicles, Part 41

(Not So) Lonely Weekend

Just like a cicada emerging from its tunnel in the ground, Noah left the burrow of our house for a couple weeks. Of the four of us, he’s been the most homebound. He rarely goes anywhere unless we’re all going somewhere, which is how he came to not leave our property from January 18 (when we returned from Ocean City) to March 26 (when we left for Deep Creek). That was the longest stretch. I know this because I’m still keeping a contact log, though I’m thinking I’ll quit in a few weeks when North is fully vaccinated. So, it’s a good thing he got out in the world to visit Beth’s mom in Wheeling.

He turned in his last paper at 12:15 on the second Friday of May. Forty-five minutes later he and Beth were in the car. They drove to North’s school, picked them up and hit the road for Wheeling. North wanted to come along for the ride (and the weekend).

I considered the merits of coming along and staying home. Like the rest of the family, I hadn’t seen Beth’s mom since Christmas 2019 and I enjoy a road trip. But I’ve also had very little alone time in the past fourteen months, like almost none except my daily walks, so I decided I’d split the difference, stay home the first weekend and then go to Wheeling over Memorial Day weekend on the trip to fetch Noah and bring him home. It seemed like a best-of-both-worlds solution.

I still had some work to finish up when Beth and Noah left, but in the late afternoon I boarded a bus and went to downtown Takoma, where I picked up a pizza and some mozzarella sticks at the now poorly named Pizza Movers and moved the pizza myself, to one of the  outdoor tables the city has provided on Laurel Avenue to serve nearby restaurants. There I had an early dinner, followed up with gelato.

And then I went home and read. I read Friday evening and pretty much all day Saturday. I thought I might do some housework or yardwork, but other than menu-planning for the next week, I did nothing domestic. I finished Carmella (I had just a tiny bit left), read all of Later, and finished The Sympathizer. I’d intended to read nine of the remaining fourteen chapters of that book, because my book club wasn’t discussing it for another week and a half, but I was on a roll. I read in the bathtub, in bed, on the porch, in the hammock, and in an Adirondack chair in the backyard, glancing up occasionally to watch the cicadas glide around the yard. (This was five days after they emerged and the first day they could fly. Clumsy on the ground, they are actually graceful in the air.) I cannot tell you how restorative, even joyous, all this silent sustained reading felt. My solitude cup, which had been dry for a long time, was filling up. 

By Sunday, I still wanted to read, but not as desperately and I was looking forward to Beth and North’s return in the evening. I went to the farmers’ market and bought two pints of strawberries (my real reason for going, as local strawberries only last about five weeks most years and this was the third week). I also made a few more eclectic purchases—a container of half-sour pickles, a strawberry-yogurt smoothie, a cherry tart, and a basil plant. Once home, I straightened up the living room and dining room and did a little weeding along the fence line. I hadn’t put much effort into making meals—in fact I didn’t eat dinner at all on Saturday—but that night for dinner, my last solo meal, I went to the trouble of making my devilled eggs pretty with chives and chive blossoms, as a final act of self-care.

Cicada Song

Beth and North came home Sunday evening and another week began. It was an online week for North and a busy and stressful one for Beth at work.

On Wednesday, after nine days above ground, the cicadas began to sing. It was just a low hum under the birdsong outside, but it got a little louder every day. The next day it was just barely audible inside if you stood next to a closed window. By Sunday morning, thirteen days after emergence, it was loud enough inside that I thought there was a kettle boiling in the kitchen, when it was just the cicada chorus outside. We probably aren’t at peak volume yet, but we might be soon. For one thing, it’s a mating song, and I witnessed a mating pair for the first time Sunday afternoon. North says when they had Maddie over that same day and the two of them were in the yard for hours, they saw a lot of them mating. (North also opined that it was “rude” for one partner to fly off as soon as copulation is over, “even if it’s just a hookup.”) Meanwhile, in addition to mating, they are still lumbering along the ground, sitting on every surface they can find, getting devoured by birds, and flying. Their discarded casings are everywhere.

This is my second time witnessing a Brood X mass emergence. They happen every seventeen years in the late spring, so there have been four in my lifetime. (It’s a different phenomenon from the much more reasonable numbers of annual cicadas we have every July and August.) However, I missed Brood X in 1970 and 1987. In 1970, when I was three years old, my mother and father and I lived in Northern New Jersey, which is in the periodical cicadas’ range, but their habitat is very localized—some places have them while others quite nearby don’t. To illustrate that point, my mom was living in two different suburbs of Philadelphia during the next two emergences, one that had cicadas (Lansdowne) and another that didn’t (Bala Cynwyd). She said in Lansdowne in 2004, there were so many “they darkened the sky.”

In 1987, Beth and I were in college in Northern Ohio, which is not in the cicadas’ range. We’d vaguely heard something about them and as there was no internet back then to provide instant information gratification, for a while we thought we might see them and we were disappointed when it was a bust.

By 2004, we were living in Takoma Park, which is pretty much Cicada Central. Noah was three years old and he was utterly enchanted with the cicadas. He would rush outside every morning to greet them and he’d carefully turn over the ones that got stuck on their backs. It’s partly because I see them through my little boy’s eyes that I love them, I think. And remembering his childish kindness, for a while this year I was the one righting all the overturned cicadas I found, but I had to give it up because there are just too many of them and they are very prone to getting overturned. It’s part of their charming incompetence at being bugs.

Every now and then periodical cicadas mistime their exit. This happened in 2017. It was like a flash mob in our yard that lasted a few days and then they disappeared and then there was another brief breakthrough and then they were gone for good, probably all eaten because they failed to overwhelm their predators with sheer numbers. Well, they were gone until this month. It’s the same cohort. They should be with us until late June or early July, when they’ve all laid their eggs and died. It’s basically a six-week concert and orgy. North says it sounds, “fun, but not worth seventeen years underground.”

Just the Two of Us

In non-cicada news, the next Friday North slept over at Zoë’s. Before we knew when twelve-to-fifteen-year old kids could get vaccinated, we’d come to an agreement with Zoë’s parents that once everyone else in the two households was fully vaccinated, we’d let North and Zoë socialize inside our houses. As it turned out, by the time all four parents and Noah and Zoë’s brother and her foster brother were fully vaccinated, North and Zoë were partially vaccinated. So the first time in fourteen months that North set foot in Zoë’s house for longer than a quick bathroom visit, they stayed the night.

And since Noah was still in West Virginia, that meant Beth and I were on our own from five p.m. Friday until ten-thirty a.m. Saturday. We worked until six-thirty and then went out for pizza, rather than get takeout or delivery. It was a pretty day so we walked to downtown Takoma. It was my first time at a restaurant with table service since the pandemic started. (Beth and North ate at one when they went camping earlier this spring.) Even though we were eating outside, it was still a little strange. I think eating inside a restaurant will be even stranger, whenever that happens.

We walked home from the restaurant and Beth watered the garden while I attacked the sink full of the day’s dirty dishes. Then we watched the first half of Ammonite and finished it Saturday morning while I ate my breakfast of oatmeal with blueberries, a soft-boiled egg, veggie sausage, and mug of milky tea on the couch. Beth said it was like a glimpse of empty nest life, but I thought it could be we’d just forgotten what life with one teen (who sometimes has weekend plans) was like. We did live that life for most of a school year in the Before Times. Either way, time alone with Beth has been in as short supply as time alone, so I was deeply grateful to get so much of each in consecutive weekends.

And next weekend I get to take road trip and see my mother-in-law and son.

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.

Spring Colors: Coronavirus Chronicles, Part 37

Tuesday: Easter Eggs (Blue, Green, Pink, Yellow, Purple, Orange)

The second night we were back from Deep Creek was a Tuesday, which is family activity night, and it was Beth’s turn to choose. She went with dyeing Easter eggs. Last year when Noah was unexpectedly home for this endeavor, I told him it was nice to have him here, but I hoped he wouldn’t be doing it with us next spring. Oh, naïve early pandemic self… I think I said the same thing when we carved jack-o-lanterns in October, by which point I should have known better. So this time I didn’t jinx him and I did not comment on his presence or speculate on when he might go back to school. It’s strange starting the second round of annual milestones, like the spring birthdays and Easter, but that’s where we are, at least for now. I have to say, though, being vaccinated and seeing the numbers of vaccines administered go up every day does make it seem like there’s light at the end of the tunnel, even though I know there’s still a long way to go.

We dyed the eggs a wide spectrum of pastel and deeper shades and then we decorated them. We have a collection of little felt hats we put on Easter eggs and three of our eight eggs sported those, with stickers for facial features. A couple of the eggs were adorned with stickers of butterflies, ladybugs, flowers, and the sun, for a spring theme. North made a trans flag egg, for International Trans Day of Visibility, carefully dyeing each stripe and letting it dry before applying the next one. It came out really well.

Wednesday: Vaccinations (Red, Gold, Black and White)

The next day, Beth and I set out around 9:40 to drive to Hagerstown. Our appointments were at 11:30 and 11:45 and we didn’t want to be late. It started to rain about halfway through the hour and fifteen minute drive to the mass vax site, a big empty room that used to be a furniture store showroom. We waited in the car for a while to avoid arriving too early (per the instructions), but around 11:10, we went inside, where we progressed through various checkpoints where our QR codes were scanned and our identification checked, and we answered some health-related questions. The QR code was scanned at every stop, at least three times, maybe four. I guess they didn’t want anyone without an appointment sneaking in. There was virtually no wait, other than going through the stations, even though we were early. In fact, we were moving along so briskly I slipped and almost fell on the wet floor where people had tracked in the rain. By 11:25, Beth and I were both vaccinated and sitting in folding chairs in the post-vaccination observation area. We were out of there in forty minutes total, including a visit to the restroom afterward and a stop at the selfie station. The letter O in the GoVax sign is in the colors of the Maryland flag, for all you non-Marylanders.

It was still raining when we left the shopping center. We’d planned to have a picnic lunch and we were going through with it, 55-degree, rainy weather and all. Beth had located a state park with tables under shelters. We got drive-through Greek food and ate our veggie gyros, cheese pie, Greek salad, and baklava, while watching the rain fall on the lake at Greenbrier State Park. We could see fish jumping out of the water and three ducks swimming and a gull circling around over the lake. The whole time we were there I saw one other person, a man walking alone on the beach in the distance. It was a very covid experience.

Back on the road, Beth saw a sign for a Krispy Kreme and remembered you can get a free doughnut if you show them your vaccination card, so it seemed incumbent on us to do that. You should know you don’t get a choice of flavors if you’re planning to take advantage of this offer. It’s all glazed. I saved mine for later, as I’d already had dessert and Beth gave hers to the kids to split when we got home. There was a Starbucks and a Mom’s Organic Market in the same shopping center, so I got a honey-almond milk flat white and Beth got a few groceries we needed.

I had only very mild soreness in my arm that evening, not bad enough to stop me from sleeping on my side. I was kind of foggy-minded the next day, but it might have been because I was up earlier than usual two days in a row. Beth said she had some aches and pains but nothing outside the usual range, so neither of us knew if we had any side effects. And because it was the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, we don’t need a second dose.

On Thursday, Governor Hogan opened preregistration to all Marylanders sixteen and up, and Noah registered that very day.

Saturday: Cherry Blossoms (White and Pink)

The cherry blossoms in D.C. peaked the weekend we were in Deep Creek and we weren’t able to get to the National Arboretum to see them until the following weekend. We’d decided not go to the Tidal Basin because the path is quite narrow and it’s really impossible to avoid close contact with other people when it’s crowded. And it’s almost always crowded when the cherries are in bloom, unless you’ve missed the peak by quite a bit or it’s pouring rain. The Park Service was discouraging people from going down there, although as far as I know, they didn’t actually close it off, like they did last year.

We found the National Arboretum an acceptable substitute last year, so we went there again this year. Beth wanted to go in the morning and when the teens were unenthused about her plan to leave the house at 9:30 on a Saturday morning, she bribed them with the promise of Starbucks. Now you know what to offer my kids if you want them to do something–they’ll do it for an iced almond milk latte with toffee syrup, a doughnut, and some lemon poundcake.

There are more kinds of cherry trees at the Arboretum than at the Tidal Basin, so the bloom is less synchronous. Beth printed out information about the different kinds of trees for a self-guided tour and sure enough, the trees the pamphlet identified as early bloomers were all finished and leafing out, the middle ones were either at or past peak, and the late bloomers were still tightly budded. We walked for over an hour among the pretty white and pink blooms in the bright sunshine of an April morning.

It’s been a very cheering week. I hope you are feeling of some of the hope of early spring, too. Happy Passover and Happy Easter!

What Happens in the Cabin: Coronavirus Chronicles, Part 36

The kids don’t have spring break at the same time this year, partly because Noah doesn’t have a spring break at all. Like many colleges, Ithaca canceled break to discourage the students who are in residence from leaving campus and coming back with contagion. Instead of ending the semester a week early, though, they spread five “rest days” throughout the semester and one of them fell on the first Monday of North’s break, so we decided to plan a three-day getaway to Western Maryland, where we rented a cabin near Deep Creek Lake.

Friday

We arrived around six o’clock, after a three-hour drive that ended with an ascent up a steep gravel road. There were a lot of lake-themed or cabin-themed plaques on the walls, like several in each room. You see that sometimes in beach houses, but this was more over the top than usual. Two of them said, “What Happens in the Cabin, Stays in the Cabin.” Well, not much I can’t tell you about happened while we were there, no drunken shenanigans or drug-fueled hijinks, so I will proceed as usual.

After we explored the cabin and its deck overlooking the lake, we ordered pizza, (and calzone, spinach salad, and four slices of cake) from a pizzeria just down the hill. It was six-thirty by the time we submitted the order and we were surprised when the website gave a pickup time of 7:55. Beth even called to make sure that was accurate, but it was, so those of us who were already hungry snacked on fruit I’d brought from home and we watched the rest of Boy Erased. Then Beth and I went to get the food and we had a fashionably late dinner. Later Noah and I watched a couple episodes of Death Note and discussed the dearth of decent female characters in it—a shame, since it’s otherwise a good show, if supernatural anime seems as if it would appeal.

Saturday

Beth was up early and ate her breakfast on the deck and then went for a walk. When everyone was up and had ordered groceries, she left to go shopping. Noah and I were reading The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes when my phone buzzed. It was a text from the state of Maryland asking if I wanted to schedule an appointment for a covid vaccination. I certainly did! When Beth got home with the groceries I asked her to check her texts and she had an identical one. Beth and I were pre-registered with both the county and the state and if we’d waited for a county appointment, we would have gotten one closer to home—this one was an hour and fifteen minutes away in Hagerstown—but we didn’t care. We weren’t turning down a bird in hand for two in the bush. This was our ticket to see our mothers for the first time since July 2019 (mine) and December 2019 (Beth’s). Almost two months ago we rented a beach house with room for ten for a week in July, taking a gamble that all the adults would be vaccinated by then. At the time, none of us were, but now both of our mothers are, and my mother’s boyfriend is, and soon we would be, too. So now we know at least our family and the grandmothers will be there.

After everyone had eaten lunch and Noah had flown his drone off the deck over the lake, we set out for Swallow Falls State Park to see waterfalls. There are a few in the park, but we’d decided on Muddy Falls (the biggest one) and Swallow Falls (the one that gave the park its name). North wanted to know why the park wasn’t named after the biggest fall and Beth ventured a guess that Swallow Falls sounded more euphonious than Muddy Falls.

I was pretty sure we’d been to this park when the kids were two and a half and seven and a half, but when I saw Muddy Falls I knew for sure. I remembered toddler North, who must have never seen a big waterfall, kept exclaiming, “The water is slipping down!” and that later we got grocery store cupcakes for Noah’s half-birthday. It was the first week of November and we got clearance Halloween cupcakes with spiders on them, which delighted him. So that was a nice little trip down memory lane. It made me wonder what I will remember about this trip, twelve and half years from now.

North opted to stay on the observation platform while Beth, Noah, and I climbed down the wooden stairs for a better view of the bottom of the falls. The steps and the ground below were quite muddy and Noah said he saw where the falls got their name. Later I heard a stranger make the exact same joke. The falls aren’t as big as Blackwater, but they are still quite pretty.

We came back up the stairs, collected North, and walked to another observation area for the same falls, then we proceeded to Swallow Falls, leaving North at one of those big stone picnic shelters with fireplaces at each end that you see at state parks all over the country, thanks to the Civilian Conservation Corps. Meanwhile, Beth, Noah, and I went down to see the second waterfall. This one had a lot of boulders you could walk out on for different views. There was a young woman far below us in what appeared to be a prom dress, having her photo taken.

There were signs for one more waterfall, but I didn’t suggest we go, as it had been a lot of up and down climbing and North was waiting for us. We walked back to the shelter and Noah and I kept North company while Beth went to get the car and we came home, ordered dinner (so we could get it before eight this time), and Beth, Noah, and I set out for Garret State Forest, where we hiked the Maze Rock Trail. I highly recommend this trail, if you ever find yourself in Western Maryland. You can wander through these narrow alleys between boulders covered in green and rust-colored moss. The temperature drops immediately when you slip between the rocks (which would be nice in summer). Noah flew his drone off the top of one of the boulders. I was sorry the hike was beyond North’s current capabilities. Even though they’ve made great strides, they still miss a lot, not being very mobile.

Beth picked up dinner shortly after we got back, but both the kids had ordered baked ziti and before they were a couple bites in, North discovered pork in it and we had to order new meals for them. (We’d missed the pork in the menu description, as baked ziti is usually a safe vegetarian choice, although when it isn’t, the culprit is usually beef.) As Noah was getting stuffed shells as his second choice meal and that’s what I had, I split mine with him while we waited for the new food and then we split his when it came. North made do with bread and salad until Beth fetched the new food.

After dinner we had a campfire in the firepit by the house and made S’mores for the second time in a week, which is considerably more than our usual allotment of S’mores. I had another chance to get one perfect and didn’t quite achieve it. Vegetarian marshmallows don’t melt quite as well as the standard ones, but I did get one toasted on the outside, and about half-melted inside. The other one burned on top, but wasn’t too bad. It was nice to sit outside and watch the fire. I tossed some dry leaves in as kindling and became fascinated with how the burned away to their network of stem and veins inside, which would glow red before collapsing into ash. I kept throwing in more to see that. We went inside and watched a couple episodes of Blackish and then Beth and Noah watched For All Mankind while I took a bath.

Sunday

The next morning was rainy and gloomy. Beth took a walk because she’s admirably dedicated to her morning walk. (I am, too, but for me it’s a weekday thing.) In the afternoon she went to visit a former colleague who lives in the area now and they had another long walk in the woods on his property. The rest of us had a lazy day in the cabin. Noah and I read two more chapters of our book, I wrote most of this, and in the mid-afternoon, I made myself a cup of hot chocolate with marshmallows, wrapped myself in a blanket and for a solid three hours, I read The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl on the couch. Occasionally, I’d look out at the lake and notice a fog had rolled in or back out or that there were tiny little whitecaps on its usually still surface. The reason I stopped reading when I did was because the power went out around 5:30 and the book has long chapters and I didn’t want to get stuck mid-chapter when it got dark.

Beth found out from the power company that the outage had been reported and the estimate for recovery of power was 9:30 p.m. We were glad it wouldn’t be out overnight because it was supposed to go down to the twenties and the cabin probably wasn’t well-insulated. As it turned out, the power came back on at 7:00 and Beth was able to cook her planned dinner of chili and cornbread and Beth and I were able to attend an informational meeting about North’s sleepaway camp (which seems like it will be in session) and Noah, Beth, and I were able to watch an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (we’re in the second season now).

Monday

We didn’t have to be out of the house until one p.m., so the next morning Noah and I watched an episode of Death Note and then around eleven, Beth and I went for a walk in Deep Creek State Park. The two-mile trail we took went parallel to the lake alongside the bottom of a hill for a while and then there was a series of switchbacks to rise up the slope until the path straightened out and covered the same ground it had before except higher up. We might have taken the spur that goes to an old mine but it was getting late and I hadn’t packed, so we headed back to the cabin, where we packed, ate lunch, and cleaned, as directed by the host.

On the way out of town, we stopped at a coffeeshop. Noah and I went in while Beth and North stayed in the car and I was startled when North casually asked me pick up an iced mocha for them. I’m just not used to hearing that. It seems very grown up, especially since Noah doesn’t like coffee and doesn’t drink it.

We drove a few hours, got home in the late afternoon, and spring was bursting out all over. I mean, there were a lot of flowers already in bloom (daffodils and hyacinth) when we left, but only one cherry tree on our block had petals and it was the one that always blooms early. When we got back the whole block was a riot of puffy pale pink blossoms. Plus, my herb garden had visibly progressed and I haven’t even planted anything new this year. I have rosemary that overwintered (with the occasional night inside), plus chives, mint, oregano, parsley, and thyme all coming back. Oh, and there are doves nesting on our porch again, for the fourth spring in a row.

I don’t know if it was the get-away, the exuberant new life all around me, or both, but I felt lighter than I have in several weeks. And today, just two days after we returned from our cabin in the woods, Beth and I drove west again for our vaccinations.

Ready for Fifteen: Coronavirus Chronicles, Part 35

A few weeks ago, North said that sometimes when they have a birthday they feel as if they just had one, but now “I feel like I’ve been fourteen forever. I’m ready for fifteen-year-old North.”  Well, fifteen-year-old North is here, as of Tuesday.

They did not have a slumber party this year, just as they did not last year, for the obvious reason. The first time it happened we felt really sorry for them, thinking their birthday poorly timed, and we made promises about a make-up slumber party later, even as they celebrated with their friends, who came one at a time to visit with them on the porch and eat cake. Now that everyone in the world has had a pandemic birthday, it doesn’t seem like as much of a hardship, although I suppose those of us with spring (and summer?) birthdays will have the misfortune of having two pandemic birthdays. Anyway, North traded the make-up slumber party for an outdoor half-birthday party (with several guests allowed to come simultaneously) in late September, when it had become apparent that restrictions weren’t ending any time soon.

Saturday Afternoon: S’mores

For North’s fifteenth birthday, they had two small celebrations. Over a month ago, Beth made a reservation for one of Montgomery County’s Picnic in the Parks Warm Up Days for the Saturday before North’s birthday. You can rent a portable firepit and up to six chairs or a picnic table with a patio heater for an hour and a half in one of two parks. County employees come by periodically to tend the fire for you.  The program started in February and the last one is next Saturday. I think all the slots are reserved, but it might be worth checking for cancellations if you’re interested. There was one empty firepit when we were there and neither of the tables was in use.

North decided they wanted the whole family to attend. That left two more people and after Zoë, they couldn’t think of anyone they wanted to invite without leaving other people out, so we were a party of five. When Zoë’s dad dropped her off, North yelled across the parking lot, “Look, it’s my best friend!”

Wheaton Local Park is a narrow field between Georgia Avenue and the Wheaton Public Library parking lot. Its winter-brown grass was dotted with campfires ringed with people. At first it felt funny to have a campfire so close to a busy thoroughfare and not a more sylvan location, but eventually you forgot about the traffic and focused on being outside on a beautiful day with a fire to watch (or I did). We didn’t really need the fire for heat, though, as the day was sunny and in the fifties. Most of us didn’t even wear jackets and Zoë was in a t-shirt.

We’d brought takeout from California Tortilla and so we ate that, and then we made S’mores. The fire was really hot, which made it hard to toast the marshmallows without burning them. My first attempt was black and bubbly on the outside and reasonably melted inside and my second was perfectly browned on the outside and raw inside. North achieved perfection after abandoning their first, burned marshmallow, which Zoë deemed good enough to eat. Noah busily made and ate more S’mores than I could count.

Noah took some pictures and when I told North and Zoë to put their masks back on so they could get closer, I said something I sometimes say to my kids when I take a picture of them together—“Look like you like each other.”

“We do like each other!” North exclaimed. And they do. They’ve know each other since they were on a kindergarten basketball team together, the Pandas, as long-time readers may recall. (Zoë was only on the team that first season, but North was a Panda through fifth grade and the team went on to play for three more years.) North and Zoë became good friends after attending basketball camp together the summer they were six and they’ve been best friends since sixth grade. While we sat by the fire, they reminisced about the Spanish immersion trip they took to Colombia the spring of seventh grade and talked about which classes they like this year and which ones they don’t like and what they will take next year in tenth grade. A (mostly fond) conversation about the mother of a mutual friend left me wondering if North’s friends ever talk about me, and if so, what they say.

If they do, they probably say that I am very strict about what movies and television North can watch. North mentioned that when they turn fifteen they can watch some carefully selected R-rated movies and Zoë said they watched Spinal Tap when they were ten, but she didn’t understand it. I said Noah’s first R-rated movie was probably something he watched for school because he was assigned to watch a lot of movies when he was in a communications magnet in high school and he said, yes, it was The Matrix, which he watched in ninth grade. North went on to list their first PG-13 movie, School of Rock, which I let them watch when they were eleven because they were acting in the play (they had to wait two years to watch any others), and their first PG movie, which was Frozen, which they had to wait to see for several months after it came out because they weren’t eight yet, even though all their friends had already seen it. I think this kind of deprivation helps build character or perhaps it will fuel their art when they return to acting.

Tuesday Morning: Caramel Macchiato

Three days later, North turned fifteen. They dressed for the occasion in a lavender long-sleeved t-shirt and a short gray jumper, both of which are hand-me-downs from me. I recently let them shop my closet because I have a lot of clothes I don’t wear anymore, but it’s still startling to see them in those clothes, especially the jumper, which I mostly wore during the Clinton administration. It drives it home how much closer they are to being in their twenties than I am.

In between their sculpture and biology classes, we walked to Starbucks so they could claim their birthday reward. They had their first cup of coffee, another new fifteen-year-old privilege. They got a caramel macchiato and a doughnut. I had a latte and a birthday cake pop because I can be literal like that. On the walk there we talked about past birthdays, when they were two and had an Easter birthday (which they say they remember), when they were five and the birthday theme was butterflies and birds and we took their birthday party guests on a birdwatching walk, and their first slumber party, when they were eight. They said wistfully that they hope to have another slumber party someday.

Tuesday Afternoon and Evening: Cake

After school, Zoë, Miles, and Maddie came over for cake. It was another warm and sunny day, which was a stroke of luck as the weather can be iffy this time of year. The guests arrived at three and around three-thirty, Beth, Noah, and I joined them in the back yard for cake, ice cream, and lemonade. The cake was strawberry with strawberry-cream cheese frosting and as I was setting out plates, forks, glasses, etc., Zoë was talking up Beth’s cake, saying she always makes good cakes for North’s birthdays. I guess she’d know, having been to all of North’s birthday parties since first grade. While they ate the cake, North and their guests reminisced about Rainbow Alliance at the middle school North and Zoë used to attend and Miles and Maddie still do (well, virtually). They were all members and it’s where they became a friend group. After we’d finished our cake, the mothers and brother went back inside.

I made a tater tot-topped vegetarian chicken casserole for dinner, because it’s a favorite of North’s. They opened presents after dinner. They’d already received money from both grandmothers. First they opened a set of scented candles from one of their friends: lavender, fig, lemon, and spring. Noah wanted to know if that last one smelled like asparagus, but North said it was floral. Next they opened a graphic novel from my sister and chocolate frogs from Noah, which he got because North liked the ones they got for Valentine’s Day (they come with Harry Potter character trading cards), a tie-dyed t-shirt in rainbow stripes, some red-and-white striped summer pajamas, and a rose and black modest bathing suit from me and Beth. But the big hit was a membership to the Donor Sibling Registry, which they can use to locate and contact half-siblings from their donor. This is something they’ve been wanting to do for a while. That evening the kids had seconds on cake while we watched the first hour of Boy Erased, North’s first rated-R movie. We’ll try to finish it sometime this week.

After two low-key birthdays, North says for their sixteenth birthday they want to “go all out.” I’m not sure what that means, but I guess we have a year to find out. Still, there was plenty of sweetness in this one and not just the sugary treats.