Thirty years from now, this will still make no sense: Love, work, and productivity in the quarantine era

Tiger: Photo by https://pixabay.com/users/zootierpfleger-348817/

I remind myself every day: successful people set their intentions first thing.

On this day, my intentions include reading, working, a workout, working some more, cleaning, walking the dog, relaxing.

I grab coffee, open Facebook, trash that plan.

I interrupt Mike. He’s sitting there, eyes closed, maybe meditating, maybe napping. Whatever. His eyes are closed. I nudge him to share a cute dog video on my phone. He ignores me.

Meditating then.

Our dog scratches the door, then looks at us. Whose turn? We Rochambeau. Mike wins.

I pout. Best two out of three?

Mike wins again. The dog is about to claw through the door. I sigh expansively, my head falls back, my shoulders droop. Mike lets the dog out. Seven seconds later he lets her in.

She runs to me with thanks. You’re welcome, sweetie.

Time to work.

First, though, more social media, then maybe a nap.

I call mom. Talk her out of grocery shopping, explain online ordering instructions, then give up and ask for her list.

I pick out groceries on Albertson’s site. Find out they won’t sell beer online.

I leave my virtual shopping cart in the middle of the virtual aisle in my virtual huff and hop on over to the brewery site that WILL sell beer online because priorities.

It’s only 10 am. Look at me, planning.

I click into a zoom meeting. Change my profile name to “Quarantine Markley.” Mike clicks into a meeting, explains to his boss why his profile name is now “Quarantine Markley.” I laugh. He shoots me a look.

It’s not my fault we’re logged into the same account. I’m not in charge of how stuff works.

My meeting moderator asks me to enter my real name in the chat so people know how to address me. My group apparently doesn’t appreciate creative Zoom nicknames either.

I briefly consider various options while peeling the sad remnants of last month’s manicure from one pinky:

Beatrix Kiddo?

Imperator Furioso?

Ellen Ripley?

The moderator asks me a question and I realize I haven’t been paying attention. I give a reasonably coherent answer and congratulate myself at everyone’s contemplative expression at the wisdom I just threw down. Success!

“You’ll need to unmute yourself,” the moderator says.

Later, I’ll try to figure out why logging in to Zoom from my laptop doesn’t automatically connect me from my work account, so I can name my profile whatever I please. Then, I’ll get wrapped up in thinking of new noms de plume and corresponding virtual backgrounds:

A sushi bar.

A desert wasteland.

A space station.

The dog wants in from outside. We both ignore her.

I click back over to Albertson’s. I had a list, but my cart has timed out. There are seven thousand tabs open in my browser and my computer feels hot, like it’s going to melt.

I give it a rest, go load the dishwasher.

Struck by inspiration, I make Mike swear we’ll clean out the junk room, patch up the hole in the drywall, clean up the yard and do all sorts of other productive stuff this weekend. Then we share a good laugh over social constructs like weekend because time has no meaning anymore and we don’t even know what day it even is right now.

The neighbors text an invitation to driveway cocktails. I mull over whether this requires showering first, and then grab a hat.

We stand in their driveway, more or less fourteen feet apart, with coozy-covered beer cans brought from home. A buff colored Pomeranian runs from one of us to another, shying away at the last minute from outstretched hands. The perfect pet for a plague.

That’s a crazy looking hamster, Brad says. We laugh. Jen tells the story of the dog eating her ex’s mushroom stash from under the bed. He’s almost twenty (the dog, I mean. I don’t know how old the boyfriend is), so the way he bites at the air could be the ill effects of ingesting psychotropic substances or maybe just age.

Nancy’s silver Corolla rolls by. I imagine her giving us the stink-eye when she passes, but her tinted windows mitigate the effect. Mike waves at her, crossing in front of me to obstruct the bird I flip on instinct.

He knows my moves and is better at being neighborly.

I swallow my beer, wondering whether that catch in my throat is seasonal allergies or a sign of imminent doom. I wonder at the havoc regular spikes in cortisol with every breaking news story or inane daily presser from our buffoon-in-chief are wreaking on our national psyche. I wonder if we’re even doing this right? Whether or not, even separated by fourteen feet, a stiff, spring breeze, and a spastic Pomeranian, we’re still infecting our neighbors?

Is it any wonder we’re struggling to find our productivity footing in this real-time dystopia?

Maybe Nancy’s right. It’s time to break this up.

Later we’ll order takeout to be left on the porch and binge on Tiger King. I’ll Google terms like “meth mouth” and “toxoplasmosis.”

I’ll generously get up to let out the dog. Because I’m a giver.

And I’ll set my intentions early: Tomorrow we’ll be productive. Pinky-swear.

How we’ll get through this has a lot to do with how you feel about potatoes

Midlife Sentence | Image by https://pixabay.com/users/michaelgaida-652234/

I called mom the other morning as I was walking into the store. I’ve asked her to stay home as much as possible, and am grateful she’s abiding by that, especially when I hear so many other of her generation aren’t. She asked for bread, bananas, and a bag of frozen hash browns.

We’ve all had this experience by now: weaving our carts around pallets near pock-marked grocery shelves in the process of being restocked almost as quickly they’re emptied. The people doing the stocking looking as though they’ve been there all night, shoppers taking a wide a berth around each other in aisles that are suddenly uncomfortably narrow.

The first items on her list were readily available (well, the bread selection was a little limited, but the produce aisle looked any other day), but the frozen food section these days is grocery’s weird, gap-toothed second cousin. Potatoes are the missing lateral incisors, victims of a rowdy high school brawl no one had the funds or care to replace.

I had a moment, right there in frozen foods at eight in the morning. You know, one of those this-is-so-not-okay moments, and I may have hyperventilated a little next to the Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwiches and Eggo waffles.

We’ve all been having those moments. I don’t think I’m special. They probably happen less often for me than for most, as comfortable as we are with telecommuting, with stable paychecks and no kids around to tell us how bored they are. For the most part, I can focus on the tasks at hand, swinging between bouts of near panic when I read the news and think about the state of the world today, to serenity when I take time for a long walk in the sunshine, or get a message from a friend asking about our family.

Then there are moments, like the one in the frozen food aisle of the grocery store, where I’m absorbed with “what kind of monster makes off with all the hash browns for God’s sake” thoughts.

The thing is, this situation is new, but the feeling is not unfamiliar, not really. It’s a visceral response to a new experience. It’s a feeling I normally tell myself I relish: the sense that everything is upside down and nothing is familiar and anything could happen. It’s the same sense I get when stepping  off a plane into a place where the air smells different and the sounds are unfamiliar and the signs are printed in a language I can’t read.

We were in Mexico for a conference (was it just a month ago now? It feels like eons), with a little bit of time to find a place to eat before the sun set. I remember thinking “these cobblestones hurt my ankles, this table is dirty, this neighborhood looks seedy, what if I get mugged? Lost? Swindled? How much does this cost in dollars? How much should I tip?”

It was at that moment, the one on a street corner in an unfamiliar town, that I remembered something. I remembered one of the things I most love about travel is that sense I get, right off the bat, that all the rules are different in this moment, and I don’t recognize the landscape, and the air is weirdly muggy, and forget about knowing what street I should be on, I don’t even know where they put the street signs.

I realized the other morning, standing in the grocery store aisle, that this was the same feeling, one in which I usually take delight. At least that’s what I have told myself dozens of times before. The difference is how I deal with it, that’s where the adventure lies. Whether I succumb to the feeling that this is going to be terrible and scary and what the Hell am I doing, putting myself so squarely in harm’s way? Or remember that I’m a good problem solver, and that panic is unhelpful, and that while I don’t know how this is going to turn out, everything normally does for me, and the people I love.

There was the time in Guatemala when Colin was sick and I thought no problem, I’ll just stock up on groceries and we’ll stay in. I was sure I could navigate my way around town with my limited Spanish.

But then all the signs were not in Spanish, but in Kaqchikel, which is my best guess as to what the clerks and all the other patrons were speaking and the out-of-place sense it caused was as unsettling as it was exhilarating. I got through that, albeit with only an overpriced pint of milk and a bunch of plantains to show for it. I did.

There was the time we were in Seoul and realized our Airbnb was in a completely English-language-free neighborhood, and our distinctly western-looking family stood out like a sore thumb. We chose restaurants by looking at the pictures posted on sandwich boards and ordered food by gesturing at what other patrons were eating. That felt like an accomplishment. One that featured more fried chicken than we were used to, but an accomplishment nevertheless.

Adventure isn’t synonymous with comfort. That’s what we’ve told our kids forever. That’s what we tell our students bound for a year abroad in another country. Sometimes adventure means taking the risk that you’ll be laughed at for your poor pronunciation. Sometimes adventure means you’ll sleep through a boarding announcement for your connecting flight. If you’re Indiana Jones, adventure may be eyeball soup or snakes on a plane. Adventure isn’t necessarily good, but it’s always interesting, and the best coping measure has to do with mindset.

It appears these days that adventure sometimes means coping with a new grocery landscape. I’d rather deal with that than snakes, frankly.

For some, adventure means coping with much more: loss of work, insecurity, illness. Some of us will respond differently than others. Some will insist on carrying on as though nothing has changed. Some will panic and hoard. Some will wag their fingers at everyone else and what they see as a hysteria based upon rumor and inuendo. Some will, inexplicably, resort to all of these actions at once.

We can’t control everything, but what most of us can control is how we respond to what’s happening around us. Just as with all adventurous experiences, if we’re successful, we’ll mitigate the damage, and may even come out the other side with a greater sense of our own selves, our purpose, with stronger sense of the world around us, and relationships with the ones we love.

And maybe with some interesting stories to tell, to boot.

With that in mind, here’s my own plan:

I will attend to what’s happening, rather than ruminating on what could be, keeping my mind clear through exercise, meditation, and regular breaks from social media.

I’ll stay rested, hydrated, healthy, and sober (for the most part), so I can keep doing so.

I’ll expect mistakes to happen. Some might be my fault. When they are, I’ll own them, ask forgiveness, and take the time to reflect on how I can keep them from happening again.

When others make mistakes, I’ll offer grace and forgiveness to the best of my ability. We’re all trying to muddle through this.

I’ll remind myself that while I have my own list of problems, things might be exponentially harder right now for others, and maybe the comfort and privilege I have is something I can extend to them in the form of a favor or an encouraging word.

I’ll be grateful for what we do have, for the spring sun, the emerging flowers, for my neighbors who wave hello from across the street, and the hope that all represents, and yes, grateful for adventure.

So what if some monster made off with all of the hash browns? There’s still rice pilaf the next aisle over, there’s instant mashed potatoes, there’s cous cous. Heck we live in the potato state. That produce section isn’t just for the vegans among us.

I know we’ll get through this. We’ll scope out the alternatives. We’ll realize the value of being kind and patient with each other and with ourselves.

And we will be better for it.

This is why people tend to stay put

Photo by aung nyi on Unsplash

People in Buenos Aires live in little apartments crammed full of collectables handed down from generations. At least, that’s the impression I was left with after a trip to Argentina some time ago. A couple members of our team stayed with a petite, cranky woman who had a spare room in an apartment wherein every square inch of flat space was occupied by vases and candlesticks and clocks and various and sundry other tchotchkes she’d inherited. Almost every home we visited in the city felt the same. Very elegant and perilous at the same time. I remember thinking any sudden move on my part could bring down any number of heirlooms.

I also remember thinking what a pain in the ass dusting must be for the Argentines.

Mike and I have been working on getting rid of crap for the last few months in preparation for a move. Judging by the contents of our cupboards and closets, it’s been a while since we’ve engaged in any kind of purge. I’ve forgotten how much dang storage space we have in this house. We thought the cupboards and built in shelves were cool when we moved in––all this space to store crap! We had more room for stuff than we thought we would ever need.

We’ve since filled all that space.

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Bigotry, the Bible, and why we’re quitting the kitchen

Why we're quitting the kitchen | midlife sentence

Dear Rev. Bill,

Five years ago, this summer, one of our boys made an off-hand comment about homeless people being “scary,” and I realized our privileged children needed an opportunity to rub shoulders with some of the more vulnerable members of our community. We started serving dinner at your shelter on a monthly basis.

As volunteers, we have served families with young children, older couples, adolescents the same age as our own boys, and young men and women dressed in work coveralls or collared shirts. We’ve also served the folks we expected to see when we began, people who hold signs on street corners, and the gentleman in the stocking hat we pass each Sunday as he enjoys a cup of coffee in our church lobby.

We’re not demonstrably religious people, but we tend to find volunteer activities that conform to our values, which happen to align with the teachings of Christ. He’s the one, you’ll remember, who directed us to “love one another.” He also said something about “that which you’ve done to the least of these you’ve done to me.” 

There’s probably supposed to be an “onto” and a “thy” in there, but you get the point.

We’ve received far more than we’ve given in this effort. I’m almost embarrassed at my satisfaction in the hearty thank yous and well wishes and wide smiles we get as we pass trays across the counter.

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Zen and the art of Classroom Maintenance

Zen (noun) \’zen\

1a Japanese sect of Mahayana Buddhism that aims at enlightenment by direct intuition through meditation

2a state of calm attentiveness in which one’s actions are guided by intuition rather than by conscious effort

When Colin told me about his English teacher the other morning in the kitchen, he didn’t get very far into his story before I teared up and had to stop him.

As he was telling me about some classroom bullies and the object of their derision, I had a vision of a second- or third-year teacher, someone young looking enough that it wasn’t uncommon for other faculty to stop her in the hall and ask for her pass. Someone who didn’t yet have the chops to stand up to the jerks in her classroom, snotty adolescents who wore their earbuds through a lecture and made snide remarks about her under their breath.

She’d had a Zen garden, Colin told me. One of those kitschy palettes with sand and polished stones and a teeny rake I guess people use to do their teeny meditation sessions, stacking stones in teeny piles and raking teeny lines in the sand. One by one the stones went missing, and then the rake. Then one morning, students filed in to find sand scattered on the shelf and the floor below it, the palette overturned.

“I wonder what happened?” one of the snotty teens had the nerve to say.

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Travel Gadget Wish List

Midlife Sentence | Travel Necessities

Ten things I wish someone would invent to make traveling easier

One of my chic-iest friends posted an Instagram photo of a little, clear plastic clutch she’s going to start using for travel in place of the standard Ziploc the rest of us plebs employ to schlep our lotions and shampoos and other liquid stuffs onto airplanes.

At first, I thought “isn’t that just the coolest thing!” I mean, we’re all just one kitschy plastic tote away from either looking our put-together best or coming across like a crazed hoarder unloading a packed lunch all over the TSA belt. Amiright?

So, I whipped out my credit card and went to the website straightaway, and found out those cute, little totes the size of sandwich bags are a whopping $88 bucks apiece. Which is when I decided I’d stick with my non kitschy ways for a little while until I win the Lotto or something.

… But it made me think about other travel conveniences I’d come up with if I have the extra cash, a really sharp inventor brain, and some free time. Unfortunately, I’m a little short on … well all those things, but I’m going to share my ideas in case there’s an inventor type among you with the corresponding money and spare time.

Because, you know I’m a …. (let’s all say it together, now …) giver.

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Mom’s First Tattoo

Midlife Sentence | Mom's First Tattoo

Warning: This is not a good post for those who have issues with open conversation about private parts, i.e. I’m sorry for all the buttholes

If you’re wanting to be talked out of a tattoo, it’s probably just common sense that a 19-year-old isn’t the best person for the job, right? I mean, not that I expressly wanted to be talked out of a tattoo. I’d been thinking about getting one for a long time.

I had no particular reason why, but lately I’ve been feeling like if I was going to do it, sooner would be better than later, before collagen loss makes it near impossible to find a smooth stretch of skin anywhere on my corpus.

I actually almost got my first tattoo a while ago, at the tail end of a girls’ night out when we all know the best decisions are normally made. At the last minute I bailed on my friend Steph, as she was getting the teensiest of meansiest of little hidden tattoos of all time: a ladybug leaving a little trail of dots behind it.

It was an act of supreme bravado and massive chutzpah on her part – that little ladybug – and I’m sorry for my lack of participation. Still, Steph’s tattooing taught me a few very important things about true friendship:

  • That you shouldn’t abandon your friend at 2 am in a tattoo parlor if you don’t want to hear about it over and over again for the next ten years, and
  • Tattooists won’t work very hard to convince a person to not spend good money on a teensy, little ladybug tattoo even if said teensy, little ladybug tattoo is so small it’s going to eventually end up filling itself in and looking like a menacing freckle, and
  • Doing your homework and making the act of getting a tattoo a little more deliberate than ducking into the nearest ink shop after five hours with your girlfriends at Grainey’s is a good thing, as is not holding people responsible if they end up deciding to bail, Steph.

Anyway, back to my conversation with Jack about the prospect of a tattoo:

“Look, you’ve been thinking about it for a long time,” he said. “It’ll say something that means a lot to you, it’s going to look great and you’ll never regret it.”

I thought those were deep thoughts from someone who had yet to see his twentieth birthday and I told him so.

“Well, you’re a pretty big chicken for someone who’s already hit her fiftieth.”

Touché.

I figured if I was going to do this thing, I’d do it with him, our resident expert. When Jack was 16 and wanted to get his ears pierced, we knew the tattoo question was right around the corner. We leveraged the piercing thing against the tattoo thing in order to get a little advance notice about any tattoo plans and made him pledge to listen to whatever advice we might have about the design and the placement of said tattoo. … And long story short he now has five tattoos, and I don’t remember being part of a lengthy discussion about any of them.

We scheduled my tattoo session for right after a Rotary meeting and I couldn’t sleep the night before thinking about size and placement and fonts and what would happen if there was a typo and whether laser removal surgery was really as painful as I’ve heard. In the end, I went in and did it and I think it looks great and it only hurt a smidge.

Overall, it’s a very nice looking butt for business purposes.

My tattoo artist’s name is Gonzi (I have a tattoo artist now guys!), and he likes women’s butts. I know this because of the illustrations plastered all over his work station area. That’s his flash – what we tattooed folk call the stuff he specializes in. Turns out Gonzi really likes imagining women’s butts in all kinds of situations, clothed and unclothed and with or without flowers.

Midlife Sentence | Mom's First Tattoo

And while I think Gonzi is a very good artist, he needs a little instruction on anatomy, because even though I haven’t seen very many unclothed derrières from that angle, I can tell we have a little disagreement on where the butthole actually goes.

Gonzi’s business card is a drawing of a woman’s butt with flowers growing out of it. It’s thong-wearing butt, so thankfully no awkward conversation about butthole placement has to happen right up front when he’s making business connections. The flowers are confusing to me, but it’s an art thing, so I don’t need to understand, I guess. Overall, it’s a very nice looking butt for business purposes.

… And this probably constitutes a record for the number of times I’ve used the word butt in one post, a fact I’m sure has earned me another listing on one of those porn aggregators, and I can’t decide if that’s a bad thing because I don’t care to associate with people who search for porn, or an okay thing because I appreciate whatever drives up the ratings.

… And by the way, if you are here for the buttholes, may I just suggest this one post about pineapples which has nothing to do with porn, and very little to do with pineapples either, but neither of those things seems to matter to the porn aggregators, so I must be missing something. My stats show if you come here for the pineapples, chances are you’ll keep reading, which I like to think means that people who search for porn have more depth than I’ve given them credit. Or else they’re just really bored and looking for something to fill the time.

If you’re wondering what I had inked permanently onto my forearm, it’s my family motto: Aut Augere Aut Mori, which is Latin for “either action or death.” It’s kind of morbid, but something I’ve always thought was a good motivator for getting me up off my own butt when I’ve started to feel a little down in the dumps about anything.

Midlife Sentence | Mom's First Tattoo

A friend of Mike’s asked him why I didn’t have his family motto tattooed on my arm which led Mike to doing some research and coming up with nothing. No motto for the Markley clan. Now he’s telling people his family was probably out doing all the work and fighting all the wars while my family was coming up with the right way to describe all things in catchy, little mottos.

Which is probably a really good way to describe our marriage, now that I think about it.

Jack’s now looking forward to coming home from college for the summer because he said something about getting matching tattoos and I didn’t think to tell him I’m not getting any more. It’s not because the whole butthole flash stuff has turned me off, either, in case you’re wondering. I’m happy to recommend Gonzi.

It’s just if you want a woman’s butthole tattooed anywhere on you, you should be prepared for anatomical imperfection.

You know who also shows up early? People like Shawn

I had the weirdest experience recently. I finished a meeting and had to be across town for another meeting right on the heels of my first meeting, only the first meeting finished early, so I got to my second meeting early. I’m rarely early. Actually, I’d give it about a 50% chance I’ll even be more or less on time to anything.

I have plenty of redeeming qualities. I can stick to a tight budget. I am probably the World’s Best at Parallel Parking (seriously, I should have a mug made with that). I talk to dogs. I cover my face when I sneeze. I stay hydrated.

I am also chronically tardy. Sometimes it’s only seconds late, sometimes a teensy bit more.

But not this time. This time I was maybe 15 minutes early, which kinda felt like I could fit another whole meeting in there. I thought I could use that time to check email, or else say hi to another friend in that office.

I took my stuff to the conference room, where any plans I had were thwarted when I was waylaid by members of the group I was set to be meeting with – in the future, mind you – who were also early.

This is where it got weird. I had the chance to witness first-hand what early people do with all the time they have when they show up early. This was a rare and valuable opportunity to witness another species in its natural habitat.

Ultimately it was really disturbing.

I mean, you guys, this is what they do: they freaking talk about being early. They revel in it. It’s weird.

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A couple of soon-to-be empty nesters at a baby shower

“I don’t think I’ve ever been to a baby shower before.”

This was Mike’s confession to me as we were walking up to the door to our friends’ home, Saturday afternoon.

Had I realized this earlier, I would have though of some way to punk him. Maybe made up some fake baby shower etiquette to share with him in the car. But, right then, on the spot like that, I couldn’t think of the right thing to say that would freak him out just enough for us to laugh about it later, but not enough for him to bolt. These things take some finesse and the look on his face had me worried.

So I just shrugged.

“There’ll probably be mimosas.”

The mom-to-be greeted us with a huge smile, wearing a flattering, floral print dress. Back when I was that far along with either of my pregnancies, you’d likely find me in a baggy pair of overalls that gave me the profile of Uncle Jesse on Dukes of Hazard. On alternate days I’d switch between one of the two knit tops that still fit. On dressier days, I might wear shoes. I could go on like that for a couple weeks.

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How I came to be spending the night in the death house and WASN’T SCARED ONE BIT

Midlife Sentence | Haunted

I love scary stories. Love, love, love them. Until they get the better of me.

The only time I ever got in trouble for reading anything I wasn’t supposed to was in the fifth grade. It was a loaned copy of The Amityville Horror I kept hidden under my pillow until I could finish it. The night I did, I woke up my parents around 2 am to tell them I couldn’t sleep.

They were astonishingly unsympathetic. And I still get creeped out by flies on the window.

I’ve always thought I could write a satisfyingly scary story, except that if it was any good I’d probably lose my marbles a little. The process is the problem. I get this little nugget of an idea, and then I mull it over for a long time before any writing happens. I’ll think about it while driving, or washing the dishes, …. taking a shower … or waking up at 3 am and its pitch black and I’m sure I’ve heard something ….

I have a fairly decent imagination, you guys. I don’t trust it not to freak me out. I won’t stare too long down a dark hallway. Is that the vague outline of a misshapen midget axe-murderer, or a coat on a chair? I can’t listen too intently to silence without wondering if I’m hearing a faint scream for help.

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