Today at the vaccine clinic, a newly-vaccinated gentleman asked me:
Why don’t anteaters get sick?
Because they’re full of anty bodies.
You’re all welcome.
I was volunteering in the clinic’s waiting area, where those who’ve already had their shots hang out for 15 minutes to be sure they aren’t having any severe reactions. (These reactions are extremely rare).
This meant my new friend and I had time to share quite a few more bad awesome jokes before it was time for him to go.
Me Q: When does a joke become a dad joke? A: When the punchline becomes apparent.
Him Q: Why was the scientist’s hair wet? A: Because he had a brainstorm.
Me Q: What do they call Darth Vader when he’s nervous? A: Panickin’ Skywalker.
Him Q: What do you call fake spaghetti? A: An impasta.
Me Q: What did the mama buffalo say to the baby buffalo on the first day of kindergarten? A: Bye, son.
Him Q: What did the Atlantic Ocean say to the Pacific Ocean? A: Nothing. It just waved.
Me Q: What happened when the red boat crashed into the blue boat? A: They were marooned.
All in all, a successful shift.
I’ve been volunteering at this clinic, in a non-medical role, since mid-February. During that time, I’d guesstimate that I played some small role—directing traffic, checking people in, verifying which vaccine they’re receiving, handing out information, telling bad jokes—in 1000 vaccinations, give or take.
So much has been beyond all our control this past year. But this is something concrete I can do, and I’m grateful to be able to do it.
It’s been more than a year since I last believed in normal.
A year since the ordinary spring afternoon when we left our jobs and our schools behind for the weekend, not understanding, yet, that on Monday we wouldn’t return.
From the start, even as I settled in to remote learning and remote working, I knew, deep down, that this was going to last longer than we were admitting, but I didn’t know just how much longer. A month? A season? Surely by the end of summer, the beginning of fall, we’d be able to get on with our lives.
Summer and fall seemed such a long time to wait, back then. Three months. Six months. A lifetime. There was so much that we didn’t understand. How this new virus spread. How we could stop it from spreading. Whether the entire food supply chain was about to collapse, or whether a few short-term pasta and toilet-paper shortages would be the worst of it.
I learned to wear a mask and despaired as others refused to learn. I met friends outdoors, in socially distant lawn chairs, and worried even that was a risk best avoided. I watched as businesses closed, then opened too soon, then closed again and opened too soon again. It seemed no one wanted to admit that normal wasn’t coming back any time soon.
I watched as the cost of that denial came to be measured in human lives. Thousands. Tens of thousands. Hundreds of thousands. I watched as too many people kept eating out, kept gathering with family, kept talking vacations, all for no better reason than that they’d always done these things before and couldn’t bear to live without them.
I’d always done these things and couldn’t bear to live without them, either, but somehow I lived without them anyway.
It wasn’t enough. Those who followed the rules still died because of those who ignored them. There was no longer any such thing as an action that affected only the person taking it. Everything we did now affected everyone around us, affected strangers we’d never meet, affected our entire community. That’s how pandemics work.
That’s how life works. It’s just that when everything seems normal, some of us have the luxury of forgetting that, some of the time.
Maybe normal was always an illusion. But illusion or not, too many people kept insisting on doing too many things, just to prove that no one could tell them which things to do. Our Covid numbers rose, then fell, then rose again and just kept rising.
Time blurred. A blistering, wildfire-fueled Arizona summer. An autumn overwhelmed by more remote learning. A careful, careful return to learning in person.
An election. A riot. A transfer of power that no one called peaceful, because free and fair elections had become one more thing to deny in spite of the evidence.
A winter spent feeling angry and helpless, despairing that it didn’t have to be like this. But it was like this, and nothing I did could change the fact.
When the first vaccines came, months and years ahead of schedule, I should have felt hope, even joy. But I was suspicious of hope by then, and scarcely dared believe in it. If this was hope, it was literally in short supply, anyway, as hope too often is.
So instead I argued with strangers who refused to wear masks at the post office and insisted on holding birthday parties in the park. I yelled at family members for eating out. I lost friends when I told them they had no business going on vacation, not now.
Yet in the end, despair had no more power to change reality than denial did. Spring came, because spring does, whatever we do or fail to do. Arizona’s Covid numbers started to fall again, first slowly, then faster. My backyard irises bloomed—a gift from a stranger I’d never met, the stranger who owned my house before me.
I began going for walks again, and wondered when I’d stopped. I planted more vegetables. I volunteered at a local vaccine clinic, and kept volunteering even after I was vaccinated.
I started to believe that maybe, just maybe, this hope thing was real after all.
I struggled–still struggle–with forgiveness. All the restaurants and other businesses who opened or re-opened too soon, because the rules said they could and they decided their economic survival mattered more than other people’s literal, physical survival. All the individuals who refused to wear masks or shelter in place because they decided their personal struggles mattered more those lives, too. So very many people who just decided they couldn’t or wouldn’t follow the same basic precautions I’m weary from following, and who with their refusal made this all last so much longer.
I tell myself their decisions came from weakness. not malice. I tell myself that carrying so much anger only hurts me, not them. Yet I wonder—how do we forgive when no one is sorry, when so many have made clear they would do it all the same way again? This isn’t over yet, and some days it seems that even after so much time, no one has learned anything after all. Even as I write this there are Arizonans pushing to relax the rules, too soon, yet again.
So how ‘bout this pandemic, huh? You have to admit, it’s been pretty great. It feels like winter break, only it goes on forever and your mom doesn’t send you off to soccer camp the second week just so she can get some work done. The extra scratches and cuddles have been amazing, and that Chromebook you brought home from school is the warmest sleeping spot ever.
Still, like anything in life, it hasn’t been — quite — purrrfect. As you no doubt know, I’ve recently joined the Union of Feline Remote Learning Assistants, and we have a few small requests for you.
24/7 Keyboard Access
Let’s face it. Thanks to your new Chromebook, I’m just not getting the quality lap time I’m used to. That’s okay; I can adapt, but only if you stop shoving me off the keyboard. I still need someplace to sit that puts me squarely between you and whatever you’re trying to do. I’m the cat, after all.
Union Rate for All Appearances
Your friends love me. Your teacher loves me. Even that kid you hate because her birthday’s the same day as yours but her party was more popular loves me. When I show up in a Google meet, everyone’s so busy oooooohing and awwwwwwwing that they totally forget about capitalizing proper nouns and regrouping to solve addition problems. That sort of skill doesn’t come cheap. Here’s my new rate sheet, broken down by cans of tuna fish per hour. Please also note that from now on, Cat shall be considered a proper noun.
A New Couch
All this work means I need to keep my claws sharp, and your couch has run out of good scratching places.Please replace it with a new couch ASAP.
I love being with you. I really do. But like any Cat, I need my space. Specifically, my outdoor space. Please open the back screen door immediately. Telling me I’m an indoor cat is no longer acceptable. This is a pandemic, after all, and everyone says the more we can take our usual activities outside, the better.
Honestly, I don’t think this requires any explanation.
Last week, you were gone for two whole days, and don’t think I didn’t notice just because you snuck a day home in between them. If you want me to be your remote learning feline, I need to know you’re all in. Your mom said something about hybrid learning last night. I don’t know what that is, but I know I don’t like it, so please make it stop. Immediately.
And that’s it. Just a few simple requests that I trust you, my favorite small human, to address in a timely manner.
Oh, one more thing. Can you open your Chromebook for me? Because that kid with the same birthday as you isn’t doing hybrid learning, and I think she wants to invite me to her next party.
I see how you’re looking at me, your eyes and your Twitter feeds filled with hope. 2020 was a dumpster fire, you say. 2021 has to be better, you say.
I know you mean well, but that’s a lot of pressure to put on a brand new year.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been working hard, and I have big plans. Right off the bat in January, I’m rolling out a new president. Pretty exciting, huh? In March the economy will get a boost from my new infrastructure initiative, and in August, supporting teachers will officially become a national priority. Kids will get to go back to school; adults will get to keep working from home. By December, you’ll even be able to hug your children without setting off a deadly multi-state super-spreader event. How great is that?
And you guys are going to just love the new panda species you’ll discover next fall. Oh my gosh, those big brown eyes.
But I’m not perfect, okay? No year is. People are already saying I don’t have enough vaccines, and they’re probably right about that. Three hundred seventeen species you’ve never heard of and two that you have will go extinct, I haven’t fixed racism yet, and don’t get me started about global warming. With just hours to go I still don’t have a plan to reverse climate change, and as you like to remind me, time is running out.
I can’t do this.
Things have been rough lately. I get that. You need to believe it’ll all get better. You need less doomscrolling, more cat pictures.
I can’t give you that. I’m sorry, but it’s true. I’m just not the year you need right now.
2020, you’ll have to fill in for me. I know an experienced year like you will be fine. See you in twelve months, okay?
The first time I told my daughter the truth about Santa Claus, she was three years old.
She came home from child care full of excitement and anxiety, hoping, hoping, hoping she’d been good enough for Santa to come. We’d never really talked about Santa in our Jewish-Quaker household, though we did visit my in-laws for a secular Christmas celebration each year. But I looked at my child now, full of earnest hope and anxiety, and I knew I didn’t want her to see her Christmas gifts as some sort of reflection on her character or worth.
So at bedtime I said, tentatively, “You know, some people believe Santa Claus is real. Others believe he’s a story.” Saying something was a story was a common way of explaining things in our household. As the child of two writers, my daughter already knew that stories were important, even precious. To say something was a story was to describe it, not to diminish it.
This time, though, when I said Santa might be a story, my daughter looked right at me and said, “That’s not true.”
Faced with such strong conviction and will to believe, I didn’t press the matter, not then.
And I did quietly—if a little uneasily—relabel one of my husband and mine’s Christmas gifts to be from Santa, rather than us.
Lots of Jewish kids grow up wishing they could celebrate Christmas, but I don’t remember doing so, maybe because I grew up in a town with enough Jewish kids that schools closed not just for Christmas, but also for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the first couple of days of Passover. On the playground Jewish and Christian kids fiercely debated whose winter holidays delivered more presents, but the idea that we all should celebrate one or the other wasn’t even on the table.
I did grow up believing in Santa Claus, though. I listened for sleigh bells Christmas Eve, opened a token gift beside a neighbor’s tree Christmas Day, and accepted without bitterness that of course Santa Claus couldn’t deliver any gifts to our house, seeing as we were Jewish and all. My family’s Hanukkah gifts were numbered by day and laid out on top of my father’s oversized stereo system, where my brother and sister and I could try to guess at their contents as we shook them and tried to see through the wrapping paper.
I don’t remember when I stopped believing Santa was real. I think it must not have been any one big moment at all. I just remember continuing to watch the usual round of animated Christmas specials this year, knowing they were stories, knowing they weren’t my story, and feeling no sorrow at either of these facts.
I did wish, though, that we could have had a few Hanukkah specials, too.
When I was 11, my mom brought home our first Christmas tree. She’d been at a party for work, and when the party was over they were going to throw the tree away. She told us she couldn’t let that happen, so she rescued the tree instead.
It was my first hint that maybe my mom, or the child my mom had been, was a little sad the Christmas story wasn’t hers, even if I wasn’t.
For me, the tree was an uncomfortable and alien presence, and I hung homemade paper strings of dreidels and Jewish stars on its greenery to make it feel less Christian. At 11, I liked being Jewish, and I had no desire to be anything else.
My brother, who was attending a private Christian kindergarten that year, loved that tree, and he cheerfully moved all our Hanukkah presents under it. I grumpily moved them back to my dad’s stereo, where I was sure God intended them to be. My brother moved the presents back to the tree again, I moved them back to the stereo again. I’m pretty sure this went on until the presents themselves were finally opened.
I assume God had more important things to worry about than where my family put their Hanukkah gifts, but this was never really about presents or trees. It was about identity. In America, Christmas and Santa cultural forces that pull everyone into the discussion, no matter what they believe.
A decade later, our second Christmas tree stretched from floor to ceiling and was covered with store-bought Christmas ornaments. It came with a new step family who laughed at the Hebrew words of our Hanukkah prayers, and with a new town where our family‘s presence was enough to double the local Jewish population. The identity and cultural issues that raised could easily fill a blog post of their own.
My daughter didn’t continue believing in Santa forever, of course. When she was ready, she came back to me and asked, “Is Santa real?”
She was five then, and no longer worried about being good or bad enough to get presents. Instead she was just trying to figure out how the world worked, what was true and what wasn’t true, as so many children are.
I gave her the honest answer her honest question wanted. With two years to think about it, I was less tentative. “Santa is a story,” I said. “A story that some people enjoy believing.”
For a little while after that she went back and forth between believing and not believing, sometimes at the exact same time. She repeated her question a time or two more along the way, but then she knew. Santa was a story. This wasn’t a great tragedy, for her or for us, and it wasn’t the beginning of some mysterious loss of innocence. Nothing was diminished by the knowledge that Santa was real, least of all my daughter’s sense of wonder.
In a universe where dinosaurs really did once walk the earth and planets really are spinning through the vastness of space, it’s hard to imagine honest answers to honest questions ever diminishing our sense of wonder.
But that’s not the end, not quite. Because it turns out all my honest answers had caveats.
“Some people believe Santa Claus is real,” I said when my daughter was three, before I told her what I believed, that Santa is a story. Even when she was five, it wasn’t enough to tell her Santa was a story. I felt the need to add, “A story that some people enjoy believing.”
Of course they do, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that—except that I felt the need to defend the lie even as I told the truth. The reason is no great mystery. We all feel the pressure not to “ruin” Christmas for kids who believe Santa is real, no matter our traditions or what we ourselves believe.
Different families have different customs, something I’ve used to explain everything from screen time rules to why we have to wear shoes outside to who is and isn’t getting a slushie on the way home from the park. Yet I don’t ask other parents to make their kids put on shoes just because mine is wearing them, and I don’t expect other parents to get their kids a slushie after a play date just because my kid is getting one. The story of Santa is different from other stories. It’s the one story where we’re not content to respectfully let different families have different traditions and beliefs. It’s the one story that we all, even children, are expected to deny our own truths to protect.
That has implications for identity, too.
Or as Rabbi Ruti Regan put it in a twitter thread a few years ago, “It bothers me that Jewish children are expected to help Christian parents lie to their children about Santa Claus. Minority culture kids should not have to be afraid that they will face retaliation from majority-culture adults for saying things that are true.”
Families have the right to teach their children to believe in Santa Claus. They have the right to celebrate the holidays any way they choose, and to take joy in doing so. But it’s not my family’s job to lie about our beliefs to protect your traditions, any more than it’s your family’s job to pack kosher-for-Passover meals so my kid won’t feel left out at the lunch table.
It’s a tricky, sometimes uncomfortable juggling act, this business of raising children in a world where not everyone believes as we do. Members of minority religions, along with those who don’t identify with any religion, already have a lot of practice with this act. Maybe it shouldn’t all be on us. Maybe it’s time everyone else take on their share of responsibility and juggling, too.
What I’m saying is, yes, listen for sleigh bells this Christmas Eve, if that’s your thing. Find all the magic and joy there is to be found in that, as well as in opening the presents your traditions say the sleigh and its driver will leave behind. We can all use magic and joy, and the fact that we find it in so many different places is wondrous, too.
Just stop asking the rest of to say that we hear sleigh bells, too.
Variations on the line had been bouncing around in my head for a while before my husband and fellow writer, Larry Hammer, reminded me where it came from.
I’d been thinking about Frost (without knowing it was Frost I was thinking about) because I’d been thinking about how once we reach a certain basic level of craft, writing is no longer about avoiding mistakes or carefully not doing anything wrong.
It’s about the things we do right.
No one ever loved a book, after all, simply for not making any mistakes, for all that there are (varied, individual) things that can throw each of us out of a story. But we don’t love a story just because we aren’t thrown out of it, either.
We love books for what they do, not for what they manage not to do. We love them for the thing or things that hit each of our particular story buttons, that reach out to bridge the gap between story and reader, that pull on us and make us want to or need to read on. A flawed book that does the things it does very right is far more powerful than an unflawed book that doesn’t.
None of my favorite books—the books I imprinted on as a child and teen, the books that have remained touchstones for me throughout my life—is perfect. I can see that clearly enough when I look at those books as a writer focused on craft—and that has never once stopped me from returning to those books, from treasuring them.
We don’t love books for the things they aren’t, but for the things they are.
But there’s more to it than that. A while back, in a stray moment when I thought I was thinking about a manuscript-in-progress, I found myself thinking instead: And the same thing is true for people.
On one level, I’d always known this. On another I hadn’t, or had forgotten, or needed to relearn it on that particular day in that particular way. People no more need to be perfect than stories do.
As writers who spend much of our time looking inward that we can become as critical of ourselves as of our stories, this is worth remembering, too. I doubt many people hold their friends and loved ones dear simply because they never make mistakes. Lack of mistakes is not the place love comes from.
We love one another for the same reason we love stories: not for what we aren’t, but for what we are.
As I dig deep to put words on the page, I find that a comforting thought.
Okay, you don’t need me to tell you that. What with the election and the pandemic and the wildfires and a thousand thousand other things, 2020 has seen to it that it won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
But February 2020 was also, as this ten-year-old post just reminded me, my writingversary. As I explained then:
Back in February 1990, just a few months out of school, I spent the last of my student loan money on a computer with two 5 1/4″ floppy drives, promised myself I would write at least something every single day when I got home from my new day job, and decided to see if I could make a go of this writing thing. I knew enough to know it would take time, so I gave myself ten years before I would step back, evaluate, and decide whether to keep going.
In February 2000, I’d sold the three middle grade Phantom Rider books and a couple dozen short stories, though the Phantom Rider books were by then out of print and I was feeling more than a little anxious about not having sold any more novels. But I stepped back, looked around, and decided I was in for a second ten years.
I completely missed February 2010, because I was frantically finishing a draft of a sequel the YA fantasy I’d started on that first student-loan funded computer but not finished and sold until late 2006. That was the third YA fantasy I’d sold in the second half of that decade; along the way I’d also sold another middle grade novel. Being too busy to step back and decide whether to keep writing is, of course, an answer of its own. Still, it’s good to actually state these things, so: I’m in for a third decade. I’m in, as I pretty much knew before the end of that first decade, for the long haul.
I completely missed February 2020 because, well, it was part of 2020. Writing has brought its challenges over the past decade, as it does; parenting has brought its own challenges to the second half of that decade, as it also does. But I’m still here and I’m still writing and it feels good to say it aloud:
I’m in for a fourth decade. I’m in for another ten years.