School’s Out: Coronavirus Chronicle, Part 11

School’s out for summer
School’s out forever
School’s been blown to pieces…

Out for summer
Out till fall
We might not come back at all

From “School’s Out,” by Alice Cooper

Thursday: Last Day of School

North was promoted from middle school, virtually, on Friday evening, so I guess it’s summer break now. It may be hard to tell the difference, as North’s schoolwork had been pretty minimal since it went online, but it’s a milestone nonetheless. They finished their last assignment, a short essay on the role of slavery in the Civil War, on Thursday so they could relax and celebrate all day Friday, or “North Day,” as Beth dubbed it.

We also had a telemedicine appointment Thursday at the pain clinic, with the doctor who helped set up North’s physical and aqua therapy for their last bout of chronic pain, the one that lasted from February of seventh grade to November of eighth grade. Because North mentioned some intermittent  muscle weakness and that’s a new symptom, the doctor wants to see them in person, so we made an appointment for Monday. (I can’t go because only one parent is allowed to accompany kids to the National Children’s Medical Center right now, and since Beth drives, she’s the obvious choice. I’ve been avoiding both public transportation and ride-sharing services since March, which has really curtailed my transportation options.) As much as we all wish we weren’t in this situation, it’s a good thing to be on a path to a treatment plan.

Thursday is North’s cooking night and it was also their turn to choose our weekly family activity evening, so they made cucumber-tofu sushi and then organized a scavenger hunt. Because it’s Pride month, we were searching for little colored pieces of paper in arc shapes. (They printed a rainbow and then cut it into bands and then cut each band into several short strips.) They hid them around the house and yard while Beth was sequestered in our room on a work call and Noah and I went for a short walk so we wouldn’t see them hiding the papers. When we got back, they directed the hunt from the living room couch, where they issued occasional clues. The hunt was supposed to end when someone found strips with all six colors, but time ran out and as I had five at the end, I was declared the winner.

Friday: North Day

On Friday, Beth took the day off and wore her “Let Summer Begin” t-shirt. At lunchtime we got takeout from an Italian deli and Starbucks and we all had a picnic at Wheaton Regional Park. We also let North choose the venue for takeout pizza that night (they chose Roscoe’s) and Beth made a cake—chocolate with a raspberry filling between the layers and white chocolate frosting. We stuck the numeral nine candle in it because they are now a ninth grader. When we lit the candle, I put on Elizabeth Cotten’s “Graduation March,” but because it wasn’t the more familiar “Pomp and Circumstance,” and because there was cake, the kids decided we needed to sing “Happy Promotion” to the tune of “Happy Birthday” so we did that.

When we presented North with a promotion card and gift—an iPad, with a keyboard and pencil— they were really surprised because they weren’t expecting anything. I have to admit, I felt some retrospective guilt about the fact that we didn’t get Noah anything for eighth grade promotion—and he worked so hard in middle school!—but it’s kind of late for that now. And he did get a class party on a riverboat and an in-person promotion ceremony, while North’s class trip to Six Flags was cancelled, so maybe this evens things out.

The prerecorded promotion video was supposed to be available at 6:30, but there were technical difficulties and it was 8:30 before we were able to view it. After we’d been waiting a while we started to watch The Way, Way Back, which Beth or North found in a list of coming-of-age films. (They were both looking for one because North thought it was an appropriate genre for the evening.) When we finally got the message that the promotion videos had gone live, we paused the movie to finish the next night.

The virtual promotion was a lot like an in-person promotion. There was music from the school orchestra, speeches from the principal, faculty, and students, and awards for various virtues (Caring, Thinker, etc.)  Then the names of the roughly four hundred eighth graders scrolled down the screen. Finally, there was a slideshow of photos students and parents submitted. I sent in photos of North at Outdoor Ed in the fall of sixth grade, and in chorus concerts, plays, and coffeehouses. The teacher who organized it (North’s Spanish teacher) picked four of them and Zoë sent in a few pictures of North, too, so they were well represented. I hadn’t told North I sent in pictures, so that was a surprise, too, and they seemed pleased. I think North Day was a success.

First Weekend of Summer Break

The only thing on the agenda North didn’t get a chance to do on Friday was get their head shaved, which we’d promised them they could do once the school year was over. They’ve been wanting to do it for months, but first I was making them wait until after my sister’s wedding in July and then when the wedding was postponed until next summer I proposed after promotion as a good time for it, so they could mark the end of middle school. This was back in May and they wanted to do it right away and grumbled a bit, but Beth advised them to “take the win,” and they must have seen the wisdom in that because they stopped complaining. But by the time we’d watched the promotion on Friday night, it was dark out and all quarantine hair cutting has been taking place in the back yard, so they had to wait another day, but on Saturday morning Beth shaved their head, as promised.

Today North and Zoë got together to wade in the creek and they painted their faces to mark the fact that today was supposed to be D.C. Pride, before it was cancelled. I’m glad North is able to socialize in person with Zoë now and that it’s motivating them to move a bit more, since they have to meet outside.

Summer and Fall

North will be free for a while. Starting in July, they’re going to take an online summer school class in computer science to get their tech requirement out of the way and to give them a little something to do, as other than a two-week, half-day socially distanced drama camp, also in July, they don’t have many plans. It’s unclear if  they will be going back to school in person in August. We got a message from the school district just today informing us that no decision has been made and if we’ve heard anything one way or the other, it’s just a rumor.

As for Noah, we got his academic calendar a few weeks ago. Because his college is starting in early October and ending not much later than usual, it’s compressed—with no fall break and shortened Thanksgiving, winter, and spring breaks. Students are encouraged not to go home during either the Thanksgiving or spring breaks, but that’s not mandatory. Of course, this is all assuming these plans go as currently scheduled. The School of Health is openly lobbying for a different plan for fall semester—a hybrid one in which the students start online classes in August, switch to in-person classes for October and November and then finish up at home in December. This disturbs Noah because he’s applying for summer jobs and internships and he’d like to know the exact length of his break.

Parks and Protest

Speaking of Noah, Beth and I continue to go on weekend outings with him to fly his drone. (It was probably on one of these rambles that Beth got bitten by a tick. She was diagnosed with Lyme Disease on Monday. It was her second go-around with it, so she was able to recognize the symptoms and get on medication quickly.) A week ago we went to Quiet Waters Park in Anne Arundel County, which is on the South River. The name is something of a misnomer, because there are a lot of powerboats in the river and there’s a dedicated dog beach, which is a great idea for dogs and their people, but it’s not exactly quiet.  We did find a nice open field in front of a stage and a little botanical garden, though, and these were good places for flying. Then yesterday we went to Rockburn Branch Park, in Howard County, which was notable for the fact almost no one was wearing a mask, so we gave everyone a wide berth. There are some historic houses and barns in the park and Noah flew around and over them, then we walked along some trails, and by the numerous sports facilities (baseball diamonds, soccer fields, tennis and basketball courts, and a mountain biking skills course).

We also went to a youth-organized, socially distanced march in Takoma Park a week and a day ago. I’ve been skittish about protesting, because of COVID, but this seemed like a good starter march because the crowds would not be as big as downtown and it was going to be mostly kids and their families so I thought there would be a focus on safety. The route was pretty short and close to home, so we thought North could manage at least part of it and it would be pretty easy to get them home when they were done. I also like to support youth activism in these days when we need it more than ever.

There was a good turnout (including several families we know), nearly everyone was masked (with the exception of the guy standing on the corner yelling about how Jesus was the solution) and for the most part, folks kept their distance. “Black Lives Matter” was the most popular sign, but we also saw “Stop Killing Black People,” “No Justice, No Peace,” and “Say Their Names.” I saw the younger sister of one of North’s friends carrying one that said, “My Friends’ Lives Matter.” We carried the sign North made that says “All Lives Can’t Matter Until Black Lives Do,” taking turns with it.

North walked several blocks and then wanted to sit on the curb, so I stayed with them while Beth and Noah went on. After they decided they were done and not just resting, I went to try to catch up with Beth and Noah with the plan we’d all meet back where North was waiting for us. It took a while to find each other, as the march went off-route at the end, and I went with it while Noah and Beth stayed at the official end point. But eventually we reunited. I went to the farmers’ market to get strawberries and Beth drove the kids home. The march went well enough that we feel ready to tackle another protest next weekend in Silver Spring. This one is a kneeling protest, so I’m hoping people will stake out their spots and stay put, minimizing close contact, but we’ll see.

I imagine there will be more protests this summer and more drone-flying expeditions and I hope, more physical activity for North.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are today’s Metro headlines.

“Metro reducing rail and bus services”

“Local cases: Where the area stands”

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

“This is the scariest thing”

“Buying, hoarding and some fighting, too”

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

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

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

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

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

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

How are you?

Vault Year

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some things I know:

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

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

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

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

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

Happy in Winter

Imbolc and Groundhog’s Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lunar New Year and Winter Greenhouse

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

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

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

High School Update

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

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

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

Crocuses and Poohsticks

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

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

To Everything There is a Season, Part 2

Well, it’s still October so that means we’re still awash in high school applications and Halloween preparations.

High School

This past week we went to the last two high school open houses. These were for the two schools North was most interested in, for their arts academies. One also houses a visual arts magnet, to which North is applying.

All through this process I’d been wondering, since all the high schools have some kind of arts academy, why North couldn’t just go to our home school, which is closest and very well regarded. But I kind of understand. There was definitely a difference in the way the schools present themselves at the open houses. The last two put a bigger emphasis on the arts. There were more musical, dance, and dramatic performances interspersed between the informational speeches. (Our home school had some but not as many and the school that’s known as the most STEM-focused had none.) The last school, which is North’s first choice, was also the most enthusiastic. The principal kept prompting the audience to shout that it was “the place to be” at various points in her speech. (I later commented to another parent that it wasn’t clear if it was a high school or a cult.)

There was a short break-out session for the Visual Arts Center, at which we got some useful information about the application process—mainly that the online application is due this week but the art itself doesn’t need to be submitted until December—but not much information about the program itself, which was a little frustrating. Anyway, North filled out and submitted their school rankings on Friday, the day after the last open house. Beth and I were considering telling them they had to put our home school second because if you put your home school first or second you’re guaranteed a spot and the worst outcome would be if North ended up at a school that they’re not interested in and that’s far from our house. That could happen if they don’t get into their first or second choice because our home school is the most requested school in the system and if they gave up their spot by ranking it third, there’s almost no chance they’ll go there. But they were willing to risk it, so we let them.

Halloween

Meanwhile, costume preparations have been less intense with just one kid home (and with it being the one who doesn’t get quite as angsty about what to be at that). North decided to be a doll with its mouth sewn shut this year. They created this effect by covering their mouth with a layer of latex and sewing through that. Beth and North went shopping for clothes and a pink wig at Value Village (a big thrift store up the road from us) and they bought the latex and makeup online.

On Saturday, the day of the Halloween parade, they set off for Zoë’s house and applied the makeup there because North, Zoë, and their mutual friend Norma were going to the parade together. So when Beth and I left the house it felt a bit odd to be setting out for the parade without any kids at all, and with no deliberation about whether the paint on Noah’s costume was dry enough to go in the car or not.

We met North and their friends in the parking lot of a local middle school. Zoë was a cereal killer (dressed all in black, with a balaclava and single-serving size cereal box fronts attached to her torso, and carrying a wooden knife) and Norma was Wednesday Adams. The three of them were all in black and they looked like they belonged together.

People were milling around and admiring each other’s costumes until it was time to line up by age and have the judges come inspect the costumes. There were some political costumes, but probably not as many as there will be next year—one Bernie Sanders, one Elizabeth Warren, and a baby draped in whistles, with a cape that said, “Whistleblower.” There was a mad scientist on stilts, carrying a brain in a jar and a mime wandering through the crowd. Keira, a girl who went to North’s elementary and middle school and who is now in high school, went as a college brochure, for the fictional Takoma University. Keira is a many-time costume contest winner but this year I thought her mom, who has helped with many of these costumes might give her a run for her money in the teen and adult category. She went as Rosie the robot maid from The Jetsons. Before I knew who was inside (the cylindrical cardboard headpiece completely obscured her face) I commented to Beth that no one younger than us would know who she was and sure enough, of the many people I heard compliment the costume, I don’t think one was under fifty.

I sized up the teen and adult group, wondering who North’s competition for Scariest was. I kept coming back to a man wearing an Iron Maiden t-shirt and a rubber mask that looked somewhat like the monster on it. As a family, we do not approve of awarding prizes to people in store-bought costumes and while this costume did involve putting a couple of elements together, the main part of the costume was the mask. However, I know the contest judges do not use the same rubric that the Lovelady-Allens do.

After the judges had seen all the costumes, the parade commenced. The age groups were dismissed one by one. The parade had a new route this year, its third in the many years we’ve been doing it. We’re not crazy about change when it comes to traditions and this route has the decided disadvantage of not passing through any commercial areas where one could get coffee or hot chocolate on a chilly afternoon or gelato on a warm one. But so be it.

The parade ended in the parking lot behind the community center. Kids collected small bags of candy and juice boxes and there was a band playing. I was pleased to hear it was the Grandsons, a local band that often plays at the Halloween parade but last year didn’t. We chatted with a family whose oldest daughter went to preschool with North, talking—what else?—about where the kids want to go to high school.

When it was time to announce the contest results, we moved closer to the stage. It took a while to find a place to stand where we could see the winners, so we missed most of the under-fours, who I’m sure were adorable. When we heard the winner for Most Original in five-to-eight was a dragon Beth and I gave each other skeptical looks. A dragon? For Original? But then we saw the kid and we understood. His costume was made out of cardboard boxes painted black and the jaw was hinged so that he could open and close it from inside by pulling a string. It was a very cool effect. A pair of kids in gray angel costumes with their hair and faces painted gray, who I thought might be weeping angels from Dr. Who, won a prize in nine-to-twelve. I can’t remember if it was Scary or Original.

Finally it was time for teen to adult. Cutest went to Zoë, the cereal killer. Most Original was Rosie the robot and Scariest was…the Iron Maiden monster. We knew North would be disappointed and they were stewing about it a little, though they were gracious to Zoë, who was a little surprised to have won. “I just threw this together,” she said. What made North perk up, more than the hugs we gave them, was a text from Noah who said losing to someone in store-bought mask “doesn’t count as losing.” Sometimes he knows just what to say.

Beth drove the kids back to Zoë’s house where they stayed until that evening. I made a kale, white bean, and porcini soup for dinner and then we carved our pumpkins. Beth did the bats, I did the ghost, and North did the bee. Apparently, the theme was things that fly. Before bedtime, North was wrestling with their Visual Arts Center application, trying to trim it from over five hundred words down to two hundred. (Despite the fact that this kind of thing is what I do for a living, they didn’t want any help.)

On Sunday, after roasting two trays of pumpkin seeds, grocery shopping, and swimming, the three of us went to Cielo Rojo, a Mexican restaurant that was having a Día de los Muertos fundraiser for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. So we got guacamole, queso fundido, and a quesadilla and ate them on the patio because it was a beautiful afternoon with temperatures in the seventies. You could also decorate a sugar skull, which North did.

And when we got home, North finished editing their Visual Arts Center essay.

To Everything There is a Season

To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under heaven

A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep

From “Turn, Turn, Turn” by Pete Seeger, adapted from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

A Time to Reap

When we went camping with Unitarians two weeks ago, North carved a pumpkin with the words Spooky SZN (season). That pumpkin departed in the compost truck a while back, but the spooky season certainly has begun. Our yard is gradually getting creepier, mostly thanks to North’s after school efforts, though I pitched in with the ghosts and Beth set up the giant witch and put batteries in a bunch of things. The clown skeleton on the swing is one of this year’s new additions. In other Halloween preparations, on Saturday morning Beth and North made the dough for Halloween cookies and over the course of the weekend we all rolled them out and baked them and frosted them. I think they came out really well.

Saturday afternoon we all drove out to Northern Virginia to get our jack-o-lantern pumpkins, though we can’t carve them yet or they’ll join their predecessor in the compost before Halloween rolls around. Getting pumpkins at the same farm where we’ve been getting them since before the kids were born felt bittersweet without Noah and it didn’t help that the place seemed to be teeming with little kids, all boys. But we soldiered on. North wore a new orange (maybe more golden) sweater bought specially for the occasion and a single candy corn earring. (The other one is lost). We took the requisite pictures and bought decorative miniature pumpkins, banana bread, an herbal tea mix, cider, apples, two varieties of squash, and sweet potatoes at the farm stand. Afterward we went out for dinner at Sunflower, one of our favorite vegetarian Chinese restaurants, and then to Dessert Story, where Beth and I split a waffle sundae with crushed Oreos and North got mango snow—it’s like fluffy, airy ice cream, with mochi, boba, and little cubes of mango. Then we drove home, listening to our Halloween playlist, singing along to “Monster Mash” and “Psycho Killer” and admiring the almost full moon peeking out of appropriately atmospheric clouds.

A Time to Plant

October is also high school application season in Montgomery County (and middle school and upper elementary school application season, but all those applications are behind us). So far we’ve been to a panel of alumni of North’s middle school who came back to talk about their current high schools, to an overview of the different application and interest-based programs, and to open houses at two high schools, with two more to go.

If you’re a Montgomery County parent with kids in eighth grade or older, you might want to skip the next bit, because you already know all about this surprisingly complex process. To make it as short as I can, there are magnet programs at several high schools you can apply to and if you get in and choose to, you attend that school. There’s a math/science magnet, a communications magnet (Noah’s program), an International Baccalaureate program (both a magnet version and an open enrollment version at different schools), an engineering magnet, a Biomedical magnet, a Visual Arts magnet, a Leadership Training Institute, and more. Some of them are county-wide, some only take applications if you live in a certain part of the county.

If you don’t go the magnet route, you can attend your home high school, but you can also enter a lottery to attend any of the high schools in your consortium—there are five in ours. In fact you have to enter the lottery and rank all five schools even if you want to go to your home school. (I don’t understand this because you are guaranteed a spot in your home school if you rank it first, so I’m not sure why you have to rank all the rest.) And why would you choose a different high school? Each one has several academies, which is kind of like choosing a major, or maybe more like a minor—you take one class a year in your academy, or more if you want.

When Noah was in eighth grade, he was pretty set on going to our home school (which houses the two magnet programs he applied to) either in a magnet or in the general school population, so we didn’t visit many schools. North wants to keep their options open, though, so we’re going to most of the Open Houses. They’re also planning to apply to the Visual Arts magnet and working on a portfolio for that.

First we visited our home school. If North goes there, they would choose the Media, Music, and the Arts academy. This school offers the shortest commute, and more of North’s friends will probably go there than anywhere else because not only is it the closest to us, it’s also the largest public high school in Maryland. We always kind of assumed both kids would go there because it’s a very good school, but North’s not set on it.

The second school we visited is next door (literally) to a vocational-technical school with a culinary arts program that interests North. But you can attend the culinary arts program—a one-year, half-day program—while enrolled in any of the five schools in our consortium and the visit failed to convince us that going to the school next door to the vo-tech would offer any advantage other than convenience in that one year. And that convenience would be outweighed in the other three years by the fact that it’s pretty far away and none of the academies are a big draw, so North’s ruled it out, though they might consider enrolling in the culinary arts program while attending another school.

We have a one-week hiatus before the Open Houses at the other two schools North wants to see—one for its academy of Music, Theatre, and Dance, and another for its Academy of Visual and Performing Arts, so North has some time to work on their art portfolio before the early November deadline.

Speaking of school, it was parent visitation day at North’s current school yesterday, so Beth and I spent the afternoon there. We opted to go in the afternoon rather than the morning because North’s morning classes were gym and Spanish and Beth doesn’t speak Spanish. I would have liked to see art, because it’s a new class for North, and English, because I always like to see English, but North has each class every other day and didn’t have those two on the visitation day. What they did have in the afternoon was geometry and science.

But that morning the school had to shelter in place because there was a fatal shooting in a nearby parking garage and police were looking for the suspect. North got stuck in the field house for four hours because kids who had gym when it started weren’t allowed to walk back to the main building, although other classes were proceeding as scheduled. North ended up missing their Spanish class, but the shelter-in-place ended in time for them to go to lunch. It so happened that fifty-four French exchange students were spending their first day at the school. It must have been a sad and perhaps frightening introduction to American culture for them. North was unfazed.

Anyway, Beth and I had lunch at Busboys and Poets and then arrived to watch North’s geometry class. North really likes their geometry teacher and while math is still not their favorite subject, they’re liking it better than they have in a few years, so I was glad to be able to see her in action. The lesson was about isosceles and equilateral triangles and triangle congruence. The kids were moving through different stations, sometimes listening to the lecture, making their own triangles with colored sticks that snapped together, and answering questions on their laptops. The teacher could see how many people had answered and what their answers were, and she projected some of them on the screen (anonymously) to discuss whether they were right or wrong. When they weren’t in the small group with the teacher, students worked individually on laptops or composition books. The class seemed to run smoothly. There were a lot of Spanish immersion kids North has known since kindergarten so I recognized many of them and that was fun.

Next was science. There were fewer familiar faces here and the teacher did not have very good control over the class. We were expecting this, as North had mentioned it. They’re doing a unit on weather and the lesson was on air masses—polar, tropical, continental, and maritime. There were a couple videos and a worksheet to fill out. The teacher did an experiment in which he put food coloring in hot and cold water in separate mason jars and they compared how quickly it spread (faster in the hot water). Then he balanced the warm water jar face down on top of the cold water jar and they observed how the colors didn’t mix because the hot water stayed on top. This was the part of class during which everyone seemed to be paying attention and not having side conversations. The last twenty minutes was devoted to working on a four-paragraph essay (North’s was on natural disasters but there were other topics) that’s due soon. There was not full participation in essay writing, however. It’s the teacher’s first year and he seems a bit overwhelmed by his charges, even with an aide who was trying to keep the kids in line. This was the last class of the day, so we left with North and Beth drove them to their afterschool acting class.

A Time to Weep

I have some sad news. My uncle David died on Friday from sepsis following a kidney infection. He was my father’s younger brother, seventy-four years old. He was a math professor and once worked as a code breaker for the CIA. In recent years he’d been living in Costa Rica with his wife in a house with a lot of room for their many cats and dogs. Between the two of them they had two daughters and nine grandchildren. He was still teaching math at the Instituto Technológico de Costa Rica.

I didn’t see David a lot, only twice in my adult life actually, but he was a friendly, warm person and I was fond of him. The last time I saw him was at my father’s memorial service nine and a half years ago. He will be greatly missed by his colleagues, friends, and family.

Four Road Trips and a Bus Ride

Beth spent a lot of time in August driving. In fact, over the last three weeks of August (and the first day of September) she was on the road a total of ten days. We took four road trips, in various combinations, but as the sole driver, she was the common denominator on all of them.

Road Trip #1

A little over three weeks ago, Beth and I took North to camp. This was a day trip, as the camp is only three hours away, in South-Central Pennsylvania. We needed to feed North lunch before drop-off so we went to the same pizza place where we’d had lunch the year before. North actually remembered the name, Paradise by the Slice, which aided us in finding it. It has a subtle tropical theme in its décor and pretty good pierogies in addition to pizza. I think I may sense a tradition forming.

Road Trips #2-3

The second and longest trip, just over two weeks ago, was to fetch North from camp and drop Noah off at college, and if you read my last post, you know all about that. The third trip, a week and half ago, was to Wheeling. Beth took North to her mom’s house for the traditional week of one-on-one grandmother time the kids call Camp YaYa and then drove back the next day. (Noah attended his session of Camp YaYa in June, right after graduation.) While at YaYa’s, North swam and did leg exercises in the condo pool nearly every day, went shopping for school clothes, went to the movies, gave a reading about fracking at YaYa’s church, attended a performance of bluegrass singer Hazel Dickens songs at the library, ate out a lot, and made banana bread.

Home Alone

While North was gone, Beth and were alone for five days, which is the longest we’ve ever been alone since Noah was born. In fact, I think I can count the kid-free weekend get-aways we’ve had on one hand. I’ve always been a little jealous of parents we know who manage to send their kids to sleep-away camp or the grandparents’ house at the same time. So I’m sorry to report we didn’t really use the five days well. It was all work days and AT&T was on strike so Beth was working some evenings, sometimes long after I’d gone to bed. We did go out to dinner the first night, at the (relatively) new Mexican place in Takoma Park, Cielo Rojo. I’d only been there once before and I like it so that was nice. And then I made four adult-friendly dinners in a row, kind of a luxury. Beth’s favorite was zucchini-eggplant sandwiches with queso blanco. (She’s a big fan of eggplant, and up until this summer neither of the kids liked it. Noah’s the convert. North’s the holdout.)

On Thursday morning I went out to get the newspaper and I was startled to see a crowd at the middle school bus stop, then I remembered it was sixth-grade orientation. I found it slightly amusing how many parents stayed until the bus came, being the jaded middle school parent I am now. It made me think how school was just around the corner, though. I honestly hadn’t been thinking much about it, and I’m usually counting down the days.

Road Trip #4

The Friday before Labor Day Beth came home early and we hit the road around 2:45 for Wheeling. The traffic was awful and getting out of the D.C. metro area took forever. It was around 10:15 when we finally pulled into YaYa’s condominium parking lot— the drive usually takes five to six hours. We did stop for dinner in Cumberland, at a restaurant in a converted mansion that once served as a joint Union-Confederate hospital during the Civil War. There’s dining on at least three levels and the back stairways and narrow halls that connect dining rooms, kitchens, and restrooms are a crazy warren. We were eating in the brick-lined “pizza cellar.” We eschewed the chance to have pickles or penne on our pizza, going for the more staid mushrooms and spinach instead. We got the fried eggplant appetizer, as well, because we’d only had eggplant twice in the week before.

When we got to YaYa’s she was out at a season preview event at a community theater, but North was still up and making chamomile tea. (North had attended the event, too, but Beth’s aunt Carole brought them home because YaYa had volunteered to help clean up afterward.) I was tired—I haven’t been sleeping well recently—and went straight to bed, but Beth and North waited up for YaYa.

Saturday morning we went to Target to buy school supplies and some more clothes and had lunch out at a restaurant where you can get French fries inside your sandwich. Not having grown up with this delicacy, I didn’t see the appeal, but Beth did so she indulged. That’s how it is sometimes with food. We went to Oglebay Park pool in the afternoon and then up to the lodge gift shop where YaYa bought some t-shirts for Beth. We had Mexican for dinner and while we were out, Carole texted she’d left something on the porch for us.  She and YaYa had spent the morning (and in Carole’s case the day) at a Labor symposium and there was a sheet cake with the faces of labor leaders in the frosting. She brought us a big slice of it with Walter Reuther (fourth President of the UAW and civil rights activist, born in Wheeling) pictured on it. Beth was really tickled by this. Carole came over and we had cake with sliced up Klondike bars and then we watched the beginning of Fantastic Mr. Fox. (YaYa moved recently from one condominium to another and now she lives two doors down from Carole. I think they are enjoying being neighbors.)

Sunday morning we went to YaYa and Carole’s church. It’s a small Unitarian church right over the West Virginia-Ohio border. They’re between ministers right now, so services are member-led. It was Carole’s turn. The service was Labor Day-themed and YaYa gave a talk about women in the labor movement and there was a discussion about it afterward.

After church, Beth helped her mom with some technical and mechanical issues around the house and North collected some water from YaYa’s pool in a bottle to bring to church next week. (They’re having a water service in which everyone brings water from a special place.) We left for home a little after two, and had much better luck with traffic. Even with a stop for dinner at a shopping center sushi place, we were home by eight-thirty.

Home Together

We had a relaxing day at home on Labor Day, the last day before the new school year. Beth and North went grocery shopping and Beth worked on some home repairs and rested while listening to podcasts. I read the newspaper and wrote this and took a walk with North. As we approached the bridge over Long Branch creek, I asked North if there was anything they were looking forward to in the new school year, because they’ve been pretty negative about it. North guessed (correctly) that I was trying to get something positive out of them and if they didn’t come up with something I would. “So, fine, seeing my friends,” they said grudgingly. I decided to leave it at that. I remember eighth grade well enough to know it’s often no picnic.

But we did have a picnic that night because we do it every Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day— I made veggie dogs, baked beans, corn on the cob, macaroni salad, potato salad, and watermelon. We ate it on the porch because it rained in the late afternoon and our patio chairs were wet. Afterward we went out for frozen yogurt, another last-night-of-summer-break tradition. As we were eating our frozen treats, another family was leaving and the dad said, “Another summer in the books.” And it was.

Bus Ride

The next morning North made themselves a smoothie for breakfast and packed a lunch in their new bento box. (They’re always enthusiastic about breakfast and lunch preparation at the beginning of the school year.) They posed for the traditional first-day-of-school at the front gate and five minutes later they were at the bus stop, waiting for the bus for the first time as an eighth grader.

At 3:20 they were home and moderately cheerful. They have Zoë in two classes and the two of them are on the same lunch shift after having no classes together last year. North also got into art, which was their first-choice elective. They had a little bit of homework (of the introduce-yourself-to-the-teacher variety) in two classes, but nothing taxing.

Most years I’m chomping at the bit for the school year to start, or a little melancholy about summer ending, or most often a mix of the two. But my usual impatience has to do with having a quiet house to work in, and North was gone so much of August that I wasn’t as eager for it as I usually am. And all the family traditions, the picnic, the ice cream, the picture at the gate seem a little wrong without Noah here, but at the same time, they also seem right. I think that’s how tradition works, stitching us together and easing us through the transitions.