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.

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.

When Someone Great Is Gone

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My father-in-law and our youngest

In the early hours of the morning, our family got smaller. My dear, 88-year-old father-in-law passed away peacefully at home with his nuclear family close by. It was three weeks to the day the oncologist told him he had perhaps one to six months left. But Jim was always a little impatient and ready to get on to the next thing, so he left us sooner rather than later. He was not one to dawdle and he hated to be late.

I first met him at a restaurant for a family dinner when my husband and I had only been dating a few weeks. That night is largely a blur to me except for the memory of Jim sitting next to Steve at the table. At one point, I looked over and saw he had his arm around the back of Steve’s chair and was leaning in close to talk to him. I knew then that Steve was a keeper. With a loving, engaged, affectionate father like that, how could he not be?

Jim loved to tell a story. At parties, he’d be in the center of a crowd holding court. Sometimes he would tell the same story again, but he’d tell it with gusto as if it was the first time you were hearing it. Not too long ago, he began a familiar tale and we must have given him a collective facial groan because he immediately said, “I know you’ve heard this before but I don’t care. I love telling this story.” And so he did. It was the story of the day my husband was born in a hospital in Geneva, Switzerland. He got to the point in the story where events in the labor room were gaining momentum and he recounted again the nurse saying to the doctor viens vite and then he reminded us again (although we already knew) that viens vite means come quickly. Jim shared dozens of stories with us over the years. And having traveled to more than 100 countries in his life, he was a man with myriad stories to tell. Every painting in the house he shared with my mother-in-law, every piece of decor he’d hauled or sent home from other countries had meaning. He surrounded himself with tokens and trinkets relating to memories.

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Jim and Marlene in their custom painted golf cart

He loved to buy mementos and gifts almost as much as he loved opening them himself. I’ve never seen a grown man relish gift opening the way Jim did. Christmas will never be the same without him. Each year on his birthday, he requested homemade butterscotch pie, and my mother-in-law would dutifully oblige to create the dessert she says requires every pan in the kitchen. I decided today that henceforth we shall continue to celebrate Jim’s birthday on April 17th with butterscotch pie. Steve and I will also be carrying on Jim and Marlene’s tradition of grog, toasting with a drink at 5 p.m., because it’s important to celebrate every day with the people you love.

It’s hard to overstate the impact Jim had on my life. After a successful career at Caterpillar, climbing up in the ranks to land as Vice Chairman back in the 1980s, Jim enjoyed sharing what he loved with people he loved. He put not only his two children through undergraduate and graduate school, he also paid for graduate school for his children’s spouses. That wasn’t enough, though, so when our sons were born he created educational trusts for them, which have allowed them to attend private schools for children with learning disabilities that Steve and I might likely not have otherwise been able to afford. Jim shared his love of travel with us too by taking us on incredible vacations to England, Norway, Alaska, the Galapagos Island, and the Exuma Cays in the Bahamas. Then, as if all his generosity hadn’t been enough, he and my mother-in-law flew the six of us to Tanzania last December for a glamping safari because they wanted to hear our stories even if they couldn’t be there to share in them themselves. Because of his generosity, I was able to stop working when our oldest was born and to stay home to raise our sons, to be there for them for whatever they needed, from occupational therapy to dyslexia tutoring. So much of what our little family of four has and is comes as a result of Jim’s kindness.

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On one our fabulous family vacations

His show of love and affection didn’t, however, just arrive through financial means. He was loving and supportive always in all ways. He regularly read my blog and when he came upon one he really appreciated or that really spoke to him, he would send me an email. After one post I wrote detailing the struggle I was having trying to decide if or how to celebrate my fiftieth birthday, he sent me this message:

You are being too hard on yourself. Have a birthday party and pay attention to your therapist. You are loaded with good qualities.

My father-in-law gave without expecting anything in return. He never offered unsolicited advice. He never said an unkind word to me or my sons. He was a tall man with a heart that must have taken up 5 feet in his 6 foot frame. He lived his life his way, which was never halfway. I admired that and often dreamed of being able to emulate it.

On the occasion of Jim’s 80th birthday, I wrote him a letter and told him how much he meant to me, how he had changed me and my life, and how grateful I was to be part of his family. It wasn’t much, but it was all I could offer to the man who ostensibly gave me a life greater than I ever dreamed I would have. It breaks my heart to know I won’t hear another one of his stories or get another one of his hugs at the end of the day but, dammit, I am one lucky lady to have been part of his final inner circle.

We’ll see you again someday, Jim. You might have to wait a bit, though, because we want to make it to 88 too. We’re not ready to viens vite.

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The luckiest ones

 

When “You Did It” Isn’t Enough

Today marks my sister’s last treatment. It’s been almost a full year since the day she called and told me she’d found a tumor. I’m an internally positive, intuitive person, so when my sister called that day I had no sense of impending doom. I told her that she would not have to face this alone. I told her I would help in any way I could. And I told her I knew I would see her healthy on the other side of all the shit she was about to endure. I believed it with all my heart.

Less than three weeks later, I was with her in Connecticut as she started her chemotherapy. I was there as she shopped for a wig. I witnessed the beginning of her hair loss. I scheduled the appointment to have her head shaved, and I stood there as her beautiful hair fell. I sat with her when the side effects were piling up, creating new problems in an immune system already under attack, and I did what I could to bring her a measure of peace in the midst of her physical and emotional misery. I never felt it was enough. But I also never had a doubt that, like her high-school-varsity-cheerleading self, she would jump high enough and kick hard enough to send cancer to outer space. I left her five weeks later in the caring hands of our middle sister and returned to my family.

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Sisters

When the six chemo rounds were finished, the tumor in her lymph node was shrunken enough to operate. The post-chemo scans were flawless. I flew again to Connecticut to be there as she underwent a five-plus hour, life-changing surgery. Being the strong-willed Aries she is, she emerged from it like a boss, bouncing back more quickly than most. I stayed another month with her while she was stuck at home, recuperating, unable to work or drive, waiting to get the all clear to resume her life. One cold winter afternoon, while we were in the midst of another binge-watch marathon, the call came in. The removed tissue had been examined with a fine tooth comb. They found nothing. Not a trace. The cancer was gone.

Still, my sister is not one to do things halfway. She continued with the prescribed course of treatment, which meant 25 radiation sessions followed by months of additional immunotherapy treatments. She did this all while dealing with daily shots of blood thinners to combat a clot she developed from her chemo port. She did this all while working full-time at an impressive new job, moving into a new home in a different town, keeping up with her two dogs, and continuing her workouts. She blew my mind, the literal embodiment of how much a human can endure.

Today before she began her last treatment, I sent her the only appropriate thing I could think of. I sent her this song because she didn’t just do it, she fucking did it. As Jason Mraz points out at the beginning of the video clip, you can tell someone you did it and they might not hear that. But if you tell someone you fucking did it, they will probably hear that shit. There are times when swearing is more than just appropriate. It’s imperative.

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Yeah, you did

So, I send this post out today to all of you who have been killing it. To all those of you who have slayed. To those of you who have faced something that seemed insurmountable that you still, perhaps to your surprise, overcame. I send it also to those of you who are starting to think you can’t do it, believing you might not persevere, suspecting it’s all too much for you. Don’t believe a word of the negativity you’re feeding yourself. Keep fighting. March forward. One foot in front of the other. One damn day at a time. And, soon enough, you’ll too be celebrating that you fucking did it.

 

Editor’s note: This is not the first time I have written about this song because I love it that much and sometimes it’s just that appropriate. Those earlier posts can be found here and here.

 

What A Whole Lot Of Crazy Will Get You – Family Travel

Some are born crazy. Some achieve craziness. Some have craziness thrust upon them. These three lines are all applicable to me. I was born crazy. As I grew, I became adept at increasing my inherent craziness. Then I got married and birthed sons, which left me surrounded by additional craziness. Given the relative level of insanity I have been able to conjure from thin air, it’s no surprise that in January, whilst overcome by oh-my-god-I-hate-winter-and-want-to-run-away syndrome, I began planning a family summer trip to Europe. I live my life from trip to trip. As soon as I finish one, I begin planning the next. In my dream world, I leave Denver at least once every three months. Not because I don’t love it here, but because the world is calling me.

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Hey, Europe…you all ready for this?

I planned a three-leg, western European capital-city tour beginning in London. We’d spent weeks narrowing down our packing choices to fit into carry-on luggage. I’d rented us apartments in London, Amsterdam, and Paris. I’d purchased train tickets. I’d booked sightseeing tours and printed out Tube and Metro maps. I’d taught the boys a few useful French phrases. But, for all my planning, I was apprehensive. We’d always traveled on tours where someone else was responsible, with full knowledge that if something went sideways it would be their job to resolve it. This trip was all on me. Still, I reasoned, the four of us are capable and seasoned world travelers who should be able to overcome any obstacles thrown in our path, provided we don’t end up choking each other out of exhaustion, hunger, or frustration first.

 

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Some of us can sleep anywhere

We flew Air Canada to Montreal and then on to London. The airline, god bless their little hearts, ended up changing our itinerary from a two-hour layover in Montreal to a six-hour one, because why not? About fifteen minutes after we landed, I realized my wedding band was missing. A quick mind combing brought me to the conclusion that when I took my ring off to put on hand lotion during the flight I became distracted by something else and forgot about the ring. It must have fallen from my lap onto the floor or into a crack in the seat and, being exhausted, I had forgotten I had taken it off in the first place. Damn. To kill the six hours in Montreal, we tried some poutine, bought a deck of cards, and played endless rounds of Crazy 8s. Eventually I stopped flagellating myself over my lost ring. We’d bought it in Maui, so I now had reason to plan our next trip.

When we finally landed at Heathrow, it was not quite 11 am and a heat wave already had us at 85 degrees. Operating on almost no sleep, we found our way onto the Underground and landed at Victoria station. From there, we wandered around awhile, melting in the sun under our backpacks, waiting for our Vrbo check in time. We found a Pret a Manger (a quick food/coffee shop that became my London go-to because it has gluten-free and healthy items), grabbed some sandwiches and a protein box, and set off in search of a picnic spot. We googled a nearby park and arrived only to discover it was a private and gated park from which we were banned like mangy, stray dogs. So, we gave up, sat down in some shade outside said private park, and ate on the sidewalk. We are flexible and know when to cut our losses. 

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Cambridge Street – our home in the borough of Westminster

After checking into our rented flat, a basement apartment on a residential street in the Westminster borough, we headed out to show the boys some sights we were looking forward to seeing again. Steve and I had traveled to London in 1997 with his folks. We arrived on August 30th. Princess Diana would die in a car crash in Paris in the early morning hours of August 31st. We were there in the week leading up to her funeral and witnessed the mourners and piles of flowers and endless lines to sign condolence books. While we enjoyed our visit then, we hoped this trip would find the city lighter in spirit.

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Westminster Abbey

We began our whirlwind tour by hauling it over to Westminster Abbey, a 20-minute walk from our flat. The line was short and we went right in. Much to my surprise, our teenage sons were fascinated by the abbey. They were struck by its size and architecture, as well as by the history contained within. They stared for a while at the markers for Charles Darwin, Winston Churchill, Isaac Newton, Stephen Hawking, and Nelson Mandela. I stood in Poet’s Corner, paying my respects to Jane Austen, George Eliot, and the Bronte sisters, greedily wishing they were given greater due but grateful they had been recognized at all.

After leaving the abbey, we walked the short distance to Big Ben. Apparently I had fallen down on my research because we found the clock tower shrouded in scaffolding as repairs to the facade are being undertaken. The clock face was still exposed, but we were not going to get an Insta-worthy photo of the tower on this trip.

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Churchill War Rooms display

Undaunted, we pulled out our London Pass again and walked to the Churchill War Rooms. Although it hadn’t been by intentional planning on my part, our trip coincided with the 75th anniversary of D-Day Invasion. Our sons are both world history buffs, so I knew they would be fascinated by the War Rooms as I had been back in 1997. As it was my second time through and I was tired and growing hungry, their comprehensive exploration of the museum was less charming than it might have otherwise been.

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Washed out photo of a weary and sweaty London explorer

From there we wandered to Buckingham Palace where we witnessed the motorcade for newly elected Boris Johnson disappear behind the gates on the palace grounds for his first official visit with the queen. The boys, being boys, aren’t much for palaces, so we ended our long, hot day with fish and chips at The Laughing Halibut before heading back to put our feet up. We opened all the screen-less windows, put on some local television to settle into British life, and drifted off excited for what London would share with us next.

Is There An Echo In Here?

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Which is smarter? Amazon Echo or my plastic IKEA houseplant? 

My husband is a geek. And he is becoming more of a geek with each passing year. In the past, I would never have complained about this because, well, he’s my personal tech support. He’s the geek I go to when I’ve already rebooted and don’t know what the hell to do next. He is the one who talks me off the ledge when my phone is doing that thing again. He totally understands what an HDMI cable is. I simply understand that an HDMI cable is. He’s all about embracing new technology. And, despite the fact that our house contains several plastic bins filled with antiquated tech (my kids tell me that is the correct term) that he still hasn’t taken to the electronics graveyard, much to my chagrin, I have struggled to make my peace with his curious addiction to the latest and greatest invention meant to make life better. At least, I thought I had made my peace with it. That was until the Amazon Echo arrived in our home early in 2016.

It seemed innocuous enough. One day he came home with this curious new speaker thing. I vaguely recall being a little peeved because, as I pointed out at the time, we didn’t need another speaker thing. Because of his tech addiction, we already had four wireless music players. That’s right. Four. This one, he told me, this one was different. You could talk to this one, like you do with Siri. He prattled on for a bit about how this was not just a speaker because this could also turn our lights off and on remotely. While he spoke, I went to my happy place because when something like this catches his eye the only way to get him to stop talking about it usually is to let him have it. So I did. I rolled my eyes, sighed and, like a parent accepting the stray dog her son brought home, told him Echo could stay as long as he took care of it.

Since that night, Steve has been working with Echo to transform our house into what I assume is supposed to be a much more convenient, high-tech haven. He started by adding the special light bulbs necessary and then programming it to operate our lights, at least in the living room and hallway. Then, against my wishes, he persisted in teaching me the commands so I too could turn off our lights by barking orders across the house.

“Alexa (for that is the damned thing’s name), turn off the LIVING ROOM light.”

Emboldened by the success of having this electronic entity controlling our interior illumination, he added more bulbs in our bedroom so we could yell across the room at the thing on the dresser to turn off the lights on our nightstands, a process that takes longer than simply reaching over and turning off the lights by hand. Undaunted, he persevered with his toy. I told him that the technology creeped me out because occasionally, for no apparent reason, Alexa will start speaking, telling me about the weather or giving me some random definition for a word about which I had not inquired. It all feels a bit Big Brotherish to me. He shrugged off my negativity. This is the future. He expects me to assimilate.

Last Christmas, Steve decided our son might be an ally in the ongoing Alexa battle. So he bought a $30 Hue light strip Joe could attach to his bunkbed, presumably so he could read in bed (ha), and he bought him the smaller Echo Dot which doesn’t have its own speaker. Joe seemed semi-interested in the technology aspect until he realized that the light strip made his bed feel like the tunnel between Concourses B and C at O’Hare Airport. Then he too noticed that sometimes Alexa would start speaking out of the blue. Unbeknownst to his father, Joe unplugged the Dot and tossed it into his closet where he found it creeped him out much less.

Undeterred by his family’s lack of enthusiasm for his home automation, Steve continued in his quest. He added more light bulbs to control in his office. He added another Dot downstairs so we could use it as an “intercom” to beckon the boys upstairs when we wanted them. (Side note: It turns out we never do this because we prefer to yield to the more organic and primal habit of screaming at them from the stairs as parents have done for generations.) He programmed Echo to interact with our smart Nest thermostat so we can shriek at her to turn our heat up or down. He set Echo so now if we bellow at her she will play Sirius XM radio on our Sonos system. Most recently, he’s connected Alexa to our home security system so we can clamor for her to turn on our home alarm. Never mind that, aside from the lighting, we are able to do all these things via our iPhones without caterwauling through the house.

Last night, I caught Steve asking to Alexa to do his bidding again.

Alexa…turn off the Living Room light,” he called out.

“Living Room doesn’t support that,” came Alexa’s reply.

Steve repeated the command more slowly and firmly, as if Alexa were a disobedient child who simply needed to be told twice.

“Alexa…turn off the Living Room light.”

“Living Room doesn’t support that,” Alexa replied again, rolling her eyes.

It occurred to me that perhaps Echo’s name is quite intentional.

“Alexa…turn off Living,” I said, remembering Steve had recently changed the command so it included both smart bulbs in the living room lamp.

“Okay,” she said, and the damn living room light finally went off.

“Sometimes you have to wonder just who is controlling whom,” I said and strolled smugly off to bed for the night.

Steve might have an overactive case of Jetsons envy. He longs for flying cars and homes equipped with every possible automation. And I get it. We Gen Xers are experiencing an amazing shift from our childhoods when we tuned in on one of a few channels on a cumbersome television box with a rabbit-ear antenna on top to watch George, Jane, Judy, Elroy, and Astro living in their sky home with their robot maid, Rosie, attending to their every need, to a time when home automation, or some semblance of it, is reality. It is exciting and fascinating, and it’s easy to get caught up in the Jetson fantasy in 2018. Still, my hope for the future is that the speed of advancing tech becomes so rapid that Steve is at last unable to keep up or technology becomes more efficient so I can stop commanding the black cylinder on my kitchen counter to turn off the lights that all three men in my house seem incapable of operating either on their own or with Alexa’s brilliant assistance. I am not surprised Echo was given a female name. If you want something done, you ask a woman.

The Statute of Limitations Elimination

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When hubby locks a door, he also locks a window somewhere.

Sometimes the universe offers me creative opportunities to quench my introvert’s need for solitude.

After a late night at the Depeche Mode concert followed by an early run this morning, I found myself sleep deprived and in need of some down time today. To assuage this need, I grabbed my laptop, surreptitiously exited the sliding door, and settled myself at the table under our covered patio to chill, away from the three men in my house. This turned out to be a short-lived solution as, about fifteen minutes later, hubby discovered me and came out, armed with chips and guacamole, oblivious to my urgent need for peace. He joined me at the table and chomped away while I tried not to lose my mind (because I still haven’t figured out a polite way to tell someone their chewing may drive to me murder them). Eventually, my one-word, choppy answers sunk in, and he wisely vacated. He took our sons to Best Buy, and I took a deep breath and started to unwind.

Everything was perfection until I ran out of La Croix, walked to the slider, and pulled the handle. The door didn’t slide. Curious. I tried it again in case, weak from hunger, I somehow hadn’t tugged hard enough to open it. My original suspicions were confirmed. My husband, with his usual fervor for security, had locked the back door before he left. I would like to think this was inadvertent, but this is not the first time he has locked me out of the house.

Maybe eight years ago, when the kids were younger and exhausting, I escaped for an evening coffee with my friend, Lisa. I returned home a few minutes past ten and found the door from the garage into the house locked. I hadn’t brought a house key with me because my family was home. So, I banged on the door, slightly annoyed, and waited for hubby to open it.

I continued banging for 3 minutes, alternating between kicking it and pounding it with my reddening fist. No answer. With a rising level of annoyance, I got in my car and laid on the horn. That should get him. Nope. I opened the garage door again, walked around to the front door, and rang the doorbell about seventy times. No luck. I called the home phone repeatedly. I called hubby’s cell phone even more. No answer. It set in that my family had gone to sleep. With a noisy, whole-house fan running and ocean sounds on too, my three boys would be dead to the world.

I suppose I might have found the entire thing amusing if I hadn’t just consumed a grande latte and a bottled water, which had left me highly caffeinated and rapidly approaching saturation. It was ten thirty. What the actual hell? I walked through the side gate into the backyard and began to lob small river rocks from our landscaping up towards the second story windows in the rooms I knew might be occupied. The rocks were hitting both the siding and the glass panes before landing like golf-ball size hail on the flagstone patio and wrought-iron patio furniture below, yet not a creature stirred. In addition to my husband, I began cursing my dog. Some border collie. Here I was, violating her borders and storming her castle, and she was a non starter.

Options to awaken my sleeping family exhausted, I ducked back into the garage and closed the door resigned to my circumstances. The need to relieve myself of liquids was becoming urgent. I debated ringing a neighbor’s doorbell, but decided that ringing a doorbell at 11 pm on a Tuesday night might not be very neighborly. I toyed with the idea of checking into a nearby hotel because I thought I deserved it after this bullshit, but knew once hubby discovered I was missing he would be calling the police and hospitals desperate to find me. While the devil on my left shoulder urged me to do it anyway, the angel on my right shoulder convinced me that punishment didn’t fit the crime. Still, I needed a bathroom and wasn’t sure I was going to make it ten minutes to the nearest gas station. I considered urinating in the backyard (why not? the boys had) but knew the minute I bared my privates to the world a neighbor would open their sliding door to let out their dog and witness a full moon they hadn’t expected. So, I peed into a Solo cup from Costco in the privacy of our garage. Yes. Yes I did. And I’ve never looked at red cups the same way since.

Hubby did eventually wake up when our oldest got up to pee and, upon not finding me in bed to awaken so I could tuck him back into bed, notified his father of my missing person status. The garage light flickered on around 3:30 a.m. I had been sitting in my car, reclined in the driver’s seat, trying unsuccessfully to fall asleep for hours. Steve opened the door, saw my SUV, and began to close the door again, assuming I must be somewhere inside. I yelled out pathetically.

“I’m here! I’m here! Wait!!!!”

The look on his face registered somewhere between relief and terror.

His apologies flew like rapid fire from a semi-automatic as I entered the door. I was too exhausted to bitch and went directly to sleep. The next day, when I was in a better mental space, I recounted my story. I told him I needed to blog about it. Feeling horrible and embarrassed about the whole mishap, he begged me not to. And so I didn’t. For eight years. But, I figure the statute of limitations on that deal ran out the minute he locked me in the backyard today.

I do crave my time alone, but I am starting to wonder if my family is trying to tell me something. I’m wondering if I shouldn’t get a lanyard to hold my house key around my neck. Just in case.

 

We Won’t Go Back…To Email Forwards

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We Won’t Go Back is the mindset I am working from these days. Forward motion only. 

For the past couple months, there has been a whirlwind of activity in my little brain. I’ve had a lot to think about. I can trace the upheaval to November 9th, the day I moved from the backseat to the driver’s seat in anticipation of some unsettling revisions to life as I have known it over the past eight years. During the past two months, I’ve done a lot of self-reflection, some changing of habits, and a bit of reaching beyond my comfort zone. The universe, it seems, is hell-bent on providing me with growth opportunities. Another one of those opportunities knocked on my door two nights ago.

My father sent me and my sisters a forwarded email message about Kellyanne Conway entitled Trump’s Campaign Manager Kellyanne Conway Reveals How Faith In Jesus Led To Huge Success. In his comment on the forwarded message, he stated that Kellyanne is just like his three daughters, “educated, working diligently, family centered, and lovely.” While the message began with a comment that the attached message was “not political,” the forward outlined Kellyanne’s accomplishments and her role in conservative politics and many times invoked her Christian faith and her pro-life views. I assume a conservative Christian would read the message and get a boatload of warm fuzzies about Kellyanne and her new role in the White House as counselor to the president.

Here’s the thing about email forwards. It helps if you know your audience before you hit send. A one-sided religious or political message sent to a likeminded person may be appreciated, but the same message sent to someone with differing views may feel at best didactic and at worst totally out-of-line and heavy-handed. In this case, my father didn’t consider his audience. He sent a message in praise of Kellyanne Conway, a religious, conservative, pro-life advocate, to his atheist, liberal, pro-choice daughter. While as a rule I take all religious and political email forwards from my dad and relegate them immediately to the Trash folder to avoid conflict, this time something hit me. I can’t expect my father to know his audience when to avoid uncomfortable conversations with him I’ve not been explicit about who I am, what I believe, and what I am willing to stand for. I’ve allowed him to think I agree with him by not disagreeing with him. I’ve been complicit by accepting the forwards and not presenting my beliefs in contrast.

I know my father meant no disrespect by sharing that message with me. I know he felt he was paying me a compliment. He could only believe that, though, by not knowing me at all. So, last night, at the ripe old age of almost 49, I hit reply and shared my views with my father unabashedly for the first time ever. I explained why I am pro-choice and why I support Planned Parenthood, and why, while I can appreciate all Ms. Conway has achieved in her life despite her personal struggles (we all have them), I don’t appreciate his email forwards about religion, politics, or the pro-life movement. I reminded him I have been a functioning adult for thirty years now and, as such, possess my own beliefs, which don’t happen to coincide with his. I told him I don’t share email forwards supporting my views with him because I respect that he has the right to seek his own truth. I also mentioned that I know he meant no harm or disrespect to me, even though my ego felt it.

Our country is deeply divided. There is rancor everywhere you turn. I would like to see us move to a place where discussion is possible, but that type of discussion is never going to be possible unless we as a nation are 1) brave enough to share our views openly, 2) comfortable enough with others to try to understand where they are coming from and consider the points they are making, and 3) willing to acquiesce on some of our stances to meet in the middle somewhere. At some point, we decided that compromise is weak and accepting less than 100% of what we want undermines the legitimacy of our beliefs. We are a nation of contrasts. We can’t possibly all get what we want. Compromise is crucial. It is democracy at work.

Last night I took my first step towards improving the conversations in my life. I was brave enough share my views rather than remain silent to preserve a false peace while my insides roiled with dissent. My second step will come this weekend when I participate in the Women’s March on Denver with my family in support of Planned Parenthood. I am going to continue to work on my mindfulness skills so I am better equipped to take deep breaths and enter into crucial open dialogue with people of differing viewpoints. I am going to work towards practicing compassion for others when they test my open-mindedness and poke me with their sticks of self-righteous certainty. It’s going to be a process but, then, all good things are.