Sunday, May 3, 2020

Update from Our Corner of the Pandemic

The short version, if you have no time to read, is we're doing fine. We're healthy, and we're adapting.

The longer version, as with everything in these strange times, is a bit more complicated.

I keep thinking back to my birthday. My birthday was March 14th, same as Einstein and Telemann and Billy Crystal. It was a matter of weeks ago, but feels like ages. It was a Saturday. I was at work for most of it. Saturdays are usually my busiest day at the violin store, and this particular one last month was probably typical, but now in my memory it feels almost frantic.

There were people in my store--actual other people who do not live in my house. I kept them spaced apart using appointment times, and I washed my hands before and after each visit, and I required everyone wash their hands the minute they arrived. One family was in masks. I broke social distancing rules for them so I could fit the kids for rental instruments, but I did it as quickly and efficiently as I was able. It was nerve-wracking. I was honestly relieved when the official lock down order came the following week, and I didn't feel as if I needed to let people inside my store anymore.

I spent a quiet couple of weeks in lock down doing shop tasks. I sharpened my tools. I got to work on the non-pressing, time-intensive projects that most violin shops have lurking in their corners. I passed along a couple of those projects to my assistant down in Chicago so she could still clock in hours from home if she wants to.

Then the calls started to come. I knew they would, because music is definitely something many people stuck at home want to do, and with all music lessons being taught at a distance, there were bound to be broken strings as people with no experience started trying to tune violins. Then there was a rash of fingerboards coming off instruments for some reason. And violins getting dropped. So I had to develop new protocols for doing work out of my shop.

Currently the way we operate is this: We are by appointment only. No one is allowed inside the store. Simple things like changing a string, I can do out on the front steps while wearing a mask as people wait more than six feet away, and I wash my hands thoroughly before and after. More involved repairs sit in a quarantine line. There is no way for me to disinfect a violin or bow currently, other than with time. (And I've already heard of parents who have taken a Clorox wipe to their kid's instrument and were shocked the varnish came right off. My post-pandemic work load will not be pretty.) Violins sit in a row on the floor, tagged with dates, until they are safe for me to handle. (I recommend people also let the instruments sit at their end when they get them back, but I can't control what other people ultimately do.) Any work I can't figure out how to do safely (such as soundpost adjustments where I need the player in the same space and we have to pass the instrument back and forth between us several times) I have to turn away.

Business is certainly way down compared to normal, but I am far from bored. I'm maintaining a similar work schedule. I actually kind of like the built-in "stop switch" that comes with the quarantine lineup. Normally I am compelled to keep working until everything is off my bench, which means I often put in late nights. Now? Well, there is work to do, but I can't touch all of it. I have to stop and go home at some point. Which is good. I like the extra time with my family.

Which brings me to the first and most important way in which I am lucky during this pandemic so far, beyond not being sick: I really like the people I'm in lock down with. I like our home, I love my husband and kids.... And we're a whole group of introverts who get along fine. Especially on cold, rainy weekends, we're doing exactly what we'd normally be doing. We're each doing our own projects kind of near each other, and then gathering together periodically to watch a movie or play a game or eat a meal.

Our house is just big enough there is space for any of us to retreat from the group if we want to be alone. We have a treadmill that we moved into the room with the TV. I set up a card table in the living room with a jigsaw puzzle people can work on when they feel like it. I've been reading aloud to the kids in the evenings sometimes. (We finished The Hobbit recently, and just started Sophie's World.) We have movies, books, recipes to try....

My head is still not in a good space for creative work yet. I need the house to be less cluttered for that to happen, and two adults and three teenagers inside all the time is making that difficult. But I'm not stressing about it. I am making it a goal to get into my workshop in the next couple of weeks, and I may just dive into an early edit of my next novel, even though the one I released this year didn't even get a real launch.

The issues with contemporary fiction writing are funny right now. I was originally concerned that my next novel got locked into 2019, and that that would feel out of date by the time it was released in 2021. Now it's fine, because I don't have to include the pandemic in the story line. I recently heard an interview with Stephen King, where he said his current story had a plot point where a couple of characters go on a cruise in 2020. He had to bump it back to 2019 for it not to ring false for readers. A lot of writers are debating if we integrate these weird circumstances into our fiction or not. Most seem to agree that unless it's integral to the plot, we should ignore the pandemic. It will certainly date the stories the same way the Blitz would.

Which brings me to my kids, because I've been thinking a lot about how this will be a defining period for them that they will be asked to describe for children in the future. The same way 9/11 is something my children only know from history books, but it's a vivid memory for me. I hope regardless of what is happening in the world at large I am helping guide them through this time in a way that is healthy in all senses of that word.

The first few weeks of lock down and social distancing were unsettling. We all had adjustments to make, and things to give up. There were moments of stress that caused everyone to break down in tears at different times. Things have turned around, and at this stage we're all faring better.

I was most concerned for my oldest, because she's the most social of all of my kids, and to have her senior year come to an unceremonious halt was rough. But she's found ways to do Dungeons and Dragons online with friends. She meets someone down the street for a socially distanced Pokemon battle about once a week. She's learning guitar. And when I reminded her that we have the violin store building to safely retreat to for a change of scenery, and that there was an empty Airbnb just sitting there, she devised a schedule for coming out with me to work three days a week. She has the little apartment above the store set up as an art studio. She's been improving her painting skills, getting better at drawing hands, and enjoying a break from her siblings. Real time alone to both relax and be productive has greatly helped her mood.

It's also helped that she finally came to a conclusion about college. That was a lot of stress even without a pandemic looming all around us. Aden was accepted everywhere she applied, and was offered some impressive scholarships, but nothing felt quite right. So a week before all the deadlines were coming due to commit to a school, we did a Google search, and found a new one that checked all the boxes. We got the acceptance letter from UW-Stout a couple of days ago, and Aden is actually excited now about the prospect of college. We still don't know if she'll be able to attend physically in the fall, or what kinds of changes the school will have to make to accommodate college life in the midst of a pandemic, but it's fun to see my daughter looking forward to the next step of her education. We all feel good about it, even if certain elements remain unclear. However it pans out, Aden's not alone. The class of 2020 will be forever bonded through these strange rites of passage.

My middle child is simply enjoying being at home. She misses her friends and her teachers, but the chronic pain she suffers (still undiagnosed, but there's an appointment lined up with a neurologist in a month) makes life in the noisy school hard. It's helping that she can sleep when she needs to, or take medication without a hassle if her headaches get too bad. She's been diligently doing some online classwork every day, even though the district already declared everyone Pass/Fail for the term. If they ever convert that into real grades, the work she's doing now can be used toward improving them. Early on in the lock down, Mona was doing a bit of sewing and made me this adorable fish:
She'd like to sew more, but is awaiting inspiration. She's doing well with this overall, and I'm glad.

My youngest simply takes things in stride. He seldom understands why anyone makes a fuss about anything in general. He's been doing mandatory online school for about a week. It took the district some time to make sure every student who needed a laptop had one, and now that there is a modicum of equity, classes have begun again. We set him up in a little room off the kitchen that we call "the nook" and he gets himself up in the morning and sequesters himself in there with his computer and his lap-desk until noon.

Quinn's cast is off, so I don't need to be his other hand in piano anymore. Which is too bad, actually. I liked having time with him at the keyboard, laughing as we tried to coordinate our efforts into a coherent piece of music. The trip to the clinic to remove the cast was an adventure. I figured the last place I'd want to take my kid right now was to the hospital, but Children's made it about as safe as you could ask. They sent us to a satellite clinic for non-covid-19 patients only. We were pre-screened on the phone, screened again at the door by a man in full PPE, I was given a mask since I have a cough from an unrelated issue. We never saw another patient once inside the building. The people at reception were in masks and behind plastic sheeting. We never shared a room with more than one medical person at a time, and they did as much as they could at a distance as possible. It was far less nerve-wracking than the grocery store.

In any case, being 13 meant my son spent a lot of time in his room with the door closed anyway. I don't know how much quarantine has changed things, other than his friends from down the street can't join him on the trampoline now. He's made using the treadmill part of his daily routine, and he's always willing to accompany me on a walk with the dog if I invite him. He has Minecraft, and a dry erase board to doodle on. If he's suffering in any way, we can't see it. He's about as nice a person to be cooped up with as one could ask for.

My husband remains the person who keeps things working and I'm grateful for that every day. The biggest recent project was when the dryer stopped working. That's the kind of thing if I were on my own with the kids (like during the deployments) would have put me over the edge. But Ian simply consulted YouTube, took the dryer apart, and fixed it. He's amazing.

Ian's also been sweet about indulging my scavenger hunt obsession. Our little corner of the south side of Milwaukee is called Bay View, and I really appreciate the kind of caring, creative place this neighborhood is. A local record store put together a scavenger hunt all over Bay View to provide people with something to do when out for socially distanced walks. It's based on a box of 64 crayons, and those crayons are in shop windows and on display outside of historic locations. It's great, because it directs people toward local businesses that could use support. (Last week I picked up pie from one of the locations when we went to collect the information we needed off their crayon. Without the scavenger hunt, I wouldn't have realized they were even still open and offering curbside service right now.) Anyway, I've learned a lot about my community in the past few weeks of solving clues and hunting down crayons. And every time I have a hunch, Ian's happy to go with me there, by foot or bike or car.

In fact, last Saturday was the first day in all of this that I felt unabashedly great. Since we're by appointment only at the store, and no one was scheduled after noon, we closed up just to explore some scavenger hunt options. We ordered a sandwich ahead, and walked in the sunshine together, and went through our list of clues. We walked by the lake, found some crayons, split our sandwich, and enjoyed each other's company. The loop we made was about three miles, and then we got some more work done at the store. I loved it. On a normal Saturday I'd never be able to take a break like that. Ironically, because of the lock down, I was not trapped in the store.

I'm starting to become aware of all the ways during normal life that I box myself in, and how too full a schedule can look like a form of quarantine. There are normally days where every hour was spoken for: The alarm would go off at six, I'd prepare breakfast and make sure everyone got off to school, swim my mile, get to the violin store with hair that was still wet and get to work, try to get home in time to see the kids for a few minutes before heading off to a rehearsal, and crawling back in bed where I started sometime after ten. It was all stuff I had chosen and that I enjoyed, but with that kind of schedule I was quarantining myself off from time to create, time to read, time with people I care about. I'm wondering how to restructure my life when the pandemic no longer dictates my options so that I have more true freedom.

I feel right now that we have reached a good place. I know I have. I'm past the grieving and the ennui. I'm excited to get up in the morning and tackle things, which was hard about a month ago. (Not everything, but enough. I'll get there.) Limiting the amount of news I listen to has helped. I acknowledge I am in a privileged position where other than the general isolation, we're not in distress. But I don't think anyone should feel guilt about being happy right now if they can be. I lived through enough of that during the deployments. When Ian was in Iraq, and one of the kids did something adorable, it was bittersweet, because I was always acutely aware that their dad was missing it. And there was an underlying sense of it being inappropriate to have fun while he had to be at war several time zones away.

My heart breaks for people who are enduring great loss at this time. I have concerns and fears about the future. But that's true every day, not just during a pandemic. I can be sad for others while still being proud of my daughter for getting into the school of her choice. I can honor people's sacrifices while still being glad to get to snuggle with my son on the couch during a movie. I don't have to feel guilty when our chattering bird makes me smile. Hardship comes to everyone at some point. No one escapes pain in life. So if you've managed to escape some now, during these peculiar and difficult times, appreciate it. Don't try to mitigate it to balance things out in the world. Take joy when you can get it. Especially now.