Happy Mother’s Day, Happy Birthday: Coronavirus Chronicle, Part 7

“Happy Mother’s Day”

Sunday morning Beth and I exchanged Mother’s Day greetings hours before we saw either of the kids. Beth set the alarm for 6:45 and she was out the door to go grocery shopping by 7:30. She likes to get there early, before it’s too crowded. Noah emerged from his room around 9:50 and said “Hi” to me.

“What’s the first thing you should say to me today?” I whispered in his ear, despite the fact that there was no one else in the room.

“Happy birthday?” he guessed.

“No, that’s tomorrow,” I said.

“Happy Mother’s Day!” he said and then in his own defense, “I just woke up.”

The kids were watching Portlandia a little while later and I reminded them that if they had anything they needed to wrap, they should do so. They both needed to wrap. Shipping delays waylaid North’s Mother’s Day gift to Beth and Noah forgot to change his default address when he ordered mine so it got sent to the Ithaca College mailroom, from which he is valiantly trying to rescue it. But luckily North’s gift for me and Noah’s for Beth arrived so we each had something to unwrap. I certainly can’t complain about late presents, given that the last of the books I got Noah came today and his new pajamas haven’t come yet and his birthday was nine days ago.

Anyway, I got a coffee table book about growing and cooking with herbs from North. This was nice because over the years my gardening has gotten more herb-centric, as I lose patience with other plants and their pests and diseases. Noah got Beth a jar of cherry salsa (a favorite of hers) and bottle of cherry syrup to use for homemade soda or ice cream topping. 

In the afternoon Beth and I took Noah out to fly his camera drone. It felt really strange to get in the car, as I don’t think I’ve been inside it since March. It was even stranger when the car started moving and I was suddenly more than a mile from my house, an area which apparently still exists. I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to see Interstate 270. The ever-present signs saying “STAY HOME/SAVE LIVES/ESSENTIAL TRAVEL ONLY” gave me only small twinges of guilt.

First we tried a state park about twenty minutes from home, but when we got to the entrance it was blocked by park police cars and there was a sign that said PARK CLOSED. We’d checked before we left and the web site it was open, so Beth guessed they were only letting a set number of people inside at a time and it was at capacity. Whatever the reason, we needed to find another place to fly. We tried a nearby air park for model airplanes and drones, but you have to be a member or be admitted as a guest and no one there was authorized to admit a guest, so we left. We passed by a county park with park police in the parking lot. Finally, the fourth place we stopped, a little county park, was unguarded and didn’t look too crowded. It consisted of a field big enough to accommodate two soccer fields (the goals were still there, but without the netting) and a path that led into the woods where people were running, walking, and biking.

One family was picnicking at the far side of the field and a man was tossing a baseball to a boy with a bat at the other end. We found a spot in the middle far away from either of these groups, and Noah set up the drone and practiced flying it and filming with it. It was a beautiful sunny day and the footage he got came out very clear, even when the drone was high above us. He practiced takeoff and landing a few times, maneuvered it through one of the soccer goals, and took a picture of the three of us with it. After he was done, we took a walk on the path through the woods. It was a nice outing.

“Happy Birthday”

The next day was my birthday. Celebrating our third semi-quarantined birthday in the span of seven weeks (fourteen, nineteen, and fifty-three) made me think about my own fourteenth and nineteenth birthdays. The fourteenth was memorable. It happened during a trip my mom and ten-year-old sister and I took to Disney World and the Gulf coast of Florida with my mother’s boyfriend and his son, who was my sister’s age. I think it was a test run to see how we’d be as a family. This turned out to be moot, as Mom and Bill eventually broke up. (She married my stepfather Jim three years after the Disney trip.) Even though the relationship didn’t last, I remember it as a happy trip.

I have no real memory of my nineteenth birthday, but it must have been unsatisfactory because I complained so much about having a birthday that was always going to fall either during reading period or exams for all four years of college that my friend Jim threw me a surprise birthday party four months to the day before my twentieth birthday.

I suppose fifty-three will be memorable in its own way. It began with Noah enthusiastically greeting me, “Happy birthday!” seemingly pleased to have gotten it right. I didn’t have a lot of work, so I spent the morning doing laundry, reading Jeanette Winterson’s Passion on the porch, and riding the stationary bike in the basement.

We decided to have cake and presents after lunch so we could have dessert after lunch and dinner. “That’s a great idea!” Beth exclaimed when I proposed it. She’d made the cake—a lemon cake with strawberry frosting—the day before so it was ready. I almost forgot I’d asked Beth to buy supplies—brie, apricot jam, and rosemary crackers—for a special birthday lunch until I was already heating up leftovers and Beth reminded me. We all ate our separate lunches and then I opened my presents, which were mostly books from Beth and my mom: Stephen King’s If It Bleeds, Theodora Goss’s European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, and Philip Roth’s Nemesis. (Later in the day Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad arrived.) Noah printed out a down-payment on his gift, the first five chapters of The Island of Dr. Moreau, which is on its way. North got me a color-changing mug. It’s black but when you put a warm beverage in it, you see the boy in the yellow slicker and the balloon from It. It was a nice collection of gifts. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of having a big stack of books you want to read, especially now.

After we’d eaten the cake (delicious as always), Beth went back to work and the kids and I walked to the Starbucks in Langley Park, which just re-opened last week. It’s carryout only and you order on the app. We carried everything home because you can’t go in the store. They’ve put a table in the doorway and you pick up your order there. The walk was about as long as my usual morning walk (a half hour round trip) but it felt longer because I was actually going somewhere, not just wandering. When we got home I sat on the porch again, scrolled through Facebook birthday greetings on my phone, and sipped my first latte since March, very slowly to make it last.

My mom called with birthday wishes and then I did a little work, writing a blog post about coffee and heart health, and then Noah and I read a chapter of The Martian (a book we started before either of our birthdays) and watched most of an episode of The Magicians. Dinner arrived before we’d quite finished. It was a feast of Mexican food—I had tortilla chips with salsa, salad with mango and avocado, spinach enchiladas, pineapple juice, and tres leches cake (I was so full had to save the cake for later in the evening).

Noah had an evening class to attend (his last of the semester) and the rest of us watched an episode of Gilmore Girls, which we recently started.

Now we are finished with the spring birthday season at our house. This is what we know about the rest of the spring and the summer:

  • North won’t be going back to school, at least not middle school. We found out last week that the rest of the school year will be online. North’s sad about not getting a chance to say a proper goodbye to their teachers, their school, and their classmates who will be going to different high schools.
  • We still don’t know when Noah can get his belongings out of his dorm room. There was an online meeting about it on Thursday and Noah attended but he said he didn’t learn much. We know some things about how it will work—it will be done over the course of a few weeks, you need to make an appointment, you can only have one person beside yourself in your room helping you pack—but we don’t know when it will be, which is, of course, what everyone cares about the most. (Meanwhile Noah turned in his last assignment—an infographic about climate change for his environmental science class—yesterday and took his first exam today. He has two more this week and then he will be finished.)
  • Beth’s office has pushed back the date she’ll be going back to the office a couple times, from early May to late May to two weeks after Washington, DC lifts its stay-at-home directive, whenever that is.
  • Takoma Park has cancelled its Fourth of July parade and fireworks. This decision was made largely for financial reasons, because of the strain the pandemic has put on the city budget. Apparently something similar happened during WWII.
  • My sister’s wedding has been postponed until summer 2021. We are sorry, but not surprised, as airline travel this summer seems pretty dicey. Meanwhile North’s been wanting to shave their head and I was making them wait until after the wedding, so now we’ve ordered clippers and Beth’s going to do it when school’s out, as a way of marking the end of the middle school.
  • Two of North’s camps (chorus camp in late July and sleep-away camp in mid-August) have cancelled. Drama camp (in early July) might still happen, but honestly, it seems unlikely. The one North was really hoping to attend was sleep-away camp, as it’s the only time they see those friends, but the camp is planning some online events so campers can connect. It’s also insisting on calling it an “intermission” instead of a cancellation. This seems a little precious to me.
  • Because we no longer need to find the money for four airline tickets to Oregon this summer, we decided to look into renting a house at the beach. However, when I contacted the realty we usually use and asked what kinds of circumstances the travel insurance would cover, the answer was you can only get a refund if someone in your party has covid and can’t travel because of that. Beach closures and/or travel bans aren’t covered unless you purchased the insurance in January or earlier. Considering the beach in Rehoboth is closed now, it didn’t seem prudent to go ahead and rent a house, despite the realtor’s assertion that everything would probably be back to normal by mid-June. (My interpretation of this was that it was wishful thinking on her part or maybe just what her bosses are making her say.) We may revisit this question later, if the situation improves in Maryland and Delaware and we feel safe traveling late in the summer. From the realty website, it looks as if there are more vacancies than usual this time of year, so it might be possible to get a house even if we wait.

As for the fall, your guess is as good as mine, but I hope the kids will go back to school (unless Noah decides to take the semester off to volunteer for a campaign, which he was already considering pre-corona). The school district is considering a bunch of different options, including a hybrid in-person and remote schedule, with various plans for staggered attendance. 

One little wish I have for fall is that on Beth’s fifty-fourth birthday in November we can go out to dinner, if that’s what she wants.

Hey, Nineteen: Coronavirus Chronicles, Part 6

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?)

Instead we had another quarantined birthday to celebrate. We started two days early, on Friday when we were ordering takeout pizza and Beth offered to let him pick the restaurant, since it was almost his birthday. He chose Mama Lucia. We ate at the backyard table, right before we walked around the Maypole.

I guess I should back up a little here. It was May Day (Beltane) and North is celebrating the Wiccan holidays these days. The night before Beltane was their night to cook, so they made a meal of traditional Beltane foods—bread with honey butter, onion and goat cheese tarts, and strawberries. They also wanted to make a Maypole. They weren’t sure if they could entice any of the rest of the family to actually dance around it so they asked if we’d walk around it and we all consented. Beth helped construct the pole, by chopping down a weed tree from the back of the yard and making a garland of buttercups to top it.

After a leisurely dinner of garlic knots, fried mozzarella, sautéed spinach, and pizza, North played a Beltane song about the May Lord and the May Lady on their phone and we took turns walking around the pole and wrapping the ribbons around it. It was fun.

We ate in the yard again the next night. We often get Thai the night before Noah’s birthday because Beth and I went out for Thai the night before he was born, three weeks early. We told the story he’s heard many times—how it was the last day of classes that semester and I went to the obstetrician later in the day and he said, “This baby’s not coming any time soon,” and I thought that was good, because I had a pile of final papers to grade. Beth and I had dinner on the balcony of a Thai restaurant near our apartment in the city. (A crowded little balcony, close to other people! The mind reels.) That night, around eleven-thirty, my water broke. When I mentioned we were in bed but hadn’t yet fallen asleep, North exclaimed at us being up so late. It’s true, we used to go to bed at eleven or later, which would be quite a late night for us now. Noah was born around six o’clock the following evening. I graded some of the papers in the hospital.

On Sunday, Beth went grocery shopping early in the morning to avoid the crowds, as is her wont these days. She was out the door before anyone else was out of bed. It was a successful run; she found tofu and Noah’s preferred brand of pasta sauce, both of which have been scarce lately. Because he asked, we’re having pasta for dinner all next week, so we needed the sauce. Beth said it was “a birthday miracle” for Noah.

After she’d returned, I’d put the groceries away, and Noah had eaten breakfast, he opened presents. He got a book called Cinemaps, which consists of maps of the sets of thirty-five movies, with color-coded lines showing where each character goes over the course of the movie. North chose it for him and it’s really cool. He also got an Amazon gift card, an iPad cover, and his big present—a camera drone.

He has more presents coming. Some of his gifts from relatives haven’t arrived. And due to a miscommunication, I only discovered he had a wish list of books two days before his birthday, so none of the ones I ordered arrived on time, but I’d been wanting to buy him books and I went a little crazy and ordered seven novels for him. Finally, he left all his summer clothes and pajamas at school when he thought he was leaving for a week (way back in early March). He has a bunch of t-shirts he left  at home when he left for college and we bought him shorts already, but he still needed short pajamas. There’s a certain brand he likes (and he owns five pairs—all at school) so I was waiting to see if we could possibly get up to Ithaca before it gets hot here. But right before his birthday we found out the date students can come collect their belongings from dorms has been pushed back from mid-May to sometime in June at the earliest. So I ordered two pairs of pajamas to tide him over.

Over the course of the day, the birthday boy talked to my mom, Facetimed with Beth’s mom, watched Portlandia with North and The Magicians with me, and then I read the last twenty-five pages of A Gentleman in Moscow to him. (We agreed to wait for his birthday books to begin arriving until we start a new book, unless nothing gets here by next weekend.) Then he completed a short online training so he could be licensed to fly a drone.

It turns out you can’t legally fly a drone within fifteen miles of Washington, DC, for security reasons, and we live a mile or two from the border, so Beth had to research where you can fly a drone near here. She located a park near Gaithersburg with a dedicated field, but by that time it was mid-afternoon and she was busy making his birthday cake (chocolate with strawberry frosting) and birthday dinner (spinach lasagna), and he wanted to watch a movie after dinner so we decided to go next weekend. We haven’t left the house to go anywhere except to go for short walks around the neighborhood, to the grocery store, or to run other household errands since late March, so driving out to a field to watch Noah try out his drone seems pretty darn exciting. I just hope it’s not too crowded, so we can stay.

Noah asked if he could pick a movie to watch without North getting veto power over it (as they have different taste in films, with just a little overlap) and we said yes. He chose Inception and we watched most of it. We’re going to finish it tonight.

It’s possible a day at home watching television and movies, and reading, and eating lasagna and cake and ice cream is close to the birthday Noah would have chosen for himself. He’s more of a homebody than his sibling and easy to please. It was nice to have him home today and not to have to be separated from him on his birthday for the first time. But it’s like what I told him a few weeks ago, when we were dyeing Easter eggs. “It’s nice to have you home for this and I hope next year you’re not here.”

40 Things: Coronavirus Chronicle, Part 5

By now you’ve probably read somewhere that the word “quarantine” derives from the Italian word quaranta, for forty, because forty days was the traditional length of a quarantine. Of course, we are not technically quarantined, as we go for walks, and to buy groceries, and to pick up the occasional takeout meal or garden-related item from the hardware store. But if we were quarantined and we were in Italy in the seventeenth century, today would be the last day.*

But it’s not the last day, or even close, as far as I can tell. Another forty days or more seems entirely possible. My sister was planning to get married in mid-July and she and Dave haven’t called it off yet, but that’s definitely on the table. I don’t know if North will be going to any of the three summer camps they are registered for or if I’ll see the ocean this summer. I’m not even sure if Noah will head back to Ithaca or if North will start high school in person come late August.

But to mark the fortieth day of being at home (almost all the time), here are forty things I can tell you:

  1. Now that he’s not preparing for a concert, Noah doesn’t want to play his drums. His band instructor arranged for the composer of a piece they had been working on to have an online discussion with the members of the band and I convinced him to practice the song before the discussion just to re-familiarize himself with it. I’d hoped once he started to drum, he’d want to go back down to the basement and keep noodling around, but he hasn’t. I still hope he will.
  2. I read The Plague and I am considering reading The Swiss Family Robinson, which I found in a little free library. Other topical reading suggestions?
  3. I have stopped leaving things in the fairy tree. That’s a hollow tree near the playground where people leave toys and trinkets. I’m one of the major contributors, but I’m afraid kids’ parents might not like them bringing home items they found in a public place, so I’m stashing the things North got rid of when they cleaned their room to give away later.
  4. Speaking of playgrounds, the one closest to our house is not fenced off, but a lot of playgrounds around here are. I walked through one yesterday with snow fencing or police tape around all the equipment so kids don’t climb up on it. It seemed really sad.
  5. A couple weeks ago I planted cilantro, parsley, cucumber, kale, sunflower, and zinnia seeds. Not a single one germinated, though we have some volunteer cilantro coming up in a pot in which a cilantro plant went to seed last summer. I have since replanted most of these herbs, vegetables, and flowers.
  6. Speaking of gardening, some neighbors put out a bunch of terra cotta pots on the curb to give away and I almost took them but wondered if I should be touching them. By the time I decided I could just wash my hands when I got home and leave the pots in the yard and not touch them for a few days, someone else had taken them all.
  7. North successfully trimmed Beth’s hair.
  8. North, with some help from Beth, hand sewed cloth masks for all four of us.
  9. When we dyed Easter eggs, two of them wore tiny masks, too, made from scraps of the same fabric.
  10. The kids’ preschool teacher put out a call for current students and alumni to make and photograph themselves wearing flower crowns so she could make an album for Earth Day. North made a crown and they both posed in it. I think it’s possible Lesley is one of just a handful of people in the world Noah would do this for.
  11. In other Earth Day news, I made the Enchanted Broccoli Forest (a rice-based casserole with broccoli trees standing up in it) from the cookbook of the same name for Earth Day dinner. The only problem was I misremembered when Earth Day actually was and I served it two days early. In my defense, it is really hard to keep track of what day it is these days, isn’t it?
  12. We are still watching a lot of television. This was bothering me at the beginning, but I’m just leaning into it now. Now Beth’s the one suggesting we should maybe do some other things together.
  13. And that’s why we played Cards Against Humanity on Wednesday night. We played the family-friendly version because the kids have both played the original version with friends and they agreed they did not want to play it with their parents. You can print the cards for free here. It says it’s designed for kids eight and up, but be warned if you have kids that age, it’s more scatological than I would have liked when my kids were in elementary school. Beth won and she won big, leaving the rest of us in her dust.
  14. North wanted to paint a mural on our backyard fence, so Beth offered to buy a piece of plywood we could hang on the fence for painting. North put a coat of white paint on it yesterday.
  15. North’s been baking a lot. They’ve made a couple of cakes and yesterday they made banana bread with pancake mix because we’re running short on flour. When we get some more, they are going to make sourdough bread. (A friend of ours from college sent us some dehydrated starter in the mail.)
  16. We also need to save flour for Noah’s birthday cake and mine because we’ve got a couple more quarantined birthdays coming up in the next few weeks.
  17. It’s pleasant to think about where I’d like to get takeout on my birthday, and not to decide, so I can think about it some more.
  18. I have days when, despite the fact that we’re all well, and Beth and I both have work and we haven’t lost any income, and the kids are managing their own online schooling so we can work more easily than people with small kids at home, and I know we’re lucky (relatively speaking), this still seems really hard.
  19. I also have days when it feels almost normal.
  20. Sometimes I feel sorry for Noah, losing half a semester of being at college, because it was such an intense and special part of my life and I don’t want him to miss any of it.
  21. Sometimes I feel sorry for North because chances are they won’t get to go back to school and enjoy all the end-of-middle-school events they were looking forward to.
  22. It’s strange not to have North’s friends around.
  23. But in addition to their classes, they have had Zoom meetings with Rainbow Alliance (their school’s gay-straight alliance) and the trans kids’ support group that usually meets once a month at Children’s National Medical Center. I eavesdropped a little on the Rainbow Alliance meeting, though I’m not sure it counts as eavesdropping when North chose to do it in the living room, where I work, without headphones.
  24. It’s not easy working in the living room under these circumstances, but it’s easier than I feared at the beginning.
  25. Sometimes it feels kind of cozy to all be home together, especially since Noah has a light class load this semester and when he’s not smothered in work like he was in middle and high school, we can all hang out together, watching a lot of television or playing card games that revolve around poop jokes.
  26. He’s also more available for chores than he was in high school, so I haven’t mowed the lawn or vacuumed once this spring.
  27. These last two items together makes this time feel almost like a small do-over for a lot of what we all missed during his teen years.
  28. We are still generating an astonishing amount of dishes, but the fact that the kids are both doing more around the house and yard than usual gives me time to devote to more or less constantly cleaning up the kitchen.
  29. The kids have also tackled some chores that don’t get done very often, like window washing and cleaning cobwebs out of corners.
  30. Spring is still very pretty here. We’ve moved on to the dogwood and azalea portion of it, but I’m not taking as many pictures of flowers these days. At some point, it stopped cheering me up.
  31. I still miss going out for coffee, the whole ritual of it, sitting in a public place and sipping a latte and reading a book.
  32. I miss swimming.
  33. And book club.
  34. I am writing a lot of get-out-the-vote and voter registration postcards, which helps me think positive thoughts about the future. I was really pleased when Jill Karofsky won her state Supreme Court seat in Wisconsin, both because I wrote a big batch for her campaign and because the race was so important. Yesterday I did a small batch encouraging Floridians to enroll in Vote By Mail. I would have done more, but I’m running low on both postcards and stamps.
  35. I miss those of you I used to see in person.
  36. If we’re internet friends, I’m enjoying your blog posts and feeling more connected than ever as I read them, as we are all going through different versions of the same thing.
  37. While I’m out on my morning walk, I smile at strangers more than I used to, as we skirt away from each other.
  38. I am grateful for doctors and nurses and other health care workers.
  39. And grocery store workers and mail carriers and other essential workers.
  40. I wish you all good health.

*I’m counting from the first weekday we were all home together. If I counted from the official stay-at-home directive, it would be a couple weeks later.

Doing Quarantine Right: Coronavirus Chronicle, Part 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Birthday,” by John Lennon and Paul McCartney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And in non-birthday related news…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything Has Changed: Coronavirus Chronicle, Part 2

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

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

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

Let’s take these one by one:

2 out of 2 people with jobs worked

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 out of 1 person who plays a musical instrument practiced

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

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

3 out of 4 people spent some time outside 

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

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

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

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

No one yelled at anyone else

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

No one cried (as far as Steph knows)

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

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