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.

I sleep alone.

I spend half my nights sleeping in my guest bedroom. Sometimes, the cat joins me. Mostly, I am alone.
I spend half my nights sleeping in my guest bedroom. Sometimes, the cat joins me. Usually, I am alone.

I am happily married. But lately, I sleep alone. So does Steve. And it’s all Evan’s fault.

You’re not supposed to blame the kids when the family hits a rough patch, but I’m going to anyway. Evan is a wonderful child of boundless joy, but he wakes up at 5:30 a.m. Every goddamned day. It’s been like this, more or less, since we got back from China on March 20, so Steve and I  have been operating on interrupted, truncated and/or inadequate sleep for over seven months. I know I’m not gonna get any sympathy from parents of infants, but it’s my blog, and I’m exhausted.

Steve and I have always done Evan Duty in shifts. One night, one of us would be on for the early wake-up, and the other would sleep until 6:15 — the time we’ve decided is acceptable to begin the day. We call the 6:15 shift “Eggs,” because it’s what the little prince usually wants for his breakfast. The next night, we’d switch. But the fact is, when Evan comes trundling in at 5:30 a.m., he inevitably wakes the off-duty parent, too. So a few weeks ago, we reluctantly decided that one of us should get a decent night’s sleep, and spend the night in the blissfully quiet guest room. And sleep alone.

Here is a list of things we’ve tried to get Evan to sleep through the night, which includes waking up at a normal time:

  • Bringing him into our bed. He wasn’t into it.
  • Making a bed next to our bed. He wasn’t into it.
  • One parent sleeping on the floor in Evan’s room. Evan was super into this, but sleeping on a profoundly uncomfortable Thermarest is not a longterm solution. Also, our pediatrician told us we were prolonging the problem.
  • Taking out his tonsils and adenoids. Evan had very enlarged tonsils, which is common with kids who’ve had cleft palate. We hoped the surgery would help with his godawful snoring and his night waking. And it did do that. It just didn’t do anything about his urge to get up before dawn.
  • Killing his nap. This made Evan unbearable by 5:00 p.m., and also, he fell asleep in the car if we were in it for longer than 90 seconds. Once, I had Bini and his buddy in the car, and they were singing “Uptown Funk” at the top of their lungs and Evan still fell asleep.
  • Waking him in the middle of the night to go potty, which is normally what wakes him up at dawn. This was horrible.
  • Cutting off liquids an hour before bed. That did nothing.
  • Putting him to bed later. He still appeared next to me at 5:30 a.m. groaning “Maaaaammaaaaaaaaa…..”

I’ve consulted several sleep books, and our pediatrician. The books all said that some children are just early risers, which is just not acceptable. NOT ACCEPTABLE. 6:15? I can live with that. 6:30? Sounds luxurious at this point. But 5:30 a.m. is just too early. It is. It is it is it is. Our pediatrician was very empathetic and promised that Evan would grow out of it. OK. Not super comforting, but I’m clinging to that. Until then, this is the hell that we’re living:

7:30 p.m. Evan goes to bed.

7:45 p.m. Evan is asleep.

10:00 p.m. Steve and I look forlornly at each other and say good night. One of us stays upstairs to sleep, and the other goes to the guest bedroom.

5:30 a.m. Upstairs sleeper intercepts Evan and takes him to pee. Returns him to his bed and, depending on how tired he seems, tries to get him to go back to sleep, or flips on the light and lets him play until his “OK to Wake” clock turns green at 6:15.

5:40 a.m. Upstairs sleeper tries to go back to sleep, but it’s pointless. Particularly considering that Evan often comes out at 5:50 a.m. and reports that he needs to poop. Other times, he stays in his room and falls asleep. Sometimes, he is defiant and comes out, screaming, but we’re FIRM PARENTS and we take him back to bed and Bini usually wakes up at this point and is surly as all get-out and that’s when you know it’s going to be a really crappy day.

6:15 a.m. Evan appears by the bed with his glowing clock crowing “Green! Green!” Meanwhile, the downstairs sleeper’s alarm goes off.

6:20 a.m. Downstairs sleeper and upstairs sleeper meet in the kitchen with Evan. Downstairs sleeper takes over Evan-wrangling, and usually, Bini-wrangling because Bini hears Evan get up and thinks it’s “unfair” that Evan “gets” to be up early. We’ve given up yelling at him about it.

6:21 a.m. Upstairs sleeper staggers back to bed until 7:45.

6:22 a.m. Downstairs sleeper begins to make eggs.

Last night, we went to a party and at 10:45 p.m. Steve and I starting looking at each other in a panic. I couldn’t even enjoy my last cocktail because I knew I would pay for it dearly at 5:30. This is no kind of life, where you can’t enjoy a cocktail at 10:45 p.m. because of your 3-year-old child. This is tyranny. This is madness. And until Evan can wipe his own butt, this is our reality.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s 10:03.

Halloween is hell

I love scary things. Bini is scared of "Scooby Doo."
I love scary things. Bini is scared of “Scooby Doo.”

I love Halloween. LOVE IT. In the Bay Area town where I grew up, the weather was always mild so kids roamed the streets for hours, collecting candy and scaring each other. And I liked being scared. Still do. I used to stay up way past my bedtime watching “The Twilight Zone.” I watched “The Shining” over and over.

I’m sure I inherited my love of horror from my dad, who used to tape old scary radio stories from the 1930s and 40s, like “Inner Sanctum,” “The Shadow” and “Suspense.” Dad would play these tales for us on long road trips, terrifying the snot out of us with stories of young coeds getting their heads crushed by tombstones, and nagging old wives who get killed and stuffed into pipe organs. Yes, really. My dad didn’t know from “appropriate.”

As an adult, I used to go to scary places on Halloween. One year, I went to New Orleans, which is super-freaking-fabulous on Halloween. Another year, I went to Austin, which isn’t really scary, but they have fruit bats that fly out from under a bridge. Another year, we were in Bangkok, which is terrifying for different reasons. Anyway, I think you get the point.

Of course, I hoped that my own son would enjoy Halloween, and being scared, too. No such luck. Bini is afraid of “Scooby Doo.” And ever since the neighbor kid showed up on our doorstep wearing a Michael Meyer mask, Bini has spent every October freaking out over Halloween. And by that I mean nightmares, super-crazy-energy, vacillating about trick-or-treating and just general disobedience. This year has been the worst yet. He’s older now, and everything this month has been an argument, topped off with crying jags and bouts of manic tumbling. Steve and I are at the end of our respective tethers.

So yesterday, I thought I’d try something other than screaming at him: I had him write down what was bothering him. My own therapist had suggested that I write down all of my top stressors, and possible solutions for each. So I got my little journal and wrote, and Bini sat next to me and complained.

“Just draw something, then.” I suggested.

“No,” he shot back. It’s the word of the month. Oh, you toddler mamas think they grow OUT of that? Har de har har.

“Well, I’m going to keep writing,” I said, describing on paper how my insomnia was stressing me out.

After a few minutes, Bini stopped drawing himself inside an army tank. “Mommy, can I tell you what’s scaring me?”

“Sure,” I said, taking his notebook and awaiting dictation. “Go ahead.”

Bini’s scary list is as follows:

  1. The Joker
  2. Clowns
  3. Men in Kabuki masks

So, there’s a theme here: My kid is scared by weird makeup and masks. I explained, in painstaking detail, that these were disguises. That underneath it all, everyone in a disguise is just like us — with regular skin and hair and eyes. Bini didn’t look convinced. So I took the low road, as I so often do.

“Bini, just imagine those scary people without any clothes on,” I said.

He started giggling. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, if you see someone in a scary mask, or dressed as a clown, I want you to think of them naked. Like, you can see their butts.” He looked at  me, agog.

“Mama! You want me to imagine people’s penises hanging out? That’s potty talk!” His eyes were wide, but he was cracking up.

“You’re darn right,” I said. “That’s potty talk, and potty talk is funny, isn’t it?”

“It is!” By now, he was laughing so hard he fell off his chair. “It is funny!” But then, he looked pensive again. “Won’t I get in trouble, though?”

Oh dear. Now I had visions of Bini pointing at a kid in the school Halloween parade and shrieking “TESTICLES!”

“So, let’s just imagine it, like in our heads, OK? And it’ll be our secret.” Super awesome. I’m just waiting for CPS to knock on my door.

“OK, it’s our secret,” said Bini, looking thrilled to have such a secret with his potty-talking Mama.

So that’s how I taught my son to combat his Halloween fears, ladies and gentlemen: Naked people.

I’ll let you know how that goes.

In the kindergarten line

We have a “walk pool” in our neighborhood, where the parents trade off who walks the kids to school. This morning, it was my turn.

I’m not sure if there’s a way to keep three kindergartners from running. If anyone knows any tactics, let me know. This morning, my kid and one of the neighbor kids, who I’ll call Timmy, called out “smush!”  and then took turns ramming each other. The blows were, thankfully, blunted by their comically enormous backpacks. While Bini and Timmy smushed, I walked with the little girl from the neighborhood, who I’ll call Nora. I like Nora. Her default facial expression is a split-your-face-happy smile, and she tells long, convoluted stories. This morning, I was listening to Nora and occasionally yelling out “Bini! Timmy! Slow down!”

Nora was telling me about how her brother had broken his arm. When she was finished, I told her about how Steve had torn the webbing between two toes, and had to get stitches. One of the moms overheard. “What a nice story, first thing in the morning,” she said.

Once we got to school, Timmy and Bini ran through the front doors and into the back playground area, where all three full-day kindergarten classes line up in front of a ramp. I love seeing the sea of little kid heads and the handful of parents, like me, clutching reusable coffee mugs and trying not to make eye contact.

This morning, I was trying to keep Bini and Nora (who are in the same class) from smushing each other in line when one of the kids, named Asijia, tapped me on the elbow.

“Excuse me, but this boy wants his mommy.” She pointed to a little boy standing in front of Bini, sniffling. Occasionally, he’d get rammed by Bini and Nora’s smushing.

I knelt down and looked at him. His nose was running and his eyes, behind his glasses, were wet. “What’s wrong?” I asked him.

“I want my mom,” he said, voice quavering.

“What’s your name?”

“Siddharth,” he told me.

“He doesn’t want to be at kindergarten,” said a tall girl, dressed in all pink. “I didn’t want to have full-day kindergarten either, but my mommy said I had to, and it’s fine.”

“What’s your name?” I asked her.

“Audrey.” She smiled, a gap-toothed grin.

“Siddharth, are you not feeling well?” I asked.

“I was in my mom’s car and I said I didn’t want to go, and she said to go, and I got out and now I want my mom,” he said.

That did sound rough. “You know what, though? Today’s a half day. You get out early. Can you hang in there?” Siddarth turned away, considering.

Audrey put a protective hand on Siddharth’s shoulder. Asijia moved in, too. “We’ll help you, Siddharth. We’ll be your friends.”

“That’s really nice, you guys. Can you tell Mrs. Bailie that Siddharth is having a hard time this morning?” The girls nodded vigorously.

Meantime, my child and Nora, who Bini insists isn’t his friend, were giggling and roughhousing. But when the bell rang, and the class marched forward toward their teacher, Bini fell out of line and grabbed my arm.

“Why were you talking to Siddharth?” he demanded.

“Because he was sad, honey. When someone’s sad, it’s nice to try and cheer them up.”

Bini shook his head. “No. That’s not your job. You’re my mom.” And with that, he swept into the classroom.

Being room mother should be fun.