Conversation at a local Arizona business

Me: “Can I ask why you’ve chosen not to wear a mask today?”

Her: “…”

Me: “I mean, I know it’s not required. But can I ask why you’re not wearing one to protect your customers anyway?”

Her: “Well, umm, the mandate’s been lifted.”

Me: “Sure. But you could still wear a mask if you wanted to. No one’s stopping you. And you’d be helping protect your customers, some of whom might be medically vulnerable.”

Her: “Well, it’s a choice.”

Me: “Sure. But why are you making that choice, if it puts people at risk?”

Her: “…”

She seems to honestly not understand what I’m saying, or maybe I’m not explaining it well—that I know she has a choice but I’m wondering about the wider consequences of that choice, and why/whether she accepts those consequences.

Me: “Are you at least vaccinated?”

Her: “You’re not allowed to ask me that.”

Me: “Sure I am. You don’t have to answer, but I’m allowed to ask. Are you vaccinated?”

Her: “I’m not allowed to answer that.”

This is not true. Businesses can ask for this information, but even if they couldn’t, I’m an individual, not a business. I can ask whatever I want, and the person I’m talking to can choose for themselves whether or not to answer me.

Me: “So you’re unmasked and unvaccinated?”

Her: “…”

Me: “Does it bother you that you’re putting the public at risk and could potentially be spreading Covid to others?”

Her, turning away: “You have a nice day.”

For parents, the pandemic’s lesson is clear. We’re on our own.

As a new mother, I struggled with isolation and loneliness, as many new parents do.

I was an older mom, and most of my friends were childless or had older kids. My new-parent schedule didn’t leave much time for seeing anyone whose day wasn’t structured around naptime and bedtime, and that was hard enough. Harder still, though, was the way everyone, even those who’d once had babies at home, seemed to have forgotten just how hard caring for an infant or toddler really was.

How else to explain the way they told me I should enjoy these precious years, when I wasn’t yet sure how I’d survive them? How else to explain how they kept saying everything would go by far too fast, when all I wanted was a break from days that never seemed to end?

How else to make sense of the way they insisted motherhood looked so good on me, that they could see the happiness shining through on my face, when I was exhausted and drowning?

From the very start, I loved my daughter. But I didn’t love the loneliness and the disconnect that seemed an inescapable part of early parenting. I didn’t love how many people outright refused to remember just how rough the early days of this journey could be.

With time, things got better. I caught up on sleep. I met new friends who had littles of their own and so hadn’t had a chance to forget yet. My schedule became more flexible, letting old friends back in. By elementary school, surrounded by an entire cohort of parents in the exact same place I was, the memory of isolation had faded into the background.

Until the pandemic hit.

Until schools closed, cities went on lockdown, and my family and I were once again on our own.

All of us parents did our best to support each other, in the beginning, through that first impossible spring of remote learning — while our kids had screaming fits during Zoom sessions; while the spark left their eyes as they stared, glazed over and depressed, at computer screens all day; while we fought our own depression and fear as we tried to get our own work done and support our children at the exact same time.

By the end of the school year our cheerful text threads fell silent, though, as we all focused on the same single critical question: Would schools reopen in the fall? Schools had to reopen, didn’t they? None of us could imagine doing this again.

During the endless summer that followed, everything else reopened instead. Bars. Restaurants. Gyms. Disneyworld. In Arizona, where I live, early lockdowns had kept Covid case numbers in check all spring, but now, one reckless reopening at a time, our numbers rose, and rose again, and rose some more. Like most of the US, by fall Arizona’s Covid cases were so high that schools couldn’t reopen. Somehow, we were going to have to get through another season of remote learning after all.

Yet once again I found little empathy from non-parents for the challenges ahead, because once again, adults not actively parenting their own kids had forgotten what parenting was really like. They had to have forgotten, because how else could they sleep at night knowing bars were open but schools were closed? How else could they be good with letting families struggle just so they could go out for dinner, or see a movie, or have a drink with friend?

But they were good with that. More than good with it — far too many people convinced themselves that overwhelmed parents were the selfish ones for wanting it any other way. Friends whose children had left home years ago told me how happily they would have homeschooled during a pandemic. Grandparents who hadn’t seen their grandkids in months insisted those grandkids were totally happy with remote learning so my kid should be too. Strangers on social media insisted parents were self-centered for needing child care, for caring about our children’s mental health, for wanting to hang on to our jobs, for not having the skill to more cheerfully teach our kids, in social isolation, about subjects we didn’t fully understand in a format they weren’t developmentally wired for.

Too many people still seemed to think that parents could, through a simple act of will, choose to be glowing with happiness instead of drowning from exhaustion.

Again, things eventually got better. Covid case numbers dipped enough that schools opened again, with far better Covid mitigation plans than most of the businesses that only briefly had to close. Mine and my child’s mental health — along with the mental health of most families I knew — improved dramatically, and whatever the social media forums said, this was not a trivial thing.

There were ups and downs after that. Covid numbers spiked again in the winter, spiked alarmingly as people bought plane tickets, visited family, traveled for the holidays, and traveled some more just because they really needed a vacation, all while still happily shopping in person and eating out as well.

When Covid numbers finally fell again, it wasn’t thanks to anyone’s good behavior. It was because the winter holidays were over and there was less time for traveling. It was because vaccines had become more widely available, at least in the US.

Even so, for the first time in a long time, I almost felt hopeful. I got vaccinated as soon as I could. I watched as the age for vaccine eligibility kept dropping. I outright cheered when the FDA approved the first vaccine for kids 12 and older. A few more months, a few more trials and approvals, and kids under 12 would be eligible to be vaccinated too. With Covid numbers still dropping, with mask mandates still in place, I began to think that maybe even before then my daughter and I could venture out safely come summer.

I should have known better. I should have remembered that my child — that any child — was the last thing most people cared about.

The CDC decided, reasonably enough, that vaccinated people were safe without masks in most settings. My city decided, not reasonably at all, that this meant it was time to completely lift public masking requirements. In response local businesses put up meaningless signs saying masks were “strongly recommended” for the unvaccinated, made it clear they had no plans to enforce this recommendation, and declared they were good to go. If half the adults in my city remained unvaccinated, if those unvaccinated adults were surely taking off their masks along with everyone else, if all those unmasked unvaccinated adults caused another spike in Covid cases? Not the businesses’ problem.

If my city was suddenly a more dangerous place for everyone under 12 — a huge group of children who couldn’t get vaccinated even if they wanted to be? That wasn’t the business’ problem, either.

And once again, most adults not raising children just didn’t care, maybe because they were too busy celebrating their newfound “right” to take off their own masks.

Try telling them that lifting mask mandates puts kids in danger? They say it doesn’t matter, because they personally are vaccinated so can’t possibly be part of the problem. Try telling them their unmasking encourages the unvaccinated to unmask too? Well, they can’t possibly be responsible for anyone else’s behavior, and besides, by unmasking the unvaccinated are only putting themselves at risk anyway. Try telling them that rising Covid cases, even among the unvaccinated, threatens my child and countless children like her? Again — they’re vaccinated. They’re officially not responsible for anyone but themselves.

Never mind that the first lesson of any contagious disease should be that we’re all responsible for each another, that our actions affect not just ourselves but others too, because that’s how contagious diseases work.

Other local venues are opening here now, too. Public pools, where masking isn’t even possible, opened Memorial Day weekend, while the whole country is talking about getting back to “normal” by the 4th of July. Never mind that kid vaccines aren’t expected until September. Everyone is so, so glad to be moving on.

Everyone except for children and their parents. We don’t get that luxury.

So here I am. Facing down a long, isolated summer where every trip out is a renewed exercise in risk calculation. A summer spent worrying about which public places, if any, are safe for my daughter, all while around me others celebrate the end of the pandemic and look for more restrictions to lift. After all, why should anyone let the existence of a few million children under 12 get in the way of their personal happiness?

I know, I know. It will get better. Probably. Eventually. But until then, the message from my community and my country is painfully clear: this summer, I’m on my own, as surely as any sleep-deprived new parent.

The only difference is that this time, it’s going to be a lot harder to forget how much all those around me refused to see, when one day normal catches up with my family and all the other families like us at last.

Life isn’t a story. That’s probably a good thing.

Life isn’t a story.

This is, for the most part, a good thing. Stories need conflict. Stories need drama. Stories need, more often than not, for the worst possible thing to happen at the worst possible time.

No one wants to live in a well-written story.

The pandemic isn’t a story. But if it were, I think we’d be at the part where it looks like everything is about to wrap up and wind down at last — but it isn’t, quite.

Vaccines are here and widely available, even if not as many people as hoped for are taking them. Covid case numbers are down, at least in our country and at least in certain communities within our country. Some of the time, for some of the people, things are beginning to feel almost … normal.

Which is why this would be the part of the story where readers begin flipping through the pages (physical books) or checking out the status bar (ebooks) to see if we’re really as close to the ending as we think.

It would be the part of the story where we realize that there are so many more pages left to go than we expected — too many for the story to really be winding down, too many for the resolution to be as simple as it seemed.

It would be the part where at least one more unexpected-yet-somehow-inevitable thing needed to happen. One more threat, one more unexpected twist, one more call for our weary characters to find their strength and rise above their weaknesses, to endure the unendurable and overcome one last overwhelming obstacle.

It would be where we realize the pandemic and its consequences aren’t over yet, that we were in too much of a hurry to think they were, that we need to keep reading for a while yet before we reach the satisfying conclusion and cathartic sigh of relief we’re longing for.

I’m glad the pandemic isn’t a story.

I’m glad those of us who hear those pages flipping have as much chance as being wrong as of being right. Maybe the pandemic still is building up to a dramatically satisfying ending. There are certainly enough unresolved plot threads left for one. But maybe, if we’re lucky, it’s instead just staggering to an undramatic, unsatisfying, mostly meaningless, utterly weary end.

Stories need meaning. Life, thankfully, does not.

But life also doesn’t let us skip ahead, doesn’t let us read the ending ahead of time for reassurance before returning to our carefully bookmarked place.

I hope the pandemic isn’t a story.

But if it is a story, I hope it’s a standalone story.

Because as readers know, if the pandemic isn’t a standalone story, then the end of book one is just a lull. A chance for readers to catch their breath — right before all those unresolved plot threads come crashing down, with all the force of a world that extends far beyond our own borders and a tale that was always, always more complicated than it seemed.

Vaccine clinic humor

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.


Me during a volunteer shift
Me, doing something.

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.

From Spring to Spring: A Pandemic Year

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.

We all settled in to remote learning and remote working.

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 tried not to think, in the beginning, about just how much there was to fear. I tried to laugh at it all, and sometimes I even succeeded.

I also hunkered down, because there wasn’t much else to be done. I went for walks. I painted rocks. I planted vegetables and learned to make sushi. I struggled through remote learning with my child.

Painted rocks and painted bricks.

I dreamed of escaping into the mountains for the summer, until the mountains began to burn.

Really, wearing these things just isn’t all that hard.

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.

Some of us have the luxury of forgetting all sorts of things.

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 actual view from my backyard last summer.

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.

No matter how badly I treat them, they come back every spring.

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.

My vegetables are less forgiving than my irises, but sometimes, they grow too.

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.

Still, it is spring, and there is hope, and I’ve finally come to the part of this story where at least I believe these things are real.

Now I just need to push through a little further, on to the part where I learn, once more, how to trust them.

A Message from Your Child’s Feline Remote Learning Assistant

Hey there, small human. It’s me, your cat.

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.

Me Time

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.

Unlimited Catnip

Honestly, I don’t think this requires any explanation.

Commitment

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.


Originally published at Frazzled.

No Contrition (a found poem)

No contrition
Or regret.

The mob?
Stormed lives?
Totally appropriate.

Sidestepped questions?
Deadly riot?
Totally appropriate.

Defiance.
Assault.
Violence.

Ransacking.
Anger.
Violence.

His mob.
His anger.

He should leave.
Leave everyone alone.


Found poetry from “In first public appearance since the Capitol siege, Trump expresses no contrition for inciting the mob,” The New York Times, January 12, 2020

Had motherhood ruined my favorite childhood stories?

My essay, “Had motherhood ruined my favorite childhood stories?” is featured in Modern Parent this week.

As I snuggled in with my husband and my then-first-grader to watch Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, I looked forward to sharing my childhood memories of Rankin and Bass’ claymation classic.

Within five minutes of pressing play, though, all I could think was, “Why is everyone being so mean?”

Read more here.

2021 Is Overwhelmed by the Weight of Your Expectations

I can’t go out there.

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.

[Foggy mountainside]
No peeking. You don’t get to see the pandas until October. (Photo by Ren Ran on Unsplash)

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.

[Basket full of kittens]
These kittens don’t care what year it is. Kittens are awesome that way. (Photo by The Lucky Neko on Unsplash)

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?

Me and the pandas are going back to bed.