Virtual Postcards From My Covid-19 Vacation

“So happy I was invited, gave me a reason to get out of the city…you and your sister live in a Lemonworld.” ~The National

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At my house in Lemonworld

Our current, shared reality is, well, lackluster at best and terrifying at worst. As the number of Covid-19 deaths climbs and our world economy tanks, as the jobless claims skyrocket and citizens are sidelined at home, it’s getting downright difficult to maintain sanity. Although it was just a month ago I was looking forward to travel plans and finding plentiful packages of toilet paper during my Target runs, March seems to have lasted a lifetime since those halcyon days before the virus became everything. I find myself missing the annoyance of politics and the grind of everyday nonsense.

I had been doing my dogged best to write both to process the gravity of our situation and to bolster my flagging spirit. Writing, as it had been for me in the past, was becoming my escape, providing a sense of accomplishment and belonging. It was bringing me peace. It was my way of reaching out from my increasingly isolated, introvert world. Writing was all those things. And then suddenly it wasn’t because I found a better way out of my head.

I took a trip. I boarded a plane and now I’m on an island, basking in the sunlight, listening to the surf, and keeping myself plenty busy. I belong to the Animal Crossing world now. For the uninitiated, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a game exclusively for the Nintendo Switch console. My son downloaded the game on March 20th, its release date, a day when the virus news hit a sobering crescendo with the US State Department urging Americans to return home from abroad and Italy’s coronavirus death toll surpassing China’s. For a week, Joe played the game and showed me the sweet, wholesome world on his screen. It didn’t look like a bad place to be, so I decided to join him. Now I live on Lemonworld.

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Game fishing accomplishment

It’s been a whirlwind. I arrived here last Thursday afternoon. I settled into my tent and then began pulling weeds and gathering wood to raise funds for a house because my tent camping days are behind me. On Friday, I learned how to fish, determined how to shoot down gifts attached to helium balloons with my slingshot, and discovered that eating cherries gave me more energy to break rocks with my axe. I moved into my small cottage home, which I was able to pay off immediately because I am so industrious with my gathering and fishing and selling. Being a dutiful community member, I also began making donations to open a local museum. That same day, however, I made the horrific discovery that tarantulas live on my island. Of course they do because even peaceful tropical islands have their drawbacks. That first night, I got bitten and passed out three times because of those damn spiders. Hello, learning curve. Still, this island was beginning to feel like home and the spiders only come out at dusk, so I told Tom Nook, the tropical-garb wearing, raccoon dog fellow who brought me to the island, I was here for the long haul and thus ready to move into a bigger home.

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Visiting the Lemonworld Museum to see the coelacanth I donated

Yesterday, the spring skies opened up and it poured all day. Relentlessly determined to pay off my new, larger home (you have to catch a lot of fish to raise 198k bells — bells, you see, are the island currency), I spent my rainy day traipsing up and down the beaches trying to catch large fish I could sell to grow my bank account. I hit paydirt. On one of my expeditions, I reeled in an oarfish. Not long after that, I caught a rare coelacanth. While those fish would have netted me quite a handsome sum, I donated both to the museum because science is important. Ultimately, over the course of a long, active day, I was able to save up the full amount for my upgrade. I prefer to live debt free in paradise.

This game has been the perfect escape from these troubled times. Not only has it relieved me of infinite time to read news and perseverate over social media posts, but it has given me purpose and a sense of accomplishment (at least virtually). My sons both have the game now, and we can visit each other’s islands. Yesterday, my husband ordered himself a Switch, so soon all four of us will have an island getaway. The boys may have missed their spring break trip to Cuba, and Steve and I won’t be hanging with the stingrays on Grand Cayman in April, but at least we can still vacation together while trapped in our home. The only thing missing on my island, as far as I can tell, are pina coladas. Wonder if I can get my little raccoon dog buddy to bring me one of those?

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Soaking up the sun and listening to the surf in my happy place

 

 

Both Of Us Are Dogs In This Scenario

I am a border collie.

Emphasis on the word border. I know my job. I herd. I round the family up. I make sure no one gets left behind and that we all proceed according to a plan. I keep us moving. When I am not herding, I like my space. I am affectionate, just on my own terms. I am reserved around strangers. I am smart, adaptable, energetic, and driven. I know what I want and what I don’t want. And I’m not doing any tricks or jumping through any hoops unless it aligns with my own agenda.

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Current mood

Our dog, Ruby, is also a border collie. I can tell you everything you need to know about Ruby (and, by proxy, me) in a few anecdotes. At Puppy Kindergarten, Ruby would practice the new trick we were working on 3-4 times for a treat. Then she would walk away and curl up in the corner with her back to me as if to say, “I got where you are going with this. I’m done with your reindeer games.” Ruby likes her space. If she is on her bed in the living room and I come and sit down on a chair next to her, she will get up and go to her bed in the other room. We used to try to leave Ruby in the yard when we would go out. Sometimes she would oblige. Sometimes she would walk to her kennel, curl up inside, and obstinately refuse to come out. Eventually, she trained us to ask if she wanted to be inside or out because it became clear she would only do what she wanted. Ruby is my spirit animal.

My husband, Steve, is a Labrador retriever.

He is all the things that have made Labradors the most popular dog breed in the United States since 1991. He is cheerful, affectionate, and active. He loves to be around people and is eager to please. He looks forward enthusiastically to all things, meals, walks, sports, and social activities, in particular. You never have to go looking for Steve. He is right there when you turn around, always. And, much to my delight, he does retrieve things including groceries and my morning latte. He is amiable, sweet tempered, easy going, and happy to a fault. Everyone loves Steve. He is inherently lovable.

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Boy’s best friend

Our first dog, Machiah, was a Labrador. I can tell you everything you need to know about Machiah (and, by proxy, Steve) in a few anecdotes. Machiah hated to be alone. She would let loose with the most pathetic, heartbreaking howl when we left the house with her behind in it. Machiah never missed a meal. In fact, an hour before mealtime she began reminding us that mealtime was on the horizon. She ate like she’d never see another bite of food, and then she ate things that weren’t her food or even food at all (including, but not limited to, a lampshade, a bike seat, tissues, and bottles of contact solution). Machiah, in her older years, would rest in the grass in our backyard and let our two year old use her as a pillow. She just wanted to be close to you with her heart of gold. Sometimes I wholeheartedly believe that Machiah lives on in Steve from beyond the Rainbow Bridge.

I write all of this both as an homage to our dogs, past and present, but as a way to explain to you what life locked down in our house right now is like. Picture that exuberant Labrador, full of energy and excitement and love and affection, following that border collie around in 1300 square feet, 24/7. Imagine that border collie slowly realizing there is no place to which she can escape. That is where we are, folks.

Welcome to Day Two of the Occupation.

Spotted And Clocked At 58 MPH

 

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And thus it begins

Tonight, at 5 pm, Denver instituted a citywide stay-at-home order. This had to happen because, despite dire warnings from the Word Health Organization and the CDC, we weren’t fully grasping what it means to stay away from others. We were packing into parks, standing too close in take-out lines, and crowding into liquor stores like we’d never see another bottle of (insert favorite spirit here). We were being the child told to sit in the chair in the corner of the room who couldn’t handle sitting in the chair in the corner of the room and so slid onto the floor and inched closer and closer to her friends, assuming she could get away with it. She couldn’t. Now we’re in the principal’s office until we’ve learned our lesson, a lesson we will not soon forget.

Today is my friend Lisa’s birthday. I had a gift for her sitting on my desk, a gift I had hoped to share with her in person over a coffee date, but that was not going to happen any time soon so I put the gift in my car and drove out to leave it on her porch. While I was out enjoying my last taste of true vehicular freedom for a while, I noticed how many people were driving like Mad Max, trying to tie up loose ends before 5 pm. Restrictions are scary. People tend to react to a crisis like this in one of three ways. They either over secure to feel safe (hello, toilet paper hoarders), they rebel (hello, spring break beach goers), or they fall in line dutifully and without question.

A recovering ex-Catholic, I still fall solidly into the third category. Big surprise, right? Do as you’re told? Yes, ma’am. Sit still? Okay. Follow directions? Of course. Color within the lines? I didn’t win a major award (leg lamp not included) for coloring at age 8 by being sloppy. Obey authority? Absolutely. Stay on the right side of the Keep Out sign? Done and done. In my youth, I learned to do as I was told without wondering if I should. So, this whole lockdown fits like a puzzle piece in my DNA. If the medical experts implore isolation is necessary, I wave my Good Girl banner and march to my room. It’s go time.

I was listening to Untamed, the new book by Glennon Doyle, today as I drove to Lisa’s. In one chapter, she discusses a zoo cheetah that has seemingly been tamed yet still paces the enclosure, looking for an escape, longing to run freely at the righteous, breakneck full speed she was built for. I started thinking about my own cage. About how I learned unquestioningly to do as I’m told. Like the zoo cheetah, I buried the wild me to live within the boundaries I’ve been told are mine to inhabit. And, in situations like this one, where I am required to confine at home for the greater good, being well acquainted with enclosures is helpful. But, I’ve been growing lately. I’ve been taking small steps, leaning casually against the fenced boundaries I adopted as my own, testing for a weak link, wondering if I’d be brave enough to venture out if I could just find a way to push through. So I am going to use this time in confinement to take a good, long look at what might be waiting for me on the other side of this enclosure. When this virus is at last contained and we are once again free to move, I will be standing by the door ready.

When it opens, I may linger at the threshold and stretch lazily for a spell, summoning my nerve. Then I am going to step out, slowly and with great intention at first and then later with fewer f***s to give, to do what represents my best self, discarding the mantle of appropriate “womanly” behavior on the ground where I stood. Life is shorter than me, people. We’ll be seeing that soon as community members, both young and old, fall victim to this virus and we watch families mourn unexpected losses of those to whom they were unable to say a last goodbye. Maybe even our own. If I am one of the lucky majority who escapes, I vow to live differently on the other side. I will still follow rules when I need to. I’m just going to push my boundaries more often.

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Cheetah weighing her options

The Avocado Advisement: A First World Story

“This is the first time in history when you can save humanity by just sitting on your couch and watching tv. Don’t f*#k it up.”  ~timely Internet meme

We are spoiled Americans. As a family, we are fortunate enough to be able to afford most of what we want when we want it, within reason. I mean, we don’t drive new Jaguars or BMWs. We do not live in a huge, stately home in a golf course community. We don’t take yearly trips to Europe. But we are able to buy a movie on our Apple TV without considering if the $20 is a waste, and the four of us can dine out a few times a month at decent, sit-down restaurants without being unable to pay our other bills because of it. If our sons need new jeans, they get them. If I want to buy a $75 concert ticket, I do it without guilt or stress. I know it is a gift to be in this position. And I do realize it makes us unlike most other American families. We are the lucky ones.

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The ghost of avocados past

A few weeks ago, when I saw the writing on the wall regarding this pandemic, I went shopping. I didn’t panic buy or hoard multiple packages of toilet paper, but I was able to purchase about two weeks’ worth of groceries in advance knowing we wouldn’t be going to the store as often once the virus began to spread widely among our population. Perishables were mostly off the table on my stock-up trip. Not a problem, I told myself as I bought some frozen fruits and vegetables. Then this morning I decided I would love an avocado for my bagel. Alas, there were none.

In my past life, I might run out to Safeway and grab a few of those bumpy-skinned babies to satisfy my craving. But, that past life was in the olden days two weeks ago. Now, I honestly have to look at a trip to the store differently than I did then. Now there are exponentially more people walking around unknowingly affected by COVID-19 than there were two weeks ago. My risk of contracting the virus is much higher, at a time when the hospitals are becoming increasingly overwhelmed. So I had to have a long talk with my fortunate self about going without. I suspect that over the coming days and weeks I will have to lecture myself many more times about the importance of remaining at home. I need to learn the delayed gratification I have been delaying learning. To that end, I made myself this flow chart, which I can refer to in the future replacing, as necessary, “avocado” with whatever thing it is I think I desperately need but really don’t.

 

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On voluntary house arrest, there is time to create flowcharts

This is our new normal. It may be our normal for eighteen plus months. I need to adapt to these temporary restrictions. They will be short-lived and my efforts could save lives, including my own and those of my husband and sons. I’ve lived a fortunate and entitled adult life, thus far, traveling freely through the world, buying grass-fed tenderloin steaks when I felt like spoiling myself. Now it’s time to do with less. In the grand scheme of history, what the times are asking of me is not a lot. It’s simply the matter of a small adjustment.

Someday the virus will run its course. Someday we will have a treatment or a vaccine. Someday we will once again be able to run to the store on a whim for that one topping we wanted but didn’t buy the first time through. When that day comes again, you best believe avocado toast will feel like the decadent treat it is and always was. We just didn’t realize that our last avocado toast would be our last avocado toast for a while. Live in the moment, my friends, and make sure to appreciate what you have today because tomorrow you might not have it. I’m grateful for the opportunity to remember and appreciate my great fortune and teach my sons to do the same. And when this is behind us, we’ll celebrate. We’ll don toilet paper togas and feed each other avocado toast just because we can. And then we’ll fold up the toilet paper and tuck it safely away for a later crisis because you just never know what tomorrow might hold.

Life During COVID-19 Is Basically Life With A Newborn

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Our oldest on the day he came into this world

I took a break from writing yesterday because I was sick of thinking about, hearing about, and whinging about COVID-19. I needed a mental health day from this health crisis. So, I turned off the television, stepped back from the social media, and spent most of my day completing a brightly colored, 500-piece puzzle of African mammals instead. While my husband worked in his office and my sons were in their lair building in Minecraft while using FaceTime to chat with friends, I sat at our dining table trying to line up the stripes on a zebra and make sense of a lion’s mane. It was precisely what my soul needed, a balm to cover the uncertainty and overwhelm.

This week that has felt like a year has been eerily similar to the couple weeks my husband and I spent at home directly following the birth of our first son. Our oldest arrived early and weighed only 5 pounds. He was, thankfully, fully developed and healthy in all respects. Despite our trepidation, having been crowned as parents seven weeks earlier than we expected (damn the miscalculated due date), the doctors and nurses told us it was time to go home. We lived only a half-mile from the hospital, but Steve came to pick me and baby Joe up, recently unwrapped infant car seat in hand. Trying to finagle and then secure a scrawny, 5-pound newborn into the seat took at least fifteen minutes, even though we would be in the car for less than two minutes on the slow drive home around the park with our precious cargo. We were overwhelmed, overtired, and overly cautious. And despite all the reading we had done, we felt we were flying blind. Everything was scary, awkward, and new.

That is where we are again. We are questioning everything we do. Should we have made that last trip to the store? Did we get too close to that clerk? Should we have wiped down every item we brought into the house? People were wearing face masks and gloves; should I have been doing that too? How many times a day should we be disinfecting surfaces? Should we eat what we have at home or order take out to support our favorite local restaurants? Do we have an adequate toilet paper back up plan? Why didn’t I buy and stash more candy and Cheetos from my teenage sons? We suspect we are overreacting about everything, but it is the only thing that feels appropriate. We don’t really know what we’re doing. We’re nervous and inexperienced. And we desperately want to do the “right” things.

We’re bound to fumble as we navigate a period of time unlike anything any of us have experienced before. Like parents of newborns, though, we need to trust that we are doing our best and that is all we can do in a changing environment with a novel disease that scientists are learning about on the go. You take precautions. You follow the current advisements and adjust when they change. You think critically and act prudently. And then you live your damn life — inside your house as much as possible and outside when you can be safe. Time will pass and, at some point in what will feel like a million years from now, we will be healthy, free, and confident again. In the meantime, we keep calm and carry on, but with an extra packet of antibacterial wipes, just like we carried when we had a newborn. At least this time around, we should be more well rested.

Open A Window

“When the Lord closes a door, somewhere he opens a window.” ~ The Sound of Music

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My little succulent reaching for the light

Throughout the day yesterday, I took sizable mental health breaks from updating myself on the news on television and social media. In between those breaks when I tuned in, however, what I saw and heard hurt my brain. First it was a post by a friend who offered an update from a health care worker reminding us that this virus can be indiscriminate, killing younger people along with the elderly and immunocompromised. Later I came back to see another friend had shared video of crowded beaches in Clearwater, Florida, a sight alarming in itself, but worsened by comments her friends made claiming the story was Fake News. Finally, after my son’s educational, evening presentation on a battle between Julius Caesar’s Roman army and the Gallic army led by Vercingetorix (you really can learn something new every day), I turned on the news and caught a couple minutes with New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio as he discussed the potential need for military intervention to deliver food during the pandemic. The notion of military food drops in New York City sent me over the edge. What fresh hell is this? I started to cry, turned off the television, and began doing the dishes because at least that was something my brain and I could handle.

The news is bad. It is very bad. And it is, sadly and most definitely, going to get unimaginably worse over the coming weeks and months. Death tolls will climb. The world economy will tank. People will lose jobs, and the unemployment rate will rise. Families will find themselves in dire circumstances. Like the virus itself, these negatives will grow exponentially for a while. No part of this is pretty.

I woke up this morning determined to hit reboot on my positive attitude in the face of this global nightmare. I started thinking about the reduction in emissions northern Italy has seen since their country lockdown began. Not the way we planned to cut global emissions, but still that’s a pretty positive side effect of this nightmare scenario. I thought about the way I have seen others reaching out to shop for the elderly and help strangers find child care and offer extra rolls of toilet paper to those unable to find any. We’re starting to remember we’re part of a something bigger. I considered the amount of time together families will have now. Just before my son was getting ready to head to college, for example, I get uninterrupted time at home with him, which is an unimaginable gift. As with all things in life, where there is a yin, there is a yang.

Through this quagmire, the universe will provide us with an opportunity to rise. To do that, though, we are going to slog uphill through mounds of shit. We are currently at the bottom of that hill, mired in muck, and we may be stuck here for a while. It’s overwhelming. So, give yourself permission to cry, to tantrum, to stress, to feel all the feels you are feeling. Those emotions are as important to our future recovery as action is, but perseverate not solely on what is happening but continue to imagine where we might be able to go later because of this experience. Horrible, tragic events have occurred since this rock we live on started growing life, but incredible recoveries have also occurred. Make yourself a promise to look for the good. Wake up and take a few deep breaths. Compose a list of positives. With concentrated intention, recognize and be grateful for the good you can see. Step outside, turn your face towards the sun for a minute and ruminate on its warmth. Not everything is bad, even if it feels that way. We can and will do hard things, my friends. For now, though, put down the unbearable load of the future, go wash some dishes, and open a damn window.

Time – You Asked For It, You Got It

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Got books to read? Guess what? There’s time for that.

The worst thing about our current situation for me now (as I sit at home, a *fingers crossed* healthy person with self-sufficient kids and more free time than I’ve ever had) is the feeling of helplessness and isolation it is creating. So I have been brainstorming ways to keep myself sane as the news grows exponentially worse. The only way not to feel overwhelmed is to focus on what we can do rather than what we cannot.

Here are a few things my family has decided to do while we’re stuck at home that will keep us connected and involved and yet usefully distracted.

We are going to learn about each other. Yeah. We know the basics. I know Luke is into sci-fi and Joe is fascinated with world cultures and history, but what do I know about those topics? Not enough that I can share in their joy about them. So, in this isolation period, we’ve decided to teach each other about things we care about. Every week, we each will have a 30-45 minute opportunity after dinner to share our passions with the rest. The rules we’ve laid out around this are lax. You choose your topic and how you want to present it and the rest of us have to be patient and commit to learning and understanding the topic. You can use any means you want to share your chosen topic for the week. You can read aloud from a text. You can share a video (even if that video is just your favorite episode of Friends). You can put together a slideshow presentation. You can pick a favorite game and have everyone to play along. You can run your session like a classroom experience or make it interactive. The sky is the limit. The floor is yours.

I have committed myself also to reaching outside of our house by any means possible, starting with snail mail. I have stamps that have been sitting in a drawer, so I am digging through my card stash and sending out greetings the old fashioned way. When I run out of cards, I will make more using printer paper and markers or I will write notes and stick them in the business envelopes we have in abundance and never use anymore. Stamps are easily ordered online and delivered to you if you need them too, and the USPS has dozens of fun, themed stamps available, which makes the whole endeavor even more joyful. Shop the Postal Store. We currently have stamps with dinosaurs, sharks, and military dogs. And I have stickers stashed in a box from a chore chart I used to fill in for the boys, so I will be using them to decorate those envelopes and messages like a nine year old girl passing notes. Of course, there’s always FaceTime, Skype, Whats App, and regular old phone calls and texts too, if you prefer that. Have virtual coffee with someone or, like our family, set up grog time. At 5 pm, we are going to connect via FaceTime from our separate homes with our cocktails and catch up. Separate does not have to mean alone.

Another thing I am doing is going through my house and using items I bought with the best of intentions that are gathering dust because I never followed through. Last Christmas I decided I wanted to learn to write in some cool fonts, so I received books and pens that have remained untouched because I didn’t have or make the time. I have a stack of books I meant to read that are collecting dust. I have yoga videos saved. I have books of sudoku and word search puzzles I bought for flights that haven’t been completed. There are a gazillion digital photos that I’ve been meaning to go through and pare down and back up. And as the weather warms up there are yard games, like Spikeball, I bought for us to play that we need to learn and can practice outdoors in the fresh air of our yard. Pick an hour a day, turn off the television, and focus on growing yourself in a positive way because at some point we will come out on the other side of this.

In an isolated situation, what we have been given is time, the time we have all in the recent past complained we didn’t have. Make conscious choices about how you use your time now. Don’t just distract yourself. Grow yourself. Perhaps we can come out of this scary portion of history with some positives that will assist us as we re-enter a world that has changed.

 

 

Let The Fear In And Then Let It Go

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A long time ago, on a beach far, far away

It’s 4:45 am and I have been awake for an hour and a half already. My busy mind has been debating the pros and cons of one last trip to the grocery store before sheltering in place with my family. A couple weeks ago, a planned grocery store trip would not cause this much consternation and sleeplessness. A couple weeks ago, on the heels of a CDC recommendation that we stock up, I visited Costco ahead of the rush with little concern. I didn’t hoard. I bought my usual items plus a few extra for good measure. I returned home feeling better, more secure somehow knowing I had done some preparation. Our cupboards were full. There was food in the freezer. A couple weeks ago, that seemed like enough. The unmitigated spread of this coronavirus seemed like a possibility. Now it’s reality.

It feels I have lived years since that Costco trip. I’m not a natural-born worrier, but as I watched the health crisis in Italy unfold and witnessed a locked-down Venice and an empty Piazza San Marco, I began to envision our future. And now, two weeks later, the future is here. And here I am, awake when I am normally asleep, weighing a trip to the grocery store as a risky proposition, wondering if boxes of Goldfish crackers and some eggs (if I can find any) are worth it. While at this moment there are only 131 confirmed cases of the virus in Colorado, I know from scientists that number may more likely hover around 1,300 cases, if not more. I know we need to flatten the curve, and I don’t want to do anything to work against that societal goal. Should I stay or should I go now?

Vulnerable and small sum up how I feel in this moment. The past few days have been a rollercoaster as I tried to strike a balance between being proactive and not overreacting. I acquiesced Saturday and allowed my son out for the day, knowing both that he should probably stay in and that this might be his last time to hang out with friends, his senior year likely preemptively ended. A couple times this last weekend I fell down on my self-made, silent promise to remain calm and appear brave. My sons now know I am concerned about our loved ones, about our health, about plans that should be rescheduled yet may never come to fruition, about the economy and our country and the whole world, and about the long-term changes we will face as a result of this pandemic. I’ve tipped my hand, but maybe that’s okay. Maybe they need to know that this is serious and that it’s okay and normal to feel concerned and overwhelmed. They didn’t experience 9/11, so they didn’t watch as the towers fell the way their mother grow instantly smaller like Alice in Wonderland only to grow large again in the months following. They don’t know, as I do, that this is how this works. There is fear and uncertainty and then there is a slow climb back to normalcy, whatever that new normalcy looks like.

The sun is rising now. I think I will make that last trip to the store and then work hard not to touch my face before returning home and scrubbing up like a surgeon again. Then I will stay home. I will spend weeks pulling things from the bag of tricks 18 years of motherhood have gifted me. I will create meals out of whatever is left in the fridge. I will make life in our home feel comfortable by chiding my sons to put their clothes in the hamper and turn down their vocal volume. I will listen to my youngest sing and share stories and I will watch the umpteen You Tube videos about French Canada and the Ottoman Empire and Ptolemaic Egypt my other son wants to share with me. I will beg them to take walks with me, and I will annoy them by playing the drums and setting up shop at our only table with puzzles that will leave us eating in front of the television. I will try to be patient and brave and I will fail. I will show them that you get through tough situations one minute at a time by occasionally losing your shit. But I will rise, one way or another. Maybe, like today, a bit earlier than I expected.

Wrong

“There’s something wrong with me chemically, something wrong with me inherently,
the wrong mix in the wrong genes, I reached the wrong ends by the wrong means.” 
~Depeche Mode

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Little me before I understood I was wrong

For as long as I’ve been alive, I’ve operated under one irrefutable certainty: there is something wrong with me. That belief germinated in my early childhood when I was regularly told how imperfect I was. I couldn’t be still in church. I couldn’t behave in a store. I couldn’t act like a young lady. I didn’t use the brain the good Lord gave me. I was too talkative. I was inconsiderate, selfish, and not achieving to my fullest potential. Even things that were beyond my control, like my genetically thick and unruly hair, were wrong. While I knew intellectually that my parents did their best to love me, I accepted that I was off. The messages imprinted, the proof was iron clad, and I accepted it and wore it like a full-length down parka that both protected and obscured what lied beneath.

In my teenage years, I donned headphones and disappeared into music. Song lyrics were the first place where I found belonging. Morrissey’s morose vocals provided a soundtrack for my life. I know I’m unlovable. You don’t have to tell me. Message received – loud and clear. He was proof that there were others like me out there, although I didn’t seem to know any of them personally. As an adult, friends gave me grief over my depressing music, but I didn’t care. The National’s gloomy tunes told my life’s tale. When I walk into a room, I do not light it up. The awkward, the invisible, the alienated, the isolated, these were my people.

It wasn’t until I had my sons that I began to sense that, in terms of who I was, I might have been sold a bridge in Arizona. I started my parenthood career with the same high expectations of my sons that had been applied to me. When I approached them harshly and saw the crushed look on their little faces, however, I was reduced to a weepy mess. I couldn’t do it. Hurting them hurt me, not unlike sticking a pin in a voodoo doll only to realize I was piercing myself.

When my boys, both at age eight, were diagnosed with brain differences, an unexpected and beautiful idea drifted into my purview. These people who had been entrusted to me were meant to show me that wrong was subjective. Yeah, Joe couldn’t tie his shoes or ride a bike, but his intellectual curiosity and ability to retain and regurgitate information was impressive. And Luke, while struggling to comprehend phonics and read, created vast, complicated worlds and endless diagrams and drawings to explain them. I found my boys amazing. Flawed in some ways, sure, but still basically perfect. 

I have been in and out of therapy for five years now as I struggle to remove the coat of self-worthlessness I donned unquestioningly as a child. Yesterday, Glennon Doyle shared with the world a snippet from her upcoming book Untamed: “The only thing that was ever wrong with me was my belief that there was something wrong with me.” Whoa. Hold it right there, Glennon. Are you saying that maybe there is nothing “wrong” with me after all? Maybe I’ve been wearing this cumbersome layer of shame and self-loathing out of habit? Maybe I could take it off or trade it for a windbreaker for a while and see how that feels? Hmmmm……

Spring and daylight savings are right around the corner. It might be a good time to lighten up. I can start by unloading the notion that there was ever anything wrong with me. I may not have been a perfect child or teenager or friend and I may not be a perfect wife or mother either, but that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with me. At least not inherently.

 

That Time Words With Friends Became Words With Frauds

The Set Up

I suffer from a not-so-secret addiction. I rather obsessively play Words With Friends. I downloaded it to my iPhone in 2009, a month or so after it was launched, and I have been playing steadily ever since. According to the app, I have completed 5,423 games. No lie. I suppose I could (should?) feel bad about the time I have wasted playing this silly game, but I don’t. This game is brain food. I am keeping my mind sharp, attempting to stave off the Alzheimer’s that runs in my family. Yep. That’s what I tell myself.

During the past year or so, I began finding random males starting new games with me more often than before. It took me a while to determine that these men found me through the Lightning Round section of the app. At first, naive gal that I am, I simply accepted the games without question because, did I mention, I am addicted? Any new game is one more game than I had before, which is a good thing, right? Maybe not.

The Experiment

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Players

Last weekend I had some downtime and spent about an hour playing Lightning Rounds. When I finished, I noticed that I had 12 new games waiting for me. Twelve. All were from men I did not know. All had chat requests pending. I showed my phone to my husband and told him I was going to open a can of worms by accepting all the game play and chatting with these guys. Curiosity had gotten the best of me. What was their deal? 

From the minuscule photos the app allows you to post (they seem smaller and smaller as my eyes get older and older), the men appeared to be between the ages of 40-60. All of them had accounts that had been started within the last nine months, most started within the last week, which was the first red flag. Nearly all of them used two first names as their user names, names like Christopher Matthew, names that would be hard to research. Most of the photos showed respectable looking men, although some appeared to be stock photos rather than personal ones.

Their initial contact with me varied. Some simply started with a basic hello, while others added a compliment or a pet name, hello my dear or hello beautiful. Okay. Whatever. I played my turns and responded honestly but succinctly to their questions, trying not to give away too much personal info but still offering enough so they would continue the game and the conversation. All the while I played investigative reporter, digging for dirt, trying to get at what lurked beneath the surface.

My initial assumption was that these men (fingers crossed) were using WWF as a dating app. Maybe WWF was, as my son suggested, Tinder for old people. He looked at the photos and brutally surmised that “those are the men who can’t mate, Mom, because the ones who can don’t have to go on a word game to do it.” So, there you have it. Perhaps these men were attracted to fifty-one year old me, but only because they couldn’t mate with anyone else. But, I digress.

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Could not make this up

As the chats wore on, I began to notice patterns in the different conversations. While it seemed that two of the men were legitimate human beings looking for a love/sex connection (their accounts had been active for months and not days), the other ten were something else entirely. Those men either claimed to be Americans living overseas or foreigners living in the US, which explained to some extent their less than stellar English grammar. They almost always said what city they were from and followed it with a state name written out fully, not abbreviated. Tell me. How many Americans do you know who will tell you they are from Las Vegas, Nevada, or Houston, Texas, rather than simply saying they’re from Vegas or Houston? Some of them used their broken English to extoll my “beauty.” Most of them had far-fetched but intriguing job descriptions. When the first one claimed to be a diplomat in the Middle East on a peacekeeping mission, I giggled to myself. By the time the third one mentioned a peacekeeping mission, it didn’t seem as funny. Another few guys mentioned being contractors who worked in drilling, specifically mentioning oil fields near Aberdeen, the Gulf of Mexico, or the Nevada desert. Their stories contained enough verifiable information to make them seem credible, but they were also just quirky enough (and somehow close enough to other tales I was reading) for me to understand these were frauds.

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And this is when his mission took him away from me 😉

I continued chatting and taking screen shots of conversations and sharing them with my husband who got as caught up in my experiment as I was. My favorite chat was with a guy who claimed to be one Paul Bauman. Because his name seemed plausible and was accompanied by what appeared to be a legitimate photo of a high-ranking, career military officer, I conducted a Google search and discovered the real Paul Bauman is a Brigadier General working at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Ummm…yeah. The conversation became even more curious when less than a day later he told me that he wanted my email address so we could always keep in touch and, because he was in a war zone, he might not be available for days. Uh huh. It’s common practice for a Brigadier General to tell random women he chats with on Words With Friends about his covert missions. Seems legit. 

In the forty-eight hours I conducted my chat experiment, my contact with these (ahem) gentlemen eventually led to each of them asking me to chat with them on Google Hangouts (wasn’t that being shut down?) or What’s App. All of my chats ended only one of two ways. They either determined I was not going to be a willing and easy target and stopped playing with me (the next day I noticed the game was missing from my feed and their user name had been deleted) or I would have to block them when they unrelentingly pestered me for my phone number and/or email address after I had plainly and repeatedly stated that I do not share that information.

The Takeaway

There’s a reason why I have, in the past, eschewed games from random males who start them. Even on an innocuous app like Word With Friends, there is always opportunity for someone to take advantage of the kindness/decency/loneliness/naivety of others. Sharing personal information on the Internet often can lead to hacked accounts and even identity theft. Sure. There are some people out there who may legitimately be looking to meet the next great love of their life through an app like Words with Friends, but it’s less likely than you might expect or hope. Most of the Casanovas on WWF might be, as my son suspects, scammers on their computers somewhere in Asia (hence the serviceable yet oddly formal, broken English) trying to gain access to your accounts by collecting your email and using personal information you share to crack your passwords or, worse, people who will prey upon your emotional vulnerability to befriend and then defraud you after you’ve taken them in.

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My love…this guy is the best

I’m not saying Words With Friends is a den of iniquity. It is, after all, just a word game. But you might want to watch which words you share with people who might not be your friend after all. On the plus side, after my little experiment, my husband now sends me WWF chats that mimic the messages I received last week. He’s pretty funny and, luckily, not just some poor guy who can’t mate.