Thursday, May 27, 2021

Have I been here before?

My first indoor dining of 2021, after approximately one year and two months and two weeks, give or take a few days, was at the Hard Rock Cafe at the Houston International Airport, 

which wasn't exactly the sparkly First Indoor Dining Experience I had been envisioning, but it was either that, or fast food. They didn't have menus. How it works is you aim your phone at the QR code card on the table and the digital menu pops up. You can even order from your phone too, so no need to bother the mask-wearing server. I had a salad, and then it was back to masks on and a wait at the gate.

Some of my fear and anxiety, constant companions over the past year, two months, and two weeks, is slowly starting to fade away. But for a while there, it was getting dicey. The complex series of risk calculations before every excursion out of the house -- one mask? two masks? at work, at the grocery store... The reassessments after encounters-- wait, did I get exposed when I picked up the to-go order and that other customer waiting was coughing up a lung... is this tickle in my throat allergies or am I three to five days away from full-blown Covid and possibly killing my family--

It's hard to feel normal and what is normal anymore? On the plane home, the guy sitting in the row in front of my husband and me has a meltdown. All I can see is the back of his white-haired head, 

but he's bobbing it a lot, indignantly. He's paid for the seat beside him and he wants his suitcase to sit on it and he can't understand what the flight attendant is saying with her mask on and no, he won't pull up his own mask because he's drinking his beverage and he won't let the flight attendant seat anyone else next to him. One by one 

the flight attendants attempt to deal with him and I can feel my blood pressure rising. Within a few minutes, all of the flight attendants are standing in our row, hovering over the man, and standing with them is the passenger they've brought up to sit beside him, another white man, who's got a weary look on his face, like, come on buddy, give it up, you're not gonna win this one,

the white head stops bobbing. His shoulders sag. The other passenger takes his seat beside him. One of the flight attendants leans across and wags his finger in the man's face and says: "No more warnings about the mask, sir." Another wag of the finger. "Resistance is futile." 

Situation resolved. My husband and I laugh relieved laughs under our breaths. I type Resistance is futile in the note feature on my phone. I keep sneaking peeks at the man's white head. I can almost hear him thinking, When did the whole world change? A while ago, I want to tell him. You just haven't been paying attention. In San Francisco it was 65 degrees when we left in the morning to catch our flight. In Ohio it's a sticky 82 degrees when we walk to our car in the dark. My first day back to work is the next day, 

only a week gone for vacation, but over that week, everything is different. My library branch is open. No more walk-up window. People can just waltz right in. Masks appreciated, says the sign on the window, and nearly everyone wears them. It's a habit for most of us now. I'm fully vaccinated, I keep reminding myself. It's okay. It's going to be okay. 

But maybe after one year and two months and two weeks, give or take a few days, it's sometimes hard to believe it. Welcome back! I say to the patrons as they come through the door, 

the ones I knew before the pandemic and the ones I've gotten to know through the walk-up window. Welcome back! A little girl stops in front of the plexiglass that surrounds my desk and looks at me, frowning. Have I been here before? she says.  

I don't know, I tell her. 

Her mom shrugs. I don't think she remembers. 

Well, then, I tell the little girl brightly, Welcome to the library. 

Friday, May 21, 2021

Masks Off

except in DC when my husband and I were helping our daughter move into her apartment, and

also, in San Francisco two weeks later, where we were visiting our son and his lovely girlfriend after not setting in-real-life eyes on them since January 2, 2020, but who is keeping track. The people in San Francisco wear their masks outside, and so, we do too, except when you’re eating in a restaurant, and then it’s okay, also,

in the airport, where you must keep your mask on while checking in, except when you have to take it off so the gate checker-inner can match your bare face with your ID. We don’t wear masks at Yosemite, except when we go into public restrooms. Meanwhile, back home in Ohio, the masks are off and then on again, and now, maybe off, 

but we aren’t thinking about Ohio. Our son hasn’t changed a bit after 17 months of not setting actual eyeballs on him, and yet, he is entirely changed. He and his girlfriend have their routines and favorite meals and nightly walks, and for a few days we are part of his life, marveling at the house styles in his neighborhood, the roses in the front yards, here and there a redwood tree, and amazing hellstrip gardens, those slices of land between the sidewalk and the street where Ohio people usually grow boring grass, but why not something fun like

cactus or an enormous rosemary bush? My son takes us on a bike ride around a bay and I laugh because I have not been on a bike in years, but these bikes are electric and whenever you pedal, you can feel a super charge kicking in and propelling you forward. We drive up to Napa and there’s more laughs at how much wine comes with the wine-tasting. (28 glasses! Which is nuts! But we do our best to drink them!)  

Everything about this trip is equally awesome, from the walk to the farmer’s market to buy cherries to the view at Yosemite, the enormous faces of granite and how can it be that one of these rocks is the size of three empire state buildings stacked on top of each other and our son climbed one of these massive domes and thank God you were not there to see it! We are old. He wants to take us up 600 steps to see a waterfall. 

But first you have to hike nearly a mile uphill and we can’t do it. Instead we drive up to a lookout and my husband nods off and I tell my son stories and he keeps interrupting to tell me he’s heard all of these stories before, so we listen to music. 

I keep saying, This air is so fresh! Until my husband says, How many times are you going to say that? Our son’s face is so familiar and unfamiliar, the little boy he was and the man he’s become, picking out the cherries at the farmer’s market and asking questions about wine varieties at the vineyard and stopping to crack-climb a giant boulder, wedging his hands inside a split in the rock and shimmying up, swinging across, the next day making us breakfast. 

At Yosemite he points out something he keeps calling a boot flake and I have no idea what he’s talking about, the wall of rock is so massive, but then he shows me on the picture on my phone and there it is, 

the boot-shaped bit of rock, and nearby, tiny specks scurrying around. Climbers! At night the lights on their headlamps are pinpricks like faraway stars. Dear Lord, please don’t ever go up there, I am thinking, but what I say is, Wow! That is so cool! 

And then, all too soon, the visit is over and my husband and I are back in the airport, masks on,

heading home, where there are no mountains to climb, no random redwoods in front yards, our kids settled on opposite coasts, the world we are returning to

entirely the same, all together different. 

Thursday, May 13, 2021

I wrote a thousand words the other day

and it was kind of a minor miracle. I used to be a much more self-disciplined writer. I set word count goals--higher than 1000 words--and I always met them. The trick was not really a trick at all. It was

just do it

no excuses. Sit down and open the manuscript I was working on and write. But then, I hit a nasty writer's block, and then, just as I was emerging out of that, along came a global pandemic and a scary slap of a reminder that we live in a broken world. Whatever routine I'd created for myself was gone and each day I would put off my writing, 

finding a million other things to do before sitting down, coping with the global pandemic and the world's precariousness by binge-watching baking shows, impulse-buying miniature book rooms and colorful cereal bowls, and obsessively trying to identify every plant in my backyard. 

Also, worrying over birds.

Amazingly, I finished writing a book and revised it and revised it again, and started writing another book, setting no word count goals because I kept failing at them, and next, simply trying to sit for a fixed amount of time, 

say, an hour? 

Some days even that was too hard. My old bad habits came back, the perfectionism thing where you have to keep writing the same scene, the same paragraph, the same sentence until it feels right and what is right anyway? Which inevitably spirals into the evil twin of perfectionism-- self doubt, 

the Why am I doing this? Who is ever going to read this? Oh, look at those cute cereal bowls online why don't we buy them even though we don't need anymore cereal bowls. 

But then I got vaccinated and suddenly it was spring and I had mapped every plant in my yard and my adult daughter who had been living at home all year moved out and restarted her life and that reminded me that I could restart mine, 

and why not set a word count goal?

I chose 1000 words. For reference, this is roughly 4 pages. Not so much, you would think, right? But it took me an entire day. When I finished, I felt like I'd run a marathon, muscles throbbing that I'd forgotten I had, extreme giddiness, because I could still do this, 


and somehow I survived this year and how lucky I was, am, to be able to do this, write, despite living in a broken world, both escaping from it and trying to capture it, regardless of whether anyone reads what I'm writing, and so the next day,

I did it again. 

Cute, but not enough to assuage my existential dread

Thursday, May 6, 2021

What I don't know about candles

or driving a UHaul truck through the streets of Washington DC, or driving a small compact car for that matter, for one thing:

Where do you park? How in God's name will you unload the UHaul? 

There's an alleyway behind my daughter's new apartment. She's on the ground floor of a four story building and something I didn't know: the below-ground floor is fancily called an "English Basement." The stairs leading down toward the hobbit-sized front door that won't fit a chair are steep. We will have to use the back entrance for the couch, the mattress, the kitchen table. Essentially, we are re-assembling furniture from all of our past houses into this apartment, excuse me, into this English Basement. 

Our kitchen table with crayon marks scrawled inside a drawer. Our daughter's name, written when she was in pre-school. The mattress my husband and I splurged on and paid off in monthly installments for three years. A plant. Will it get enough light in this place? The alleyway is very narrow. Too narrow, to be honest, but my husband is a patient and brave man. 

He pulls through achingly slow, attempts a turn, so we can start to unload, all of us realizing too late that the angle is too sharp. The truck won't make it through. He will have to back up. Avoid brushing the sides of the other apartments, the drain pipes jutting out, the corner of someone's living room, with only millimeters to spare. Who has time to feel nostalgia or sadness about daughters leaving home to live in English basements in faraway cities at a dangerous moment like this?

More like 30 excruciating minutes of dangerous moments 

as my husband inches his way back out. Once, his brave mask slips from his face and my heart bangs crazily. In the end, he double parks in the street. The boyfriend and his helpful friend lug the couch around the block, the mattress, the tables, down the alley way, down the back steps, while my daughter and her lovely friend tote the smaller things through the hobbit door in the front. 

Later we all flop out on our old couch and our daughter lights a new candle. I am sweating so much under my mask, my heart still hammering wildly from watching the UHaul nightmare, from driving myself through the busy streets so my husband can drop off the damn truck. "I had to drive through a parade!" he says, half laughing, half looking like he might burst into tears. 

It wasn't a parade. Just a Saturday night in this hopping trendy neighborhood. To settle myself, I put my daughter's books away, arranging them alphabetically by author and then doing my version of Dewey with the non-fiction collection, an activity that immediately calms me. I move the candle, blow it out, and my daughter rushes over, upset. 

Didn't I know that when you first burn a candle, it has to burn long enough to melt the wax all the way to the rim? 

No, I did not know that. 

While she bustles around unpacking the kitchen, she asks me to fix the candle. There's a way, she says. You can find it online. Something to do with tinfoil. 

I think she's joking, but sure enough, I find a complicated-seeming process for fixing a "tunneled candle" on a Better Homes and Gardens site. There's even a helpful Youtube video included. 

But my brain feels too tired to learn new things. How to fix candle problems that I've never heard of before. How to watch a brave patient man back up a fifteen foot truck. How to smile and wave from the safety of our small car, drive away from the English basement and the fun busy streets, set our daughter back on the path she would always have been on, if not for a global pandemic,

and us, back to our quiet old house, filled with--I realize now--an assortment of tunneled candles, just waiting for me to fix them.