maternity leave the second

At some point in the last couple weeks, it occurred to me that I have now been home with Ben for fifteen weeks: almost the same amount of time that I spent with him when I was on maternity leave in California. Paul was here with us for a couple weeks at the height of the pandemic in April, but for the most part, it has been me and the kiddo, every day, since March 16th. It is the longest I have spent with him since that leave. It is the longest stretch of time I will spend with him for the foreseeable future.

This second leave, home with Ben, feels like a bookend to his childhood. It feels like I spent fourteen weeks with him at the beginning of his life, and then fourteen weeks again as he transitions from being a child into being a teenager. Ben is growing up: his language and attitude and emotions mature in leaps and bounds, similar to how he grows in fits and starts. He has finally crossed the invisible lines from being what we called the “biggest little kid” into being almost a teenager. It feels like a stretched out milestone, and it’s a milestone that sits on my chest to crush my heart.

This pandemic has gifted me with extra time with my son. Even though it has been challenging to manage him while working full time, it has still been extraordinary to be home with him every day. We have had the full time together, not just a few hours at the end of the day. We have been able to travel together to Georgia to visit our family at the beach. We have watched the entire run of Anne with an E, which Ben actually loved (#canadiancontent!). We had so very many days where we had lunch together, and even a handful of days where we sneaked out to a park or went for a walk.

So today, I’m reflecting on how this is my last day of this time with my son, the last day of the bookend of time we have. Tomorrow, Paul will pack Ben up and take him to Pittsburgh, where Ben will spend two weeks with his grandparents and their backyard ravine. He will then come home and go to YMCA camp in NJ for two weeks, after which he will go to Camp Jupiter (the tween-to-teen aged version of the Percy Jackson themed Camp Half-Blood) in Prospect Park. We’ll be together again after that for two weeks of quarantine in Toronto, plus a week with my family once we are released, as a sort of coda to our time together. But I still feel like today is an occasion, a time for reflection, a time for me to look at my son and reflect on how he is the piece of my heart that has been walking around outside of me for twelve years…and now he is his own person.

One more thing: I love symmetry. And to give today a full sense of symmetry, for my last day of a second maternity leave, we are spending it with Ben’s beloved aunties. Z and Wendy showed up at the hospital the day Ben was born, part of a crew of a half-dozen friends who came in that day to see the first baby born to any of us. So today, we are going to the beach with Ben’s beloved Aunt Z and her sister, and then will have a picnic (weather permitting) with Aunt Wendy as well. They were also there on the first day of Ben’s childhood, and they will be there on the official “last” day of it as well, next year, when he is bar mitzvah’d. But if we can get through the day without the predicted thunderstorms interrupting our plans, they will also be with my son, the creature they have known since he was an angry meatloaf, on this last day of this time I’ve had with Ben, before he resumes his (mostly) normally scheduled summer.

selling cheap to social media

Last week, while on vacation, I realized how much time I was spending on Facebook. I was putting at least an hour a day into the platform, scrolling through posts, engaging in groups, liking and commenting friends posts. I would tell myself that it was social, that it was beneficial for maintaining connections, to assuage the guilt that I felt every time I put down my phone and realized that twenty or thirty or forty-five minutes had just gone into the app. I would look up from the screen, and feel sick, almost dizzy, with the realization of the loss of time.

I thought about this a lot while on break. And in my “morning pages” journal exercises, I realized why my own perceived waste of time of social media was causing such an extreme self-judgement. There is the loss of time, of course, but there is also the loss of words. Every word that I put into a Facebook post is a word I am not putting into my own writing, my own craft. It is a double loss, of both my time and my creativity, when each blog post idea becomes just a Facebook update. I am not working on my own craft when I post or comment in social media, but rather, abbreviating my thoughts and putting the mangled remnants of concepts into the massive pile of content that fuels the Facebook platform.

This is not a new concept, even for a digital native like myself. I’m an Xennial, the very last micro-generation to remember a time before Internet, but I’ve also been online since my senior year of high school. As an adult, I still use the Internet much the same way I did as a teenager, to chat and post on bulletin boards. And, like a teenager, I will lose all impulse control when allocating time and energy to those activities, no matter what platform is in vogue at the time. (A side note: people my age went ten years before social networking sites arrived on the scene with Friendster in 2003, and Facebook’s most addicting feature, the News Feed, has only existed for the past thirteen years, which is half my online existence.)

Unlike my teenage self, however, I am now a grown woman who makes a living by putting ads on the Internet. I have seen the business plans of Facebook and Twitter as they pitch for my clients’ ad dollars. Alt-dot bulletin boards had no business model: Facebook does. I sit in presentations where I hear that each grown adult scrolls through an Empire State Building’s worth of content annually. I hear the monetization proposals, of how people my age are spending at least 30 minutes a day on the platform. That push for Groups this year was obviously to restore the slipping time spent on platform…until COVID-19 drove us all back to Facebook as we clung to ways to stay connected.

In the abstract I also know that the time and writing that I invest in Facebook is for the platform’s benefit. I know, conceptually, by posting, I am the product. I love engaging on the platform though, and it is hard to reconcile that cold, fiscal reality, with the imaginary warmth of connecting with friends. When I step back and look at the idea though, it’s disturbing. I am putting my time, my energy, my ideas, into a platform for Facebook’s stockholders’ benefit, not my own. And I am selling myself exceptionally cheap: the equivalent of $0.26 for each day’s use:

Being on vacation last week, having unallocated time, truly made me question how I was choosing to spend that free time. That was when I posted that I was taking a break from Facebook. I needed to rebuild the habits to prioritize activities that are of higher value to me. I have spoken of this idea before in the context of parenting: how I need to help Ben train his brain so the dopamine reward he receives from video games does not diminish the joy he takes from his creative activities. Clearly, I needed to build the same mental structure for myself.

So even though this was a great Adulting Decision, it didn’t quite work. Without Facebook, I promptly moved over to Twitter where I also have a bad habit of losing time. Only on Twitter, instead of fondly scrolling through friends’ posts, I get into debates with people with differing views than mine. I reply politely and I try to use more compassion than many people deserve when doing so, as one cannot change another person’s mind with aggression and cruelty. Still, those replies and engagements rapidly became a new time black hole, and an addiction of looking at notifications so I would be able to fire back responses because I am also addicted to arguing with people online.

I finally just deleted both apps, and downloaded one of the multitude of focus apps available (I chose Stay Focused) and set timers for the root domains: twenty minutes a day each for Facebook and Twitter. I can log on, check for actual news on Twitter, and check my most important groups on Facebook. I can prioritize those sites for the actions they are most valuable for, and know that, should I be tempted to exchange my valuable time for less valuable engagement on either, I will be kicked off the platform for the rest of the day. If there’s a trending news event, as there was Saturday was the flop of a rally in Tulsa, or a lively debate on a BPSA Scout leadership group on Facebook, and I have already spent my time for the day, then I will not be able to use those platforms to catch up. The #FOMO!

So far, it’s helped. I sat down and wrote this post today, for example, instead of spending the time online. The last hour disappeared the same way an hour on social media would, only I have a thousand words to show for it. I have my ideas, my story, my writing, a practiced craft. Writing is not only how I make sense of my thoughts, but also the equivalent of instrument practice for me, time to work on forming sentences and paragraphs that are in order, capable of transmitting my ideas into someone else’s brain. I will now, with absolutely zero irony, go post the link to this on Facebook and Twitter to share it.

the golden isles of Georgia

Ben and I are on a plane tonight, in first class because we’re so fancy, coming home from the Golden Isles.  We’ve been visiting my cousin and her sons for the past week, as they camped on Jekyll Island, just outside Brunswick.  It was a concept that my cousin and I came up with when I realized Ben desperately needed to get out of NYC, and wasn’t going to have his usual access to summer camp to do so.   We decided to fly down via Jacksonville, rent an AirBNB, and spend our week hanging out on the Georgia coast.

The Georgia coast, I should note, is incredibly beautiful.  This was the Low Country, the marshes and coastal ecosystem that extended up into South Carolina and down into Florida.  We would drive over the Jekyll Island causeway in the evening and I would catch my breath at the vista of marshes with the sparkling creeks running through them.  Jekyll Island itself is only partially developed, and is crisscrossed with roads that run under overhanging trees, dripping with Spanish moss, linking the beaches and historic areas of the island.  The island also has the petrified forest of Driftwood Beach, dozens of eerily beautiful trees left on the beach, dead from erosion and preserved in salt, that the boys climbed on for hours.  It was a beautiful piece of the world that was surprisingly under-exploited.

There is something deeply romantic about the Southern American coastal towns, built as they are on swamps.  The live oaks and Spanish moss, the secondary growth forests, the unique coastal landscapes of marsh and reclaimed land.  It is so different than the clean salt air of the Pacific Northwest, and yet similar in the way the landscape is dripping with life.  The moss hangs instead of carpeting the forest, and the trees grow outward instead of up, but it has that same timeless quality, a sense that the forests and the marshes will outwait the humans who try to settle and inhabit them.

This is why find it hard not to be charmed by the South at times.  There is an eccentric note to the Southern cities, an emphasis on aesthetics over business in places like Savannah.  It is like having an old aunt who tells the most marvelous stories while holding court in a perfectly preserved house.  Coastal Georgia also holds tightly to their English heritage, looking to not just an antebellum heritage, but to the very origins of European colonization (I almost wrote “founders” and then changed that: it is so very ingrained in me to refer to Europeans as “founders” or the first people).  I am also from a British colony, although one built much later in history, when More’s Utopia was a more distant memory, when the colonizers knew they sought exploitation and were no longer coating it in a layer of socialist vision.

This history is a fascinating narrative, until you start reading between the lines to what isn’t in the narrative: the people of color who are left out of that charming story altogether.  Those preserved towns and squares were likely built by Black hands.  Those beautiful buildings were paid for by cotton proceeds, profits stemming from stolen labour.  The coastal marshes and fertile islands were taken out from under the indigenous tribes that shelled and ate the piles of oysters found on the islands.  Considering what isn’t in the narrative of the South makes it much less charming.

This is why I find it hard to visit the South, because the narrative I hear when I go there is so skewed, with no interest or insight in creating a more inclusive story.  We hear stories about Europeans who came to Georgia and the Carolinas, but we do not hear about how their existence was made possible by the unpaid labour and land that they took at the expense of other peoples. We see the marsh ecosystem but not a tribute to the native peoples who lived i it. We see plantation ruins but do not hear the multidimensional perspective of who built and ran it. In many places, even outside of the Northwest, this narrative is becoming more inclusive; even in Virginia, at places like Monticello, this one dimensional storytelling is changing. In Georgia though, especially out on the coast, I felt like there were voices I couldn’t hear. It was like hearing a single topnote poorly and loudly played on a piano, when I knew there should be a whole melody, a whole orchestra, to make the sound whole.

The reason I’m also writing this, as I parse through my own thoughts this week, is because I’m thinking about statues coming down right now throughout the South. I am thinking of the Confederacy story, how romanticized it is, how those losers are lionized. The accusation is that destroying statues erases history, and I think it is the reverse: keeping statues is what keeps history one-dimensional and keeps the stories that need telling completely invisible. With this perspective top of mind this trip, it was difficult to stop seeing the limited story the Georgia coast presents to the outside world, history that is so narrow as to be revisionist.

the flattening of 2020

There is a flat aspect to life right now that we are just not used to in 21st century urban America. The world seems like it lacks dimension, like everything has been reduced down to the flat line we’re all traveling on to get to the other side of this crisis. We are so used to lives with so many wonderful aspects, that to be lacking in experiences, whether those are shared or not, renders life strange and devoid of color.

Walking through Manhattan today, I thought about how one of the major impacts of this shutdown is the removal of choice. Being out of the house, walking around a city, my instinct is to be able to take a break in a cafe or restaurant, to be able to go inside a landmark or museum, or to be able to shop if I see an interesting store. All of those choices are gone right now. There is no choice to duck into a store, nor is there an option to sit in a Starbucks and doodle in my journal. At night, the bars and clubs are closed, and there will be no goth club events for the foreseeable future. These small, everyday choices are effectively negated by the pandemic, as all “third places” have been rendered closed until further notice. For a city like New York, which depends on those third places to give its citizens space outside their tiny apartments, this adds a further sense of confinement to the already narrowing world.

The second shared impact is temporal dysphoria effect of the shutdown. The pandemic has created a shutdown state in which we are all reduced to the same daily routines, in the same space, without any of the movement or change that delineated days, weeks or even months. It isn’t just an issue on weekdays, when the workday ends and we lack the transition to home lives. It is the weekends, in which we remain in the same space, often doing the same tasks on a Saturday as we might have on a Monday. It has been the months in which we have not been able to gather for holidays, or attend the events we associate with spring, or engage in any of the societal milestones that usually mark time. Time has lost meaning for many of us, as our spatially based routines have been interrupted and eliminated. Our lives have lost those temporal dimensions.

With the flattening of our experiences though, and the compressing of our sense of time, there is also a shared sense of loss for these strange months. We all feel as if our lives are passing us by. There is a lethargy and a despair that is beginning to set in among New Yorkers, as we go into our twelfth week of quarantine without a real end date in sight. There is a lack of hope setting in, coupled and connected to a deep fear of negative change. We are unable to hope without a timeline for when hope might be practical, yet we are absolutely able to fear the future without a set schedule of when it might arrive. We lack the hope of being able to look forward to all of the things we loved about the city, which leaves us all without a counterbalance to the deep sense of foreboding and dread as to what the city will look like when we are on the much anticipated other side of this pandemic.

Fear without hope means that even this flattened existence feels unstable. The one-dimensional existence we all feel we occupy right now still manages to feel as if it has a deep dread underneath it, as if we are all on a sheet of ice over unfathomable dark waters. Every day we hear new stories of loss, of possibilities being extinguished, either by the disease or by the economics of the situation. It is the only thing that moves time forward, the litany of news that seems to remind us every day that there is a disease threatening the most vulnerable among us, that the urban way of life may be a victim of the disease, and that there is a madman in charge of the country who offers no support or compassion to any victim.

I am hopeful that these will, however, be the darkest days of the pandemic. I am hopeful that we can open up NYC without putting the people at risk who already need more support just to survive, provided we are mindful of that risk as we do so. I am hopeful that experiences and choices will expand, slowly, to give us all back the connection to the city, to each other and to our lives’ experiences we miss so very much. Until then though, we will all have to rely on our sense of empathy and compassion to get through this.

a change of scenery

At some point over the last couple weeks, my beloved apartment became claustrophobic. Instead of the just-right sized space it’s been for the last five and a half years, it became too small for the three people that live inside of it. I am fond of pointing out that we have nothing to complain about; my ancestors on the Lower East Side would have had three families crammed into the space we have, and probably a boarder or two to boot. It’s likely that the women in the family wouldn’t have even left the house, but would have stayed home sewing piecemeal work in sweatshop conditions. I should not be so quick to kvetch, and yet, I am. I love my husband and son dearly, but I am also used to leaving them on a daily basis, and I have not done so for over two months.

One of the key factors to the need for space is my renewed commitment to writing. I am intensely private when writing, and will instinctively hide a page I’m working on, which in turn breaks my flow of words. I may eventually publish whatever it is I am working on, but I may also be unable to spin out the concept into a full post, and may not be able to articulate my ideas. When I am working on my art, I am very protective of it, and will even raise my hackles at my beloved husband. This may be a fear based reaction, the old fear of ridicule that haunts many people from childhood, but it’s a reaction I honor when writing.

Over the last few weeks, even outside of my protective sense for writing, I’ve felt myself getting more and more prickly about space, both physical and mental. I feel as if my brain is overfilled at any given time with thoughts that are both superficial and overwhelmingly numerous. It feels as if my brain is overcrowded with short fragments of thoughts, all of which are too truncated to be braided together into a cohesive pattern or narrative, resulting in chaos. Adding in the mental spillover from two other people makes it even worse, a maelstrom of individual pieces, none of which I am able to focus on. I am overwhelmed not only by my personal and professional obligations, but also by the thoughts of my son.

I therefore decided to pick up one of the inexpensive mid-range hotel rooms in Manhattan, the sub-$100 rooms that are now common throughout FiDi and Times Square, where the demand for business hotels has fallen through the floor. After all, without business travelers, and without even the typical amenities of common space and lobby lounges to draw visitors in, hotels are merely trying to literally keep the lights on. I would reserve a room, I decided, and then I would settle in with my Chromebook and my planner, a glass of wine and a takeout salad, and write. I would continue to plug away at my steampunk novel. I would write blog posts, like this one you are reading now (how very meta!). I would be alone with only my own thoughts for an evening.

Over the past week, this ideal also evolved to include a walk to the hotel in question. I decided I would walk to the DUMBO ferry dock and take the ferry across the East River, and then I would walk home via the Brooklyn Bridge in the morning. I would return to that sense of adventure I love so much, setting out with a backpack in a city. Perhaps in the morning, I will go for a sunrise walk through Manhattan. It struck me as time I could re-connect with this city, which I love so very much, which I have not grown tired of exploring in the eight years I have lived here.

I set out this afternoon with a sense of adventure. I felt more like myself again, listening to Tiesto, loaded down with a backpack, walking past the boundaries of Prospect Heights. Except to drive to Central Park last weekend, I have not left the confines of my neighborhood since March, and like my apartment, my beloved neighborhood even feels too small as a result. I walked past the familiar reopening coffee shops and restaurants, heading northwest on Flatbush. I passed the Duane Reade and the UPS store, my most frequent errand locations. It wasn’t until I got to Atlantic Avenue that my steps slowed a little, as I passed the Modell’s with its bankruptcy announcement (although that is pre-pandemic), and then continued to pass store after store after store that was closed, each with a variant of the same note, dated March 22nd, in their window: “To our customers, we are closing to keep you and our staff safe during this global pandemic. Visit us online and come back when this is over.

This should not have been a surprise, and yet, I’m shocked at the emotional impact that this walk had on me. Upon reflection, I believe it was because I am used to my own neighborhood being closed, but seeing the next three neighborhoods in the same condition gave me a more realistic sense of scale of the disaster that has befallen New York City. It is one thing to see a microcosm of the economic devastation in my neighborhood, while reading about it in the abstract in the Times. It is an exponentially harder impact to walk two miles down one street, and see dozens upon dozens of independently owned restaurants and shops closed. Each one of those shops and restaurants had its own story, a possibility brought to life by brave owners who brought their passion to food or wine, art or hardware, clothing or housewares. Each one is now deeply at risk of being gone by the time the world starts up again.

I finally reached the end of Atlantic, where it hits Pier 6, where the ferry to Governors Island remains closed, along with the playgrounds on the pier that Ben loves so very much. I walked up Brooklyn Bridge park, past the piers, past the soccer fields of Pier 5 being used for practice still, past the forest at Piers 3 and 2, past the lawn at Pier 1 where I saw The Importance of Being Earnest (gender bending edition) last summer. And I tried to process this immense amount of sadness that seems to be pressing more on me than it has for weeks as I slowly walked the last half mile to the ferry.

What this feels like to me is a combination of grief and fear, that neither I, nor most of my generation in North America, have had to experience. I am grieving for the loss of New York City as I knew it, the city that represented this ultimate in intellectual sophistication to me. This city has centuries of being heavily invested in the arts in a way that the Pacific Northwest cities cannot replicate at this point in their history. It is a city where so many people are unique that being different seems to be the norm. It is a city where every individual is encouraged to have their own narrative and story and perspective, with none of those being identical or repetitive. I cannot bear to see this city choked to death by bankruptcy, by economic circumstance (even though it has lived by economics and capitalism its entire history). I cannot bear to see New York forced to accept chain stores and the monotony they bring, and I cannot bear to see a city that has so prized individual narratives forced to accept repetitive stories out of fiscal necessity. I fear that the city may not be able to rebuild in a meaningful way, and that the tapestry of New York City may be irreparably damaged.

The only consolation to this sadness is knowing that it will resonate strongly with many people, and that so many of my friends and neighbors will be able to understand everything I’m saying. As a person with a mental health condition, I have always assumed that my emotional responses are different than everyone else’s. I often describe my brain as being wired a little differently, as having pathways and connections that either fire in atypical ways, or that, on extremely bad days, do not fire at all. (I assume that the rest of the world is able to feel positive emotions consistently, that everyone else is able to receive those little rewards of happiness that are received throughout our existences for even the most mundane of activities. )

I am therefore surprised to realize that I am sharing an emotional experience with others. How strange it is to feel as if one is typical! I am disturbed because this is a case of mass sadness and disappointment, a circumstance created by disaster, but I am still comforted because it is an experience that so many people seem to be able to understand. I can speak of my grief and my fear and have others say “yes, I understand what you miss, and I understand your fear for our city.” We all have not just empathy, but a true understanding of each other’s emotions. That connection seems rare to me, outside of this kind of shared traumatic experience.

Being here, alone, in a hotel room, I do see that there’s a strange juxtaposition: I wanted my head space back so I could muse on sharing that head space with the rest of the city. But I really wanted my head space back so I could process this sorrow, this grief, this fear, this anxiety. These are the dominant emotions that make up my thoughts each and every day as I worry for my fellow citizens. I fear for all the individuals in all walks of life who make this metropolis so very vibrant. Today, I am more aware than ever of the devastation of the measures we have had to take to contain this virus, and how long and hard the road back to recovery will be.

on screentime

I was going to write an entire post on how the flattening of time is impacting us all right now, but instead, I think I’ll write about screentime. I just wrote an entire rant as a comment on the Forever35 parenting group because I cannot handle seeing people beat themselves up about their kids’ screentime right now. Everyone is allowing their kids about 3000% more screentime right now because our children have nothing else to do, but us parents have plenty to do, especially those of us who have been blessed and lucky enough to still have our full time jobs in the wake of all this nightmare of an economic disaster. We’re struggling to manage domestic and professional spheres of existence at once and it is metaphorically juggling every action all day long. If we can turn on Dolphin Tale 2 and buy an hour of quiet when we can put one of those balls down, then we should take it. It may be the only way we can keep ourselves from burning out, and we should never shame ourselves for doing so.

In recent years though, I have begun to truly resent the screentime issue. Screentime has always been part of the Great Shaming of the Mommy Wars, but in more recent years, has become an issue firmly tied to economic class (which is often also tied to race). Shaming parents for screentime, or making them afraid that screentime is going to break their kids’ brains, is yet one more facet of the American Merit Myth. We have now added “screen free childhood” as a contributing factor to future success, and we have added it into our class hierarchy accordingly. At best, we see the absence of screentime as one more element in the idealized environment we’re supposed to build for our children so they can go on to live great lives with full potential. In reality, screen access is one more place where privileged parents can point at other parents and say that their children’s economic circumstances are their own fault because the parents of the “failing” children didn’t institute screen limits. It’s the child rearing equivalent of broken windows theory

These kind of discussions are also nauseatingly terrifying because our society has been taken over completely by screens – and the people who invent them will not allow their own children to use the devices. The wealthiest Americans are paying for the privilege of having humans interact with their children instead of screens. Like all parts of the American merit myth, a low-screen environment has become one of the components of an educational system that is used to perpetuate the success of the same group of privileged families generation after generation. It isn’t realistic for less funded schools to have the staff required to manage a classroom of 32 kids without using screens. It is also unrealistic for people who do not have a dedicated stay at home parent (or a dedicated caregiver) to avoid the use of screens as a way to keep their children wholly occupied so they require less supervision. Even before the pandemic, with more people working more hours for lower pay, with radical economic inequality driving those hours, parents rely on screens so they can manage the household with the minimal time and energy they have left. Having a screen free kid is a status symbol because we all live basically in a Black Mirror uber-capitalist tech dystopia at this point, and that is why it angers me so very much to hear parents beat themselves up over screentime when it isn’t realistic to cling to an ideal that is more achievable by the wealthy.

As much as I resent the issue and debate and shaming associated with screen time though, I have a definitive stance on the appropriate use of screens for children. I limit screentime for my own child because there is an unnatural aspect to the way that screens are all consuming, which is why we have yet to truly understand the impact of screens on our squishy human brains. “Unnatural” becomes “frightening” when it comes to how compelled our children are to watch those screens. Screen based entertainment, be it TV or video games, educational or not, is always going to have a higher engagement quotient than other activities. It’s a constant flood of entertainment and avoidance of boredom, with very little input or down time.

I also see screen based entertainment as the equivalent of the enchanted Turkish Delight in the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. There’s a point where Edmund chooses not to eat his fish and potatoes at the Beavers’ house, because the memory of bad enchanted food drives out his appetite for real, nutritious food. I’ve seen my own child sit in front of a TV waiting for his allocated screentime because the ease of screen based entertainment makes “real” life unappetizing. Screen time is enchanted Turkish Delight: it makes all other activities seem unappetizing by comparison, even when those activities offer more mental nourishment than the screens.

Years of being a more avid reader than a TV or movie watcher has given me a theory: I see screen based entertainment as lazy story consumption. Screens are capable of pumping an entire story, complete with imagery and sound, into your brain. It’s kind of magical in that it requires your brain to do very little work, but rather, hands you the entire story complete with a visual context. Your brain gets all the reward and engagement of a narrative without having to do the heavy lifting of visualizing and imagining the story. It satisfies our love of stories and our love of experiences and occupies our brains completely with the sensory overload of sound and light in the process of doing so. No child should develop a sense that storied do not require imagination.

The other factor we all contend with are smartphones, those dopamine slot machines, evolved over time for the highest usage possible, and that is just the devices. That’s not even considering the games. I see toddlers playing basic smartphone games, poking at the screen with their pudgy little fingers while sitting in their strollers and it makes me a little afraid, because every single phone based game seems to be a derivative of that game in Star Trek TNG that everyone got super addicted to after Riker picked it up like an STD he got on leave:

And that’s not even going into the more “sophisticated” smartphone games, that are are now creatively designed to be more addictive than gambling:

(I am not even getting into social media here because that’s not a factor for kids under 12. Okay, maybe Instagram but I promise he’s using it as a creative outlet)

I’ve struggled with this as a parent for a decade and finally, I realized the only realistic answer for our family was for me to accept the screens where they were useful, and help my child be able to identify why screens are detrimental. I have to teach him to see the mental, emotional and spiritual nourishment in activities that are not screen based. I have to remind him that he will feel better overall from working on his own comedy than he will from watching SNL on YouTube. I have to remind him that he does take just as much happiness from playing board games online with a friend as he does playing Fortnite. Ben has to learn to take true happiness and joy from activities with sustenance, and has to teach himself that screen based entertainment is the mental equivalent of an enchanted sugar gel cube. Otherwise, once Ben gets past the point where I can control his every move, then he will promptly gorge on Fortnite and video games at every opportunity and will risk wasting hours, weeks, years of his life when he could be working on his art, or his sports, or spending time with friends and family.

Maybe if I had raised Ben without any of these screens, then he would only know how to get joy from non-screen activities. Raising him without screens, however, wasn’t realistic for a two-parent working household with an elementary school aged child. Now, it’s not realistic for a middle school student to not be able to engage with his friends through screens…or for him to be not be able to watch Netflix while his mother works during the long hours of this pandemic. I have to juggle the real with my own ideals, and decide not only what I want as a balance for my son, but what I want him to learn for himself as he grows up into an adult who will unfortunately be able to make all kinds of stupid decisions without his mother nagging him to work on his monologue.

So here’s what I actually posted to the thread in question:

For everyone on this thread, PLEASE do not shame yourselves. Please stop thinking you are bad parents for leaning on screens as a way for your children to engage with the world right now. You have the rest of your offspring’s childhood to teach them how to take joy in things that are NOT screen based, and you can do that when you are no longer trying to work full time from home while raising your children with no care support or relief. When we all get through this, teach your children where they can find happiness and flow and joy in their existences without screens. Teach them there are other things to love in this world WHEN YOU CAN, like board games and puzzles, musical instruments, books and writing, time with friends. Take them to parks, or to the forest. Teach them to love and engage with animals. Sign them up for a gender-equal Scouting organization or other wilderness group if they love the outdoors and you want them to do a screen free activity (I hear the Baden-Powell Service Association is great!) Whatever their jam is outside of screens, teach them to explore that just so they know what it feels like to have that that kind of real space happiness. But FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY DON’T PUT THAT PRESSURE ON YOURSELF EVERY SECOND OF EVERY DAY. It is FINE to allow your child to watch as much TV as they – and you – need to so that you ALL can live your lives as a FAMILY without throwing a kid out a window.

Also, to the OP, I firmly believe that a few months of extra PBS shows is NOT going to brain damage your child. I gave myself guilt over this for YEARS because I let my son watch Sesame Street when he was less than a year old, and I would like to save you all the agony by telling you that so long as you teach balance and how to live life outside of screens as well as how to use them responsibly, your kiddos will be FINE. Also they will likely learn the alphabet early and probably pick up some lessons about diversity because Sesame Street remains a bastion of literacy AND kindness. I salute you for your good taste in children’s programming 🙂

(PS. I let my son watch Sesame Street from 6 months on, plus his beloved Mr Wodgers, plus Dinosaur Train and Thomas and the whole PBS gang and aside from constantly trying to play Fortnite more than his allotted hour a day, he’s fine. Then again, those video games are designed to be as addictive as a Vegas casino, so I don’t think skipping PBS shows in 2009 would have helped us with our Fortnite addiction issues in 2020. Separate post.)

I did not add, “screen time is an economic issue” or “screen time is part of the rapidly escalating class war”, because that’s a separate topic and what I wanted to say was for parents to give themselves some fucking compassion at this time. Still, all these things are tied up together: the screen time, our kids brains, their emotions, their addictions, and the way capitalism will take advantage of all those factors now and in the years to come. The cynical dystopia is already here, and is the reason we are even having to engage in this conversation in parent groups. A tech dystopia has no space for compassion. But that is also a post for an entirely separate day.

underestimating parenting problems in an age of inequality

Every day of this pandemic, I feel as if I am accountable to bear witness to the impact the coronavirus has on other New Yorkers. At first, it was the economic impact, as the service jobs disappeared quite literally overnight, back in March. Then it was disproportionate impact COVID-19 has on the less affluent neighborhoods of New York, the food deserts impacted with high air pollution, where the conditions of the neighborhood make the residents more prone to the effects of the virus. Now it is knowing that an essential workforce goes out there every single day to take care of other New Yorkers.

Credited to Bruno Iyda Saggese

The COVID-19 quarantine is also terrifying in the impact it has on children and their education. In New York City alone, thousands of students have city issued devices, but no wi-fi with which to access the school curriculum online. I would imagine even more students have access but do not have parents who are able to support them in the transition to online learning, due to tech literacy or language barriers. This is an issue across the country, but has been in high focus in New York due to the massive gaps in access in such a small geographic area.

And it isn’t only school where children, my son’s classmates and peers, are impacted. Yesterday, I was reading an article on how this summer will be bleak for children and especially for those children in New York City who are already impacted harder than Ben has been due to coronavirus. The lack of city programs, from a combination of budget cuts and quarantine precautions, will have a massive impact on children throughout this city.

Knowing all this, witnessing all this, we have of course been budgeting to send extra money to CAMBA for wifi in shelters or to CHIPS for food bank assistance. Our donations, however, are only a drop in the bucket of what’s needed. Millions of dollars would be a Band-Aid on the effects of inequality on New York kids just like my son, as they struggle to learn and keep up, as the gaps in access and privilege are made even wider by the pandemic. And so, my mental landscape has been shaped by our privilege and good fortune, our middle class comfort, my son’s ability to transition to remote learning with far more ease than a lot of his peers due to his age and materials for learning and his parents’ ability to support him.

It wasn’t until this week that I realized I had been underestimating Ben’s quarantine related sense of loss, as it fell into the peripheral vision of how very much we do have as a family. I had focused on how easy it was for Ben to transition to online learning, using the tech skills he’s developed over the years, combined with my own decades of white-collar organization. Paul and I saw him sitting down and working every day, looking at his schoolwork on Google Classroom, connecting through Zoom to his extracurricular activities and his friends. We thought that because we were able to support him in replicating his life on digital platforms, that he had adapted and everything was fine.

We dramatically underestimated the impact of social distancing on our kid, as his entire life has been yanked out from under him. Ben lost less than many New York kids due to the resources he still has at home, but he still lost a lot when the social distancing went into effect six weeks ago. Ben lost his freedom and his independence, his ability to take the subway or go for lunch at Chipotle. He lost engaging with his friends every day in their school habitat. He lost baseball, which is one of his passions, as Mr Sportball loves the sports. He lost all his in-person contact in every single activity, and I cannot expect him to get the same emotional value out of a digital equivalent. He can’t even go out and shoot hoops with a neighbor kid right now as playdates are even unsafe. So much of what was important to my son, all these things he has been discovering are part of who he is and who he is growing up to be, are completely absent from his life right now.

We discovered this week that this had manifested in some serious behavior issues, which I will not go into at the request of Ben, who has asked me to please not tell everyone what he did because he is very ashamed of himself and is very sorry. And as my son becomes a teen and a tween, I’m trying not to reveal his life as an extension of mine, but rather, accept that he is a separate person from me and that I can only write or talk about him as part of my own story and the impact being his mom has on me. For the intents and purposes of what I am struggling with today, what Ben did isn’t actually that relevant. What is relevant is that I assumed he was okay because we, as a family, have been so fortunate, and it was a mistake to do so. Of course Ben is not okay; of course he needs more support from his parents as he’s dealing with a situation that is scary and weird and most of all, lonely.

That is what I am now trying to deal with. My baby is mostly okay, but in some very deep ways, he is not. Nor should he be. No one is okay in all this. Even the most fortunate of us are not okay. I had assumed that because I am one of the 30% of Americans who easily transitioned to working from home, we would be more okay than most, and perhaps we are. But I cannot view okay-ness on a relative scale and reduce my son’s mental health to a binary: just because he has more then a lot of other kids does not mean his life will feel whole at this time. He is still struggling and he is still lonely and cooped up and miserable, and until this week, we had not given him permission to not be okay.

I tend to view my life through a lens of class privilege. That lens, however, doesn’t allow for a lot of recognition of my own problems when they are made relative to the much greater issues of the wider world. I would prefer my son to feel comfortable with his own problems, to feel like he is allowed to have those problems, and not like his problems are completely negated by his own middle class situation. Ben’s lack of happiness should not be diminished or made irrelevant due to the context of inequality the pandemic has brought into sharp relief around us. He should not be blinded to how fortunate he is, but also should not be made to feel as if he has to reduce his own emotions as to not seem ungrateful.

I’m going to have to carefully balance this, as I work out how to ensure my son remains aware of everything he does have, without feeling as if his material security and access to education cancel out his right to feel and express negative emotions. Parenting, even for the most privileged of us, is extra hard and extra complicated and extra fraught right now, and I am now much more aware of that than I was last week.

every day is like sunday

Well, perhaps every day is not quite silent and grey, but it does feel a bit like waiting for an Armageddon. Especially since the President has decided to take this opportunity to start breaking down environmental laws so everyone’s lungs and immune systems will be good and weakened for the next pandemic. (Do not even get me started on how millions of Americans are waiting for checks because Trump insisted on using the government funded stimulus as a campaign stump).

It’s been just over four weeks now since what I still think of as the Day the World Ended, back on March 12th. That evening, I was supposed to go to a very worthwhile charity event with one of our media vendors. My boss and I had been invited to meet our sales reps for blowouts at Drybar before the show, and so we took the subway uptown mid-afternoon to do so. But by the time we got to the Upper West Side, the event had been canceled; by the time my hair was blow dried, Broadway was shut down. The group of us scheduled to spend that evening at the concert immediately went together to a wine bar and spent four hours drinking, watching the news alerts on our phones, as social distancing went from the opt-in it had been two days before, to a critical order to save lives. We knew things were about to change and that this would likely be the last night we had in “normalcy”.

In hindsight, listening to a siren right now somewhere in Brooklyn, this entire day was irresponsible. At the time, COVID-19 was spreading through New York. We had hundreds of cases we didn’t know about. We had a curve of sickness and death coming for NYC that we all drastically underestimated. And I still chose to go to work that day even though the office looked like this:

Of course I suspect many of my teammates who opted to work from home on Thursday the 12th, also were out at bars until all the bars shut down on Sunday the 15th

By Sunday the 15th, when the first wave of businesses were forced to close to prevent gatherings, Paul and I had decided to keep Ben home from school starting on March 16th. We saw the pleas from teachers to reduce the number of kids in school; we had the privilege and luxury of being able to stay home with our child (By “we” at the time, I meant “me”, as OMD went from “rotating staff” to “work from home” over the course of the weekend). I had barely had time to post that decision and rationale on Facebook before the schools shut down.

Two days later, the Canadian border closed, causing me to hyperventilate in panic that I might not be able to get home, as Amtrak and Porter Airlines stopped service to Toronto.

By the end of the week, we were in Cuomo’s version of “shelter in place”, watching as the governor cheerfully shamed our local Greenmarket on national TV:

The city has 24 hours to come up with a pedestrian streets plan to ...

In hindsight, I did not stop to just think through what the impact would be to the healthcare system and how many of our healthcare workers would have to put their own health at risk to save others. I did not know, that last day, that there would be this high of a curve to flatten. None of us knew back in early March that this disease had been quietly spreading below the line of public consciousness for weeks. I knew the coronavirus would rage through New York, and that it would impact the most vulnerable of my neighbors, but I did not realize how horrifying it would be to see New Yorkers put their lives on the line every day for the past month.

I did not know COVID-19 would rage uncontrolled and unchecked through the people who make New York City what it is: our MTA conductors, our teachers, our first responders, and most of all, our healthcare workers.

I did not realize how COVID-19 would kill hundreds of people who worked tirelessly for years to ensure my neighborhood’s children are taught, that we get to work, that we are safe, that we, and our neighbors, are cared for.

I jumped on the #flattenthecurve bandwagon the week after the world ended, but I wish I had jumped on it sooner and encouraged everyone else to do so. I am not sure if more of these brave and self-sacrificing New Yorkers would still be here if all of us had done so.

So here we are four weeks later. We adjust every day to a “new normal”, until that new normal shifts under our feet. At least one day per week now feels like the Day the World Ended over again, as things change faster than I can mentally process. This week, two of my friends came down with COVID-19. This week, the layoffs started at OMD. And when the first round hit yesterday at work, I shut down and spent the evening numbing my brain as much as possible:

For the record, I was drinking organic tequila mixed with CBD infused, watermelon flavored sparking water, because I intend to remain as bougie as possible and also did not need a hangover today.

This is not waiting for Armageddon, but it does feel, every day, like there is a next step towards some sort of partial apocalypse: more sickness, more death, more sorrow, or, on the other side of this COVID-19 coin, more jobs lost, more people without even basic resources, more people vulnerable than ever before to the consequences of the extreme capitalism of America in the early 21st century. Every day is like Sunday, and even a beautiful spring Friday has an undertone of being silent and grey. We will all wait this out, we will all get to the changed world on the other side. I just wish we didn’t have to all bear witness, together, to as much despair and suffering on the way as we all will before this is over.

out of hibernation

I am a big fan of the Thursday Next series, the alternate reality, extremely British series by Jasper Fforde. Last year, I read his new, even more insane book, “Early Riser“:

“Bonkers” is a very good word to describe this one

The basic premise of “Early Riser” is that everyone hibernates, like bears, through the winter. Society is therefore structured around the hibernation season: eating more leading up to winter, surviving the winter without starving to death, and shutting down everything that isn’t absolutely essential during the winter season. For those of us with seasonal depression, this actually sounds like a fantastic idea as it would relieve 100% of the pressure on us to function during the winter months.

Unfortunately, we do not live in a society structured around winter hibernation, and as a result, I have to keep functioning until the time change and vernal equinox in March. With depression though, I have to expend twice as much energy to accomplish what feels like half as much work. It is difficult to start an activity or action, and I do not feel any sort of joy or sense of reward from completing it. With the commitment level that I have in my life, I then feel stress, anxiety and guilt for not having completed the tasks that I owe to other people, whether that is at my paying job, my volunteer work, or to my family. The resulting pressure mounts up over the next few months and by March, I’ve usually hit a wall:

Cycle of depression and anxiety

This year, however, I’ve been blessed in that spring seems to have come early to the Northeast. The weather this weekend has been sunny and brisk, but not freezing. The world is filled with light and early blooming spring flowers. I feel like I am waking up, like my hibernation is over, like it is mentally safe to emerge and take back on my usual day to day existence without having to fear that I won’t be able to honor or complete my commitments. We may be doomed to changing weather patterns in the Anthropocene, but at least the 2020 weather patterns are benefiting me personally!

Still. I wouldn’t mind a hibernation period every winter. I would love it if nothing was expected of me every winter for about three months, while I slept and allowed my brain to rest and heal itself. Perhaps someday I’ll be in a position where I can align my life with the seasons, allow myself not to fight and struggle as hard as I can against the constraints of depression every winter. Perhaps I am made to hibernate. Between the idea of hibernation, and the concept of literature as a driving force of society, Fforde is onto a lot of alternate reality ideas I would be happy to get behind.

now panic and freak out

Many, many years ago, back at a small agency called Integrated Media Solutions (now integrated into Assembly at MDC), one of the agency owners thought it would be smart to put “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters around the office. My immediate smart-ass response was to purchase a “Now Panic and Freak Out” T-shirt

Image result for now panic and freak out
This was honestly more apt for the context at that job.

It’s a good thing that I still have that T-shirt, because this mentality has taken over the entire world this week as the coronavirus panic spreads across continents. My college friend who is now in Basel, Switzerland is waiting to be put on quarantine. My former co-worker in Melbourne, Australia is trying to buy supplies at the local grocery store only to find bare shelves. And here in New York, lines for Trader Joe’s are two hours long, while the Park Slope Food Coop volunteers frantically try to keep the shelves stocked. Y’all, it is not even a real apocalypse and you’re all terrifying me in your survivalist style hoarding.


WHY ARE YOU BUYING WATER???
YOUR TAPS WILL STILL WORK.
Panicked New York shoppers are stocking up on water and toilet paper (Photo NY POST)

I am rationally not afraid of COVID-19: Paul and I are both young-ish and in good cardiovascular shape, and this particular disease only manifests as a bad cold in 80% of the population. What is terrifying is the global response that triggers my anxiety from years of reading flupocalypse novels. I’ve read The Stand at least four times. Station Eleven captured me with the intensity of its characters and vision, an elegy for the world as we know it today. Severance struck me with the comparisons of nostalgia and routine comfort to a fatal disease. All of these are haunting novels that portray the extreme transformation of the human aspects of the world due to the spread of a highly contagious flu, and I have absorbed each of them. Hence my low grade fear and anxiety as everyday people around the world engage in preventative actions that could well be from any of these books. It is too easy for my brain to connect the coronavirus preparations being taken in NYC to plot points taken out of an apocalyptic narrative.

Most recently, I read Kimi Eisele’s The Lightest Object in the Universe, which is described as “hopeful apocalyptic fiction” for its depiction of communal living and support among neighbors. However, the book opens with a quick history of how the infrastructure fell apart, depicting a series of economic and environmental factors, including the flu, leading to the breakdown of electricity and supply chains:

“The Lightest Object in the Universe”, Kindle edition.

Eisele’s factors are more Snow Crash than the Stand, with hyperinflation and oil supply chain breakdown. While the complete breakdown of the supply chain and power grid may be unlikely in the immediate future, the impact of the coronavirus on the world economic markets has made me feel that we are all more financially vulnerable than we would like to think we are. Seeing the impact of the virus on the world’s economies, combined with the obvious drain on the supply chain from stockpiling for quarantines, it is a reminder that the reason dystopian fiction sells so well is because we are always only two steps away from society potentially breaking down, with or without without the electrical infrastructure we’ve built on for the last century.

In the event of a breakdown of society in the U.S. though, my family unit is better poised than most to survive thanks to our experience in the Scouting and Guiding systems. I have never been worried about mine or my loved ones’ survival. Rather, I have been worried about having to deal with everyone else acting like a crazed maniac in irrational attempts to survive. Seriously, New Yorkers, you are buying bottled water and stripping stores bare over one confirmed case in Manhattan where the woman is already quarantined. Stores are sold out of what I still call “SARS masks”, even though less than half the population bothers to get a flu shot. I can’t find the statistics but I would bet money that the same people who are preparing for the flupocalypse are also not washing their hands any more frequently than before. What kind of mayhem would result if this disease had a higher mortality rate than 2.4%?

Fear of the disease has become irrelevant in the wake of the imminent disease strike in NYC though, so we’re preparing for quarantine at home. We’ll stock up on dried beans and rice, canned tuna, frozen and long-life storage vegetables. We’ll prep to work from home, or to have stores around us closed, because we can. I am more concerned for those who cannot take time off, or who cannot afford to stockpile, or both. Food pantries are worried about providing supplies to people in case of a quarantine. Care workers, especially those working with vulnerable populations like the elderly or hospitalized, are already underpaid and given little time off – is it any wonder that the outbreak in Seattle is centered around a seniors care facility? We have set up a society where we have a massive working population whose pay and vacation are so limited that they literally cannot withdraw from contact with others at the risk of food and shelter insecurity. It is meaningless to have a quarantine in a society with this level of inequality. Perhaps, after all, a societal collapse is not only imminent, but needed: a panic and freak out for the ages.