Wed locks

We’ve all learned a lot about ourselves during this pandemic. Some of these things have come as a big surprise to me. For starters, I haven’t missed live sports at all. And I love sports. They just don’t seem all that important to me anymore. Well, at least not as important as almost 130,000 Americans dead from COVID-19.

Now don’t think I’m pining for sainthood or anything. There are some things I do terribly miss – like the movies – and I knew from day one of lockdown that the cinema would be high on my Most Missed List – right up there with haircuts. But guess what? I don’t miss them either. Now to be clear, I do miss my hairdresser, Kelly. I’ve been with her for almost 15 years and she is one of my favorite humans on earth. We talk about everything from Jesus – we are both big fans – to brow lifts – I’m on the fence. I adore her.

So, I thought for sure that once restrictions were lifted, I would be the first one dragging my raggedy roots back into the salon. My last appointment with Kelly was on February 25th – ten days before I was to leave on a long-planned trip to the Holy Land with my dear wife and several friends. Yeah, well, you know how that worked out – just one of a bazillion Corona cancellations. All of this is to say that I headed into quarantine with a nice fresh cut and color. I was Zoom ready. Well, at least from the neck up.

I will confess to an unhealthy amount of vanity when it comes to my hair. I blame my father – Daddy with the good hair. He had a head of thick black hair and it remained that way until the day he died at 79. Friends would tease him about coloring it, but he never did. He always laughed and said they were just jealous. I am lucky that I got his hair – and to be honest, it is one of the few aspects of my self-image that I’ve never felt bad about. I love my hair and God knows I’ve invested a lot in it over the years – and I have the products to prove it.

Funny story. My wife and I had not been dating long when one afternoon she told me she was going to get a haircut. I asked her what time her appointment was, and she said, “Oh, I go to Great Clips – you just walk in.” I was grateful we were speaking on the phone and she couldn’t see the color drain from my face. She might as well have told me she was going to Starbucks for a kidney transplant. I was shocked and for a moment I questioned the future of our relationship – then I reminded myself that she has pretty hair and I did a quick ballpark accounting of the amount of money I would save in a year if I went to Great Clips. I’m not great at math but that trip to Machu Picchu would have been nice.

My hair grows very quickly and my wife has often trimmed it a bit between appointments for the past few years. I even ordered her nice scissors from Amazon – an upgrade from the dull drugstore pair she was using.

I guess I should tell you that my wife is a psychotherapist by trade – she just happens to have mad skills with scissors. Friends have joked that her salon would be called Hairapy. She giggles and thinks that it might be a nice career change with a lot less paperwork.

Anyway, as this pandemic wore on – and on – she started cutting my hair and these times have been some of our loveliest moments in lockdown. There is something very intimate about having your hair cut by your person – the one you love and share your life with. I think it is a bit like a trust fall – with a slightly less chance of injury.

My wife cuts with confidence so I’m never the least bit nervous. And she is quite conscientious about the whole thing so there’s not much talking except when she tells me to be still. I am pretty sure I am smiling the whole time because I feel so safe and cared for. These quiet times have been a sweet and gentle bubble during these anxious months. No one is in a hurry and it’s just us and some trees and a few birds. It is a very Zen salon even if the amenities are lacking – you must sweep up after your cut and there’s no cucumber water. But I’m not complaining – I know I’m lucky. Not everyone has access to a live-in Edward Scissorhands and I never take that for granted.

I have colored my hair since the first Bush administration. It was a pretty auburn color when I was younger but gradually faded to a dull brown over the years. I went through a blonde highlight phase in the ‘90s – hey, everybody was doing it – and I never even considered not coloring it. I thought for sure that I would be the old gray mare by month two of lockdown but somehow, I’m not. I’m not ready to commit to a colorless future, but for now – it feels easy – and so few things feel easy these days.

Kelly texted me about making an appointment just before North Carolina moved into Phase 2 and salons were preparing to open with new guidelines. I have no doubt that her salon is doing a good job of protecting clients and staff, but I am not ready to go back. My wife has chronic asthma and has not been in any public spaces – except her office – since the beginning of the pandemic and I don’t see any reason to take any unnecessary chances when it comes to this wicked virus.

That all probably makes me sound more thoughtful than I really am, and it is a little disingenuous. The truth is that I’m not ready to give up my deck cuts. You see, I have a big crush on the social worker with the scissors. Oh, and those brochures on Machu Picchu just arrived in the mail. Adios!

Night swimming

This might sound strange, but I have been sleeping better during this pandemic. Of course, there is a low bar for strange these days – and months. I’ve suffered with insomnia for several years. I fall asleep okay and then I find myself eyes wide open at 3:00 AM. I usually drag myself to the couch while my dear wife sleeps like a drunken sailor. She sleeps better than any person still alive and it makes me freaking jealous.

Pandemic sleep for me has been very deep. Remember diving for quarters in the deep end of the pool when you were a kid? It was such fun and I loved that sensation of swimming closer to the bottom – feeling the water getting colder and the sounds from above becoming more muffled. I could hold my breath for a surprisingly long time and I often went home with the most quarters.

My dreams have run the gamut from sweet to crazy to frightening to funny. Just last night I dreamed I was hanging out with Nicolle Wallace from MSNBC. Yes, she is my spirit animal but that’s just funny. I call these my Insta Dreams because I follow these folks on Instagram. The best one so far was a few weeks ago when JLo and I were sitting on a patio and I was telling her how much I loved her Super Bowl appearance and that I named my new car after her. She got me.

I have dreamed a lot about my dead parents over the past few months. I am grateful that these dreams have been peaceful and comforting. In most of them, we are together and doing something quite ordinary – like making dinner.

The other night, I dreamed I was with my mother in the kitchen of the house I grew up in. I was telling her goodbye because I was heading back home. In this dream, I lived in California which is pretty cool because I’ve always dreamed of living there. I guess that falls under wishful dreaming. Anyway, my mother was wearing a dark blue velour robe – which was historically accurate – and we hugged for a very long time. Almost as long as I could hold my breath in the deep end all those years ago.

I’ve dreamed of former partners – one sweet, one not – again, historically accurate – and friends I haven’t seen in years. A few nights ago, I was on the Metro in DC with Ann and Cathy, two much younger women I worked with over 20 years ago. We were chatting away like it was yesterday, and the cherry blossoms were in bloom. That period I lived in DC was one of the happiest times of my life and it was lovely to revisit it in a dream.

Of course, not all my dreams have been sweet. I’ve dreamed a lot about broken relationships with family and friends that remain unmended. Some nights I feel like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life reviewing all the what ifs of my life. These dreams are distressing and yet I linger in them and when I wake, I am often filled with regret and despair and this pandemic feels even more ominous to me. The hangover of these dreams can last a while and I carry a heaviness throughout the day. I feel like I’m wearing one of those lead aprons they put on you when you get an X-ray at the dentist’s office. Those days are longer than most.

I have spent a lot of time pondering what these dreams mean and I always come back to mortality and the unfinished things in my life. Light, right? Sometimes I wish I were a puzzle person – that seems like a far less bleak pandemic activity than pondering one’s own mortality, but I don’t have the patience for that. I think about trying to put the pieces of those broken relationships back together, but it feels so overwhelming – a 5,000-piece puzzle of the color white.

So, I write to try and help me make some sense of these things that make no sense these days. My friend, Jen, is a professor of English literature at UNCG. She is the kind of smart that makes you feel like your brain is not set on the same speed as hers. She is always taking notes – as if to not miss anything – and she recently wrote a beautiful essay, “Finding the Courage to Write.” Click on the title to read it – and I really hope you do. Jen talks about writing against the despair of this pandemic and connecting with as many others as you can. I love that phrase – “writing against the despair” – it feels hopeful and makes me feel like if I keep writing, I can hold my breath long enough to make it back to the surface with that quarter safely in my hand.

Taking flight

I don’t know about you, but for me, this pandemic has been a daily roller coaster ride. And I hate roller coasters. I try to start out most days with a moderately positive attitude so I can navigate the deep dips that may come – as they invariably do. Yesterday, was a most pleasant reversal of this ride – more like a Ferris wheel. And I love Ferris wheels.

Yesterday morning, I was below ground level after my weekly trip to the grocery store. And honestly, it had nothing to do with the grocery store, but the unmasked shoppers I encountered. I just don’t get it! What is so hard about wearing a mask? I had a running conversation with myself as I passed person after person without a mask. The twenty-something guy without one – stupid or just arrogant? Probably both. The old – like really old people – not wearing one. Death wish? Resignation? I had no answers, but plenty of side-eye as I passed the unmasked. Unfortunately, my side-eye, rather legendary, has apparently been rendered ineffective behind the veil of a mask.

I was just so damn mad and disgusted when I left the grocery store that I decided I needed what my dear wife likes to call a “corrective” experience. I ran home to give the groceries a quick Silkwood scrubdown and decided to take a drive to a local strawberry farm to pick up some seasonal deliciousness. This farm advertised drive-thru pickup, so I felt relatively comfortable with the outing.

It was a magnificent spring day – a Tarheel blue sky that NC is famous for. I made myself not listen to MSNBC on my Apple CarPlay on the ride out to the country and went with the Joni Mitchell channel on Spotify. Good call, right? I could feel my mask malaise dissipating as I turned down the little dirt road to the farm. I was greeted by a young man – wearing a MASK, thank you – holding a box of beautiful strawberries. He greeted me kindly and asked what I would like. I said, “Those.” I gave him my debit card – he ran it – and just like that I was driving home with my strawberries riding shotgun.

Mother Nature is a remarkable thing. As I looked back at the field of strawberries, COVID-19 felt far away – sort of like when you look down at the ground when you get to the top of a Ferris wheel. It was a feeling as sweet as those berries on the seat next to me.

I kept listening to music on my way back to town and decided to really live it up and go through the Starbucks drive-through for a cappuccino. I pulled into the parking lot and there were just a few cars ahead of me. I was on a roll. I ordered and when I got to the window, a very friendly young man – MASKED, thank you – handed me a perfect dry cappuccino – just like I like it. For the uninitiated, a dry cappuccino has less milk than a standard one and is topped off with a thick layer of milk foam. You can tell immediately if it has been made correctly when you lift the cup – it feels half-empty – just like the one in my hand. How high could this day go?

I was feeling so good that I decided to leave my bestie Carla a Marco Polo message. Marco Polo is a video chat app that lets you send messages back and forth with folks. As a dinosaur, the only Marco Polo I was familiar with was that annoying tag game we played in the pool when we were kids, but Carla keeps me young and on Day 2 of quarantine, she made me download the app. It has been our most used mode of communication these past two months. I like that it is so in the moment – good, bad, and ugly – and it has really kept us connected. A few weeks in of Poloing (our word) – Carla upped her game and started sending me videos of her playing the guitar and singing. This was a surprise to me because I didn’t know she could do either of those things, much less so well. We call these videos “Kiki’s Coffeehouse” – and I love them. It’s so fun to get a personal tiny desk concert now and then.

My last few Polos to Carla had been rather blue, so I wanted to share my up morning with her. While I was recording my video, I noticed that a lot of people were pulling into the parking lot next to Starbucks. Then I noticed two firetrucks and several police cars. I finished my chat and looked around to see lots of people standing by their cars staring up at the sky. Did I miss a pandemic eclipse? Then I remembered that the NC National Guard’s Airlift Wing was conducting flyover salutes to medical staff and other frontline workers. Somehow, I had landed smack dab in the perfect viewing site. Could this day get any better? Yes, it would.

I got out of my car – with my MASK – and surveyed the crowd. And it was a crowd. Families with little kids, lots of law enforcement as spectators, but running the lights on their cars to make it all a bit more festive. There was that excitement in the air you feel on the 4th of July while you’re waiting for the fireworks to begin or the parade to start. People were happy and talking to each other in that benign friendly way we speak to strangers. I had a nice chat (socially distanced) with an older man wearing a Marine baseball cap.

I looked over across the street to the parking deck of Wake Forest Baptist Hospital and saw a huge group of hospital workers (DEFINITELY MASKED) standing by the wall looking up toward the sky. And that’s when I got the first lump in my throat. Then I heard a loud roar from the sky and there it was – coming right at us – a huge C-17 airplane. Disclaimer: I know less about planes than I do about cars – which is nothing. I looked it up. The C-17 is a large military transport aircraft.

It was so close I felt like I was ducking when it raced over my head. And then I heard people clapping and cheering. And that’s when the lump in my throat came out as tears – lots of them. What was this familiar feeling that started in my toes and rose to fill my heart? It was that feeling you get when the National Anthem plays before a football game. Goosebumps. That feeling of being an American. God, I haven’t felt that feeling in so very long. It was glorious and I didn’t want it to be over. No one did. Everyone lingered long after the plane was gone – not wanting to go back – to where we are now.

This pandemic has felt so different than 9/11. I mean, of course, it is different, but there has not been that tsunami of unity that a lot of us felt after that unspeakable tragedy. It might have been for just a few weeks, it’s easy to romanticize compared to our current shit show, but it felt like for a very long time, we were connected as Americans. I wonder if those not of age then will ever experience such a feeling. Honestly, I was beginning to wonder if I would ever know that feeling again.

But I did – yesterday. And after I had sucked in every breath of that magical moment, I finally got back in my car to drive home. I turned Spotify back on and what song was playing? Carolina in My Mind. Even I couldn’t make that up.

I stayed in the top car of that Ferris wheel the rest of the day, letting my feet dangle with not a worry in the world – smiling down at what I had been so deeply missing. My country.

Do not adjust your set

The second week of quarantine in early March, two years, um, months ago, the sound on the television in our living room went out. The picture was fine – just no sound. Now let me preface this story with the humbling confession that my dear wife and I are woefully inept when it comes to any repairs of a technical nature. In short, there will be cussing (mine) and there might be tears (both).

So, I made the dreaded call to Spectrum and went through the automated menu to learn that there were no outages reported in my area. Thanks. Then I held and held and held to talk to a human who walked me through refreshing (stupid word for unplugging everything) my TV. Yep, still no sound. The same thing happened a few months ago and we were told it was probably a bad cable and we should use another cable outlet for the audio. Somehow, we managed to do this, and sound was restored.

No such luck on this Sunday morning. I had purchased a new cable cord to have on hand for such a situation, so we entered the Black Hole of Cords behind the television set. Of course, there’s only room for a small child (and lots of dust) behind there, so that only adds to the frustration. We tried what felt like 101 variations of plugging things in to no avail. And then we did what so many good people who had gone before us have done – we gave up. Yep. We made a conscious decision that our marriage was more important than the sound on our TV and I feel pretty good about that.

Full disclosure – this situation was not as dire as it might have been. The sound on our Roku worked just fine so our streaming lives were saved. We hardly ever watch anything on regular TV anyway – except sports (me) and MSNBC (me). My wife enjoys some HGTV when she has a rare break from her live-in program director (me).

So, we really haven’t been all that inconvenienced by no sound on our TV and in the case of Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force briefings, it has been a true blessing. I started “watching” them on Twitter so I would not miss anything important like what a great job he is doing and where to insert my glow stick if I begin to feel ill.

And just the other day, I realized that a television with no sound is the perfect metaphor for this pandemic. We can see, but we really have no idea what is going on. And we can try and change the channel, but the result is still the same – nothing. Most of us are sitting at home anxiously waiting to hear what the new not normal normal will be. We see talking heads and fancy graphs, but we aren’t hearing what we long to hear… “It’s going to be okay.“

Crickets.

So, we return to the Neverland of Netflix where people are still going out to dinner and hugging their friends and getting on airplanes to go to beautiful places.

Damn. We may never get that TV fixed.

OK Zoomer

Do you want to Zoom? After “What’s for dinner?”, this is perhaps the number one most asked question during this COVID-19 quarantine. Kids do it, grandparents do it, even educated nerds do it. Seems like everyone’s doing it, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Bless their hearts.

SNL comically captured this Zoomundrum on this past Saturday night’s digital episode. In a skit, co-workers, including two women who serve as support staff, hilariously portrayed by Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon, connect on a Zoom staff meeting. They are Zoom virgins and their discomfort and fear with the technology is palpable. At one point on the call, Bryant’s character carries her laptop into the bathroom – not knowing that she is still on camera. Watch it on YouTube and thank me later.

Now let me be clear – I am far from technically savvy, so I’m not throwing any cyber stones here. I’m just making a few observations and trying to get your mind off what you’re going to make for dinner. My community service during the time of plague if you will.

So, here are a few personas I have observed in my glut of Zoom gatherings:

The Newbie. This person is taking the plunge because someone they love asked them to, but they are clearly out of their comfort zone. Once they enter the Zoom room, they have a panicked look on their face – like they’ve gotten on the wrong flight. Their eyes are darting around all over the place as if they’re looking for the exit door. The first words they utter are usually, “Am I on?”. When someone answers them, they almost jump out of the screen as if they’re hearing the voice of God. It’s okay, newbie, everyone remembers their first time.

The Hostage. This Zoomer acts like they are being held against their will. They slip in without saying anything and are usually sitting in dim lighting in a room normally reserved for storage – like you can see the tubs of Christmas decorations in the background. They rarely participate and sometimes even forget to blink. They can’t wait for the meeting to be over.

The Showoff. You know this person. They’ve downloaded all the “cool” Zoom backgrounds because well, this isn’t their first Zoom rodeo. They just can’t wait for someone to comment on their backdrop and gush about how clever they are. I find these backgrounds disturbing. I was on a Zoom with a guy who had the Golden Gate Bridge as his backdrop, and it looked like he was going to jump. Very distracting.

The Chatterbox. It doesn’t matter if this person is in a room with you or a Zoom with you – they are always going to talk the most and interrupt the most. And annoy you (okay, me) the most. Pro tip: Eye-rolling must be nuanced on Zoom – never forget that the camera is on.

The Unmutable. This is often a subset of the Chatterbox. This person is oblivious to the mute button and will often provide unnecessary – and unwanted – commentary on whatever the center square is saying. They also often tend to ignore the other folks on the meeting who are pleading, “Mute your mic!”. I think it’s fine to throw in a quick on-screen eye-roll if they continue to not mute.

The Family Guy. This dude is quarantined with a large family and thinks the best place to log on is the kitchen table, so we get to see his cranky kids and black Lab running in and out of the screen frame. The dog is adorable, but stay in your square, man!

I’m personally not accepting that many Zoom invitations. And, no, it’s not because I’m 100% that bitch. My dear wife is a psychotherapist and has been seeing her clients via teletherapy for the past month. We live in a 1,200 sq. ft. condo and her new office is our dining room table. It has been a stressful transition – for her, for me, and for her clients – many of whom are older and not used to such technology. God bless ‘em for being game for keeping their appointments. Sometimes it takes a while to get them connected, but everyone seems to be getting with the new normal as the days go by.

My wife is the poster girl for Good Boundaries (something I deeply admire about her) and we are strictly adhering to HIPAA guidelines. She has a white noise machine she has running during her appointments and if I’m home – I’m in my office with my headphones on. Our cat has tried to interrupt a few sessions, but she isn’t one to talk out of school. That said, I have enjoyed hearing some funny stories when my wife is done with work. A few weeks ago, she called a client who had not logged on for her appointment. The client answered the phone and when my wife reminded her of the appointment she said, “Oh, yeah, but I’m not wearing a shirt.” True story. Note: She found a shirt before she logged on.

At the end of the day, my wife is absolutely fried. She thinks teletherapy is more difficult than in-person therapy for a myriad of reasons, but she’s profoundly grateful that she can continue doing her job during this pandemic. And I feel really good about her job security since I think therapists, after hairdressers, will be the busiest people once we are released from our COVID captivity.

The last thing she wants to do after work is join a Zoom anything. She often takes a walk or steps outside for some fresh air. We both enjoy the silence at the end of the day and a no screen zone for a bit. And then we’ll have some dinner and relax with a nice Netflix drama about serial killers.

I appreciate that Zoom has been vital to enabling people to do important things from home – work, worship and stay connected to family and friends, but I find myself defaulting more and more to old school communication as this pandemic wears on. I’ve always been a note writer, but I’m rapidly depleting my robust stash of cards and stationery. There’s something so intimate to taking pen to paper to communicate with another human being. And isn’t it nice to get something in the mail besides a bill?

I’ve also been reminded that my phone can be used for something besides texting. The other day, I was on the phone with my best friend from college for almost two hours. I was aware that my right ear was getting kind of hot, but I had absolutely no idea we had been talking for that long. It was delicious and I felt so much lighter after our conversation. She lives in Berkeley, CA and has been living in quarantine since early March. The reality of COVID-19 is much closer to her and I am reminded to be grateful that NC is weathering this mighty storm pretty well.

Maybe Zoom is working for you and if it is, that’s great. I just know that I need to connect in a more visceral way with the people I care about. Here’s the thing, it doesn’t matter how you do it, just stay connected – to others and your own humanity. At the end of the day, it’s our only superpower.

Well, that and Amy’s frozen pizza. Stay home, stay safe.