I have described elsewhere how my wife Nell, our two daughters—one in 4th grade and one in 6th grade—and I were already coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least April 7, 2020. Besides staying inside as much as possible, we converted our dining room into a functioning classroom complete with workbooks, flip charts and a very popular white board.
Over the past four days, our mostly-tranquil coexistence has shown signs of fraying around the edges. Call it “stir-craziness,” call it “cabin fever,” call it whatever you like—as we entered our fourth week of sheltering in place, our younger daughter was especially sensitive, and I was particularly moody. There is a reason that for two consecutive years of high school Halloween parties I dressed as Hermes—or Mercury, if you prefer the Roman version—the impish, speedy messenger of the gods. Not satisfied merely with portraying an ancient deity, I made wings for my “sandals” out of aluminum foil (I also made a caduceus, but I not recall how). The goal was to imitate silver—as in quicksilver, another word for the element mercury. I was thus a “walking pun,” literally “quick silver;” adding to the word play was my mercurial nature.
Yes, I was that much of a geek in high school. What do you expect from a boy who dressed as Nicolaus Copernicusfor Halloween when he was 10 years old? The portrait from which my mother attempted to fashion a costume showed him wearing what looked a short fur coat, so most of the people handing out candy thought I was a king of some sort. When I explained I was actually a 16th-century Polish astronomer, few, if any, shared my excitement this was the man who revolutionized our understanding of the cosmos by determining the sun was the fixed point (relatively) around which the planets—including, brace yourself medieval minds, the Earth—revolved.
Meanwhile, back in 21st-century Brookline, I must take the bulk of the responsibility for the tension between Nell and me, which did not fully resolve itself until Monday evening. Something Nell told me as I was saying good night to her Friday—which I do before I commence my night routine, along with taking one of my blood pressure medications—threw me for a loop. I reacted poorly, and I can only attribute some of that to barely leaving the apartment for three weeks. It was less what she told me, which did not especially disturb me, than the way she dropped it into the conversation out of the blue as she was preparing to go to sleep. We eventually resolved that issue…for the moment.
Nonetheless, the following afternoon and evening were perfectly innocuous. Earlier that day, Nell had finally successfully colored our younger daughter’s hair—in this case, one side a vibrant red and one side a vivid blue. I once joked our younger daughter was punk, while her older sister was new wave; I may have had the two reversed.
When I finally wandered downstairs, I was mildly disappointed Nell had not made pancakes and bacon as she had suggested she would when we were having our back-and-forth the previous night.
Correction—at first, I thought she had made them, but had not saved any for me. I soon realized I was wrong, however, when the small flat pan awaiting my washing skills in the kitchen sink told me she had made crepes instead.
A short time later, Nell suggested we order take out for dinner. When I told our younger daughter (hamburger, lettuce, mayonnaise) we were getting food delivered from our favorite local joint, she responded with “Yes!” and a right fist pump. Our older daughter (small super veggie pizza) was more blasé, unlike her sister, father (Greek salad, chicken parmigiana sub) and mother (steak and American cheese with mayonnaise and caramelized onions). Given how many “chips” I have watched characters eat recently on Broadchurch, I added one side order each of French fries and onion rings. Once the food arrived—left on our doorstep by an already-tipped delivery person—Nell promptly put my salad into a bowl, the side orders onto a large white dish, and the hamburger onto a smaller dish out of a not-unreasonable excess of caution.
Deciding it was time for a family movie night—and with Nell rejecting my tentative suggestion of American Graffiti, which I had been thinking about since the girls and I had learned about the early history of rock and roll the day before—we opted instead for a 1980s John Cusack movie, settling quickly on a mutual favorite, One Crazy Summer; the cast alone was worth the free Amazon Prime rental.
Speaking of American Graffiti, I had done some memory interrogating earlier that day. As we watched this 1984 documentary, I paused it to tell the girls Bill Haley and the Comets would get renewed attention in the mid-1970s when an enormously popular sitcom called Happy Days used “Rock Around the Clock” as its opening theme. But when I awoke on Saturday, I suddenly remembered a different theme song. Fearing I had misled our daughters, I did a quick Google search. Apparently, the first season—which I never really watched—did open with the Haley song. And it did increase its popularity, sending it back into the Billboard Top 40.
The rest of the evening passed quietly enough. Our daughters were generally entertained by the film—which takes place on Nantucket, so they recognized shots of Woods Hole, with Nell pointing out actual places on the sister island to Martha’s Vineyard. Even more exciting, however, was the discovery by our younger daughter of a forgotten stash of Christmas-themed Trader Joe’s JoJo’s in one of our kitchen cabinets. If nothing else, we are eating through our food stash, even if I refrained from eating any JoJo’s.
After the film, Nell and I watched episode four of season two of Broadchurch as well as the latest video from the boys, who wanted to know who put Bella in the wych elm. We reasoned we could then watch episodes five and six the next night—which we did—and two the following Friday evening, in lieu of our regular MSNBC weeknight lineup. There is only so much news about COVID-19 we can watch.
In large part, because only our older daughter had ordered pizza the previous evening, Nell again made homemade pizza. We were out of pineapple, so I had pear with my pepperoni. This time the crust was a bit thicker and chewier. Intending it to be a compliment, I said it reminded me of Domino’s; she eventually decided it was not an insult.
And that night, for personal reasons, I became moody and distant when Nell and I had our end-of-night conversation. I later apologized, after my mood brightened working on the next phase of “rock history” slides I plan to show the girls for our Wednesday afternoon class, but the foul mood returned the following day.
When I went downstairs on the afternoon of April 6, 2020, this is what greeted me in the “classroom”:
I was once again absolutely exhausted, even though I had slept reasonably well. Perhaps it was carryover from our routine temperature-taking; the day before I had registered in the 99’s, even though I rarely go much above 97.5. In this time, it is easy to spin the most innocuous of “symptoms” into something more serious. Throw in my year-round seasonal allergies, and…well, it is a good thing I am not a hypochondriac. Perhaps as a result, I took what was simply Nell forgetting to write out the rest of the day’s classroom schedule as a personal snub.
Meanwhile, our younger daughter was on the verge of tears after some miscommunication with a group of friends. We had to talk it through—our younger daughter inherited my “just bear with me” communication style—for 10 or 15 minutes before we could watch the 106-minute-long Episode 2 of Jazz: A Film By Ken Burns. And that was soon interrupted by Nell insisting they put away their Nintendo switches while we watched.
I did not really care that much, knowing they had watched and enjoyed Phantom Lady under the same circumstances the previous Thursday, and that I am happy to have them draw while I teach in the classroom. Also, I just did not really care that much at that point; I just wanted to watch and enjoy the program with a minimum of fuss.
Nell, however, was having none of it. “Fine, if you do not want to teach them, I can just teach them from 10-12.” That stung, so I rejoined with, “Don’t tell me how to teach!”
To which Nell had the trump card, which she threw over he shoulder at me as she walked up the stairs to record a video for her children’s librarian job:
“Right, what do I know? I only have a Master’s Degree in Elementary Education.”
Damn, she is good.
Feeling chagrined, I then expressed my displeasure to the girls, playing the “Do you know how hard your mother and I are working to blah blah blah yadda yadda yadda?” card. It was manipulative—and slightly hypocritical, given my own temporary indifference—but it kinda worked. Both girls payed closer attention to the episode…and the mood lightened considerably. They even enjoyed my brief pause to explain the Volstead Act.
It took until 5:30 or so to watch the full episode. And I learned that even if we primarily watch a video for our class time, I need to do at least a modicum of actual teaching.
Nell and I started sniping again as she prepared Annie’s shells and cheddar with broccoli for dinner, this time even more intensely; at one point, much against all better judgment, I announced I was going to the grocery store, even though Nell was planning to do a spate of such chores the next day. I eventually relented, and we called a truce to watch MSNBC.
Matters finally came to a head when it was time for Nell to go to sleep that night. I wanted to have it out, so I started to do just that. Nell was hesitant at first—this tension had been building for some time, and she was nervous about what might happen should we pursue the matter—but then she opened up as well. She did take the precaution of locking the bedroom door, so that we could not be interrupted by our still-awake older daughter; indeed, the latter brought her Nintendo switch upstairs during this time. And it was surprisingly easy. We explored all of the ins and outs of the situation, ultimately reaching a mutually-satisfying conclusion. Afterwards, we both felt better than we had in weeks. “Why didn’t we do this much sooner?” we asked, realizing that sometimes you just have to push through those mental and emotional barriers.
And for the first time since we began sheltering in place, neither of us had extremely intense dreams.
When I awoke on Tuesday, April 7, 2020—in a far better frame of mind—a proud Nell told me of her adventures in the outside world. She had gone to our local CVS to collect prescriptions—scrupulously avoiding a trio of teenagers not respecting social distance guidelines—and to a small nearby grocery store for some necessary supplies; it has been getting harder to find an open food delivery window online. Upon arriving home, Nell promptly took a long shower.
Some ninety minutes later, when I went downstairs, this is what greeted me in the “classroom”:
Dr. Dobby, meanwhile, has moved on to other pursuits, though it is not clear which Stranger Things world he is trying to enter. Like the rest of us, his world has been turned upside down.
And the artwork continues unabated, as this emphatic statement from our older daughter reveals:
To prepare for our return to the adventures of the Berger family in early-20th-century Philadelphia, I sketched this on the white board.
OK, fine. I erased the original drawing before photographing it. This is merely an artist’s rendition of what had so disturbed our daughters with its lack of skill; admittedly, they are much better artists than I will ever be.
I deliberately did not start the class until just after 3 pm, because I wanted this to be a shorter, more focused session. The second half of Friday’s class had lasted longer than I had planned, while Monday’s class had been rough. Thus, I wanted to give all of us a bit of a break.
We began with a rapid-fire, wholly-improvised review of the history of my beloved Philadelphia. I followed this with a review of how David Louis Berger, born October 15, 1869 in Pryznasz in what is now Poland, had arrived in Philadelphia in May 1899 with his wife Ida and four young children, settling first less than two blocks west of the Delaware River—and one block from his brother-in-law Charles Rugowitz—before moving closer to the Schuylkill River. The two spots are marked with red X’s above.
While this was happening, our younger daughter was drawing a remarkably-good “burger” with lettuce. However, when she then proceeded to highlight it with a penlight for her sister, I lost my cool. “How is this relevant to what we are discussing?” I demanded. She teared up at this—without her Ritalin, it is difficult for her to resist such impulses—which broke my paternal heart. However, we both moved quickly past this interruption with a heartfelt hug, returning to listening to her older sister read about the Berger family in the years between 1913 and 1923, including the tragic and somewhat mysterious death of their great-great-grandfather on October 23, 1919.
Shortly thereafter, we adjourned for the day, with little of note happening after that. Nell simply heated up turkey hot dogs wrapped in crescent rolls for their dinner, while I was content to nibble on various leftovers.
Well, all right, I will need to do something about my hair soon.
Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…