Quarantine Diaries Day 283: Family Planning in a Pandemic

This is the post I haven’t wanted to write. I couldn’t stop it, though. It’s been leaking out of me in dribs and drabs–the offhand comment here, the sad self-reflective Instagram caption there–for so long that it’s no secret, but I haven’t been ready to put the words on bones. I thought I’d wait until I could make it into something beautiful–an essay, a whole book of essays–but I haven’t known how to think about it in narrative form and, in the meantime, it’s making me into something ugly.

This is a post about infertility in which I will not use the word infertility because that’s a journey I did not take. This is a post about family that will not make you feel good because I am not grateful for mine and I resent you for yours. This is a post in which I refuse make meaning for you or for me. My only aim is to expel the disease. What I don’t want is to create a record for my beloved only child to find of me wanting any family other than the family we have, of me wanting any child who was not her, but that’s exactly what I have to do.

I come from a big family that didn’t feel big. There were seven of us, two parents, five kids, and it was us against the world. Our extended family was huge–I stopped trying to count cousins when the number hit the forties–but they were scattered and we mostly weren’t close, and our nuclear family felt like it had been blown out to sea. At church, our family didn’t even fill up a pew. I’m talking about the short ones on the side of the chapel. The most righteous families spread their seed end to end across the long benches in the middle of the room, sometimes spilling over into a second row. The most righteous families had big baptismal blowouts with grandparents on grandparents on cousins on uncles on on aunts. We always just had each other.

I was not a girl who dreamed of being a mother. Babysitting anybody who wasn’t directly related to me was annoying and hardly worth the cash. My parents didn’t pay for watching my siblings, so the only thing I got out of it was high on the power trip. I loved my siblings, though, fiercely. My brother and sister, two and four years younger than me, were my main playmates. When my other brother was born, eight years after me, he was the cutest baby I’d ever seen, and the only living thing besides various plants and precious few dogs and my own eventual daughter to ever trip a nurturing instinct in me. He was four when I was twelve and I used to come home from the ego-destroying shitshow that was middle school and entertain him for hours with my own versions of the silly mysteries Steve Burns solved in his green rugby shirt on Blue’s Clues. When my other brother was born, two years after that, I was like what? and why? and okay, I guess but he was a weirdly cute kid too and I liked having him around.

My mom always wanted a sixth baby, a girl named Hannah. It was like she’d already met her.

I only wanted four kids. Four was an even number, an easy number. Four filled two rows of a minivan and left the middle seats open. Four gave everybody someone to sit with on the roller-coaster. Two parents and four kids spaced perfectly around the dining room table without having to jam in a janky plastic school chair that you straight up took from the church. (Actually, I think my parents paid for those chairs). Four kids is enough to feel like a crowd, a party, an accomplishment, but not so many that you look like fundamentalists.

In college I met and fell in love with a man who poked fun at the size my big fat Mormon family even though he had more siblings than I did. There were six of them in total, for a family of eight. His dad had nine sisters and a brother. Catholic, of course. (Lapsed, even more of course.) My love was the baby of his big family so he had a different view on the chaos and only wanted two. It was easy for us to adjust our numbers up and down before we got married and land on three.

Three wasn’t perfect. People said three was the most stressful number of kids to have, enough to outnumber the parents, enough to lose hold of one in a parking lot, enough to need a bigger house and a bigger car, but not enough that you stop counting and start letting them keep tabs on each other. Three seemed like just a little too many in the city we’d decided to make our home, and like not quite enough enough in the western suburbs we fled. Three is odd. We were an unconventional couple, though. We can debate about anything. We never had to argue our way to three, though, so it felt like a good compromise. Three won’t hold up a tabletop, but it can be a stool.

People also said that three is just for spacing out kids. Three years is long enough to get the older one of diapers but not so long that the kid feels like a king kicked off the throne when the new baby comes. That settled it. Three kids, three years apart. I figured I should have the first by the time I turned thirty.

From the beginning, I sensed that it wouldn’t be easy for me to have kids. I don’t really know why. Maybe it was the infertility blogs I inhaled back then because they were sharper and darker and funnier and more interesting than their shiny sisters, the mommy blogs. There had been a few physical signs that gave me concern–a stabbing pain here, a cycle that ticked off its clockwork course there–but mostly it was just a feeling. “It could take up to two years to get pregnant,” I told my husband when I turned twenty-seven. I was knocked up a month later. I couldn’t believe it. It’s not that I didn’t know getting pregnant could be easy. I’d be stupid not to look around at my big family and all the bigger Mormon families around us and all the human families growing up over and over again all over the world and not realize that some women having been falling into pregnancy since the beginning of time. It’s just that I didn’t think it was possible that anything I wanted so badly would come easy to me.

I wanted my daughter badly.

Pregnancy was not easy. I wrestled with forced sobriety. We couldn’t find her heartbeat. I did everything in my power to change the Mormon church before bringing a girl into the world.

Labor was not easy. I had group strep b so I was tethered to an IV. The doctors used three different methods to induce labor, after stripping the membranes and before breaking the bag of waters with a knitting needle. My daughter’s heartbeat kept dropping. There was meconium in the fluid. I labored for thirty hours and pushed for three and the doctors still had to cut me open. At least four different doctors laid hands on my daughter before I laid eyes and my husband held her while they stitched me up. When a nurse finally put her in my arms I puked from the drugs and they tried to take her back but I wouldn’t let go.

New motherhood was not easy but my daughter was. She screamed like a beast but she also slept like a dream and ate like a champion. Infants are not easy, and babies are not easy, and toddlers are not easy, and preschoolers are not easy, but the first years of my daughter’s life were some of the best of mine.

When the time came to grow our family, I was still in the thick of it with my first, but I was ready. My body was ready anyway, still not sleeping, still packing pregnancy weight, and still making milk months after my daughter weaned. There was never a question about doing it all over again. Having another baby was the plan, and I wanted to stick to the plan, but I also wanted that baby. I wanted a baby inside me and I wanted her in my arms and I wanted her in a bassinet next to my bed and I wanted her strapped in a wrap to my chest and I wanted her in the back of a double stroller and I wanted her playing on the floor with my daughter and I wanted her in the backseat of the car on family road trips.

I wanted another badly.

We couldn’t settle on a name, but I was partial to Taylor, after my dad’s guitar, not Swift. For a boy, we leaned toward West, but was pretty sure our second would be a girl. My assumption was more lack of imagination than a preternatural mother’s knowing. The girl I had was all I knew of parenthood. Surely, if we tried again it would turn out the same.

That was six years ago. We adjusted our plans up from a three year gap to four then five. We adjusted our plans down from three kids to two, but the second baby never came. We could have gone to the doctor earlier than we did, but life came at us hard and I’m weird about doctors, so we put it off, and by the time I had a clear vision of the next steps toward growing our family, I wasn’t so sure I wanted I wanted to take them. I’m not entirely sure why. Part of my resistance was physical. The battery of tests had been a lot. I wanted a baby, but not the interventions, not even the easy ones. “Clomid is not without its side effects,” the nurse-midwife mentioned when she sent me out the door with an order in my chart. There was also a spiritual component. I’d was deep into a twelve step program rooted in acceptance. I’d thought I was running the show when it came to family planning and it was a relief to admit that maybe I didn’t have to jackhammer my body into making a baby just because I wanted one. Mostly, though, it was a knowing, on par with the inkling I’d had years back that getting pregnant would not be easy. I knew fertility treatments worked miracles in the lives of people who got their babies. I knew they could wreak havoc in the lives of people who didn’t. I knew, regardless of the outcome, it wasn’t a journey I was meant to take. Call it mother’s intuition.

Life went on and my ache for a baby subsided. The gut punch of not getting pregnant turned into a slap and then into a pinch and eventually into cramps and a headache–typical symptoms of PMS. I’d started to see the benefits of a family that looked like mine. After my daughter gave up naps, weekends were for all-day jaunts around the city. We haunted museums and parks and coffee shops and stores and I gave up my pricey jogging stroller because my kid could walk for miles. We never used a babysitter for special occasions because, living with two adults who indulged her palate, she developed a taste for fine food and learned how to sit still in a nice restaurant. She outgrew car seats and cribs but we never outgrew our little red hatchback or our two bedroom townhouse. With only three plane tickets to buy, we could afford to travel. We flew across the country to see grandparents and cousins and road-tripped everywhere we could and started planning our first trip out of the country. With only three schedules to juggle, we put her in every activity she wanted to try. When she started first grade, my husband and I looked at each other and high fived. We’d gotten our baby into full-day school and the world looked like our oyster.

The farther away I got from pregnancy and nursing and diaper bags and nap schedules, the less I wanted to do it all over again. And then there was this: my daughter’s friends and neighbors and classmates all had little siblings by this point and she had figured out that she wanted no part of that. She actively campaigned against a baby. Eventually the pain of not getting pregnant became a relief.

Then COVID hit and the world shut down and all the advantages of having one kid seemed to slip away. The weekend adventures. The family travel. The after-school activities.The free time for the parents. Even worse, we lost our ability to offset the drawbacks of being an only child with playdates and visits with extended family. Confined at home for months on end, our family started to feel really small. Daily, I saw little groups of kids–siblings–playing in their front yards while my daughter sat alone in her bedroom. I saw other families out walking or riding bikes or going on hikes and noticed brothers and sisters laughing or pestering or pointedly ignoring each other while my daughter tried her hardest to match my pace and get me to act more like a kid. I resented the families who stretched across the whole sidewalk for daring to take up so much space. I envied the families who could throw birthday parties while sheltering in place and have more than three people to celebrate. I mentally went off on the people who shamed parents for using the playground or planning outdoor playdates. I hated everybody who told me to just stay home and enjoy my family, like that was so easy, everything about life in the pandemic wasn’t dredging up my deepest insecurities, like they hadn’t just stuck a finger in my oldest wound.

For years, I couldn’t stomach the sight of pregnant women and infants. This year, I found myself turning away from any family bigger than my own. I couldn’t stand to look at school- and teenaged siblings: relationships my daughter would not have. Intellectually, I sympathized with people who had to deal with family planning in a pandemic. Emotionally, I went back to hating pregnant women and their babies, too. I hated anybody who could give their already-existing children what I couldn’t give mine: siblings; family; more people to love and to be loved by.

I keep talking about how lonely I am and I know it confuses people because I have community. I know my neighbors. I have friends. But my chosen family is my actual family and what hurts is that they live in a different state (and if you don’t know what to make of this, then we will not relate).

I keep talking about how lonely I’m afraid my daughter is and I know it confuses people because she has me and she has has her dad and we’re trying to give her everything she needs and shouldn’t that be enough? And the thing is, I am trying. I am trying to give her everything I never had: a hometown; a house she remembers growing up in; a faith community that will accept her for who she is; a community that is wider than her immediate family. It kills me, though, that I can’t give her the thing that sustains me: a small army of people who love her unconditionally, the kind who of people who will risk infection to bubble up during a pandemic or at least make an effort to keep in touch, the kind who will still be around when this thing is through.

Quarantine Diaries Day 271: Burnout

There are some records set in quarantine that are just not that interesting. It’s been nine months since I couldn’t figure out what to do for lunch and ate a Jimmy John’s at my desk. It’s been nine months since I forgot my keys at home and had to ask the receptionist let me into my office. It’s been nine months since I had to scramble to buy a metra pass while the conductor breathed down my neck waiting for me to pull it up on my phone. As the sun’s been dropping earlier so that I’ve been starting my regular afternoon runs at dusk and finishing in the pitch dark, another unremarkable record occurred to me. I checked my Strava to confirm. On March 12, I wrote “Gym is emptying out.” I haven’t been back since, which means it’s been nine months since I’ve worked out at the gym and almost ten since I ran on a treadmill.

The treadmill run is akin to the commute in that it’s not a thing most people miss. Running outdoors, even in poor conditions, is more pleasurable than running on a machine by miles. The treadmill is a chore and a drag and ugh. It’s also incredibly convenient. Access to a treadmill means you don’t need to invest in gear to run in rain and wind and sleet and snow. You don’t need to think about what you’re going to wear the night before and pile on the layers before getting out the door. You don’t need to risk frostbite on the coldest days and dehydration when it’s hot. You don’t need to route long runs by water fountains and bathrooms. You can run hills without having to drive yourself out of your pancake flat hometown. You don’t need to know what your easy pace feels like or use your own effort to make yourself go fast; you just bleep it into the screen.

Unlike a lot of runners I know, I did not have a love/hate relationship with the treadmill. I unabashedly loved it! I loved doing long training runs–sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen miles–and spreading my fuel out on the tray like a buffet. I loved the feel of the belt spinning to a stop under my feet after sixty minutes and immediately smashing the big green “GO” button again. I loved tearing my shirt off when it soaked through with sweat and dropping it on the floor next to me. I being able to stagger to the bathroom to take a shit and making it back in less than two minutes. I loved driving the speed up higher than I knew my legs could move and feeling the machine shake around me. I loved running faster than the person next to me. I loved sticking extra reps into interval workouts and tacking extra miles onto the end of easy runs. I loved finishing a workout and folding myself in half, hands on knees, panting between my legs, feeling on top of the world in a shitty old gym, oblivious to everyone around me. I loved mopping up my sweat from the machine, proof of effort.

Early on in the pandemic, I read an article about a runner, or maybe it was a cyclist, in Australia, or maybe it was New Zealand–forgive me, I’m fuzzier on the details than I thought I would be–who got some blowback for running, or maybe it was cycling, I don’t know how far–around the island, I think?–but it was really far, or maybe just really long, he was on his feet, or his bicycle, for the better part of a day, but not the whole day, which isn’t unreasonable if you’re endurance athlete, but it made people uneasy. They said it was irresponsible to “go to the well” when the public health system was under strain. To be clear, the runner/cyclist was fit to the task and totally fine. Nothing bad happened. He wasn’t even showy about the effort; people got mad after he uploaded the route to a tracking app. This was in March or April. I was in the middle of marathon training, because I was always in the middle of marathon training, and the miles didn’t look like much to me, and what the fuck else were we supposed to do in lockdown? Some people bake bread. Some people learn French. Some people push their bodies to the extreme so they don’t have to feel anything but the blood running under the hood, the thighs shaking themselves free, the lungs burning, proof of health.

I thought the criticism of the runner/cyclist was overwrought. All these months later, I can’t even find the original article because there are so many stories about people running and riding really, really far in the pandemic and that makes sense to me because, really, what better mental and physical training for the marathon that is this pandemic than an actual marathon?

The notion of not taking myself to the well stuck with me, though. It didn’t take long to see that running was more difficult than it used to be. I rely on water fountains April through October but the city never turned them on this year. I use public restrooms but the city never unlocked the doors, and it felt irresponsible–nay, non-essential–to take advantage of the coffee shops and franchise restaurants whose doors were still open. I turn to the treadmill when it’s pushing ninety degrees or when there’s lightning or when it’s slushy and gross outside but this year there were no indoor options. I push myself hard and sometimes my body pushes back; it felt wrong to risk injury or sickness with the hospitals full.

In the end, the challenges of running long in a pandemic–physical, logistical, and emotional–were too much for me. There are people who made it work, and there were probably ways I could have done it, too. I could have pushed myself to go without water and shat behind trees but that would have been decidedly COVID uncool. I could have plotted shorter routes that looped past my house. I could have stashed water along the way. I could have stripped off my wet layers and left them in the bushes to pick up later. I could have overcome the paralyzing anxiety of passing people who might scream at me for daring to be out of my house without a mask or, alternatively, get way too close without masks of their own. I could have pushed through the disabling ennui of running the same routes over and over and over and over. I could have been a different person. I could have spent the last nine months learning French.

I didn’t do any of that. Instead, when I found myself tiring more quickly, I slowed down and scaled back, and that’s when something weird happened: running less made me feel better. Having to do all those miles by myself out in the elements in the middle of a global health crisis made me see that I was not drawing from an endless well. My resources were tapped.

I can’t think of a time since I started my career in 2010 that I have not been overwhelmed. I can’t think of a time since I got pregnant in 2012 that I have not been exhausted. Up until March 2020, I prided myself on how much juice I could squeeze out of a day, from the rigid pre-dawn prayer and meditation routine to the commute to the full day of paid work to the non-profit board position to the community service to the active recovery program to the deep involvement at church to the mom’s nights out to the volunteering at my kid’s school, to the multiple weeknight activities, to the mornings and weekends and evenings of parenting the hell out of my kid, and I was obsessively marathon training on top of all that? No wonder I wasn’t writing. No wonder I was fighting with my husband.

Was I an exercise junkie? Maybe, but I don’t like pathologizing myself when it lets the culture off the hook so easily. I know I’m no more addicted to doing more more more to the point of overwhelm and exhaustion than any other woman I know. Are the men tired, too? I honestly don’t know. I don’t think they’ve been conditioned to believe that their value depends on working themselves into non-existence to the extent women have. On the other hand, men aren’t immune to capitalism, and I suspect the reason I’m not hearing about their burnout is because they aren’t allowed to talk about it.

Since March 2020, I’ve stopped basically all of the above. Some of it, like the commute and the in-person activities, stopped all at once when we were ordered to shelter in place. Other parts, like the early morning routine and the all virtual everythings and the long ass runs, have sloughed off like dead skin over the last nine months. The scales are coming off my eyes, too. Nine months off the treadmill, I can see that the convenience of the machine made it easy to ignore how much I was asking of my body just like the year-end bonuses made me forget I was undervalued all year long just like the ten dollar salads and twenty dollar pastas made me forget my job was grueling just like the free cab rides home made me forget I’d missed dinner with my family just like the year sparkly holiday parties made me forget that this is a time of year for turning in.

Strip away the wellness room and the free coffee and the concept of face time there’s no way I’m staying at work past five. Take away the treadmill and the races and the running clubs and there’s no way I’m running more than four miles before sunrise.

Maybe we’re not supposed to be exhausted.

Since March 2020, I’ve started writing regularly, making art, dating my husband, and hanging out with my kid. I’ve started lounging, at all hours of the day too, not just after I’ve collapsed on the couch at the end of the night. I’ve also been going to therapy and, forgive me for what I’m about to say, feeling my stupid feelings. Sometimes I’m restless and sometimes I’m bored because old habits die hard and also there’s nothing the fuck to do, but I’m becoming convinced that this is a better way to live. For what it’s worth, I am still running, always outside, always in the cold, and often in the dark. On election day I ran an unplanned half marathon because I didn’t know a better way to cope (though in hindsight it would have been more productive to spread those miles out over the next four miserable days). I hope I’m doing it because I want to and not because I need to, but I’m okay if running is a need. It’s served me well and I’ll take the endorphins where I can get them.

Quarantine Diaries Day 265: Light in the Dark

In my family growing up, we never put a tree up, hung a strand of lights, or breathed a word of Christmas before December 8. My brother’s birthday is on December 7 (Pearl Harbor Day, yes; we have a few birthdays that coincide with tragedy and loss of international proportions in our family) and my parents never wanted him to feel overlooked. I continued to observe the first week of December as a neutral zone long after I no longer lived with my brother and started celebrating holidays with my own family. We only first put a tree up the first week of December a couple of years ago and I loved it so much for how it stretched out the season and gave me time and space to breathe.

When I was working my way up the ladder at a big law firm, I inevitably had massive multi-week trials scheduled to begin in December or January, and it was a fight to flip the switch and make room for Christmas in my work-obsessed mind and overbooked schedule. The cases always settled–year-end has a way of bringing people together, for the shareholders, you see–and I spent meaningful time with my family every holiday season, but I could never count on that and the first few weeks after Thanksgiving always felt like being squeezed. Bringing a tree inside the first week of December was like magicking a whole extra week out of thin air and it helped. In the lights of the tree, I could sit still and see past the next twenty-four hours without holding my breath. I wondered if maybe the Christians, with their four weeks of Advent–a whole season of waiting–were onto something.

If the idea of a month of Christmas makes you anxious, I get it. I get that this month sucks for Jews and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists and the millions of Christians who don’t observe Christmas (including Quakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of the Churches of Christ). I get that this holiday sucks for people whose lives don’t look like the Hallmark specials. Christmas can suck when you live alone. Christmas can suck when you are estranged from your family, whether you asked for the separation or not. Christmas definitely sucks when you are physically separated–by virtue of work, sickness, disability, immigration status, military service, addiction, or imprisonment–from people you love and with whom you very much want to be. Christmas sucks when you are the one who is sick or addicted. Christmas sucks when your family is in the process of changing shape. Christmas sucks in a pandemic.

I don’t want Christmas to eat the end of the year for people for whom the holiday brings no comfort. And believe me, what I want to draw out for myself is not the hustle bustle or the making merry. I’m not spending the extra week shopping, for Chrissake, or blasting Pentatonix, or slamming nog. I’m staying home with my family. I’m bringing the wild outside in. I’m turning on the lights and turning up the heat. I’m freeing up a weekend day to take my daughter, in better years, to see the Joffrey Ballet perform The Nutcracker downtown.

This year, Thanksgiving came late enough that it made sense for us to get a tree the weekend after, which means we had it up in November. My spouse was cranky about it. Behind his back, I rubbed my hands together, greedy with anticipatory glee, already relishing all the extra time. The tree we picked out had a wonky branch on the bottom, so we lopped it off and wound it in a circle for an Advent wreath. I held off on lighting a candle, though. Surely, it was too early to start waiting in earnest. I didn’t realize my mistake for a few days, when I flipped the calendar to December and counted up the Sundays left before Christmas. We’d missed the first Sunday in Advent, the one where we remember to have hope.

Of course, we could have lit the candle on December 1. There’s no meaningful distinction between Sunday and Tuesday anymore, now that we don’t go to church, and there’s no wrong time for ritual. I couldn’t bring myself to do it, though. When my daughter popped out of bed on December 1, she shouted “Merry Christmas” at the tree, the lights of which are hooked up to a smart plug, which is connected to a smart speaker, which is programmed to play thirty seconds of Deck The Halls followed by a feel-good news story. She ran around the house playing with a plastic figurine of Buddy the Elf that she got out of a cereal box last year. She built Santa’s workshop out of LEGO. No sooner did we have the decorations up than it hit me: I couldn’t come close to matching that energy. Not this year.

When I think about Christmas, I feel overwhelmed. Not by the prospect of shopping or parties or travel–obviously we’re not doing any of that–but by the task of manufacturing Christmas magic on my own in a house that is still reeling from the trauma of this year. I am scraped clean of belief, wonder, and joy. Those feelings are currently inaccessible. I was not a literal believer when the year started, but I found meaning and value in the Jesus story. Now the waiting season is upon us, but it’s been eight months since I set foot in a church and the story has lost all relevance to my life. It’d be going too far to say I’m angry at God, because you can’t get mad at an absence; all the emotion just disappears.

Later in the week, I seized on an upswing in my mental state to light a candle with my daughter and read aloud the devotional materials from the church. They gave us this poem by Maya Angelou, “A Plagued Journey,” and it was so distressing I did a double take. No doubt, I could relate to every miserable turn of phrase (“bone of fear,” “bonds of disconsolation”) but I couldn’t figure out why I was reading it in the first place. The Advent reflections spelled it out for lost readers like me: candles do their best work in the dark. Hope is most valuable when we are utterly without it.

This is a dark time, but that’s okay. We were never meant to walk entirely in the light. Preparation takes time to pay off. Anticipation takes time to build. Hope is a thing we can hope for.

Quarantine Diaries Day 239: I Hope You’re Not Lonely

It’s the Sunday after the election and I am walking downtown. I live in a small city next to a big city and downtown usually means in Chicago, but these days a trip to downtown Evanston is a big adventure. It may be ill-advised–cases have been climbing for weeks–but I need to get out of the house and see some some people. I plan to sit outside the coffee shop and futz around on my laptop, maybe do some writing or listen to a lecture for that poetry course I signed up for and then never accessed. I am more after the illusion of work than work itself, just like I am engaging in the illusion of being with people when actually being with people is off limits. The coffee shop is packed, or what passes for packed in a pandemic. The patrons waiting for their orders indoors are less like sardines in a tin than fish loose in a barrel and I wait for fifteen minutes for my Americano trying not to breathe. There are no tables left on the patio so I walk one street over to the community plaza where I know I will find a smattering of rickety metal tables spaced way more than six feet apart.

I turn the corner into the square and the sounds of a street singer strumming on a guitar carry me to a table between a pretty young couple with a baby on one side and a pretty young couple with a baby and a grandma on the other side. The troubadour is playing the chorus of “American Pie Part 2,” which would have been enough to pull me into a seat even if I didn’t have nowhere else to go. That’s the song, after all, played five days earlier when the election results were trickling in, seemingly in Trump’s favor. The red wave turned out to be an illusion, too, but I didn’t know that yet, and music was the only way I knew how to move through that night.

Oh and while the king was looking down
The jester stole his thorny crown
The courtroom was adjourned
No verdict was returned

I played some other songs too. “White Man’s World” by Jason Isbell:

I’m a white man living in a white man’s world
Under our roof is a baby girl
I thought this world could be hers one day
But her mama knew better

“Society” by Eddie Vedder:

Society, you’re a crazy breed
I hope you’re not lonely without me

Today we have a verdict. God, today is such a good day. Seventy degrees, cotton ball clouds blowing across a brilliant blue sky. The promise of a new administration. A rational, national science-based COVID response. A generous refugee policy. No more babies in cages. Reinstitution of protections for transgender people in healthcare. I still cry behind my mask and sunglasses awhile. It’s been too long since I listened to live music, since I sat with strangers, since I existed in my city. I open my wallet looking for a one or a five to drop in the singer’s tip jar and zip it back up when I see I only have a $20. I zip it back open when I remember I found that $20 on the ground earlier in the week. It wasn’t mine to begin with. None of this was ever mine.

I haven’t been sitting long when a person without a mask slow-charges me, coming within a foot of my table. “Too close, sir!” I call out, too late to stop the panic from rising up but before before I see the silver earrings hanging from her lobes. No response, and she wobbles when she passes my table. I don’t even know if she saw me. I try to dredge up some anger but find I’ve been scraped clean. I don’t have anything left for anyone who’s worse off than me. Besides, it’s not like I need to be out here in public, trying to figure if there’s any benefit left to living in a city. There is, by the way. The live music is worth the risk, as is the privilege of being with dozens of people who don’t look at the world like I do.

The singer sets down his guitar and lays hands on the keyboard spread out in front of him. “Piano Man.” Of course. Somebody I can’t see lights a cigar. A young dad eats ice cream with his little son. A hipster couple goes off on their bikes. Three university students eat Chinese food. Is it racist to go out of my way to describe food and family makeup and ignore everybody’s race and ethnicity? The singer is Asian. The couple with the baby are white. The couple with the baby and the grandma are Middle Eastern. The dad and the little boy are white. The hipster couple is white. The students are Asian. I look around and found the man with the cigar across the street and confirm he is white. There are also in the plaza two girls, Asian, a young man, Asian, a couple, white and maybe Latinx, a young man, white. Earlier there was a Black man with a slouchy hat, listening intently to the music and writing in a notebook, like me. There are three Latinx girls. There is a Black family. A white lady with a bike helmet walks up to the singer. An older Black man with a cane walks by. The lady who came at me was white, old, and unwell. I’m white. Supposedly, there is COVID everywhere. I mean, there definitely is COVID everywhere, but it is windy out and people are moving in and out of my peripheral vision faster than I can write them down.

Last week I realized I won’t see my family for the rest of this year. When winter was still on the horizon, when cases were dropping, a quick trip at the end of the year seemed feasible. People went on vacations this summer, didn’t they? People saw their families for birthdays and backyard visits? I know they did because I saw the proof on Facebook. The mayor asked us to cancel Thanksgiving, but people are going home for that, too, aren’t they? I know they are because they told me. I know they exist but I don’t know anyone else who hasn’t seen their parents, siblings, nieces, and nephews in as long as I have, their grandparents and cousins in as long as my daughter has. People keep telling me to just get on a plane and go already. Flying is reasonably safe. I could quarantine before and after and take a test before I go. I put the decision off until after the election. “If Arizona goes for Trump, I won’t want to be anywhere near the state,” I joked. Of course, Arizona went blue and and I cried when I realized I still couldn’t go home.

Another young couple walks by. The boy is Asian and the girl is white. The girl is holding a stuffed shark. All the couples I’ve seen today have been straight. Two teenage boys tear through the square on a skateboard and a BMX bike. A pair of scruffy white college students sit down with food. A group of Black men and women walk by with Target bags dangling from their wrists. A white lady holds a big toddler on her hip. I pull a sweater on against the breeze. It’s warmer than it should be, but the sun is setting already. The lady drops the toddler on top of a concrete block and lets him dance. He bounces extravagantly and clutches a yellow sucker in his hand. The mom grins and him and holds one arm out to stop him falling off. Of course I’m crying again. But why am I crying? The beautiful thing is happening right in front of me, right now, still. The beautiful thing is almost too much to bear.

The pianist starts banging out “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” and now I’m tapping my feet like the toddler and bopping my head and grinning like the mom behind my mask. I’m thinking of the time my friend Caitlin crooned this song to a pretty waitress in the Ozarks on our long drive across the country to see our families out west. Is the lost year worth this moment in time?

Are 200,000+ American lives lost worth ousting Trump from the White House?

Are Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Daniel Prude in 2020 alone worth Kamala Harris as Vice President?

The questions are stunning because the answer is an obvious, resounding no.

If it was always going to play out like this, would I give up my part? Would I do any of it differently?

These are questions I can only answer by carrying on. I’m not fighting on the front lines, but I’m not sitting on the sidelines, either. I’m fucking in it, just like you.

Quarantine Diaries Day 217: When Yes Means No

Four fat tan doves sitting in a tree. Four gnarly coyotes prowling down the street. Husky robins churning up the dirt right in front of our door. A muted cardinal practically ringing the bell. October rabbits running underfoot. Daytime raccoons trashing it up. Dozens of unleashed dogs and not one wagging finger. This is the rewilding.

I wore lingerie for date night for the first time in I don’t know and as I rifled through the drawer I dangled a bra between two fingers like, “What is this? What is it good for? How long am I going to let it stick around?” I was loathe to peel off the layers now that it’s getting cold, sweatshirt, t-shirt, leggings, all thick cotton, armor against the elements and acceptance of the life I now live. After kid bedtime and before adult dinner I considered a swipe of lipstick, some drama around my eyes, but then I’d have to wash my face against and I already did that in the morning. This is the rewilding.

My daughter is playing with the neighbor girls and their dad is watching over. I’m just back from a run with dinner to make and my kid is the only one without a mask. I make the right noises, put a mask in her hands, and disappear in side my house without so much as a wave at anyone outside my family. Other neighbors stop to talk about the weather. It was so nice until it wasn’t. Their dog, one of the difficult ones, reactive toward animals and children, lunges on his leash and I bolt like an October rabbit. This is the rewilding.

My mom asks if I’m coming to Arizona. No. A lady from church isn’t so sure about Black Lives Matter. No. A lady I don’t know tells me to call her after this meeting is over. No. Another lady offers to be my sponsor. No. A woman I know well offers to take me to a good meeting. No. A friend invites me to come back to Sunday School. No. Another mom asks I have the link to children’s chapel. No. The pastor asks me to join a small group. No. The school asks me to join the PTA. No. The PTA asks me to chalk the walk. No. The district asks me if I feel well-informed. No. My doctor asks me to start a course of physical therapy. No. A friend asks if I’m coming back to running club. No. Three people text in an hour to ask me to phone bank for Biden. No.

I’m still mostly civil. I got my flu shot. I smile behind my mask, force my mouth and cheeks up so it shows in my eyes. I try where it matters–at home, at work–but even there I’m saying yes less and less. My daughter asks if we can go to family swim at the Y. No. My daughter asks if we are going apple picking. No. My daughter asks me to get out of bed before my alarm to look for a missing toy. No. My husband asks me to put nuts in the brownies. No. Are you okay? No.

Last week I drew the strength card reversed. The lion was on top and the woman, brawny and beautiful, hung upside down, hands reaching up. The card said, Maybe you can do this alone, tap that well til it runs dry, but nobody ever said you had to. I put my hand up because, um, excuse me, yeah they did.

I didn’t ask to isolate and I don’t like it, which is only hard to believe because it comes so easily to me. The world asked this of me. In my scrupulosity I said yes and because I said yes I started saying no. This is not the rewilding. This is the disappearing of the lonely from public life, from any semblance of a life at all.

Quarantine Diaries Day 211: Controlled Burn

For the first few years of my daughter’s life my mind and my newsfeed were consumed by stories of women leaving the workforce. That wasn’t an option for me but I was obsessed with the idea that my life would be better if I’d at least had the choice, as well as with the idea that everybody was doing it better than me whether they hired a nanny or quit their jobs to stay home or never went into the workforce in the first place, and I sought out story after story to test my highly self-centered and ultimately fear-based theories. When my daughter went off to school and I started peeking over the other side of early childhood parenting, I want to shake all the women having and raising babies with with men by the shoulders and implore them:

If any part of you wants to work, find a way to make it happen. It doesn’t matter if childcare eats up your whole salary* a significant chunk of your combined household income. If you can afford it and you want to work even a little bit make it happen. Early childhood is over fast unless you’re having a million babies and before you know it all your kids will be out of the house for 6+ hours a day and instead of scrambling and stressing about what to do with this next phase of your life you’ll be solidly into your career and thanking all the ladies who who showed you that life can be so good.

*Don’t measure the cost of childcare as coming entirely out of your salary. Your partner is paying for and benefits from childcare too.

It may have been un-nuanced, unsolicited, and unwanted, but that was my advice from Before Times and I thought it was pretty damn good. Now, another wave is here and it’s even bigger than the one that washed over my life when it felt like everyone in my orbit was having babies. 800,000 women dropped out of the workforce. One in four are considering leaving or at least scaling back. I don’t have that option but I understand why women would take it if they did. A mom of a kid in my daughter’s school works full time out of the house and does e-learning late into the night with her second-grader. A partner at a law firm is on the verge of quitting her job. A colleague is working double time to pay her kid’s tuition at his dream school that could close any week. My sister launched her second book and wrote and pitched a third with her three kids running wild at home and an essential worker husband working longer hours than ever. More friends than I can count have had to trust that their kids will be safe at daycare or bring caretakers into their already overcrowded homes, and are paying a premium to do it. Even more are running themselves ragged running e-learning themselves at home while also working full-time. Quitting, if it’s an option, must feel like the only one. Of course, the stay-at-home moms don’t have it any easier. My sister–in-law wrangled five kids entirely on her own while her medical resident husband finished out a three month rotation in another city. A friend who was supposed to go back to teaching this year is homeschooling her two kids instead. An acquaintance who was supposed to go back to school herself and figure out what kind of career she wanted when her youngest went back to kindergarten this year is instead watching herself disappear.

I don’t have a speech for these women who are raising children with men. I don’t have any idea what they should do. It’s not fair that the burden of all the extra childcare and attendant emotional labor is falling on women but I understand why they are the ones picking it up. I understand how it is easier to let even the most carefully constructed egalitarian marriage fall to pieces than to try to keep that wobbly tower upright in harrowing times.

Last week, when I was complaining yet again about how impossible it feels to raise a happy, healthy kid at this moment in time, my therapist gently suggested that some women might be envious of my situation. She’s not wrong. I don’t know a whole lot of women whose lives haven’t been made immeasurably harder by the pandemic, but when it comes to work/life balance–that ever elusive, always illusory, annoying buzzword–my life got easier.

In March I realized my long-held dream of eliminating my commute and working from home. I sleep in an hour later every morning and eat a full breakfast with my family. When my husband stands up to clear the table for school and my daughter starts fussing about brushing her teeth, that’s my cue to head off to “work”–i.e., a leisurely walk around the neighborhood. By the time I make it back and set up my computer in the office downstairs, I can hear my daughter in her first video call of the day. I work for a few hours, come up for a quick lunch with my family, and disappear back downstairs for the rest of the afternoon. Sometimes sounds of my daughter’s cries or my husband’s mounting frustration drift down the stairs. My heart breaks and I put on a pair of headphones. I try to finish work early so I can exercise and then call my mom as soon as she finishes up her shift at a school where the kids been back for months. I come upstairs at the end of the day to dinner on the table.

The evening shift with our daughter is mine. It’s not always easy but it’s usually fun. We dance wildly to Parry Gripp and read Harry Potter and throw balls inside the house and play card games and go for walks and draw with sidewalk chalk. I used to try to look at her school work in the evenings but now I don’t bother because allowing her to maintain some sense of separation between school and home seems more important than proving I’m as involved as moms who don’t work. I used to shuttle her to and from activities in the evenings but now they’re mostly cancelled and I refuse to put her in front of a screen more than she needs to be. We eat dessert every night. We unload the dishwasher and put away a few toys and then it’s off to bed. After a bath and jammies and a few chapters and a few songs, she’s down and the night is mine again. My husband cleans the kitchen. He charges the devices for school the next day. I burn incense and read and meditate and play music and then sit on the couch to watch TV with a bag of candy corn on my lap. I go to sleep before he does.

The weekends are all different, but the balance is there. This weekend, I put in the emotional labor to plan a playdate for our daughter, but my husband cleaned the house on the off chance anybody might need to come inside to use the bathroom. I supervised the kids playing outside but my husband brought out the snacks. We both played for hours with our daughter and did chores and took a few hours for ourselves both days of the weekend. Our dryer that has been on the fritz for months finally gave up the ghost and instead of freaking out I let my husband order and arrange install of a new one while celebrated a week off of laundry duty.

I don’t have any advice for women trying to sustain an egalitarian heterosexual marriage with kids in a pandemic. What I do have is advice for constructing a marriage that will rise to the occasion when crisis hits:

Get yourself a stay-at-home husband. Switch the traditional roles so completely and shift them so far out that the seesaw hits the ground on the other side and you’re sitting up high legs swinging in the air. Make your income indispensable. You will feel the weight of responsibility but there will be no question your job comes first. Understand that everything that needs to happen in the home is also a job, and it’s not yours. Let your husband make the appointments and the beds or let them go unmade. You will feel the pain when it’s not done right but there will be no question whose job it is. Undoing all the cultural programming and fighting your way into social structures that weren’t built for families like yours will hurt like hell but one day life as you know it will fall apart and your kids will be home for 24 hours a day and instead of scrambling and stressing about how to keep all the balls in the air you’ll go off to work and leave your husband to deal with this fresh new hell and you’ll thank me for telling you that life can be so good.

It feels unfair, how much harder my husband’s life got this year while mine got easier. It is unfair. But it’s not like it was fair before, when the bar I was working so hard to clear was set to Perfect Mom instead of Pretty Good Dad. It’s not like the scales are perfectly balanced today. I probably still do too much, way more than my dad ever did, more than my husband would do if our roles were reversed. Luckily for our marriage, I’m not aiming for fairness; I’m playing the long game of self-actualization. The pandemic might have set me back, put me into survival mode. It might have destroyed my marriage. The only reason it didn’t is because we had someone at home to track down toilet paper and masks and wait in line at Trader Joe’s and take over our daughter’s early elementary education and that someone was someone other than me.

Quarantine Diaries Day 206: Overheard at E-Learning

Scene: Class zoom call starts in five minutes, only a few kids are on the call.

KID 1: I’m going to take my iPad outside and show you where people live. This is my house. And KID 2 lives over there.

KID 2: Hey, that’s my house!

KID 3: Go to Lake Street! That’s where I live!

KID 1, ignoring KID 3 and directing iPad camera at sewer instead: Does anyone know who Pennywise is?

KID 4: I know who Pennywise is!

KID 1: Pennywise is a…

TEACHER: Let’s all go on mute until class starts.


Scene: Drama class. The teacher asked the kids to get off the zoom call and make a video of themselves acting like their favorite animal. DAD is in the same room listening but not looking. KID sets the iPad on a chair and starts crawling around on the ground and woofing like a dog. KID stands up, moves the iPad to to the floor, and crawls around in front of the camera. KID stands up, moves the iPad again, falls to the ground and rolls over. DAD looks over and sees KID on her back, rocking back and forth, legs in the air, party dress around her waist, flashing her underwear at the iPad.

DAD: Okay, KID, this looks great, but we’re going to need to record it again. Go put some shorts on under your dress.

KID: Do I have to?

DAD: Yes.

KID, pissed: FINE.

KID, brightening considerably: I know! I’ll put on a second pair of underwear over these ones!

DAD: No. Put on some shorts.

KID, running up the stair: Second underwear!

DAD: SHORTS!

KID: SECOND UNDERWEAR!


Scene: Class zoom call, it’s daily question time.

QUESTION ASKER: Where do you see yourself in 20 years?

KID 1: Underground.

Class: ….

KID 2, tentatively: Like a mole?

KID 1: No, KID 2, NOT like a mole! I wouldn’t have a long skinny tail. I WOULD BE IN AN ARMCHAIR UNDERGROUND BECAUSE I WANT TO LIVE ALONE.

Teacher: Are you sure there’s not somewhere you else you might want to live in twenty years?

KID 1: Nope. I’ve already made my life decision.


Scene: In PE, out of nowhere.

KID 1: I like movies and things that are IN-A-PRO-priate!

KID 2: I know a movie that’s inappropriate!

PE TEACHER: I’m going to mute you all now.


Scene: Class zoom call, daily question time.

QUESTION ASKER: What kind of animal would you be and why?

KID 1: I would be a bear because they can kill a person just by pushing them and when I get really mad at someone, I could push them.

KID 2: I would be a shark that eats people on purpose.

KID 3: Alligator.

TEACHER: Why an alligator, KID 3?

KID 3: Because they’re COLD BLOODED.

Quarantine Diary Day 197: Allergic to Reality

The only reason I don’t have tattoos is because I’m too much of a wuss to get them. I don’t care about the pain; I’m afraid of an untreatable allergic reaction. I’m afraid my skin will reject the ink. True allergic reactions to colors other than red are fairly uncommon, I realize, but I also realize by now that I’m one of those annoying highly sensitive persons who can’t just do things that other people do without thinking. I knew I was allergic to nickel when I went to the tattoo shop with a group of kids from my dorm at eighteen, knew it bodily from six years of battling itchy, inflamed earlobes and an itchy stomach, too, when I wore a belt too tight and the buckle rubbed against my skin, but I went ahead and pierced my belly button anyway and hoped for the best. I suffered, of course. I treated the fresh piercing according to the shop’s instructions and hoped the hot, crusty holes above my navel would heal into something cute, but when my I saw my friend had a glittering playboy bunny peeking out under her babydoll t-shirt and no signs of infection whatsoever, I had to admit that mine didn’t look anything like hers and, also, I was miserable. There is no relief like pulling a surgical steel barbell topped on either end with fake rubies out of a wound of your own making. There is no relief like giving up on something your body is rejecting. 

Heavy metals aren’t the only substances that make my body go haywire. Pet a cat or walk into a room with a guinea pig and my eyes will itch for hours. Inhale deeply in the fall and spring and I’ll cough like I’ve got COVID. Drink caffeine after three p.m. and I’m not just sleepless, I’m shaking and scared. Swallow ten mg hydrocodone and I start thinking like a junkie. More to the point of this post, I also have atopic dermatitis and keratosis pilaris and cystic acne and probably three or four other conditions that could be lumped under the rubric of “bad skin.” 

I’ve done a fair amount of research. I’ve contacted artists and shops, analyzed ingredient lists, looked into vegan and organic inks, and read scientific abstracts and posts going back over a decade on tattoo message boards. I’ve tried to come at the decision from every angle and even gone as far as scheduling appointments and putting down deposits, but I always end up in the same spot. Given the circumstances of my body, injecting ink into my skin with a metal needle seems, at best, like a foolish thing to do.

You’d think, with this self-knowledge, I’d stop revisiting the question of whether or not to get a tattoo, stop following artists on Instagram, stop looking at my own body as a canvas. The problem is, I so enjoy the inhabiting the archetype of the fool. The fool, with her bindle and her little white dog and the sun shining bright as she moves to step off the cliff of everything she knows into the wild unknown, is always on the cusp of a new adventure. The fool is someone I so rarely get to be in my professional life or as the parent of a young child (though perhaps I am foolish in both arenas more often than I care to admit). The fool is someone none of us get to be in this political moment, as we are being duped by trickster magicians and ruled by emperors with all the power and no clothes and devils with their chains that shine so pretty until you realize they’ve got you around the neck.  

I want tattoos, though. I want a short phrase from the Book of Mormon on my left forearm, a beehive on my right shoulder blade, a seagull on my right tricep, an illustration of Frog from Arnold Lobel’s beloved Frog and Toad on my left quad, a saguaro cactus on my left inner bicep and an anchor on the right, and I want whatever strikes my fancy after that. 

I want tattoos like I want to go on vacation and play board games with friends and go to a bar and get real close to someone without a mask. Of course I’m not going to do any of those things until the science says I can. I want to be the fool but only with the promise of no more lessons to learn.   

Quarantine Diary Day 192: For All That Falls

Yesterday was the autumn equinox, one day of perfect balance before the Northern Hemisphere starts sliding into the dark. Missing the rhythm of the calendars that once ran my family, the school calendar, the church calendar, the court calendar, I wanted to mark the day. Heretofore, this former Mormon mommy blogger exclusively used Pinterest to catalogue tattoos and short sassy hair, but yesterday it occurred to me I might use it for what I can only assume is its intended purpose: tablescapes and kids crafts! I was looking for ways to celebrate Mabon, the lesser sabbat that corresponds to the autumn equinox on the wheel of the year. I took a few notes, saved a recipe, copied down a blessing to read over whatever my husband made us for dinner. I didn’t have to ask to know it would be a feast fit for a Pagan harvest festival. He always feed us well. I only planned to mull a little cider.

Though I am a cyclical being–moods not wholly separate from the phases of the moon, outlook informed by the seasons–I am not always as in tune with the earth as I might like. Yesterday, for example, I was not especially balanced. I was not especially inclined to look forward into the mystery or back with gratitude for all I have. Much of yesterday I was, in a word, pissed. Much of yesterday I was, if I had another word, and I do, because I’m the writer, scared.

I’m in meetings from 8:30 to 1:00 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I come up for five minute breaks to use the bathroom, refill my water bottle, grab a snack. I mostly have no idea what’s going on with my daughter’s e-learning during that time except that my husband (and, ugh, fine, the school) are doing the Lord’s work making it all happen. Yesterday, when I came upstairs at 10:35 my husband and daughter were watching Puppy Dog Pals. What. The. Fuck.

I tried to hold my fire, I really tried. I know I don’t know what kind of break they were on from video calls, what work she might have finished early, what kind of day they’d had, what kind of judgment calls my husband was making, what meltdowns might have preceded or been prevented by a few minutes in front of the cartoon equivalent of boxed mac and cheese, my daughter’s favorite meal.

None of that stopped me from going off in my mind, though. Why isn’t doing school work? If they’re on a break, why isn’t she outside? If there’s not time to go outside, why isn’t she jumping on the mini trampoline, that eyesore we brought into our house in April when we realized we’d be stuck inside for the rest of the school year? If she doesn’t want to move around, why isn’t she playing with LEGO or drawing? If everybody needed an easy break, why weren’t they reading a book? My questions were like hypercritical flies buzzing around an elephant they really didn’t like, a distraction from the questions that keep me up at night. Why the fuck isn’t my daughter in school? When is she going to go back? How is a lost year of the kind of movement and play and meaningful interaction with kids that she has always gotten outside our house going to affect her. How is any of this going to work if I don’t micromanage it?

Mabon is about balance, and it’s also a time for gathering up what we need to survive the winter and letting go the rest. Goodbye to long sun drenched days and hitting every art festival and sprinting up and down the beach. It’s time to tuck in, start saving energy. Do I have any relationships that need to end? Unhealthy habits? Self-destructive beliefs?

Of course the things I want to kick to the curb are not the ones that really need to go and vice versa. I’d like to give hyper-responsibility the old heave ho, not just the hyper part, but the responsibility part, too. I’m tired of holding my world up on my shoulders! I’m tired of working and and cleaning and negotiating and, oh god, so much caring and trying. I want a break from all that! But as a parent and a partner and an employee and a citizen suiting up and showing up is my only option.

What I really need to get over is trying to control other people and blaming them when behave the way I’d like them to. But power, even just the illusion of it, is hard to give up in the best of circumstances, and just about impossible when it feels like the world is spinning out around you. They call it a coping mechanism for a reason! Putting a lid on the pot and turning the stove up to boil when my husband does something differently than I would is easier than admitting that we have no guarantees that anyone will come out of all of this okay.

After stewing all afternoon, I went on a run to burn off my rage. When I came back, a neighbor was knocking on our door, wanting to play with our daughter. My husband answered and sent our daughter outside with a mask and a water bottle. When I finished with work for the day, I called my daughter in to help me measure cloves for the cider and round up the pinecones she’s collected over the last year to arrange into a centerpiece. We set out citrine and carnelian and a tiny jasper dog. We lit candles. We sat down to freshly baked challah and a broccoli tomato salad and sausage with apples. I read a prayer for the ones who light the way and the ones who take care. We sang a song about blackbirds. We talked about what it means for the emperor to have no clothes. After dinner we rolled toilet paper rolls in peanut butter and fruit and nuts and hung them in trees for the birds. We decided to take the leftover seeds to scatter in the park and walked over sipping cider from steaming ceramic mugs. My daughter pointed at the moon, a waxing crescent. Before bed we ate candy corn and read Harry Potter.

At the end of the night, I sat on the couch with my husband. I thought we’d might have it out over Puppy Dog Pals but instead I waxed poetic about Mabon and then let him update me about school. He’d spent the evening at curriculum night on Zoom. Last year I did curriculum night because I wanted to have a sense of how my daughter was spending her time while I was at work all day. I wanted to be the kind of working mom who also knows her way around her kid’s school. This year we thought it would be a better use of resources for the parent managing e-learning to try to figure out what the school is up to. When it was over, he said he felt better about our daughter’s teacher, and when he said that I felt better about everything. I don’t have to volunteer in her classroom or sit in on e-learning or get to know her teachers to know that she’s going to be okay. Her real education was never going to happen at school anyway.

Quarantine Diary Day 187: Scratch and Match

One of the few things that doesn’t suck about elearning with a second grader is that my daughter already knows how to read. Don’t get me wrong. We’re a family of readers but not, like, prodigiously early readers. She just learned, barely squeezed under the COVID wire that shredded her education before she finished first grade. This summer was my first experiencing the parental pleasure that is reading a book on the couch while your child reads next to you. I think that happened once. She gets her best reading done before I wake up and the Echo Dot in her room is still disabled because nobody needs to hear Kidz Bop before 6:30 in the morning. Last summer she woke up every day with the sun and ran immediately into my room. I couldn’t tell you what time she wakes up now except that it’s sometime before I do and that when I peek in her room she is sitting cross-legged on the floor with a book.

Both enthusiastic about this new development, my husband and I took different approaches to molding our daughter into a kid who, we hope, will read even when she doesn’t have to. A former literature major, I pulled all our Roald Dahl off the high shelves with no regard as to whether stories about kid munching monsters and kid munching witches and fox shooting humans would be disturbing to seven-year-old sensitivities. A journalist by training, my husband subscribed her to National Geographic Kids and Highlights Magazine. She promptly hid National Geographic under her bed when they sent her an early Halloween issue with a horror movie mummy on the front, but she adores Highlights. Highlights! Do you remember Highlights? Highlights with godawful Goofus and goody two shoes Gallant? Highlights with the Look and Look Again puzzles with five differences that are impossibly easy to spot and one that’s always straight up impossible? Highlights with the Pinterest crafts before Pinterest was a thing that don’t require mom to have to reset her password? Highlights with the endless supply of knock knock jokes? Maybe you’re not in the Highlights target demographic or your parents couldn’t afford magazines or your grandparents didn’t buy you a Highlights subscription for your birthday and you’re wondering if I’m talking about the cartoon-y magazine at the pediatrician’s office. Don’t worry, you’ve got it, that’s the one.

Last month my daughter ripped a postcard off the spine of the magazine, the kind you usually fill out and send back in to resubscribe, and started scraping ink off the images on it with a quarter, like it was a scratch off lotto ticket. How did she know to do that? I wondered. We’re a buy your snacks at the gas station family, but not, like, a scratchers family. A minute later my daughter waved the card in my face. “I won, mama! Look!” I grabbed the card and studied it, suspicious. Sure enough, Highlights was introducing my kid to the dopamine hit of an easy win with a Scratch and Match promotional program. She didn’t have a match, but the card was clear enough that scratching off one image of a book, as she had done, meant that something called Mathmania would be coming her way. Never one to say no to something that might make math fun, I checked to see if we needed postage. In the meantime, my daughter pulled off another postcard from last month’s Highlights and started happily scratching away. A moment later: “Look mama, I won again!” She definitely did not win again. She must be missing something. I studied the second card and it was as clear as the first. She hadn’t won the big prize that came with three matches, but she definitely had won another magazine called Hidden Pictures Eagle Eye. “Wow, sweetie! That’s awesome! Congratulations!”

I half-hoped she’d forget about the prizes because I did not really want to fill out the postcards and track down stamps but she proudly carried the cards downstairs and set them right next to my spot on the kitchen table. I let them sit for a few days until it was clear that they were not going to mysteriously disappear without parental intervention and I was never going to magically feel like doing this tiny chore. I quickly scratched out our name and address and my email address and put them in a stack of outgoing mail for my husband to send off.

A few weeks later, an invoice for $10.55 showed up in my inbox. Hmmm. A copy of Mathmania arrived in our mailbox a few days after that with a paper invoice for the same amount.

Goddamnit.

I didn’t read the fine print. I should have read the fine print! I don’t trust anybody who’s trying to sell me anything (unless it’s a God thing and then I’ll buy whatever you’re peddling). I’m not a skeptic but I am a cynic. I always read the fine print. I have to! I was raised Mormon in the mountain west in a hotbed of multi-level marketing and get rich quick schemes. My internet search history is smattered with “DoTerra + scam” and “LuLa Roe + scam” and “Usborne books + scam.” My distrust extends to subscription-based services and wellness product and anything that seems a little too popular. “Ritual vitamins + scam” and “Stitchfix + scam” and “Caroline Calloway + scam.” You can’t trust anything coming out of capitalism. Even as a believer, I interrogate the institutions that made me and changed me and saved me. “Joseph Smith + scam” “Alcoholics Anonymous + scam” “law school + scam.” You can’t trust anything and you can’t trust anyone.

The only reason I didn’t read the fine print this time was because it was Highlights for Children for god’s sake and I couldn’t imagine the Highlights of my most innocent childhood years would take my daughter for ride a like that, tricking them into thinking they won some kind of grand prize and then putting parents in the position of having to say, “Sorry, honey, you didn’t really win.” That seemed like the kind of dirty trick Goofus would pull.

I wasn’t about to tell my daughter she didn’t win and I’ve spent more than $10.55 on more worthless crap than math games so I figured I’d pay it and chalk the loss up to experience. It stung a little more when the invoice for Hidden Pictures Eagle Eye but she loves those puzzles so whatever. $20 is less to me than it was to my parents and is well worth it if it means I don’t have to get on the phone and demand a refund while confessing my ignorance to a stranger.

Before I got around to paying the bill, another invoice popped up in my email. I checked my Highlights account, because apparently I now had a Highlights account, and saw that not only did I have a new charge of $17.94 for a second volume of Mathmania but I also had pending charge of $17.94 for another issue of Hidden Pictures Eagle Eye that was about to ship.

Uggghhhhhh. They were going to make me call customer service. A lady answered the phone. She sounded sweet. She sounded older. She sounded like the kind of lady that works at Highlights. She sounded like Gallant’s grandma. I explained the situation in elaborate detail, but I didn’t need to. She knew exactly why I was calling. She cancelled the subscriptions to the two magazines and, without my even asking, removed the pair of $10.55 charges for the first two issues. She couldn’t cancel the charges for the new issues, which had already shipped, she said. We’d have to refuse delivery or send them back. I paused. I’ve missed dozens of packages over the years and had them returned to sender but I’ve never turned one away on purpose. “How does that…work exactly?” “Just write ‘refused’ on the outside of the package and put it back in the mailbox,” she explained patiently, like she was talking to a child. I thought about the plastic wrap that magazines sometimes come in and wondered how I’d write on it. “Like…with a Sharpie?” I asked, wanting her to spell it out. “Sure. Or a pen. And then you can call back and we’ll remove the charges.” Lord help me. I considered giving this nice lady a piece of my mind. Then I thought about how that never makes me feel good and how I’m trying to move through the world with a little less drama and a little more grace. “Okay,” I said. “Thanks for all your help.” “You’re welcome!” the Highlights lady chirped, sounding ever so slightly surprised. “Now that we’ve taken care of that, can I interest you in any of our other gift packages?”

This week, Hidden Pictures Eagle Eye came in the mail again. Before I could intercept and send it back, my husband brought it inside and waved it in the air. “Your new magazine is here!” He put it on the table in front of my daughter. “Hooray!” she exclaimed, tearing into the plastic wrap that I could not possibly have marked up with any kind of legibility. Sigh.

$17.94 is less to me than it was my parents but not that much less and at this point I feel like Highlights is setting me up to fail. It looks like I have at least one more phone call in my future. Perhaps many more, judging by these customer complaints. In the meantime, at least my kid is reading.