A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Monday, June 21, 2021

Bubble, bubble


After shoving a couple of wooden serving spoons into the salad and quickly checking on the pot of Thai curry, the rice cooker, the cheesy garlic bread, and the peach and cherry cobbler – mismatched cuisine to match my haphazard tastes -- I stepped over to set the dinner table.  Plates, mugs, forks – one at every place.  Thirteen. 

It was good to be back to eating with a perfectly normal number of people. A community.

Our non-standard living arrangements have been both a comfort and a challenge during COVID. For the past 17 years, our little neighborhood of friends has shared some of our space and resources, and has dined together on weeknights.  This has always been a little hard to explain to new acquaintances, in a “What kind of oddball Alaskan cult are you, exactly?” kind of way.  Americans just don’t do that.

Our nation has an awkward attitude about “community”.  We ostensibly champion close extended families and cohesive neighborhoods, but if someone lives with several great-aunts, starts a childcare cooperative, or suggests that tax money should go toward town recreation centers – well, that’s… suspect.  Culturally, we assume that Mom, Dad, their 2.1 children, and their 1.6 dogs are an entirely self-sufficient unit in terms of economics, emotional support, logistics, vacuum cleaner ownership, and apple-pie-baking.  (The 1.8 cats refused to comment on their role.) Such are the joys of unfettered capitalism that we fail to recognize the gaps.  We continually create social norms and economic infrastructure that undermine communities.

Since COVID first reared its ugly spike proteins, the question of community has become both more fraught and more overtly discussed.  Who is in your bubble?  Who is not?  What do wealth, class, race, culture, and definitions of family have to do with it?  What do roommates owe one another, and WHO LEFT THESE DIRTY SOCKS ON THE COUNTER?  What about strangers in the same building, the same laundromat, the same bathroom-down-the hall?  Where is the fuzzy middle ground between fully cohabiting married couples and entanglements that are harder to explain to your grandpa -- and how can you keep your grandpa healthy while you’re explaining?  When is privacy a privilege, and when is isolation a curse?  What are the tradeoffs between safety, loneliness, civic duty, and love? 

People who know about our living setup asked us how we were dealing with our unusual situation.  The answer was “the best we can”.  Ultimately, how we reconfigured depended on individual and family-level choices about risk and uncertainty.  One family of three chose to become a self-contained unit, and one young adult and one older individual each temporarily left our bubble to be with their respective off-site partners.  That left eight of us at the dinner table: my own family of four, and two other couples. 

Eight people still felt like a large bubble.  Moreover, the group included two high-risk people, based on their ages (73 and 88). The responsibility felt heavy, and I fretted.  But at the same time, the daily company of these long-time friends was a balm – and if an octogenarian wanted to throw in his lot with me, my husband, and our twin 13-year-olds, who was I to second-guess him?  We were all lucky enough to be in low-risk, work-from-home jobs and Zoom school.  We were all luckily to still have jobs, and teachers.  And we were lucky to have one another.  Together, we celebrated a 74th birthday, and an 89th.

The community members who stepped out of our bubble nonetheless regularly stepped into our shared building for showers and laundry.  We live in the woods on land underlain by permafrost, and don’t have standard pipes or septic.  Our water is delivered by truck to a shared tank.  I don’t need to explain the necessity of a year’s worth of hygiene.

The non-dinner-table community members became part of a new social genre: the Outdoor Friends, a.k.a the Walk Buddies or Driveway Hangers.  All friends are awesome, of course, but the ones who willingly-but-awkwardly stand next to a parked car to chat with you or get together for socially distanced ambles in Fairbanks in January are Lindt-truffle-level awesome. 

My Outdoor Friends are cautiously crossing thresholds with me again.  We’re not post-COVID -- not even close. Nonetheless, we’re vaccinated, and some things ARE changing.  That includes some quirky yet fundamental aspects of my own life.  This week, I regained access to the showers in the basement of my plumbing-enabled workplace.  I took a full-force shower that was eleven minutes long.  Eleven!

The twins turned fourteen during COVID.  Then they turned fifteen – still during COVID.  Yesterday marked the day when they were two-weeks-post their second Pfizer vaccines.  They spent the day hanging out with a similarly freshly-vaccinated kid who has been their stalwart Outdoor Friend for the duration.  Last winter, these teenagers spent hours in the snow at 20 below zero Fahrenheit, just to be together.  I tossed snacks out to them as if they were feral. 

No one will believe their stories when they’re all geezers.  Then again, what will be “normal” in 2090? 

As we all try to figure out how the world has changed, how it’s stayed the same, and whether we want to go back to wearing real pants and making small-talk, I’ll continue to ponder the meaning of community.  And -- superstitions and my questionable cooking skills notwithstanding -- I’ll keep setting thirteen plates at dinner.

Friday, March 19, 2021

The eleven types of Zoom meetings

1.           Zoom meeting that could have been an email.

2.           Zoom meeting that could have been an email, except that let’s face it no one would have answered the email, or even read past the first bullet point, let alone clicked on the link to the Google Doc that needs editing by the group, so fine, let’s do this in real time.  That’s not awkward at all.

3.           Zoom meeting that is not actually a Zoom meeting because someone works for the National Academy of Making Things Impossible.  Okay, fine, we’re using the different software you recommended.  No one understands the software, except for Tiffany, who is unable to download the software because she’s hotspotting from her minivan.  Despite the software change, Nigel is still stuck behind a firewall. 

4.           My kids’ Zoom chemistry class.  Involves rummaging in the cupboards for baking soda and fielding sudden urgent questions about electron orbitals.  Invariably occurs simultaneously with #5.

5.           Zoom meeting that requires laser-like focus and Herculean organizational skills lest I look like an idiot in front of my most influential colleagues and/or people who can fire me.

6.           Meeting that is really a presentation.  I am not touching that unmute button, ever.  My camera is off.  Of course I’m here.  Why would you question whether I’m here during your monologue?  Totally here.

7.           Meeting that is really a phone call.  I don’t need to look at anything or anyone, and I’m very sure that no one needs to look at me.  I am entirely cogent, fully contributing, and no one needs to know that I’m taking a walk with my ear buds and phone.  What do you mean, is that the sound of a backhoe?

8.           Meeting in which I can openly admit that I’m taking a walk, because you’ve all been working with me for a decade and you haven’t managed to get rid of me yet.  Yeah.  Totally a backhoe.

9.           My kids’ Zoom gym class.  Noisy.  Makes the house vibrate.  Smells like teenagers, even though 28 of the 30 students are not physically present.  Conducted with cameras and microphones off, entirely on the honor system.  Causes me to vacillate between pride over my children’s obvious honor, and the desire for less honorable children.

10.         Zoom meeting that could have been a semaphore message from a remote windswept hilltop.

11.         Zoom meeting during which I’m writing this list of types of Zoom meetings.

Monday, December 21, 2020

A short letter, and several letters short

For many years, I’ve shared whimsically annoying holiday letters, each in a different genre, from “Epic Poem” to “Third Grade Homework Packet” to “Choose Your Own Adventure”.  In 2006, it was a haiku:

Twins and doctorate 
Have not allowed much free time
For email or sleep
But now it’s 2020. 

As we descended into the darkness of this Winter Solstice, my Whimsy Muse wasn’t just quiet, she was mute.  I thought about the past twelve months’ headlines. I thought about my dad.  What genre could possibly be or fitting – or even tolerable – for summing up this year?

Then I thought of Dad a bit more, and it seemed obvious. 

I was momentarily flummoxed when I realized that -- in this era of online games and online everything -- I don’t even own an entire and unsullied Scrabble set.  The old wooden letter tiles of my childhood are mismatched and incomplete.  But upon reflection, that seemed perfectly imperfect.

I know a lot of you have had a tough year – tougher than mine.  Please, tell me if you need serious help.  Also, please tell me if you need frivolous help: a phone call, or a pie, one of the blank tiles to reach the triple word score.  And in the meantime, even if you’re a few letters short and have lost your dictionary, play anyway.  Keep playing.

Happy solstice, my friends.