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.

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