adventures from the homefront, COVID-19 edition, episode 14: petty guilt

Since the coronavirus shutdowns, I’ve been having a tele-session with my shrink every two weeks or so. The first time, I did it while I was cooking dinner and the kids were wandering around and the dogs were barking. That was distracting.

I’ve refined the process and now I get shrinked while sitting in the car in the driveway, chatting with the doc through my AirPods (apple’s fancy wireless earbuds), staring at the garden and touching random things in the car, or rubbing my face weirdly, my head lolling back against the headrest in a way that would be entirely inappropriate in polite company. I have to admit, I think I may prefer this to showing up at an office and sitting on a soft dust-mite-filled sofa that smells faintly of other people’s perfumes and butts and takes me to OCD code red. I also don’t have to shower for tele-health.

This week, I said to Dr. G (that’s what I’ll call him) that I feel like I have nothing real to complain about in this COVID-19 era.  I hate wasting his time in these strange days.  All my concerns are petty and non-existential and selfish.

I have claustrophobic panic attacks in a mask, while I shop at Whole Foods. Millions of families are starting to look at food pantries to source food for free. One out of five American kids doesn’t have access to enough food.

Some days I go crazy about my kids following me around; I just want to be alone. All around the world, people are trapped in quarantine in their homes alone, desperately lonely and in need of support.

I feel displaced from my basement desk and computer, because Anthony has necessarily taken it over for his income-generating job, and I’m displaced at the kitchen desk as well because of my kids schooling from home, and I have to wander around looking for somewhere to plop myself with my laptop, and it just makes me grumpy. Some people don’t have homes anymore, let alone a portable laptop.

I have sensory issues with my hair and it’s just driving my batty; I could sure use a haircut.  My regular stylist has had no income for two months.

I desperately miss my elderly mom. I worry this pandemic won’t end until it’s too late for me to see her again.  For nearly 300,000 people in this world, it’s already too late.

The only really big thing I’m coping with right now is a strong feeling of guilt.

Dr. G did The Shrink Thing:  “Why do you think that is?”

Sigh.

Side benefit of tele-health: he didn’t see my eyes roll up in my head.  Very rude. I said aloud, “I don’t know.”

We’ve been at this long enough together that Dr. G seems to know I like to go home with something to work on. He also knows I’m not lacking for ideas. When it comes to psycho babble, I’m a random idea generator.

He paused just long enough and went on. When we have strong persistent feelings, they’re usually an indicator of something else.

He paused again. I random idea generated. White guilt? Well, half-white guilt. Elite liberal guilt? Guilt as a way to avoid other feelings of fear and grief? Honest, well-deserved guilt over having so much wealth and security and not doing enough to help other people? Guilt over not being able to be in California to help my mom and a brother who just got out of the hospital? Guilt over not earning any nominal income?

He didn’t say anything and eventually I stopped generating and waited for him to explain to me what’s behind my guilt.

He said, so that would be something good to meditate on, and try to figure out what’s behind the guilty feelings.

OH FINE, thanks for NOTHING! 

Sigh.

We went on to chat about these things, the feelings of guilt that have always nipped at my heels. Dr. G gave me the basics, of course, on the “guilty for all my riches” front: you worked hard for what you have, you don’t have to feel badly about having built a safe and secure life for yourself and your family, you don’t have to feel badly for being healthy, you don’t have to feel badly for making choices that potentially protect your mom from infection.

Yes yes, I know. But also I know that plenty of other folks have worked harder than me, they just didn’t have certain demographic advantages that made it possible for their hard work to pan out.  So I really can’t pat myself on the back too much for success.  There are a lot of other backs to pat too. It all feels pretty random. Yada yada.

Maybe my guilt is as petty as the petty things I feel guilty about.

Huh. I have my homework from Dr. G. I will meditate on why I feel guilty.  If and when I have some answers, I might let you know.

 

 

 

adventures from the homefront, COVID-19 edition, episode 13: new things I do

There are so many magical conspiracy theories about imaginary things floating through the ether these days, and also so many fresh ideas about how certain real things are actually hoaxes. It’s a wonder. I wish I had such wild imaginings. I would be much less bored.

But alas, I don’t actually believe that COVID-19 is a hoax, or that 5G is causing these illnesses and deaths instead. I don’t believe our hospitals are empty and the news is totally fake except for Fox and Breitbart. I don’t know about the efficacy of cloth masks, but I don’t think the lack of clarity is a hoax. It’s just science trying to catch up and people having no idea yet.  

But wouldn’t it be great if wishful thinking was effective, and we could just will away the things that really scare and unbalance us by declaring them hoaxes? Thanks to the unhinged people who are doing this a lot to assuage their panic about COVID-19, and whose voices are being incredibly amplified by social media and on-line news in recent weeks, I also think about it a lot.  

So that’s a new thing I do in the era of COVID-19:  wishful thinking about things that I wish were hoaxes.  Like, I wish garlic mustard was a hoax.  I’m so tired of weeding it. Can’t it just die off already and be gone? Hoax it! It’s not an invasive species at all! All the other woodlands plants that we’re told are being crowded out by it? They’re the invasive species. This hoax is brought to us by a conspiracy of garden weeding tool manufacturers led by… wait for it… CORONA Tools. Does that company name feel like too much of a coincidence for you? Yeah, me too. I’m not weeding garlic mustard anymore.  It’s probably hurting my immunities to do it anyway.  

I also wish the emerald ash borer was a hoax. We have about half an acre of woods in our back yard, maybe a little less.  Almost all of the trees are ash, beautiful old woodland ash grown tall and straight, towering at about 70 or 80 feet. A couple of them are really big in diameter too, just gorgeous old beauties. We’re probably going to have them all cut down this summer and autumn, and we’ll plant new saplings to replace them. I guess it’ll be fun to put in a mixed deciduous mini-forest, maple and beech and birch and such, but I’ll be dead before they’re as majestic as the current ash. It’s kind of devastating. I admit I have hugged the dying trees and cried.  But I have a solution:  hoax it! My ash trees only look dead, it’s a deep conspiracy of arborists, they’ve done something to make the leaves fall off and the branches look unhealthy but it’s fake! They just want to make more money cutting down trees! There is no ash borer! Fake News!

What? You identified the actual bug? The trees are actually dead? The emerald ash borer is a scapegoat! What’s really killing my ash are the 5G towers, not the bug! Tear down the towers, not my trees!

 * * * * *

There are other new things I’m doing.  

I sniff my toothpaste tube every day to make sure I can still smell it. I also open the jar of kimchi almost day to make sure I can still smell it.  It seems more sensible than seeing if I can smell the 2-year-old dried dill in the spice cabinet.  I also try to make Anthony smell the kimchi jar, and I query him. Can you smell it? Can you still smell it? He is never amused.

Speaking of spice, I’ve been putting extra spices in all my meals; it makes for a better test of whether I still have a sense of taste.

I find excuses to touch my family’s faces.  Loving strokes, hugs and touches.  Checking for fever.

I have anxiety attacks when Anthony’s allergies cause his sinuses to drain so much that he gags and coughs. This is not new, but I have a new filter in my mind.  I have anxiety attacks about my own asthma-like feelings, which I’ve had for years because of spring allergies. I hope that’s still what it is.

When Jesse says, “I don’t feel good,” my thoughts have changed from “she says that every day” to “please don’t be dying of COVID-19.”

When I’m bagging my 60-pound poodle’s stools during a walk and I’m overwhelmed by the stench, I’m grateful that I can still smell it.  

I am growing vegetables.  To be fair, I’ve been threatening to do this for several years. It’s just that now I actually have time for it.  We built two 3×6 boxes for raised beds and we’ve got a couple spots in our existing garden beds available for veggies.  I’ve got seedlings coming up under a grow light in our basement.  In addition to the rhubarb and raspberries we already have, if things go well we will have chard and beets and green onions and napa cabbages and hot peppers and tomatoes and green beans and onions and lettuce and radishes and some herbs and strawberries and asparagus.  

Apparently, being very ambitious is also a new thing I’m doing. If it doesn’t work out and I don’t do a good job of following through because I get bored and lazy, that will not be a new thing. That will just be the same old story of my brilliant mediocrity.  

 * * * * *

I do lots of new things in this era.  

I fall asleep with a dry mouth for fear of what’s to come.  Anthony and I have elderly parents. We are cautiously optimistic that they’ll pull through.  Anthony and I are in our 50’s and we have young children. We need to make it through.  I don’t know.  Existential dread takes on a new shape when you have young ones.  

Our economy is shredded, and I spend too much time pondering how it is that capitalism is so brittle.  Shouldn’t it be more robust if it’s so great? Shouldn’t multi-national corporations whose CEOs make 50 mill a year (plus extras) have reserves that allow them to carry on for longer than a month or two without a government bailout? What happens when the house of cards all falls apart, when people realize monetary systems are a pure mythology? Will my vegetable garden be enough? Will our kids be hungry someday soon, joining the 1 out of 5 American kids who don’t have enough to eat already? Will the ultra-rich ever come out of their ivory towers and show us some noblesse oblige, demonstrating once and for all that trickle-down economics isn’t also a hoax?

I wonder about whether Americans lead lives of meaning.  If what brings you out to a demonstration is your need for a mani/pedi, and not the need of your pedicurists to feed their families, is something missing? If the only way you’ll go to a demonstration at a statehouse is with a semi-automatic weapon in your arms, do you actually have courage of conviction? If the way people north of the Mason-Dixon Line express a sense of patriotism and commitment to our national republic is by flying the Confederate secessionist flag, um… ?

I drink too much.  I wonder if I’ll ever see my mom alive again. I make face masks. I stare at the kids for no reason. I worry. Worrying isn’t new I guess, but the intensity of it is.

I spend hours with Anthony in the yard. We’re clearing out as much invasive buckthorn as we can and cleaning up the woods so we can enjoy them better and have less mosquitos and tics.  We dug a muddy trench to drain the pond that forms in the woods near our house when heavy rains fall.  The ducks that visit will not be happy.  We drag large pieces of fallen wood (the emerald-ash-borer-hoax-addled young ashes are starting to fall on their own) around the land and get dirty. I dress in a black Spiderman t-shirt and pale blue long-shorts that come just to the top of my knees and striped hot-pink compression socks up to my knees and filthy hiking boots and march out to the woods to join Anthony. I pose like a runway model with a shovel. I giggle and giggle.  I think this is new and funny. When he’s done laughing, Anthony declares that it’s just like the old Carla.

What? He married a clown?

I guess being a clown isn’t new.

 

 

adventures from the homefront, COVID-19 edition, episode 12: birthday

Fifteen years. That’s how long I’ve been a parent as of today.

Frankly, it has been an exhausting fifteen years. It started so auspiciously: Jesse exploded out of my womb, gnawed successfully on me for gruel for five minutes, and felt promptly asleep.

100_0111A
Shortly after, Jesse blossomed into her full glory.  All she needed, in order to be calm and content, was relentless 24-hour attention, along with an endless supply of unmitigated unadulterated untarnished unbounded unconditional unhinged love.  

If we failed, we got some version of this, which could go on for hours.
100_1181A

But if Anthony and I were present and committed, and if sleep deprivation didn’t deny us of all our base humanity, there was nothing more joyful than Jesse’s soul, shining through those eyes.
100_1011100_0733A100_0565crop

19055_1187123204200_6909296_n

When I thumb through photos of her early years, I also see hints of the darkness that exists alongside the joy, a certain haunted look that we couldn’t name yet as we snapped away with our cameras.

100_1132second

We strapped her onto us, rocked her, slept with her, remained with her, and waited.  I guess we’re still waiting, though she doesn’t sleep with us anymore and she no longer fits in the baby Bjorn.

It’s all still here, the same little person who came to be in 2005 — the joy and the needs, the darkness and the light, the miserable sleep, the tics and courage, the anxiety and imagination, the derangement and pizazz, the sticky feelings, the deep intuitions about the ugly hypocrisies of humanity that inevitably lead her to the edge, the generous and accepting person who meets everyone where she finds them without judgment – and still waits for the wider world to offer her the same grace.

IMG_5189.JPGIMG_5187.JPG

Last summer my brother Mark took Jesse to an enormous corporate amusement park in Northern California. They came back with this snap of her in transit on one of the roller coasters.

IMG_5188.JPG

It’s a perfect depiction of how I imagine Jesse experiences life, every single day – in overdrive, overwhelmed by sensory inputs, trapped in a cage by terrible tics and self-loathing, in a seat by herself pummeling through a weird and scary universe, totally out of control but still hunting for the thrill that makes it all worthwhile.

* * * * *

Occasionally someone will ask me if it’s right for me to write about Jesse’s mental health journey, because it’s her story to tell, not mine. I understand, but in my shoes I also disagree.  I mean, I get her permission – though at some level, I’m sure it feels more like I insist on her permission.  But more importantly, it’s also my story.  For fifteen years, Jesse has been part of my story, as much as I’m part of hers.

Jesse is my muse.  Thanks to her, I’ve overcome deep layers of mental health stigma, and I’ve finally sought the supports I need to live a healthier life. Therapy has been life-altering and life-affirming. Mental health and disability education and advocacy have been empowering and have expanded my mindset in unexpected ways, trickling out into every aspect of my moral and political life.  I’ve discovered words and phrases like “radical acceptance” and “ableism” and “self advocacy” and “implicit stigma” and “self compassion” and “personal boundaries” and “crazy nation.”  (Fine, the last one I made up.) I’ve learned about the meaning and lack of meaning in labels.

I’ve been through a lava field of parental self-loathing and failure, and I’ve found myself coming out the other end emotionally more competent, kinder, more capable of grace, more resilient and stable, more able to ask for help when I need it. At 53, I can honestly say (without too much cringing) that I like myself, and I think I’m a pretty decent person. Definitely a better person than I was 15 years ago.

(Still grumpy, don’t worry.)

When I speak and write about Jesse’s mental health challenges, it’s not a cry for help, and I don’t think it’s disability porn. At least, I hope it’s not.  It’s a rumination to be sure, but mostly it’s become a call of gratitude. Jesse has saved my life.

Yes of course, I feel anxiety and stress about her future. She has challenges yet to overcome, and her road will be harder than it’s likely to be for a less atypical kid. Yes, I despair sometimes and act like a terrible parent.

But I can bounce back better now. I can shake off the dust and forgive myself and try again. And again and again and again, until Jesse can exhale. I’m learning to exhale beside her. I know that I have the power to model it for her, and I have to power to learn it from her. It depends on the day, which way that arrow flies. We are mirrors.

* * * * *

I know this is banal and simple, but there’s an old U2 song, called Bad, that hits me between the eyes each time I hear it. I have to dig deep not to ugly cry.  It’s become anthemic for me. It’s about heroin addiction, but like all great songs, it’s flexible. Some of the lyrics nail the space in which I live as Jesse’s parent, that desperate longing I have for her deep soul to find its way to safety.

If I could throw this lifeless lifeline to the wind
Leave this heart of clay
See you walk, walk away
Into the night
And through the rain
Into the half-light
And through the flame

If I could through myself
Set your spirit free, I’d lead your heart away
See you break, break away
Into the light
And to the day…
If I could, you know I would,
if I could, I would
Let it go
This desperation
Dislocation
Separation, condemnation
Revelation in temptation
Isolation, desolation
Let it go
And so fade away…
I’m wide awake…
I’m not sleeping.

* * * * *

Jesse expected little for her birthday today, what with her lack of active peer friendships and all the quarantining, but we did the best we could. I got her some makeup items she’s been wanting.  Nick made a treasure hunt out of clues on little bits of paper, which sent Jesse all over the house and yard until it ended in a birthday card he made for her. They were happy together. I made her donuts. Anthony sang her “happy birthday” about 20 times, announcing successive performances like rising burps.

When we asked Jesse what she wanted to do for a special outing, she answered without hesitating: go dip herself in Lake Michigan.  So we headed out to Kohler Andrae state park, her favorite spot for dipping-in-freezing-lake-water-in-early spring.

An hour later when we pulled up to the park gate, we learned that state parks are closed on Wednesdays for now.

Jesse flexed instead of fretting, this time. We discussed alternatives and quickly settled on a county park called Lion’s Den.  We drove back to the Den and spent solid time walking and rock-hopping up a stream. Jesse waded, her feet turning bright red with the cold, her face turning bright with the pleasure of fresh air and distance from humanity’s square walls.

Eventually we marched down and faced the lake. Jesse waded straight in, steeled herself, and dunked under. The water temperature is somewhere in the low 40’s at best. Dauntless.

That’s me screeching happily behind the camera.  You can hear her brother Nick muttering hopelessly in the background, “This is not a good idea.”

Maybe Nick’s right, but Jesse was happy. He waded in next.

* * * * *

When you’re fifteen, it’s so hard to know that people care about you. You want it and you don’t want it, all at the same time. You still need your parents so badly – especially when mental health challenges make life complicated – but you need your independence just as badly. Love starts to be bound up with sexuality, and it gets so weird and icky. It’s all such a mess.

It’s just as messy from my end, with Jesse. I don’t know how much she needs me until I’ve discovered that I’ve nosed in too deep or stayed too far away, after the fact.  Sometimes she’s totally dependent on me for the most basic things. Sometimes, I could be dead and it wouldn’t matter. She always surprises me.

Today at Lion’s Den, I grabbed my phone to take a video of my sweet, messy little maiden as she strolled down the trail ahead of me.  She took off when she saw I was filming, and I realized I was witnessing a metaphor.

There she goes, my child turning into an adult.  She knows these trails like her own house, we’ve been here so many times.  I’ve taught her everything I can about trail safety, and she’s learned even more on her own.  She’s safe as she disappears around the bend. She’ll be fine until I see her again.  She’ll come back if she needs me, if she can.

My heart squeezed tight as I put away my phone.

* * * * *

Having learned to ask for help, I am now shameless.  I sent out a call to many friends a couple days ago, asking them to reach out to Jesse for her birthday. And boy did they come through. Videos, cards, songs (one even in costume), poems, posters, gifts, [socially distanced] visitations, emails, calls. It rolled in all day long.

I don’t think Jesse understands what hit her, but she was happier than I’ve seen her in a very long time.  I know she doesn’t believe she deserves anything good, and she’d probably say it’s just because I asked people to reach out to her.  But that’s palpably false.  Someday I’ll tell her plain, when she’s ready.  What happened today is called love.

 

adventures from the homefront, COVID-19 edition, episode 11: it all sucks

I’ve done a lot of hard work in the past year trying to push past grumpy, find compassion and universal truths, build empathy with people who think differently than me, discover shared human values. I’ve been practically floating on the upbeat.

The 21st century GOP is just killing my vibe.

Wisconsin voted yesterday (April 7), and boy was it a poopy show. Follow me through this run-on sentence, and please read it in a shriek:  State republicans who have gerrymandered and vote-suppressed their way to power (and this is not a debatable accusation, it’s what they are doing transparently and with purpose and glee)… used their minority power to force an election forward in a time when they know full well (and actually intend) that the impact will be to effectively deny the vote to many citizens, or force citizens to endanger their lives in order to vote… and thereby suppress even more votes… and then the conservative majority on the state supreme court smashed down the governor’s last-ditch effort to protect human life by delaying the election date or making it mail-in only… and then the conservative bare-majority on the US Supreme Court (which exists because McConnell refused to honor democracy by allowing the US senate to consider the sitting president’s Supreme Court nominee) thumbs-upped the Wisconsin GOP’s move to put people in harm’s way in the interest of politics and power.

It’s perfectly designed to dump me off my there’s-hope-for-humanity cloud.

Oh sure, you can make plenty of technical arguments about the rule of law and blah blah blah.  And plenty of conservative jurists will do that. They will need to, in order to sleep well at night. But it’s all sophistry.  The same ilk who now say “we can’t stand in the way of local state election decisions!” handed Dubya the election against Gore by… overturning a state court’s ruling.  So I call BS, and no fancy-dancing argument will get me past that.  If it takes more than a few sentences to convince me that you’re right on this, then you’re jumping through hoops and I’m not impressed.

Our state assembly speaker, GOP huckster Robin Vos, insisted that elections were safe to go forward yesterday.  He proved his point about how safe it was by showing up to work at a polling site looking like this:

IMG_4906.JPG

Full PPE. What an ass-hat. There are nurses and doctors who can’t doll themselves up like this while treating patients with COVID-19. Where did he get this from? Why don’t the other poll workers around him have that outfit? Wouldn’t it have been nice if that equipment could have gone to a medical provider for actual use in treating patients, instead of being wasted on a stunted man engaging in a political stunt?

I’ll tell you what this montage tells me. Robin Vos knows full well that there was a massive risk in going forward with the vote yesterday. Otherwise he wouldn’t have been dressed like that. Robin Vos knows full well that people will get sick because of gathering to vote. Otherwise he wouldn’t have been dressed like that. Robin Vos doesn’t care about other people’s lives, least of all Democratic voters lives. He wouldn’t mind if they all die.  He cares about power, and that is all.

As for my own very local assembly representative, Dan Knodl (R)… He also made a statement by working the polls. Except he went somewhere called Richfield, which is a half hour north of here and in a different county. Maybe the lower COVID-19 infection rate there (so far) and the higher concentration of Republican (white) voters had something to do with that…? No! How rude of me to suggest such a thing! How rude of me to suggest that if he really cared about his own constituents, he would have volunteered at a polling location in Milwaukee County, which had real poll-worker shortages and where he was actually elected as an assemblyman, instead of going… somewhere else.

I no longer believe that I live in a democracy, or even a democratic republic (as many blithe neo-cons like to natter about, as if this somehow makes it okay for a minority to own power through machinations). Our elected leadership in America doesn’t reflect voter preference.  The numbers don’t lie. President Trump lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million. The US Senate has a bare Republican majority, even though in each of the last two elections Democratic candidates nationwide received millions more votes than Republican candidates. Here in Wisconsin, the gerrymandering is so bad that it looks like this from the last election: democratic candidates for our assembly got 53% (a majority, for math-weak readers) of votes overall, but walked away with only 36% (extreme minority) of assembly seats.

The staff of my state representatives — Dan Knodl and Alberta Darling, both republicans — don’t return my calls when I ask. When I do manage to reach a human, they’ve taken to lecturing me as if I work for them, instead of the other way around.  They firmly believe they answer to their political party, not the voters in their districts, and they treat me with contempt when I call with a view they don’t agree with.

In my view, anyone who thinks this is okay – and apparently a lot of people do – doesn’t believe in democracy or representative government.  It makes me all crazy inside.

What I think is, democracy in America is being strangled to death by the GOP’s increasingly authoritarian platform.  The GOP wants people to not vote, just like authoritarian governments all over the world. The GOP doesn’t care what the majority of citizens want.

The news that gives me pause in the face of this, and that may allow me to exit Grumpy Space before too long, is that people still showed up to vote, despite the threat to their health.  Having been denied absentee ballots, having been denied a period of grace to allow a later election in safer times, having been denied the opportunity to vote safely, people still came out and stood in line for hours and flexed their voter muscles. Despite the knowledge that their votes are meaningless because of gerrymandering, people still voted.

They had a choice to stay home, and they didn’t. They haven’t given up. Heroes all. I hope we all turn out in November and claw back democracy, one vote at a time.

adventures from the homefront, COVID-19 edition, episode 10: touch everything

I have been doing a fantastic job of sheltering in place and avoiding humanity. It comes easy to me if course, since I hate people. At this point, unless I picked it up at the grocery store a few days ago, I should be COVID-19-free or asymptomatic-COVID-19-recovered.

But this morning I had three errands to run, and I didn’t bring any wipes or sanitizer or gloves with me. Oops. It was a good object lesson. Here’s a run-through of my journey, and the things I touched and hypothetically smeared with disease along the way:

As I head out the door, I grab keys and my phone, which lives in a wallet-like case that contains my important cards. I also have Everest by the leash, and Anthony follows carrying Madeline. The dogs are going to daycare for some much-needed peer play and grooming. I open the car doors and get the dogs and me in. Put on the seatbelt, grab the wheel, open the windows, move the stick shift into gear. Touch touch touch touch.

I drive over to doggy day care. I follow their COVID-19 plan and call from the car so Michelle can come out for the dogs. She takes the leashes from me (touch). The groomer also meets us outside and we fuss over the dogs as we chat, but we keep our distance. I ask Michelle how things are going. Business is slower so they’ve cut back hours, but she’s grateful to have a job at all. She is really going to need her stimulus check, she says.

I get back in the car – touch door handle, touch seatbelt, touch stick shift, touch window controls, touch keys – and drive down the street to the gas station. I need to fill up because we’re going to Horicon Marsh on this beautiful day to take a long walk. I pull up to the pump and get out.

Now is when I realize that o regret not planning ahead with sanitizer. An Orwellian female voice blares over the loudspeakers: we are committed to your health! Please come inside to wash your hands or use sanitizer after you pump!

Oh sure, come through your doors and into the place where all of the people are gathering in your convenience shop? I don’t think so.

I pull out my debit card and glare at the pump. How many people have used it today? Touch touch touch. I breathe and shove in my card, punch the buttons to pay. Touch touch. I pull out the nozzle, touch and get the gas going.

Now is when it all starts to go soggy in my mind, as I stand there waiting. I’ve touched equipment that has no doubt been touched by hundreds of hands since the last time it was cleaned in any way. This is always hard for me anyway, but right now I’m acutely aware of how gross it is. I try not to make keening noises.

Instead, I pull my debit card out of the pay slot, open the passenger side door, touch touch, and reach for my phone wallet. Something stops my hand. Instead of putting the card away, I drop it in the Stuff Slot in the car’s center console. (What am I supposed to call that space? I really don’t know.) I close the passenger door and wait. When the tank is full, I grit my teeth… pull out the nozzle and get it back on its pump slot, touch touch, look around forlornly for sanitizer, and get back in the car. Touch door handle, touch seatbelt, touch keys, touch wheel, touch stick shift.

I continue on to my last stop, the drive-through ATM at my local bank branch. I’m regretting the stacked errands the whole way. Maybe just one stop on an outing is the way to go. I pull up to the ATM and take a deep breath. I need to get cash now because I probably won’t have another chance before I pick up the dogs later today. I need to give the doggy day care ladies an enormous tip. I’m saving so much money with everything closed. I need to inject funds into our micro-local economy, help out my village when I can.

I roll down the car window, touch, and stick my card into the ATM box. Enter my pin, grab the bills. Retrieve my card, roll up the window. Touch touch touch. Touch wheel, touch stick shift, touch money, touch debit card.

I drive home. All I can think about is how incredibly toxic my car might be now, and also where is the closest box of Clorox wipes? I think it’s in the bathroom right next to the kitchen door. I pull into the driveway. Touch car door handles, touch phone and debit car and keys as I shove them in my coat pocket, touch storm door knob, touch kitchen door knob, touch Clorox box. Yes!

I pull out 4 million wipes and go to town. Wipe phone, wipe keys. Wipe debit card and put it back in phone case. Wipe door knobs as I head back to the car. Wipe door handle as I open the door, wipe seatbelt, wipe wheel, wipe stick shift, wipe window open-close buttons. Wipe passenger door handle – good remembering, Carla! Stare at the car for a moment to make sure I’m not forgetting anything.

I head back in and wipe the counter where I placed by keys and phone when I came in. I start wiping random surfaces. I eventually stop and get myself a cup of coffee.

Next time, just one errand, and wipes in the car. Check.

adventures from the homefront, COVID-19 edition, episode 9: kimchi

Kimchi is an essential food that has been much on my mind during the WorldWide Quarantine of the past couple weeks, because my supply is (well, was) running low. So I will tell you about kimchi. Maybe I’ve already said much of this before, here in this space, but too bad.  I’m in quarantine.

I don’t eat kimchi every single day of the week. But it’s very rare that I don’t have kimchi in the fridge, and when life gets complicated it’s an important source of comfort. So we’ve been eating quite a lot of kimchi lately.

A few times a year, I (like many Koreans who live here in the Milwaukee area) drive down to the huge H Mart in Niles, Illinois, a northern suburb of Chicago.  It’s the closest proper Korean grocery source, and it’s easily worth the 90-minute drive. I stock up on Korean supplies — big bags of sesame seeds and red pepper powders, various smelly pastes and oils, correct noodles made of wheat and rice and sweet potatoes, dried seaweeds, cases of Nongshim ramen, properly skinned mung beans, roasted barley for tea, rice cakes, specially sliced meats, salted fishes, fresh things I can’t find anywhere else like sesame leaves and soy bean sprouts (with the big yellow heads) and enormous persimmons  — and I gift myself some pre-made banchan (side dishes) and a giant jar of someone-else-made-it kimchi.

But most of the time I make my cabbage kimchi myself, if I can find the right ingredients, and of good enough quality. These days, there’s sea stuff in store-made kimchi and in the recipes Americans are making. I don’t know if it’s actually true, but my mom told me many years ago that this is because Seoul-style and southern-style kimchi is predominant here. She prefers the kimchi of her youth, and the kimchi her mom made, way-northern-style from the mountains.  I do too. No shrimp, no fish sauce.  Vegan by default, only we don’t call it that. We just call it kimchi.

In Korea when I was a kid, my grandma made kimchi in the fall when the cabbage harvest came in. It was old school. She made a massive amount of kimchi and buried clay pots of it in the back yard. It was one of the great fun mysteries of my childhood, wandering into the back yard with grandma, watching her kneel down and pull a big hunk of kimchi out of the ground. In the spring, the last dregs of kimchi would film over with some gossamer white stuff. She would just pull that off with her hand, and the kimchi underneath it was fine.

I expressed concern once – only once.  She and mom dismissed my worries with a thud. Grandma snapped, “It’s just medicine.” Mom laughed and added, “It’s just penicillin, it won’t hurt you, it’s good for you.”

When I went to Oberlin College, mom sent me with a single-serving rice pot and some rice in my luggage, and a kimchi recipe in my heart.  I was so f#*ing clueless that I did not understand how incredibly ethnic this was. My mom always told me I was “American not Korean.” But she was wrong, and anyway I know what she really meant was “be as white as you can, because that’s how you will survive here.”

But there’s no escaping our ethnic origins, the look of our eyes and faces, especially in these xenophobic times, and even for half-breeds like me.  I’m American and Korean.

Anyway so yeah, rice pot. I made kimchi at Oberlin, in the shared kitchen of my dorm, and I stored a good-size jar of it in my little dorm room fridge. My roommate was a white girl from Georgia and she was completely grossed out by the stink of it. I was undaunted and unapologetic. She ate white bread, I ate kimchi and rice.

My first attempts at kimchi went wrong a lot of little ways, but honestly, even bad kimchi is pretty good. I entered the kimchi desert for a time in my 30’s when I was working a lot, and stopped making any for years. When I tried again after Jesse was born, I really blew a few batches.  I called mom in frustration.  “I keep messing up my kimchi. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.”

The tone of her voice spoke of scorn and disappointment. “How can you mess up kimchi? It’s the easiest thing to make!”

I asked her anew for her recipe, only we would never call it that. If I had asked for “a recipe” she would have mocked me. There’s just making kimchi. Remind me how you do it, mom.

Let me share her recipe with you:

Use good Napa cabbage, not too much green stuff. Salt it and cover it with some water.

(How much salt, mom? Enough. Taste the water with your hand, it should taste salty.)

Cover it and let it sit on the counter until it’s done.

(How do you know it’s done, mom? You just know. Feel the cabbage and it should feel right.)

 Wash it really well, because otherwise your kimchi will be too salty.  

Make the spice for it. Red pepper flake, garlic, sugar to make it minty, green onions. You can grate a carrot if you want.

(How much of anything, mom? Depends. Taste it with your hand. Make it taste good is all.)

Use your hands to mix it all together, and then pack a big jar with it, nice and tight.  Swirl some water in the mixing bowl and pour that over the kimchi for some extra juice.

Put the lid on loose and leave it on the counter.

(Mom, how do I know when it’s done and ready to go in the fridge? You’ll know.)

That is still how I make kimchi. My only innovation is that I often grate a piece of daikon instead of a carrot.  Here’s the batch I made yesterday.

IMG_4859.JPG

The packed jar will sit on the counter on a towel.  I will just know when it’s done. It will come alive, and the jar will explode gently, leaving that towel red with juices.

IMG_4862.JPG

My old, running-out kimchi is in the smaller jar:

IMG_4863.JPG

We’re set for a little while.

Kimchi isn’t a vaccine against any illness, but it is definitely good for you. And for me, each bite is a reminder that thousands of years of Korean culture and cuisine will likely outlast COVID-19.

 

 

adventures from the homefront, COVID-19 edition, episode 8: wasting time

I’ve always disliked those “fun surveys” that circulate on Facebook. “Let’s have some fun! Answer the following 40 questions about yourself!” First street, places you’ve been, where you met your partner, kids’ names, pet names, on and on.

By the time normal people are done answering and publishing the survey, they’ve given the hacker who first unleashed the survey a mighty tool in figuring out their passwords and the answers to typical “verify this is you” questions. (Not normal people use passwords like “password1234” and “P1ssword” and “jQ48*4#9Jw;eskhcnx”.)

But one survey caught my eye yesterday.  “WITHOUT prompting… ask your child these questions and write EXACTLY what they say.”

I don’t know why it drew me in. The demand for rigorous reporting? I imagined a really bad teacher in a self-help class, shrieking these words at me. I found myself circling back to the “survey” in the evening, as I lay in bed wasting time and preparing emotionally for the “time for bed” storm. I started calling out the questions, and like zombies, my family leaned in – Anthony pottering about the house doing whatever he was doing, Nick fussing with the dogs and fidgeting on the bed next to me, and Jesse yelling answers from her own bedroom at the other end of the hall.

That girl. I don’t even know how she heard me asking the questions at first.  I was muttering them. How does she hear me whisper from 50 feet away, through bending hallways and half-closed doors, and know precisely what I’m saying? She could probably record my heart rate.  Of all the challenges she has going for her, can’t we trade in some of her unbelievable hearing for a little emotional resilience or impulse control? And at the same time, offer me some minimal privacy in conversations? Just a small swap of skill sets is all I’m asking.

I’m off topic.  Right. So I threw the questions out, and the three children answered.  This is how it went.

1. What is something I say a lot?

Anthony, rooting around in his closet: Good morning Nicholas I love you.

It seemed a little premature for sarcasm, but okay.

Nick: Time to boil the oil.

WTF Nick.  I have never said anything like that.  What does it even mean? It sounded wrong. He shrugged at me. Anthony offered assistance. “I think he means, time to lance the boil.”

Ah.  Yes.

Jesse, yelling from her bedroom: GO TO BED. EAT YOUR FOOD. WHY ARE YOU SO SELFISH.

Zoinks. Teenager.

2. What makes me happy?

Anthony, wandering into the bathroom carrying something: When someone else makes dinner.

Jesse:  I dunno, nothing.

Nick. When Jesse eats food or does not yell at you.

I think all three of them nailed it.

3. What makes me sad?

Anthony, wandering out of the bathroom and heading toward the bedroom door with a nervous laugh: This is a tricky one.

Nick: Jesse not eating and Jesse yelling.

He’s so binary and practical. I love that about Nick, but it seems a little simple, doesn’t it? The opposite of what makes me happy isn’t necessarily what makes me sad.  Or is it? Is he my little buddha? Am I about to have an epiphany??

Give me a second… no.

Jesse: Me.  Seeing dad slap a bunch of sour cream all over the place.

I’m deeply disturbed by the first part of Jesse’s answer, but that’s a huge topic and must be set aside.  I can explain the second part of Jesse’s answer.  Anthony thought this would be funny: empty a gone-bad container of sour cream into one hand over the sink, and then CLAP the other hand down as hard as he can.  Everyone else thought it was funny.  I saw the sour cream shrapnel and did not think it was funny.

4.  How tall am I?

Nick: two feet.

Anthony, bending over to pick something up off the floor: five feet.

Jesse: five feet something.

5.  What’s my favorite thing to do?

Nick: Being a lazy bum.

Anthony, leaning over the bed to pet a dog and move the blankets around aimlessly: home improvement projects.

Jesse: Drink.

Ooooh… Oh.  Shade. Kids throwing shade. But at least, not giving away password secrets.

6.  What’s my favorite food?

Anthony, lying on the bed with the dogs and Nick: That gross dessert.

What does that even mean? He could not describe it, name it, or identify any ingredients. He mumbled about it being something Korean. Then Nick weighed in.

Nick: Spam? What dad said.

And then the two of them went off about me loving fried spam, and shit on a shingle. And yes, I do love these things but they are not my favorite food. My girl came to my rescue with truth.

Jesse: kimchi.

7.  What is my favorite drink?

Jesse, without even a moment for reflection: Alcohol.

Oops.

Anthony, starting to roll around with nervous energy on the bed: I would have to say basil bourbon smash.

Nick, in a rush of words and feeling sorry for me: I would also have to say alcohol, I’m sorry.

Don’t be sorry. Mommy drinks. I am keenly aware that alcoholism runs in both sides of my family, and I do try to keep tabs on it. But especially in times like this, a drink every night is helping me turn down the volume on everything. The only thing that surprises me a little is that the kids are so aware of it. 95% of the time, I wait until after they go to bed to have a drink. Huh.

8.  If I could go anywhere, where would it be?

Anthony, now jumping up off the bed and headed back into the hallway: away from here.

Hey! Okay, probably. But still…

Nick: To your mama.

Aw, yes, that much is true.  That is truly true.  I had to cancel my trip to California and I miss my mama so much.

Jesse: Hawaii or away from me.

Sigh.  Jesse’s morose teenage angst was starting to get to me by this point.  I had to control my impulse to start wheedling “waaa waaaa waaaaah.”

9.  Do you think you could live without me?

Jesse: Maybe.

Anthony, dancing in circles around the bedroom: [breaks into song, with the refrain from Gloria Gaynor’s “I will survive.”]

(This is infinitely better than the time he told me, “without you, I am but a dung beetle without its dung.”)

Nick: Well, if it’s a miserable life then yes.

10.  How do I annoy you?

Jesse (impersonating me):  EAT YOUR FOOD.

Anthony, digging in his closet again and pulling something out: Don’t put your clothes away, or your jacket away when you come in the door. Or anything else.

Nick, struggling to think of anything at all: When you yell at Jesse I get mad, but not annoyed.

Oooh, thanks for the clarity, little boy. I will continue working on it.

11.  What is my favorite TV show?

Anthony, snickering as he kneels on the floor to get his face right next to a dog’s face:  MASH.

Nick: Dragonball Z.

Jesse: Dragonball.

WTF WTF WTF. No no no no no. Complete garbage. For the win! No password help for a hacker there.

12.  What is my favorite music to listen to?

Anthony, who’s back up and into the bathroom: Fleetwood Mac.

Nick: The sounds of our house.

Jess: Ultra instinct [the theme music for when Goku, the anime star of Dragonball stuff, powers up to some insane level]

I think they must have been tuning out by now, because these were not real answers. No. But I carried on relentlessly with the survey.

13. What is my job?

Nick: to do chores.

Sigh. Yeah.

Anthony, flossing his teeth: Financial and property management, and Human Resources.

Jesse:  I don’t know. To put up with four kids and be the only grownup.

14.  How old am I?

Jesse: 45.

Nick: 79.

Anthony, wandering out of our bathroom and into the other bathroom: Boomer.

15.  What’s my favorite color?

Anthony, now back in the room and in his closet again: Orange.

Nick: Orange.

Jesse: Orange.

Really? I didn’t know orange was my favorite color.  I will need to ponder this. Sometimes the ones we love know stuff about us that we don’t realize.

16.  How much do you love me?

Anthony, finally settling onto the bed with the rest of us, and I can’t tell if he’s being sarcastic or embarrassed but I know he means it: To the moon and back forever until the sunshine never shines anymore.

Nick: Secret.

Jesse:  Um, I dunno… like 10 out of 10.

Totally worth the 20 minutes to do the survey.

#GrumpyGratitude

adventures from the homefront, COVID-19 edition, episode 7: social distancing for the win

Wisconsin is officially closed for business! Well, mostly. I over”heard” a group of people on Facebook slightly panicking about Home Depot closing, but I don’t think it will.  It’s essential.  Ace, my local hardware store, will likely stay open too — though I don’t know how essential it is, since it doesn’t carry toasters.

Do you know, I’ve survived now for what, a week? Without a toaster. I’m more resilient than I thought.

My shrink says I’m better prepared for this lockdown than many of my parent peers, because Jesse has essentially been homebound for a couple years and I’m already deeply embedded in her education. He pointed out that other parents may be more anxious about being home full-time with their kids and having to make some schooling happen, but I’m used to it and already have the skills and flexibility to make this work.  I was startled by this proposition.  I thought I was more like a raw nerve waiting to die.

I’m considering implementing social distancing rules at home.  It would finally get everyone out of our bed at night, and I wouldn’t have to sit at meals with the feral, sloppy maniacs masquerading as my spawn. I’m making cinnamon rolls right now. When they’re done, I can toss one to each kid from 6 feet off.  Oops, sorry I nailed you in the head. Enjoy.

Social distancing is a wonderful thing for someone like me, because I hate people. Generally speaking, you know.  I love many people and I care, la la la, but more universally speaking, people suck and many days I get tired of all the trivial human contact as I make my way through a day. Currently there is very little contact, and even less need for me to behave in socially acceptable ways, and I’m loving it. When I walk a dog, I don’t get stuck in polite chatter with neighbors I barely know so that our dogs can sniff each others’ butts and say hello. Now we just nod heads at each other and walk on. What a relief. Anthony, Nick and I went on a jog yesterday. When we passed people, it was perfectly okay for me to swerve in avoidance, turn my head away, and refuse to make eye contact – whereas a few weeks ago, the same behavior would have been frowned on.

I hope some of this sticks, even after the quarantining ends.

 

adventures from the homefront, COVID-19 edition, episode 6: I’m a stocker, not a hoarder

I confess: I haven’t bought toilet paper in several months. I have long maintained an apocalyptic supply of toilet paper and butt wipes and sanitary pads, because one must never, ever run out of these things. 30 years of habitual stocking — NOT HOARDING — is finally paying off.

I keep some spare items in each bathroom.

IMG_4828IMG_4826IMG_4825

There is also a mini-motherlode in one bathroom closet. It’s in the kids’ bathroom, which is why the shelf surface looks kind of gross and dirty.  Because my kids are gross and dirty, and I’ve run out of energy for keeping up.

IMG_4829

And then I have a secret overflow stock, whose location I shall not disclose, just in case you’re planning to come over and raid me.  Heh heh heh heh.

I’m not quite at a point where I would typically restock toilet paper.  I don’t like to fall below 20 rolls in the house. Sometimes I overstock and Anthony asks me to stop buying toilet paper for a while. We were there a few months ago.  I’m hoping we can hold out until the TP-hoarding mania ends.

This habit of stocking essentials began many years ago when I first became a lawyer.  I worked 6 or 7 days a week and long hours, so there was little time for shopping; plus I hate shopping. So twice a year, Anthony and I would drive over to the nearest Target and Stock Up. That deserves capitalization because we would walk every single aisle and spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars on everything you can imagine for daily life — paper products, deodorant, basic medical supplies and meds, batteries, pens and pencils, shampoos and soaps, toothpaste and toothbrushes and mouthwash, underwear, socks, lotions, kitchen and laundry supplies, household cleaning supplies, sponges, razors, Oster kitchen machines. You name it. We would stuff the back of our little Honda Civic hatchback and drive home with the rear bumper dragging on the pavement from the load.

The up side of extreme stocking is that you don’t really run out of anything basic.  The down side is best observed through a simple anecdote: I overstocked on Anthony’s deodorant sticks so badly that we literally went 10 years — TEN YEARS — without having to buy any. By the time he got to his last stick, we had moved at least six times and to five different states, packing our deodorant inventory to come along with us each time.

I became brutally aware of the importance of steady toilet paper supplies in my senior year of college.  Anthony shared an apartment with two guys, and they ran out of toilet paper for a few days.  No one would buy more – each of them either was too lazy or was holding out. Anthony played the long game by coming over to my apartment for his daily dumps.

One afternoon Anthony and I were standing in the kitchen of their place, hanging out aimlessly like college seniors do in their down time. One of the fellows came out of the bathroom, eyed us with a smile and a satisfied sigh, and announced, “Good thing it was a clean one today.”

Hey old friend, if you’re reading this:  you know who you are.

Dear reader, may your toilet paper never run out.  And if it does, here’s wishing you a clean one. Meanwhile, my family can carry on with our high-fiber diet, because I’m a stocker, not a hoarder.

#GrumpyGratitude

 

adventures from the homefront, COVID-19 edition, episode 5: beach toys

Not even COVID-19 and our corporate welfare state can take everything away from the little people like me. Lake Michigan remains.

Over the weekend we took the kids up to Kohler Andrae state park, on the lake’s shores.  Although Anthony and I are ex-pats here in Wisconsin, our kids are born-and-bred Wisconsinites. And because we spend much time on its shores, Lake Michigan runs through their childhood like a big soft Nature Mother, a place of safety and peace and deep memory. It’s a perfect space to escape to, in this time of uncertainty and anxiety.

The problem is making the escape. When Jesse’s tics blow in the car, or when Nick gets noisy, well… I’ll say it plainly: sometimes I lose my shit. Anthony offered a solution. “Just put on your earbuds and listen to loud music while I drive. Just commit to it.”

I love this man so much.

It worked. On the 45-minute drive up, I listened to Audioslave, a real throwback for me. I bobbed my head to the pounding and ignored everything. I was, oh… 80% pulled together when Anthony pulled into the parking lot next to the dunes.

It was a strange day on the lake. Chilly and cloudy, some lake effects snow flurries, and then sunny and fresh. It was an ordinary day too for us.  There was some mild bickering and meanness, and wet shoes, and whining, and sadness and abandonment, and making up, and bare feet and pretending the water is so HOT, and chasing the dog and being silly. There were trees and dunes and sticks and stones aplenty, untouched by any humans that we could discern, so we didn’t worry about sanitizer and soap. There were things to throw in the water (huge drift wood is a favorite), sand to dig fingers and toes into, tiny and big icicles to observe and fiddle with, a distant horizon and vast skies to ponder. There were crazy little ducks flying south, low along the lake, wings flapping so fast it looked like a silent scream and made us laugh and laugh.

There were my children and my husband, the loves of my life — the things that matter most of all — present with me, each of us anchoring the others in a play for resilience. I thought of all the families around the world, hunkering down together, and I felt my heart squeeze every so lightly.

IMG_4809IMG_4805IMG_4804IMG_4798IMG_4794IMG_4802

It was good to escape from the grinding weight of news and fear about coronavirus and politics and the economy and social distancing, to run into the wide open arms of Lake Michigan.  It was good to be reminded that Mother Earth is so vast, so much stronger than the coronoavirus, Donald Trump, the stock market, and humanity.  We need only open our eyes to her, and she’ll give us all the beach toys we need, without a factory or coin in sight.