Monday, May 25, 2020

Lockdown, Part Ten - The End

Government curfew, Day 66.

As the United States slowly reopens this Memorial Day weekend, restaurants flinging open their doors, barbers unsheathing their shears, and beach goers rushing for the sun, sand, and surf, we find ourselves still, forever, always, confined to our home, day 66 of a government curfew. What was once an islandwide curfew has slowly lifted in various parts of the island over the last several weeks, leaving only Colombo and one other city still under lockdown. 

Supposedly, that is to come to an end starting tomorrow when the curfew will lift in Colombo for the first time, from 4:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. daily. The rhythm of our daily life will likely not change much. My office remains closed for the time being, and the kids will finish out the school year online. We can’t travel outside of Colombo, and flights off the island are limited. We aren’t yet comfortable going to the grocery or other stores or restaurants that may reopen (except for takeout), because while the reporting on the virus is mostly reliable,  there’s no way to know for sure what’s going on in the country, or — perhaps, more importantly — what will happen when the curfew lifts. Social distancing isn’t really a thing in crowded parts of South Asia, where the only way to get anything from life is to maneuver on, around, or through a constant press of bodies. I am hopeful, but pragmatic. 

My thinking has evolved over the past ten weeks. We’ve felt anxiety, hope, contentment, happiness, and yes, fear, too. 

I don’t know if it is the specific nature of the global pandemic and the resulting economic catastrophe or the lack of leadership. I remember a time trusting or knowing there were smart capable people, experts, who would help us navigate challenging circumstances and make difficult decisions, but I’m not hearing those voices. I’m not sure if it’s because I am older now, and the voices I would have once trusted and listened to at one point in my life, I have since come to learn are no wiser than my own voice. Gone is the naïveté of ignorance. Or maybe the situation really is that unique, new, and complicated. Most likely, we are all going to have to figure out what to do ourselves. Just like Elise and I have already been doing for the last ten weeks. One day at a time. 

The wonders of the curfew continue. Elise and Clementine made homemade spring rolls, including homemade wonton wrappers. 

Here is the live demonstration: 

We pitched a tent in our living, a shelter for the kids from the confusing world outside these four walls. 

And we put out the bird feeder. It’s taking time for the birds to find the feeder (though the squirrels didn’t have a problem). 

I recently read this article by Mari Andrew “I Miss This Already” in Medium about how it is possible (and likely) we will be nostalgic for this time in our lives, despite the fact it comes amidst so much pain, so much misfortune. And while I realize I am lucky we are in a position where we don’t have to worry about our next paycheck, still, this doesn’t surprise me at all. 

“I know there will be a day when I’m sipping a spritz in a bar again, surrounded by people. It may be years from now but I believe it will happen — I can see myself trying to get a drink at the busy counter, the crowd elbowing each other to get the bartender’s attention. On that early evening, I see myself missing the creativity, appreciation, and connection that quarantine has kindled. I’ll recognize that it feels uncomfortable to miss something that has caused so much suffering, and yet, it’s the place where I lived for a time, along with every other person on the planet.”

Lockdown, Part Nine - The House with the Tiger Skin Rug

Government curfew, Day 62

Somehow Elise found herself on a WhatsApp group for our neighborhood which included our Sri Lankan neighbors. When the stores were more closed than they are now, the neighbors would share the news when a fruit or vegetable vendor, fish truck, or (even better) ice cream truck was on the street. 

The group has taken on other shapes, too, evolving into a neighborhood watch of sorts. Panhandlers routinely ring our doorbell, asking for handouts. The group warns us of the “druggies” swarming the neighborhood. The group also told us to be careful of people coming to your door and offering to sell you face masks. They would then ask you to put the mask on to check for fit, claiming the masks were lined with chloroform or some other sleeping gas, and would make you pass out. The mask salesman would then rob you blind. According to the group, anyway. 

Recently, Elise shared the following exchange with me: 

A really strange request, indeed. I think the funniest/weirdest part is, on some level, this woman had fully expected her great aunt to have continued to live in the house after this new family moved in. 

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Lockdown, Part Eight - The Great Unpause

Government curfew, Day 57

The monsoon season is here. The afternoon thunderstorms have started, sporadically, like a threatening, drunk who stumbles through the front door home from the casino or bar, crashing into furniture, upsetting the natural order of things, blustery, dark. 

Though the rain when it comes is welcome, unlike the drunk. 

The lockdown is finally, mercifully, yet terrifyingly, coming to end. A confusing snafu of tweets, newspaper articles, and word of mouth suggest the curfew is lifting. Schools were supposed to reopen last Monday, but Sunday evening came and went with no further guidance from the education ministry on whether the government schools would reopen. Word finally came Monday mid-morning schools would, in fact, not reopen with no further word on whether they would reopen this school year. Since then, we have learned the kids’ school we remain closed for the rest of the school year. 

According to the local online paper, the plan for lifting of the curfew in Colombo would come in a special “gazette”. Elise and I joked of the gazette would be delivered by a town crier standing on a soap box on the street corner. We haven’t seen the gazette yet, nor the town crier. 

In the days and hours leading up to last Monday, a potential lifting of the curfew in Colombo, I felt a great deal of trepidation. I didn’t know what to expect. Official word the curfew would remain in place came too late for many. And, despite the lockdown continuing, the roads filled with lorries and tuk-tuks, racing to destinations unknown, on errands put on hold for two months. Where could everyone have to go all of a sudden in such a hurry? The streets, deserted only a day before, had become drag strips. I was almost run over on my morning run by a giant white BMW honking its horn like a braying donkey as it barreled like ivory metal death down the road. Surprisingly, every day this week has seen more and more traffic as essential businesses look to reopen despite the fact people are not allowed to leave their houses to frequent these businesses. 

As the Great Pause ends I feel...sad. Of course, I know life cannot be held hostage nor in a state of suspended animation forever, but I would be lying if I were ready for the quiet to end. Of course, it has not always been easy, and by quiet I certainly am not referring to the near constant, cacophonous din of three children continually fighting or complaining they are bored. 

Over the past two months, we watched a new version of life take hold, a view of what could be. The birds returned, the skies cleared, and every evening around six the once busy street full of cars in front of our house filled instead with people walking, riding their bikes, exercising. We saw what was possible but hadn’t been before. What makes me sad is we will have to give that all back. willingly, seemingly without a second thought. As though it was stolen and never rightfully ours in the first place when the complete opposite is true. What makes me sad is the impression I think most people won’t miss what was. I never thought I would be that guy who would retire to a quiet cabin or camper van on some secluded riverbank deep in the woods with a view of distant violet mountaintops. Now, I’m not so sure. 

Yesterday, as Sam and I were driving back from dropping his friend off, I asked Sam to continue to show patience, generosity, and kindness. It’s the only way we were going to get through this. As a family. As human beings. 

I told him as crazy as it sounded — and I know it hasn’t always been easy — but I hoped he would like back on the last two months as among the happiest of his childhood. 

One of our favorite dinners is something we have come to call “Cava Night” after one of our favorite, Mediterranean-themes fast-casual restaurants in Northern Virginia. Elise spends one full day gathering the ingredients, a pomegranate, parsley, cans of chickpeas, biranjal (eggplant). Another day on prep, charting the biranjal, roasting red bell peppers and making them into a spicy dip. And, finally, a third day pulling the meal together, making hummus and mutubal (the eggplant dip similar to babaganoush), cous cous, tabouli, Syrian pita bread. Elise says she likes to make it for me because of my Lebanese heritage. She wants to make my Sitti proud, but she doesn’t have to make Cava bowls to make Sitti proud. I know Sitti would have loved her. 

Awhile back, out ice cream maker broke. But I didn’t let that deter me. We kept the bowl so we can still make ice cream but I have to churn it by hand which actually really does make it taste better because it is almost impossible to overchurn the ice cream when you have to churn it by hand. I made strawberry ice cream from scratch this week. Elise said she though it was the best strawberry ice cream she had ever had. 

We’ve continued buying fish from the truck that pulls up in front of the house. He seems to be coming earlier and earlier. This morning he rang the doorbell 17 times at 6:30 a.m. I’m usually up, having just returned from an early morning run, but of course the one day I decide to try and sleep in the fishmonger comes to call. I bought a fish. I bring it into the kitchen while and clean it on the counter, filleting and skinning it. It gives me a small sense of pride. Providing for one’s family has become more figurative and less literal. I make money that does provide for my family, but little of what I do in any given day translates directly or literally to the dining room table, to sustaining their lives. Buying the fish from the truck, cleaning it, then cooking it gives me this small sense of accomplishment as a provider. I am not able to sail out onto the open ocean at dawn, to see the sun rise over the horizon or feel the salty spray of the seawater in my face, to pull the catch from the briny deep, but I can clean the fish and must seek solace in that one small connection to the fisherman. Having grown up in a small, South Florida fishing village should be worth something. Elise even called me “Florida Boy” recently. She used the term pejoratively. I’ve been trying to bring some good back to the moniker since. 

I’m not the fastest or the neatest at cleaning a fish, but I get the job done. Despite all of this, we’re eating fresh fish and getting our omega-3 fatty acids. Brain power. The kids are doing all right. 

I know the Great Pause has not been good to many and life must resume. Everyone will have a quarantine story. Some will find the silver lining. Many won’t or couldn’t. Through no fault of their own. People need to make a living. Trade beaver pelts, as Elise would say. Supporting oneself and one’s family, a small business, a trade, a craft, an art, has become a global hegemonic, artificial construct that is the Economy. How can we not protect the health and safety of loved ones without sacrificing our financial wellbeing? If we make our livings by participating in the Economy, a manmade creation, can we not craft or revise this artificial construct in such a way so a restaurant owner doesn’t have to fire every waiter, waitress, bartender, busboy, sous chef, line cook, and dishwasher the second a global pandemic strikes. I know it’s complicated but we should be able to figure this out. 

One particularly violent thunderstorm ripped through our neighborhood. Lightning cracked overhead. Thunder shook the house with the ferocity of King Kong beating on his hairy chest, caged animals gripping the steel bars and rattling their cages for escape. Elise keeps a bell on the knob to the front door, a camel bell she got while at the camel fair in Pushkar. The force of the thunder rang  the bell. 

We are living through history. Like the Great Depression or 9/11. I am anxious to see what historians will say about this time. What will be written five or ten years from now. How the divides that have been laid bare — when I thought we could be no more divided — are mended, how we become whole again. I know we will. As a people. As a country. There can be no other path forward. 

Last night, we had a Zoom call with my brothers. I recently saw someone on Facebook compare Zoom calls to the opening sequence of the Muppet Show or Hollywood Squares. It was hard to get those images out of my head. I’m sure I’d be the Jamie Farr of Zoom calls. Though it was very good to catch up with the family and see young nieces and nephews, I couldn’t help find something almost post-apocalyptic in the whole scene. Maybe it was the late hour. Maybe it was learning my dad tested positive for the virus shortly after returning from a ski trip to Aspen mid-March, a trip I remember being slightly shocked to learn he still planned to go on at the time. A bad dream. 

There is much to fear. But I appreciate these words from a recent commencement speech given by President Obama to the class of 2020, none of whom will be able to walk and receive their diplomas as they accomplish one of life’s greatest milestones, high school graduates, “Don’t be afraid. America’s gone through tough times before. Slavery, civil war, famine, disease, the Great Depression, and 9/11. And each time, we came out stronger.”

Monday, May 4, 2020

Lockdown, Part Seven - Images from Quarantine

Government curfew, day 45.

Many days are spent foraging for fruits and vegetables. 

As the kids attend to their online studies, and Elise and I work at either our computers or phones, we listen for the call of a vegetable hawker. The truck rolls slowly throyghe neighborhood while one or two masked hawkers yell in Sinhala, announcing its arrival. The ululating cry either marks the arrival of the fruits and vegetables vendor or garbage man, though the later is also accompanied by the mechanical siren of the compactor.

Recently, we've been receiving deliveries of king coconuts directly to our door. Elise now buys the entire stalk and keeps it by the front door. We keep three in the refrigerator. When we run low there, Elise hacks one from the stalk to replace it. 

After getting hooked up with several vendors who deliver high quality products, we may never go back to the store again. Among them is Honest Greens. We now receive a daily delivery of hydroponically-grown lettuce, kale, and basil. 

Since the banks have also been closed, a mobile ATM is available for people to withdraw cash.

We aren't supposed to leave the house at all, so we've had to get creative with our exercise, indoor activities, and use of the limited outdoor space we do have. 

The school continues at a steady rhythm to the end of the term. Sam's classes meet at set times throughout the day, creating structure for the entire house, myself included. Peter and Clementine's lessons have been more freeform. Though they've begun to add their own class schedule on Wednesdays.

The end of the term approaches yet no word yet on whether the kids will return to campus this year or not until the fall. If then. 

Crazy hair day.

Banana bread.

Most importantly, we've sought solace in quiet activities, ones that don't often reflect the torrent brewing within our brains, yet still offers release, a pressure valve to vent steam welling up on the inside, produced by wild vacillations of mood and spirits, tumbling thoughts, and the gears of mental machinations. 

We bake, we draw, we write, we gut and clean fish, wash fruit, water grass, do laundry, run stairs, sweep floors.

Elise paints.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Lockdown, Part Six - The Boy with the Bread Sandwich

Government curfew, Day 42

Norman Garmezy, a developmental psychologist researching resilience, met thousands of children in his four decades of research. But one boy in particular stuck with him. He was nine years old, with an alcoholic mother and an absent father. Each day, he would arrive at school with the exact same sandwich: two slices of bread with nothing in between. At home, there was no other food available, and no one to make any. Even so, Garmezy would later recall, the boy wanted to make sure that “no one would feel pity for him and no one would know the ineptitude of his mother.” Each day, without fail, he would walk in with a smile on his face and a “bread sandwich” tucked into his bag.

We're not yet making bread sandwiches nor wanting for anything to put between two slices of bread, but I am curious to know more about the boy with the bread sandwich. What did his classmates say? And how did he respond ? Though his mother may have been inept, he obviously saw something in her worth protecting. What was it? Was it something as simple as love?

I heard about the boy with the bread sandwich from a wellness coach. I know there is more to the story. My imagination tries to fill in the blanks.

I met the wellness coach while putting together a workshop on resilience for my office. Ironically, setting up two workshops on resilience for my office, one for the American employees and one for the Sri Lankan employees, tested my own personal resilience. Having to learn three different computer programs capable of hosting virtual meetings (two on my phone), is not easy for someone who many days can't figure out how to turn on the computer.

Though short (today is a holiday in Sri Lanka), this week seemed long.

Sam spent the night at a friend's house and stayed up until 1:00 in the morning playing Nerf guns. Two nights later, he woke in the middle of the night, unable to go back to sleep. One theory is he was too tired to get up and make it to the bathroom. Another is stress. He finally moved to the couch in the TV room under a Seahawks blanket his grandparents had given him.

Peter had to write an essay on the pros and cons of the government curfew. Heavy stuff for a fourth grader. Though I helped him navigate his Google search for evidence supporting his arguments, it was hard to completely sail clear of the figurative rocks along the shore. Terrifying headlines rear their heads unexpectedly like snakes lying in wait in the brush along a fall trail covered in fallen leaves, ready to pounce and drain their fangs into your calf.

Later that night he complained of an intense itching in his bottom. It was right before bedtime, and he was exhausted. But it's hard not to draw a line from the morning's heavy themes, through the six week lockdown, to freaking out because you feel itching in your butt.

Clementine was due for her typhoid vaccine so I took her to work for a shot. The last time she got a shot, she fainted. I'd never seen anyone faint before. As soon as they had administered the shot, she sort of convulsed. She wasn't out long, and it was the convulsion that scared me more than anything else.

I put Clementine in my lap. She didn't cry. She didn't even squeak. And ten seconds later she popped up and was rapidly licking at a Mystery flavored dum-dum. We thought it was vanilla. Or maybe root beer.

We stayed in the oversized leather examination chair, the color of a robin's egg, a medicinal, sterile blue, for another five minutes. I read the information sheet on the vaccine and potential side effects to pass the time, then we made our way to the front counter and the exit.

Then I heard a thump. Clementine fainted. Her head bumped the side of the counter. I slid to my knees on the carpet and caught her before she hit the ground. I had her in my arms, but I couldn't get up because my hamstring cramped.

A Sri Lankan doctor and nurse (and the receptionist) scooped Clementine from my arms. The three women took her back to the throne-like examination chair. She was crying, feeling, somehow, she was at fault for fainting the last two times she had a shot. Dr. Ruvini comforted her. I gave the doctor and nurse space as they checked Clem's vital signs.

She would be fine. Again. We sat in the examination room for another 20 minutes to make sure she was okay.

There are times I forget how completely not normal this all is. I remind myself and our family these unprecedented times call for unprecedented patience. We have to be gentle with one another, kind, patient. And yet the longer we are under a government curfew, unable to leave our house save for a brief, daily respite at the pool, the easier it is to lose patience, to show unkindness, to forget to be gentle and instead turn into a raging beast like Dr. Bruce Banner doused in gamma rays.

Yesterday, I was heating up leftover pasta for the kids for lunch. I asked Peter to grab his plate out of the microwave for me. He did, then the plate crashed to the kitchen floor, shattering. He screamed and ruptured into tears. I brought him to the sink and ran his hands under cold water, but he was not burnt, only scared. I picked him up and held him tight. I walked to the couch, put him in my lap, and held him like that for a long time.

Our children are resilient but even these unprecedented times try them. Like the boy with the bread sandwich.

It hasn't all been difficult. We now have a guy who will bring us king coconuts. We buy an entire stalk and cut them off as we have room in the refrigerator. Once cold, Elise hacks the end off with our good kitchen knife and...voila!...fresh, cold coconut water.

I recently read an article that compared surviving quarantine amidst the global pandemic to surviving a 16-hour flight with a crying baby.

The only goal is to arrive.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Lockdown, Part Five - Bandara's Plight

Government curfew, Day 33.

The doorbell rang. That's been happening more frequently. Sometimes, it is a delivery of groceries. Most of the time, it is a panhandler. The government curfew has been especially hard on the most vulnerable. I give when I can, mostly away from the house, from the car at intersections. I usually don't give from the home for the simple reason I don't want to encourage them to come back.

I opened the front door and went to the gate. A man with a handkerchief over his mouth was holding his drivers license out to me.

"I am a driver," he told me. "For a family." He waved down the street. "I want to buy rice."

"What is your name?" I asked him.

He showed me his license again. Four incredibly long names, ending in "Bandara".

He asked for 200 rupees, the equivalent of one U.S. dollar, to buy lunch. He said he would pay me back after 6:00, presumably when he got paid.

I retreated into the house, returned with a 1,000 rupee note, and handed it to him through the metal grate of the gate.

When I came back inside, I found Clementine on the computer googling pictures of doughnuts. There isn't a doughnut shop in Colombo, so the government curfew has no effect on her access to doughnuts though she makes it seem like it is the fault of the lockdown.

When I received an order of fruits and vegetables a short time later, a woman dressed in little more than rags, a surgical mask across her mouth, shaking her clasped hands at me in semblance of prayer or mercy, staggered toward the tail gate of the car delivering the groceries. I hesitated to give her a handout, but asked myself how I couldn't.

The day after Peter appeared in the living room, proudly holding a snapper by the tail he and Elise had bought from the back of a fishmonger's truck, I cleaned the fish. Inexpertly with a dull knife, but I got the job done. Then made a beer batter and fried fish . We are well that night. Elise and Sam made both corn and flour tortillas while Pete, Clementine, and I had gone for a swim. Fish tacos with a pineapple salsa, cabbage slaw, and sriacha mayo. At least we're eating well during the lockdown.

The rains have returned. Just in time. I had heard the month of May would mark the beginning of a second monsoon season. A thunderstorm last night knocked out power on our block, plunging the house in darkness. The generator kicked on, but alas no light.

The facilities team came the next afternoon to replace an electrical switch. They would have to switch the power off again in order to enact the repair. Five Sri Lankan electricians spent the next three hours hiding in the garage as a new wave of thunderclouds roiled the dusk sky and I carefully measured out the ingredients to a cosmopolitan up for Elise in the kitchen by the meager flashlight ony phone, attempting to hold the phone in one hand and the jigger in the other.

Bandara didn't return. I am persuaded the thunderstorm kept him from coming back to return the money I loaned him. Elise laughed at my eternal faith in humanity.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Lockdown, Part Four - The Pelican Feather

Government curfew, Day 30.

The morning perusal of internet headlines brought news of partial lifting of curfews in many parts of the island beginning tomorrow at 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. These daily breaks in the lockdown will not come to six metropolitan areas, including Colombo. For now, we remain under an indefinite lockdown.

The easing of curfews seems unrelated to a slowing in the spread of the coronavirus and more to do with providing economic relief to the most vulnerable. After several weeks of watching the same debate play out in the U.S., I inch closer to understanding on which side of the fence I fall and what governments' role in this complicated calculation should be.

Rather than finding comfort in that fact the government is striving to bring normalcy, I find myself apprehensive without knowing exactly why. The reason may be as simple as another change. Just when we were getting used to living in lockdown, a lifting of the same lockdown will bring another new routine.

I shared these apprehensions with Elise, finding it hard to say why not being confined to the house would make me uneasy. It's been a nice break. Telework is not easy, but once you embrace the lack of efficiency and, more importantly, your office doesn't fault you for a lack of efficiency, it's hard not to like not commuting, not having to shave or shower, getting to wear shorts all day long, and working at the dining room table beside Peter and Clementine.

I enjoy the quiet streets and wonder why anyone would want to go back to the how hectic it was before. The skies are bluer than they have ever been, unbelievably blue. Sam and I were driving back from his friends' apartment building, by the park in the middle of the city, when we were buzzed by a squadron of white egrets in fighter jet formation, fifteen or more birds each at least six feet tall a few feet off the ground. The next morning, we found a pelican feather in our yard.

I would like to think there is more to my apprehension than not wanting to go back to work. I definitely don't want to go back with the school still closed and the kids home, continuing online learning. Though I am not very good at helping them navigate their school day, I can make lunch and spell Elise when she is feeling overwhelmed. Keeping three kids focussed on three separate online lesson plans is a lot. I'm not a healthcare professional nor an economist and though I haven't been following the course of the pandemic as closely as others, while the number of cases still grows, I question the wisdom of opening society back up for business as usual. But I'm fortunate enough not to live paycheck to paycheck, so that easy for me to say.

It took five weeks, but every single Lego we own is now on the floor of the upstairsplay room. Sam spent every minute of daylight yesterday sorting through and building Legos.

I crashed on the couch this afternoon. After Clementine got done with her lessons, I somehow convinced her to lay down on my chest. She hadn't slept like that since she was a tiny baby and I held her like a running back carrying a football across the goal line. I didn't expect it, but she drifted off. We both did, dozing fitfully until Elise came downstairs to announce a seafood truck had parked across the street in front of the house. She and Peter went out to investigate and returned with a kilo of prawns and a snapper, Peter holding the decent-sized fish by the tail as though returning from a morning on the high seas.

Oh...and he is also teaching himself how to play the piano.