But, coronavirus

Have you ever done the “in bed” thing with fortune cookies? My friends and I thought it was a riot in our 20s. It’s a simple game: You add “in bed” to whatever fortune your cookie gave you. For example: “You will meet a mysterious stranger … in bed.” Or: “A new adventure awaits … in bed.” Very funny. Har har.

That’s sort of how it feels now with coronavirus. Every time I worry about our relaxed rules, I add that asterisk: But, coronavirus. For example: “I’m drinking a glass (or two) of wine per night. But, coronavirus.” Or: “The kids are sitting in front of screens for 5 hours per day. But, coronavirus.” Or: “The kids are bypassing carrots and hummus to stuff their faces with ice cream. But, coronavirus.”

Maybe you have your own version of this fun game. Whenever I’ve broached the subject with my friends, they admit that they’re succumbing to the Quarantine Slide. They’re making bigger, stiffer drinks than they used to. They’re baking way more cookies than they used to. Their kids are spending way more time on screens than they used to. But come on. Coronavirus!

In the early days of the pandemic (before we were even calling it a pandemic), I reached for these crutches because I was scared. And it was a new kind of scared. No one had any definitive answers about how this wily virus infected, presented, or killed. In the early days, when the virus was primarily in Washington state, the federal government dismissed it as “just a flu,” and something that would just go away. I remember saying to Steve, way back in March: “No one is coming to save us, are they?”

Now, the mood has shifted. We’re all antsy and anxious about being cooped up with our families for two months. It’s not normal for people to be together all the time. We’re worried about the economy. But we’re also, increasingly, really angry. We’re judging each other. We’re railing at the government. We’re looking for theories that confirm our own suspicions. We’re lashing out at teachers and officials that we feel are doing the wrong things. We feel as though we have no control, and that’s emerging as fury. And so, we reach for our calming crutches to take the edge off.

Except, here’s the thing. It’s been over two months for us here in Washington. The coping strategies are becoming habits. And habits are hard to break. By most accounts, this probably won’t be our last quarantine. We’ll emerge for awhile, and then, as cases spike, we’ll withdraw again. I need to find other ways to blur the edges than my nightly glass (or two) of wine.

Here’s my cycle: I wake up with a wine headache, and I vow to abstain. Then, I’ll have a day where doing dishes is a Sisyphean task, where Evan falls dramatically from his chair when asked to do math, and one of the cats pukes on the computer keyboard.  That lovely, velvety glass of Pinot Noir just beckons me. It promises — and delivers — exactly what I “need”: a way to turn down the volume on the irritation and anxiety. Pouring that glass, I feel like failure, but when I sip it, I feel like I’m tumbling back into a pile of fluffy pillows.  And then, I wake up with a wine headache again.

I’m not drinking to excess. Usually, it’s one glass. Sometimes, it turns into two. But that adds up, and I’m concerned. Both about this “need” to find edge-smoothing from alcohol, and the insidious calories my Velvet Friend is delivering to my waistline. If I’m honest, the latter is what makes me most worried. And that’s because my big crutch — which is detestable rather than pleasurable — is my eating disorder.

In times of stress, my decades-long struggle with food and weight pops back up like an unwanted houseguest. It’s a long story, so I’ll give you the Cliff Notes: At 15, I wanted to lose a few pounds. I got positive feedback for that weight loss, so I lost more. And more. Before too long, I was 89 pounds and my dad was weighing me every week. But I was clever: I took some old ankle weights from my figure-skating days, cut off the straps, and stuffed them in my pocket.

I “cured” myself so my parents would get off my back, but by then, the die was cast: Restriction was where I went during times of stress. Sometimes it was food; sometimes it was punishing, hours-long workouts that I disguised as “training” for my many running races and triathlons.

When Bini was 2, I realized that my destructive behavior was incompatible with my efforts to be a decent mother. So I took a year, and did intensive therapy. I worked with a nutritionist. It was a very uncomfortable process. And I did make some progress. But again, I wouldn’t say I was “cured.”

So. It’s 2020, we’re in quarantine. I’m home all the time. People keep bringing me baked goods. There’s always a delicious bottle of wine ready to be uncorked. I’m spending a lot of time in my own head. I’m stressed. I’m anxious. It’s fertile ground for my old nemesis.

But I’m terrible at restricting my food anymore. It’s not very fun. So I’m back to my punishing workouts. I ride my Peloton until I look like a wet cat. I lift heavy weights. I swing kettlebells. Exercise is helping people stay centered, right? But Steve isn’t fooled — he knows what I’m doing. I know what I’m doing.

But, coronavirus.



We’re all coming unglued

At the risk of sounded like a spoiled, entitled Karen (I had to look that up), I’m freaking done with this stay-at-home shit.

As I’ve documented ad nauseam in previous posts, our family has been hunkered down since March 15. As Governor Inslee tightened the restrictions, we did as we were told. Back then, my city was the epicenter of coronavirus. CDC officials got takeout at my favorite falafel place in Juanita Village. I was scared shitless that the virus was going to come in through the windows and doors.

My friend Robyn called me in early April, freaking out about the news that Mayor Garcetti had urged Angelenos to wear masks in public. Remember, back in early April, the CDC was begging people to leave the masks for the first responders. It felt very scary for a public official to make a different recommendation. Did he know something we didn’t? Were we all going to die?

There’s been lots of little freak-outs ever since then, but I’ve always managed to pull myself together, and solider on. What choice did I have? It’s not like I could decamp to my luxurious (and fictional) beachfront oasis. And even if I could, the local residents might show up with pitchforks. So we stayed in.

It’s now the end of April. My house is a disaster, no matter what I do. Steve is trying to work and trying to stay calm every time one of the kids calls out “Daaaad?” My kids are losing their minds in different ways. I am Evan’s personal second grade teacher, his disciplinarian, and his only playmate. Bini is self-winding with his schoolwork, until he gets frustrated and the whole family gets sucked into his umbrage tornado.

We try to stay positive, and point out the necessity of protecting ourselves and other people. And my kids, they take that seriously. But they feel the strain, the strangeness of being cooped up for weeks and weeks, and it smashes up against this important duty we’re doing for others. There’s nowhere to put that fear, and confusion. And the adults in their lives? We don’t have any answers. That’s freaking bananas for a kid, not to mention two kids from trauma.

Bini argues with everything we say. Oh, I hear you out there — that’s what adolescents do. No. No. Noooooo. This is extreme. Every interaction with our almost-12-year-old son ends in yelling and slammed doors. We try ignoring his behavior — the breathtaking displays of impudence. It tests every bit of patience that we possess as parents. But Steve and I understand that he’s struggling, that we’re all struggling, and he misses his friends. He misses school. He misses being away from us for six hours a day. 

And so I’ve tried, within the confines of what we’re allowed, to help him.  I’ve engineered FaceTime group chats with his friends, and he’s not interested. I forced him to go on a socially distant bike ride with his friend up the street and he kept insisting that it wasn’t allowed, it wasn’t allowed. I’ve tried talking to him, but he shuts me down.

And then there’s Evan, our formerly happy-happy-joy-joy boy. The first two weeks of having Mommy as teacher were SO much fun! We looked for specimens to look at under his microscope. We did chalk drawings. He ripped through workbook pages and delighted in his Outschool classes, which I put him in until the school district could get its ever-loving act together.

And then, as soon as we started getting packets from his teacher, he rebelled. Evan, usually cooperative, refused to do his work. He would moan and cry about the four zillion learning websites he now has to do, every day, every week. I implored his teacher for a 5-minute confab over Microsoft Teams, or Skype, or whatever. After 24 hours without a word, I nudged her again and she replied with a terse email for us to read aloud to Evan. Was it effective? What do you think?

Today, Evan had an Outschool class with all of his friends. And he stood with his back to us and patently refused to do it.

Evan bag
Evan, wearing a bag on his head.

“But it’s your friends!” I pointed out.

“No it’s not! It’s just them on a computer!” Evan yelled. “It’s not the same!”

I appreciate the way that everyone (except Evan’s elementary school teacher) has stepped up and adapted to this abrupt and terrifying sea change. Our karate studio figured it out. Bini’s tutor figured it out. My friends and I figured it out. But it’s not enough, it’s not OK, it’s not normal, and we’re all coming fucking unglued.

What am I going to do about it? Nothing. I’m going to do nothing, except write this damn post and complain. And then I’m going to go downstairs, empty my dishwasher for the 47th time, and make a dinner my kids won’t eat. And then, we do it all again.



I can’t stand to look at myself

We’ve been self-quarantined for six weeks, and I can’t stand to look at myself anymore.

My eyelash extensions, which make me look awake when I’m not, are shedding. But not in a uniform way, mind you. I have these weird bald patches next to extensions that are grown out and cockeyed. I look like I have spiders on my face. I bought a lash serum to spur natural lash growth and it turned my eyelids maroon. I’m wearing mascara for the first time in five years. And for what? My family? They couldn’t care less.

My hair, cut into a long pixie, looks like a lawn that a drunk person mowed. Pixies need a trim every 5 weeks, and I was due when the shutdown happened. I’m impulse-buying hair products on Amazon which I quickly abandon. I’m experimenting with bobby pins. I’m pestering my stylist every week, as if she has any insight into when beauty salons will be allowed to open.

And my teeth — good Christ, my teeth. I’m drinking more coffee and red wine than usual, and my teeth are showing the effects. So I dusted off my GLO Science Teeth Whitening System (I’m vain — OK?)  and started using it every night. And then, the next day, I’d drink coffee and red wine again. Sisyphean, this process.

At first, my friends and I were having all these Zoom happy hours. Look at us! Trying to maintain some normalcy during these crazy times! The first one I did was celebratory, with all of us doing virtual toasts and chattering to catch up after two weeks. TWO WEEKS. We were still positive, still looking on the bright side. I’m sentimental for those times.

Image 4-25-20 at 7.07 PM
I never considered myself high maintenance. I was wrong.

As the weeks went on, my book club met twice on Zoom. I’ve attended several more happy hours, a game night, and a couple of birthday Zoom parties. I’ve discovered how to position my desk lamp for more flattering lighting, and how to enable the “Touch Up My Appearance” setting on Zoom. It helps a little, but I still find myself fluffing my hair to no avail, and looking at my neck. What the hell happened to my NECK?

The virtual parties have leveled off.  I wonder if it’s because everyone is tired of looking at themselves, or if I’m not being invited anymore because of the incessant hair-fluffing.

I’m keenly aware of how privileged I am to even be worrying about my appearance during a pandemic. For awhile, I was able to forestall my descent into vanity because I was doing a lot for others. I can’t outrun my frailties, though. If I sit with myself, the things that start to bubble to the surface are these mundane worries. Should I cut my own hair? Are my jeans tighter than they were last week? Is my face mask giving me acne?

I think I’m focused on these things because I don’t want to confront the bigger things. I went from worrying about getting into grad school to worrying about whether I’ll ever see my parents again. I’m worried about what this social distancing is doing to my kids. I’m worried about whether we can count on Steve’s paycheck in six months, nine months, a year.

So yeah, I think I’ll worry about my teeth instead. And refill my wineglass.


Dear Future Self

Dear Future Self,

If you’re reading this, you’re not in quarantine anymore. Coronavirus infections have subsided, widespread testing is available, and we’re free to move about as we once did. We’re free to gather with family and friends. We’re able to shop in stores without masks, and social distancing. We’re able to go back to our jobs. We can travel like we once did. Life is (mostly) back to normal.

Except I hope it’s not.

The months (at this point, it looks like months) that we spent staying at home were incredibly difficult. I don’t think I’ll ever be a homeschooler. The kids were super dysregulated and as the weeks went on, difficult to motivate. We read too much news and learned new terms, like PPE, “flattening the curve,” and droplet transmission. At our Zoom happy hours and furtive, across-the-fence conversations, coronavirus was all we talked about. Our family ultimately, adjusted to being together all the time, but it wasn’t pretty. The kids didn’t leave our neighborhood for months. People lost their jobs, saw their small businesses crater, and their savings disappear. Not faraway people, either. People I know personally, and care about.

It was like the world was in a bunker together, waiting for the coast to be clear.

Evan and I spent a sunny afternoon drawing all over the sidewalk.

But I also saw some things that I desperately don’t want to evaporate like the coronavirus. I saw people staying home to protect themselves, but also, other people. I saw our family calendar shrink to nothing. No obligations. Our routine became schooling, eating together, spending time outside together, and winding down for bed together. We played games. We cooked together. And we gave to others.

I saw friends and people in the community rally to help children, and senior citizens, Native American tribe members, and mothers recovering from substance abuse. I recall driving back over the 520 bridge after delivering one of two carloads full of donated coloring books and non-perishable foods and feeling like I might burst with joy. It wasn’t a self-congratulatory joy, though. It was a feeling that I can’t put into words.

There’s something truly magnificent, truly transcendent when people come together for a common goal. During our quarantine, I was constantly blow away by how my friends and friends of friends and people I didn’t even know stepped up to help. Every time I

Hoh tribe
Members of the Hoh tribe filling a van and part of a pickup with donations collected from friends, and friends of friends.

opened my front door, I’d find a new batch of donated items. Beautiful, heartfelt artwork and letters for isolated seniors at retirement homes. Bag after bag of sanitary supplies for women of the Hoh tribe. Donated coolers so that staff at Compass Housing Alliance could deliver sack lunches to children. Used towels so that the homeless can shower. It buoyed me, Future Self. It gave me so much hope.

It wasn’t just the grand gestures, either. It was the little ones. I talked to my parents more often during our self-quarantine.  “We don’t hear from very many people these days,” my mom told me. “So it just makes your day.” A friend shared her sourdough starter, Clint Yeastwood, and I made kick-ass pancakes for my ungrateful children. An acquaintance that I’ve wanted to know better dropped off flowers and a sweet note on my doorstep, thanking me for the work I’m doing in the community. The next day, our dear friends brought another batch of flowers, just because. And on my friend’s 50th birthday, I took part in a birthday parade (another new term). I would have done it during normal times, but in normal times, the drive would take 45 minutes, and I’d be harried. During the pandemic, I got there in 20 minutes and joined a string of exuberant people in Redmond on a Monday with one goal: To celebrate our friend.

I taped this to the side of my car and drove past blaring The Beatles’ “Birthday.”

So, no. I don’t want to go back to a world where I’m in my own head, overreacting to what now feels like small slights and insignificant issues. I want to take this feeling that I have now and hold on to some of it. I don’t want to go back to shopping for sport, or taking friendships and family for granted. I don’t want to go back to a packed schedule, with activities and lessons and endless social obligations. I want to be more thoughtful about how I choose to spend my time.

I hope, Future Self, that you’re not buried in some never-ending to-do list or frantic over some self-imposed deadline. I hope that you’ve managed to maintain some of the good feelings that manifested during this very scary time. There were bright lights during the darkness, connections made that deserve to be cherished. Because right now, thousands of people are dying. Elderly people, young people, grocery workers, bus drivers. And these people are dying alone. So don’t make this terrible time be for naught. Let it have meant something.


Coronavirus Me

The things that sting at first

Turtle park
Turtle Park, a block from our house, draped in caution tape.

Yesterday, I took my dog, Toby, for a walk. We have two dogs, but our girl dog, Kona, is older and arthritic and can’t do longer walks anymore. Toby could go for miles, so we sometimes have to walk them separately. Since we’re all home, that’s not a big deal.

It was sunny, and lots of other people were out walking. I never used to see that when I’d walk the dogs. People were at work. If they were home and walking the dogs, they’d go on the Cross Kirkland Corridor, or down to Marina Park. Now, because of coronavirus, leaving the house seems like a dangerous act. You can’t control the environment beyond your house, or your neighborhood. So I stalk the streets of Norkirk, along with everyone else in the neighborhood. We’re like mice in a scientific experiment – roaming the streets, going in circles, staying six feet from each other.

Anyway. I was walking Toby up a hill, and as we crested it, I noticed two women walking toward me, about a block away. We made brief eye contact – no one looks at each other anymore – and without breaking stride or pausing conversation, they stepped off the curb to cross the street. That’s what we do now. We cross the street so we can’t infect each other.

Change is hard. Change takes time. I’ve always heard those things, and I’ve said those things in response to upheavals in my own life. But in the past six weeks, our reality has changed rapidly. And I’m constantly surprised by how quickly the strange has become commonplace, how our new habits have become routine. How I can look back on my attitude from just six weeks past and realize how wrong I was. How arrogant we all were, assuming that a virus could be kept behind invisible borders.

When the school district closed schools for two weeks, I panicked. What was I going to do with an argumentative sixth grader and a super-needy second grader all day? When would I have time for me – for the podcast, for my zillions of errands, for my volunteering, for my exercise? It was the first knife cut in my sense of normalcy, but I’m covered in cuts now. I feel nostalgic for the time when I stressed out over a mere two-week school closure, now that they’re closed until fall.

IMG_3216I’ve started making a list of all the things that felt like a gut punch the first time they occurred. Things that, at first impact, evoked intense feelings of fear, paranoia, and grief. It was hard to believe what you were seeing with your own eyes — masked people standing quietly outside stores, spaced six feet apart. An ambulance showing up at the neighbors, paramedics gowned and gloved as they entered the house. Now, I just observe these things, put my head down, and get on with it.

  1. Empty store shelves. This still breaks my heart a little bit. The first time I went to a store and saw empty shelves was the Fred Meyer in Totem Lake. Aisle after aisle – toilet paper, peanut butter, beans, rice, flour – wiped out. Seeing those shelves actually took my breath away. I’d seen photos on social media, of course, and on TV. But until I saw it in person, I didn’t register that it could be real.
  2. Empty highways.  I was taking a load of donations over to Seattle on a Friday. It was 3:30 in the afternoon, and typically, the 520 freeway would be bumper-to-bumper. But when I came up the onramp and onto the highway, I was the only car. I felt panic rise in my throat like bile, and I had to do a deep breathing exercise to calm down. It felt like a zombie movie. It felt lonely.
  3. Erasing things from the schedule. Our March was jam-packed – birthday parties, and charity events, date nights, a trip to California. One by one, as the restrictions tightened, I would erase things off our refrigerator calendar. Evan’s eye appointment? Nope. Haircut appointment? Nope. Karate classes? Nope. I kept the first week of March intact — the last week of school carpool, eyelash extensions, Evan’s art class.  I kept it to remind me how busy and different our lives once were. The rest of March was blank.
  4.  Birthdays. Evan’s birthday was March 20, a week after schools were closed, and just a few days before Governor Inslee ordered Washingtonians to “stay home, and stay safe.” I was determined that he have a great birthday, even though we had to cancel his party. I ordered him a cake from Ben and Jerry’s – they assured me they’d
    Evan birthday
    Will, Evan’s BFF, came to drop off a gift.

    still be open, and if not, they’d call me. I bought all manner of streamers, and a Pokémon banner that said “Happy Birthday.” Steve and I decorated the downstairs, and hung streamers in his doorway to surprise him when he woke up. I badgered his friends’ parents to get their kids to make birthday videos. Some of his friends came by to drop off gifts, and they’d linger over the fence and jabber away, wanting to get it all out in case this was the last visit for a while. Steve went to pick up the cake at Ben and Jerry’s, and they were closed.  He hightailed it to Metropolitan Market and grabbed a chocolate mousse cake. We had cake and presents, and Face Timed with the grandparents. And the next day, I fell into a deep funk and could not stop crying.

  5.   Seeing family. I had planned to go to the Bay Area with the boys on March 9. They had a day off from school (before they had ALL the days off from school), and I wanted them to see my parents, and my brothers’ family. My dad has been in frail health for the past year – open-heart surgery, near-kidney failure, and a multiple myeloma diagnosis. I still wanted to come down, but since we were, at the time, at the epicenter of the virus, my dad’s oncologist recommended against it. When my mom told me that, I had a pain in my chest that drained right into my toes. This feeling didn’t go away.  I talked to my parents a few days later, when the news from Northern Italy was too horrific to comprehend, and the virus felt like a sinister fog threatening to envelop everyone. “I’m worried I’ll never see you again,” I wept into the phone. And my dad didn’t scoff or tell me I was being dramatic (a common accusation when I was a teen). He and my mom just wept along with me. Actually, this shouldn’t be on the list. Remembering that conversation from a month ago still brings tears to my eyes. It’s not normal for me not to hop on a plane and hug my parents, and it never will be.
  6. Playgrounds with caution tape.  Evan and I went for a walk this morning, between the stupid phonics worksheet and the bullshit time-telling worksheet. We walked past a tot lot that we call “Turtle Park,” because of a turtle statue that this kids climb all over. “I wish I could play there,” Evan said. I hadn’t seen it in awhile, and was sad to see the now-familiar caution tape draped around the swings, the play structure, and the slide. The first time I saw a closed playground, it gutted me. Now, I just pretend not to see the empty playgrounds, the silent sandboxes, the forlorn tennis courts. I just keep going.Evan playground

When I sit down to think about it, though, I can’t help but wonder: All of this normalizing the abnormal — how is this changing us? What is happening to me when I’m not shocked to see a store full of people wearing masks? Or sneeze-guards at the checkout counter? How are we deteriorating with lack of community contact, and face-to-face interaction? What is happening to my kids’ developing brains when they can’t be near people, and see friends? Is it possible to just spring back to normal once this all over? When so many people have lost their jobs, their nest eggs, and their loved ones to this virus?

During our walk this morning, the world felt very still. The sun was out, the birds were singing, and it was a beautiful, clear day. It’s moments like this where I feel a modicum of hope. That maybe the upside of all this suffering is that our Earth is healing. There are definitely some advantages to living slower, spending time with immediate family. But that’s a post for a different day.