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  • katherine halligan

Updated: Oct 13, 2020

This morning I went running — now there’s a euphemism if ever there was one — for the first time since 2009. Luckily, the intervening years were spent almost constantly dashing after small people — sometimes quite quickly, depending on the magnitude of the danger into which they were flinging themselves with gay abandon — so it was surprisingly less painful than I had imagined it might be. I loped along, delighted with myself and ready to conquer the world… for the first 90 seconds.

As it got increasingly difficult, as I could feel my face flush, and my knees protest, and my lungs burn, and I began to imagine all the various parts of my unfit body that would make themselves excruciatingly loudly known to me tomorrow, I was struck by some of the well-worn metaphors and cliches that athletes and sports writers have at their disposal. Each tiny rise and fall in the ground made my journey harder, but it also made it better: the prettiest part of the park is at the top of a small slope, so my efforts up that (baby) hill were rewarded by the loveliest view. For, after all, there are few rewards without pain. I felt the fear and did it anyway. I just… did it.

I actually did it on something of a whim — so in fact I did just do it — but it’s also been a long time coming. Since lockdown began over six months ago, although I have managed to provide my children with ample opportunity for exercise, my own fitness has gone from fair-to-middling to downright terrible, not least because now instead of running to stop a child from whatever mischief or danger they are engaged in, I just shout across the room. And the longer the restrictions continue, the more the mischief, so the more the shouting. (Yesterday it was my older child, wielding a box cutter and unwittingly threatening to dismember more than just the package she was attempting to open.) No one likes the shouting, least of all me, but sometimes it just has to be done.

I feel the same way about intense exercise in general and running in particular: it’s a necessary evil. Just like politics.

Which thought leads to me to where I’ve been chugging (and puffing) all along: I must confess to the tiniest moment of schadenfreude this morning on learning the news that the universe might be attempting to teach a certain someone a certain lesson. My epicaricacy (for that is the rather obscure English equivalent of schadenfreude, and it is just as appropriately fun to say) lasted just the teensiest, weensiest micro-second… and then I slapped myself briskly back into my usual compassionate mode, and it was over. (But first, my friends, it was there.)

In literature, villains are often offered a moment of redemption, when they see the errors of their ways before it is too late; other times, they simply get their comeuppance. Based on the evidence of other right-leaning villains who might have learnt a lesson after their COVID-induced brushes with mortality but didn’t — BoJo in Britain, Bolsonaro in Brazil (the alliteration is also rather conveniently literary) — there isn’t frankly much hope that this particularly vile villain will come out the other side more aware, more sympathetic, or more humbled by this experience. (But hope springs eternal, and I do hope he sees the error of his ways.) We shall see which way things go for our antagonist in the latest chapter of this horror story that is being written. (I often imagine a rather satisfying epilogue, in which he takes up residency in another big house, also sponsored by the government, wearing a snazzy one-piece suit whose shade nicely matches his makeup and hair.) But maybe, just maybe, this morning’s news will make even just a few of his followers begin to question their own refusal to put on a mask and slow the spread, and that would be a victory indeed.

Let me be clear: I do not feel any joy at anyone’s suffering, because no one — however awful their behaviour — deserves to suffer. I feel despair at anyone and everyone’s suffering, which means that these days I am exhausted; I have such a bleeding heart that there are days lately when it feels like it’s hanging in tattered shreds. So I hope I’m not a completely bad person for thinking, “They told you so.”

Nice guys — we must fervently hope — do not always finish last. Good things come to those who wait (and goodness knows, Joe’s waited). And speaking of waiting, I waited over ten years to re-immerse myself in running (no, let’s call it what it is: jogging/ stumbling/ shuffling), but I am glad I did it. I ran (jogged/ stumbled/ shuffled) over a mile today, and it felt very, very good. My efforts this morning were rewarded not just by a smug sense of superiority (a dose of which I’m also hoping for at dawn on November 4), but by my smallest running partner — for we did it, as we do most things these days, en famille — presenting me with a beautiful bouquet of morning glories, resplendent in shades of deep purple and the richest blue (is that a prophetic blue? Again, we must fervently hope), and saying, “Good job, Mommy”.

And I thought about how that little bouquet of joy was also a bouquet of hope: hope for my restored fitness and for a restored country, hope that what seems impossible is actually within reach, that after this deep valley the view from the mountaintop will be so much more glorious. That the darkest hour is just before the dawn.

  • katherine halligan

Updated: Oct 19, 2020

This morning I dropped off my children at school — at actual, real, physical school — and so I am now sitting at my desk (MY desk! MINE!), for the second time since the eleventh of March. That’s approximately six months and 17 days since I last sat here (not that I’m counting) and was truly productive in any meaningful way.

Let’s be very clear: I am not now being productive in any meaningful way. I am sitting here, writing this post. But I am not delving into the piles of desk work and filing that have been ignored for eons. I am not dealing with the screamingly urgent life-min that lurks in my inbox. I am not doing anything remotely constructive in a professional capacity. But I am here, and that feels exceedingly good.

The first time I had sat at this desk since March 11 was last week. My husband finally cracked and went out for an actual coffee meeting with actual humans, before walking through an actual door and into an actual building, to sit at an actual desk. I was delighted because it was not my desk where he was sitting, and he was delighted because he was OUT. In the real world.

But that moment of happiness at being reunited with the workspace I had so painstakingly carved out for myself — only to have to relinquish it to my husband at a moment’s notice on March 12 (he brings home the bacon, after all, so it was fair enough) — was brief. For approximately six minutes after I sat down, I was required to leap back up again to help my seven-year-old log back into her Google classroom and then again every three to nine minutes thereafter to help her rescue herself from her accidental logouts, to quell her confusion over which breakout group to join, to show her (again) how to make a text box in her Google slide, and to calm her uncertainty about the real purpose of ten-frames and whether they actually make math easier (I agree with her: it does get harder before it gets easier, as with so much in life).

Meanwhile, my ten-year-old was busy learning at her new desk in her bedroom-that-is-also-her-classroom. But she was not learning from her brilliant teacher about American history, prime factorization, dangling participles or any of the other things she is actually supposed to be doing, but instead from the two boys who’d been assigned to her breakout room about — wait for it — Garbage Pail Kids, which are apparently having a major comeback. As I eavesdropped on their conversation — my curiosity piqued by her squeals of “Ewww, that’s disgusting!” — I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry.

And thanks to the beauty of the world wide web, in which we all find ourselves hopelessly tangled — now more than ever — there is no escaping any of this: the dashing up and down the stairs to help our children in their alternating (and sometimes simultaneous) IT-induced crises, the incursion of very loud (and often slightly yucky) ten-year-old boys into one’s home via the magic of the virtual classroom, the competing sounds of three different Zoom calls happening all at once. But unless you wish to crawl under an actual rock or at the very least your duvet, which has been seriously tempting of late, you are stuck riding those waves which we are now forced to surf through the ether.

Ironically, we currently live in Surf City, USA, and although I grew up in a town fetishised in a Beach Boys song, none of us actually surf on a board in the ocean. Instead we find ourselves almost constantly surfing the world wide web. As we all know all too well by now, it promises us a bigger, better, faster life, and in fact just leaves us enmeshed, ensnared, and trapped. It offers us information, but not knowledge. It offers us falsehoods masquerading as facts. It exposes our children to dangers we never knew as children, and so we are constantly on the defensive, worrying and wondering where we’ve left a breach in the wall that we cannot see or even imagine; we — and especially they — are more vulnerable than ever before. It offers us freedom, and yet captures our minds and our personal data and leaves us feeling empty and hollow and not a little bit stressed.

Just the other week, as I was up to my ears in all of the technical and emotional chaos that virtual learning entails, one of those data breaches allowed a particularly blood-thirsty spider out there in that web to ensnare me in its sticky silk, steal my identity (again), and endanger all that I hold dear — or at least my money and my good name. That vicious arachnid (and I don’t mean to impugn our eight-legged friends — Charlotte imprinted herself on my heart at a young age so I never, ever deliberately hurt a spider — but I’m just going with this spider metaphor here) robbed me not just of yet more of my personal data, but also of my peace of mind. My entire week was hijacked, as I dealt with banks, credit card companies and credit bureaux. So instead of enjoying the fact that my children were now occupied with something other than TV and video games, I was deeply stressed: there was no yoga, there was no fun, there was none of the mental quiet I’ve worked so hard to create and maintain during these exhausting and uncertain times. The whole experience made me want to erase my digital footprint entirely, stuff my money under my mattress (attention, all you would-be burglars: I didn’t actually do that), and fashion a hat out of aluminium foil so they can’t intercept my brainwaves.

This is not the first time a burglar has ransacked my carefully constructed digital home, and it’s unlikely to be the last; it could have been the same someone, or the first thieves might have sold me on to an even larger and more aggressive cyber crime ring. I thought I had protected myself better after the last time, and I will now spend hours and days grudgingly increasing the fortress around myself, bracing myself for the next onslaught. But I will also make myself smaller and harder to find: less online shopping, more in-person experiences, fewer passwords, more real conversation. Things will take longer, and I’m just fine with that. I have deleted the apps that are supposed to make things easier, and will pick up the phone. I will use paper and pen. Our landline is being reinstalled shortly. As we’ve discovered during our COVID-induced paralysis, the world won’t actually stop turning if we all slow down a little bit.

This isn’t the first time I’ve done a digital purge and lived to tell the tale. I have always had a love-hate relationship with IT. (Actually, it’s really a hate-hate relationship, but I am working on being less cynical and angry these days, so I’m trying to feel just a tiny bit of love here. Waiting… Nope. Nothing. Still hate it.) So for Luddites like me the realities of being completely and utterly dependent on it for everything — from grocery shopping to chats with friends to banking — has been especially excruciating. My husband tries — rather foolishly, on the evidence — to point out that no matter how much I shout at a computer when it doesn’t do what I want, it’s not going to start suddenly doing (or not doing) what it’s been persistently doing in a clearly concerted effort to compromise my sanity: it’s a machine. His kindness towards inanimate objects of the computorial variety is admirable, just as my impatience towards them is ludicrous. But Einstein perhaps foresaw the misery we would create for ourselves with our over-dependence on smart-but-dumb devices: “insanity,” he reminded us, is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Which captures my IT experiences to, well, a T. That T and I just don’t get along. So, yes, I hate IT. (Ahhh, it feels good to own my loathing).

I am not alone in my mistrust of and frustration with IT. My grandfather, who lived a storied, expansive, and truly extraordinary life, sent an email in the late 1990s, his first. It was entitled “Help, I have a computer”. Having not typed since law school in the 1930s — after that he had secretaries to do it for him — the act of typing and simultaneously jumping feet first into cyberspace was both brilliant and brave. I remember him every time I have to do something I don’t want to do in the digital world — which is basically daily — and I press ahead, thanks to his wonderful example of feeling-the-fear-and-doing-it-anyway.

The more astute among you will have noticed that you are, in fact, reading this blog on my WEBsite. This does not make me a hypocrite, but rather all the more proud of myself for setting up this site all on my own, with no external help whatsoever from anyone at all. Yes, I made my career making physical books made out of actual paper with actual pages that you have to turn with your actual fingers, but I didn’t have a long and generally successful time in publishing without occasionally using digital technology to create those physical objects. Current tirade aside, I accept, of course, that in order to live in this time and this place we must interact at least somewhat with the wonders of the world wide web.

But my fifteen-year delay in getting onto social media ended only because a global pandemic started. I joined Facebook only to help my children connect with their friends (and frankly, we haven’t quite sorted that out yet because — of course — it won’t let me configure their profiles on eight out of the nine devices we own, thereby proving my belief that IT causes more problems than it solves). I got onto Instagram when I realised that might be the only way of seeing what my friends and family were doing, since my noble-but-unrealistic belief that I would actually establish a proper email correspondence with each one of them (not a letter delivered by carrier pigeon; I’m not that hopeless) was creating burdens for my time-hungry loved ones and meant that I was falling further out of touch with my friends and family who are all over this planet.

So here I am, communicating with you, dear reader, through the wonder of the web. Because while spider webs can be sticky and irritating and downright lethal (if you’re a fly), they can also be beautiful, spangled with dew on an autumn morning, magical and mysterious and awe-inspiring. That web I have disparaged for the last several paragraphs also binds us together when we are far apart, it ties us to our loved ones whom we cannot see during these difficult times, it strengthens our bonds across the miles. Its powers of binding and sticking and tying are a wonderful thing, at which we should marvel and for which I am — despite all the ranting — deeply grateful. And spiders offer us an example from which we might all learn: nimble and graceful, they never get tangled up in their own web, but deftly go about their business with a focus and a purpose that I envy now more than ever.

So the internet can be a glorious thing, but like the spiders who weave those webs, we must approach cautiously, for we do not always know whether it be friend or foe. It is — alarmingly often — wildly inaccurate and full of baffling errors. For example, if you google me (I did it once after setting up my website to see if it showed up; it did not, of course), you will discover that I am a musical artist. Now, for those of you who know me anything more than moderately well, this will come as something of a hilarious shock. I am no more a musical artist than my car is, no more a singer or maker of music than any other ordinary household object. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that pretty much anything in my home or yours is more musical than me: sunglasses, a lamp, a pair of scissors. But there, for all eternity are the words that have confused the many lovely librarians and teachers who have invited me to share my book with children, hoping I would show up like Julie Andrews with my guitar slung over my shoulder… and having to compromise for a mere music-free reading instead.

So I share this story as a cautionary tale for my children, along with one of my favorites about a certain wildly popular — nay, ubiquitous — online presence that purports to be an encyclopedia: as a journalist from a highly respected British newspaper noted, its article about that same newspaper contained no less than seven factual errors. Online, as in life, there is little you can trust. Which of course deeply saddens me: our children are on ever shakier ground, whichever realm they inhabit. They are taught about cyberbullying as well as how to deal with physical bullies; they are taught that stranger danger is real both online and in life. But as the lines between what’s virtual and what’s real begin to blur — nowhere more than in our new hybrid model of learning — confusion lurks. They must grapple with a layer of information (too much of it), of danger, of complication that their parents and grandparents did not face until adulthood. They are forced to grow up faster than ever, as they are promised too much choice and too much knowledge, without the understanding to discern what is right and wrong about it all. So even as they were supposedly staying safer at home, I wonder what all of that screen time — hours and hours of it — has done to their eyesight, their minds, and their souls.

As I look back at the spring, when we were all scrambling to adjust to our new reality, and our teachers delivered an impressively cohesive curriculum after just two weeks of turnaround time, I remember particular moments of achievement and connection which were so alien and new: instead of awards for being a good citizen and student, instead of field trips and performances and parties, their world narrowed so sharply and quickly that their tiny triumphs were heartbreaking to see.

“Wow!” said my first grader. “This is the best day of my life!” Previously those words would have been uttered upon receiving an award or performing in the talent show for which she’d been practicing for weeks and which was cancelled the week before it was due to take place. But in our new normal, the cause of her elation was that in her new level in their online math program, the software shifted to offering narrower percentage bands per question, so she could now achieve a 91% on her progress towards her goal, instead of jumping from 73% to 100%. We had no idea know why this is so thrilling — after all it meant she was simply answering more questions per level — but she broke out beat-boxing and squealing with happiness. The day before she had crowed with joy that her piece of paper printed out just like it looked online — by no means a regular occurrence. Meanwhile, on her side of the dining room table, my older daughter sat in her headphones, listening to her math lessons and reading sessions over and over, just to hear her teacher’s voice. It was both touching and pitiful to watch her grinning at the screen.

But at least I got to watch and witness it all, as we sat together around our dining table, each on a separate device. At least we were together in our solitude. At least we were all present in our absence. Now, they are gone. The house is empty and quiet and lonely. It misses them almost as much as I do. And even when they’re home, they’re not here with me: we are now all occupying separate spaces. As we polished up our act for round two of distance learning, we bought our fifth grader a desk, to help her feel independent and more grown up (her idea, not ours), and of course we then had to come up with a similarly “grown up” work space for our second grader, still near enough to me that she could ask her constant questions, but with a door to close for quiet and a sense of going to school all by herself, like a big girl should.

By day 13 of Distance Learning: The Reboot, I had eaten my body weight in roasted cashew nuts (that’s what I get for using edible manipulatives to help my second grader understand ten frames), and was contemplating stabbing myself in the eyeball with a very sharp pencil, just to see what would happen. The initial excitement — of having a focus and a purpose and (for the parents, at least) of knowing that their screen time was at least a tiny bit edifying — had worn off quickly, as we looked ahead at what may well be an entire academic year of being stuck in front of screens, in different rooms, struggling with frustration and confusion and sadness all alone, all over again.

Because while it’s a pleasant change from the crowded dining table, and the annoying headphones that sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t, and the dangerous tangle of cords that more than one of us tripped over more than once, our new setup is also lonelier and more separate, which is not necessarily good in a time of loneliness and separation. They wanted to feel less watched over, and yet they are more vulnerable to isolation and screen fatigue than ever, as the online curriculum has expanded to fill an entire school day.

So it was with great excitement that we all headed off today on our first morning school run since March. My children were overjoyed at the prospect of being surrounded by friends and classmates, of learning from a teacher, using pencils and paper, of being in familiar spaces they missed more than they ever imagined possible. They are free from me, and I am free from dealing with their IT aggro and their near-constant bickering. I am — for three hours, twice a week, for as long as our county can keep its act together — freed from having to be the emotional sponge for three people trying to renegotiate their relationship with school and work. I am no longer on tap twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, as I have been for half of the longest, hardest year of our lives. Parts of me that have felt neglected and dead may even start to regenerate. My brain might start to work once more; I can actually feel the gears grinding again today. My joy at seeing emails from two of my publishers and from my agent mirrors the joy my husband and children are feeling today: I have work, I have purpose, I have a place in the wider world again.

But I also wept when I dropped them off, because of course I had a purpose for the past six months. I’ve been momming hard, harder than I ever have before, if not necessarily well. Our house became our whole world, so my job was to become the human dishcloth, sopping up their fears and worries and anger and frustration and sadness every time they spilled out, which was often. I felt perpetually unfit for the job in front of me — and I don’t know any parent who did much more than keep them safe and fed and content if not happy — but I did my job because I had to, under more pressure than I’ve ever done a job before. I did not always perform with grace under that pressure, but I got the job done.

So as we return to some semblance of normalcy today, and a return to my actual job of writing becomes possible, I am sad not to have my children here with me and I am worried for their safety despite all the precautions. For their part, I imagine there was very little sadness or worry, and that’s just how it should be; they’ve had far too much of both for far too long now. I miss our tangled web of cords in our home classroom, but they won’t miss me watching them all the time, their every move scrutinised and often corrected. They will have the freedom to make their own mistakes, to make their own choices, to have other adults participate in a real and meaningful way in shaping who they become.

And before I disentangle myself from what may be the longest post I’ve written to date (those three minute intervals I previously snatched to write over the spring and summer helped promote brevity, if nothing else), I will take a moment to thank our teachers, once more. They are teaching both in person and online, which is essentially two full-time jobs, to two different groups of students, knowing that neither one is getting all of the attention they would like to give them. But it is their enormous effort, and that of the amazing administrators and boards who have worked so hard to craft this system which is slightly dizzying in its complexity, that is permitting us all to recapture a small portion of our former lives, even if only for a few hours a week. Even as they risk their personal health and well being, these teachers are also still coping with the insanity of teaching online, where children cut their siblings’ hair during class and live chickens run around bedrooms (true story). So their virtual classrooms are surreal but safe, and their physical classrooms are dear but dangerous, and our teachers heroically take it all in their graceful stride.

Distance learning has been far more about the distance — from normality, from other humans — than about the learning. But as I try to remind my children and myself, we are learning other things too, including a flexibility that we never knew we had. After the elation of two days in the classroom, my children and I will all pivot (I hate that word almost as much as I hate IT) back to the distance model for the rest of the week. Poorly qualified to teach, and not at all qualified to troubleshoot IT glitches, I will be stepping back into both those pairs of shoes.

These days I have lots of pairs of shoes, because also mom and also wife, and — oh look!— those four pairs of shoes mean that I actually have eight legs.

Just like a spider.

  • katherine halligan

Updated: Sep 28, 2020

It is a truth about human nature that we most want what is often just out of reach. The grass is nearly always greener on the other side of the fence.

All spring, my children and I were desperate for the misery that was distance learning to end, and for the summer to begin. We longed frantically for freedom from the screen, from the surreal tedium of login failures, from the eye-wateringly dull online assignments, from teachers spending lesson time coaching children through IT glitches rather than educating them, from the utterly atrocious behaviour of other people’s children invading our home, from a noisy houseful of simultaneous Zoom calls creating a cacophony of the random voices of strangers.

Then school was finally, blessedly over. Freedom! Joy! We skipped, we danced, we sang (especially me). We traveled and swam and played and had adventures great and small. But that joy was relatively short-lived, as we realised we’d leapt out of the frying pan, and into the fire.

Endless expanses of time spread before us, but we were like birds with clipped wings: there was a vast sky up there, but no way to fly into it freely. The promise of freedom began to feel a bit cruel, because it was an empty promise. As heart-lifting as our little trips were, travel during a pandemic was ultimately unsustainable and actually more exhausting than fun.

Instead, we spent days — far too many of them — languishing at home, trapped indoors by heatwaves and the unending waves of virus and, lately, dangerously smoky air and falling ash. We would venture out, then worry we’d overdone it and return to our shelter to hide for a while. As our county’s (and the country’s) infection levels rose and fell and rose again, so did our emotions, and the exhaustion of riding the corona-coaster took on a new form. We were tired of being tired, bored of being bored, sick to death of sickness and death.

Summer was becoming a great big bummer.

Without any of the usual swimming lessons, camps or other activities, intense inertia set in. We had no rhythm, no momentum. Without the impetus to go anywhere or do anything on time, we became still, stale, stuck. I could actually feel myself becoming stupider. It’s not surprising that I have been depressed, given the state of the nation, but it’s very difficult to watch young children become palpably, visibly, almost literally depressed: they wilted, flattened, lost their spark. Their eyelids grew heavy from watching too much TV. Their little lights went out. Nearly every day I would manage to lift myself out of my own misery to do something special with them, and our spirits would soar temporarily before flagging once more.

Although we did our level best to create magical, memorable moments for our family, as the long, empty days —or was it just one very long day?— wore on, we all began to long for the structure of school. Even in its much poorer, two-dimensional form, it would mean that we had places to go and people to see.

Please don’t misunderstand me: we had fun this summer, bags and bags of it… until we didn’t. When our children were tiny, they did not go to lessons and camps and activities — you can’t miss what you don’t know — but our days had their own exhausting-but-fulfilling rhythm: wake, eat, play, sleep, repeat. Then, in the intervening years, our calendars filled to bursting and our days were an endless and often exhausting whirlwind of activity… and we liked it. Losing all of those many things we normally do was a profound shock to our system when the state shut down on March 13. I used to complain about my juggling act, but suddenly I was like a clown trying to entertain my audience with just one ball: no juggling, no fun.

So although we were longing for a freedom that during these times of chaos and unrest is denied us, we were also craving structure and order and routine, while I have simultaneously lost my ability to create any or to follow any plan or schedule. I am adrift and exhausted, too drained and hollowed out to continue to create order where none naturally exists anymore. Normally when I am down, I allow myself to sink to the bottom, knowing that soon enough I will find a toehold and push off, back up to the surface where I belong. But these days it seems the ocean is bottomless and there is no depth to which we cannot sink. The sands are shifting so constantly I cannot find my footing. So instead of letting myself float slowly downward as I sometimes do, I realized that I need to dive down deliberately so that I could push off hard and find a way back up to where I can breathe. So I stopped pressuring myself to recover, and allowed myself to make that deep dive into the murky depths. I allowed myself to be sad and angry; I cannot whistle a happy tune all the time, and so I didn’t.

But as I foundered, I realized that I needed some external impetus to drag me back up to the surface and haul us all back to the shore: I needed a fairy godmother in a life-raft. I needed other people who cared about my children to help with this enormous job of navigating these choppy seas. I needed teachers and I needed school, perhaps even more than my children did.

So it was with great excitement that we started back to school this week, jumping gratefully out of the flames of our ennui into the relative safety of the frying pan. But then all too quickly we remembered how uncomfortable that frying pan can be. Because it’s not real school, with classrooms and teachers and friends and no parents in sight, but distance learning, at least for now.

For now, it seems that we are very much in the same frying pan as before: crowded and messy and decidedly uncomfortable. This morning my younger daughter — who detests remote learning with a deep and abiding passion — passed me a note, in a delightfully retro way. It said: “Mom this is torcher” [sic]. And, as I was held hostage in the room with her, having rashly promised to keep her company to assuage her loneliness during the first week back online, I can attest that it was.

As much as she adores her teacher (who also taught her older sister, so we know how very lovely and capable she is), it was the behavior of her fellow classmates that was driving her to distraction. Other children and parents interrupted their teacher —and each other — as she heroically tried to help these little lost souls connect with one another and to reacquaint these small feral people with the concept of sitting still and listening. My daughter wept in my arms on a faked bathroom break, complaining that she wasn’t learning anything. I tried to explain to her that we are all learning differently now: it’s less about multiplication, and more about learning how to cope with the world as our problems multiply. We are all learning more about ourselves, as we test not our spelling skills but the limits of our patience and understanding.

So now the fire that was our summer break looks appealing all over again. Already I want to leap back into it, after just three days. As large swathes of California are ablaze, cities across the land are burning, and the whole country appears to be going down in flames, I wonder which is worse: the frying pan or the fire?

Of course the apocalypse that is 2020 would be the year that we Californians see our fire records broken: over 2.5 million acres burned so far; over 14,000 firefighters battling at least 28 fires — most of which are only partially controlled — across the state. And it’s only early September. So far, thankfully, there has been far less loss of life than was suffered after the horrors of the Camp Fire, which ravaged the most ironically named town ever to be burnt to cinders: Paradise. (Paradise Lost, more like.) But while eight fatalities is far less horrific than the one hundred people who perished in 2018, those eight lives lost are still a tragedy, especially for their loved ones whose lives have been ripped apart.

They are, of course, a drop in the ocean of COVID-19 deaths. And as we approach the grimmest milestone yet — nearly 200,000 lives lost, with most scientists, academics and medical professionals suspecting serious undercounting — Nero fiddles (or golfs, or both — though it’s a different sort of fiddling in his case) while Rome burns. The parallels between that tyrant and this are many, from callous megalomaniac insanity to an utterly cavalier disregard for the fall of a once-great empire.

We are going down in flames, and up in flames, all at the same time. Who knew that was even possible? But with each passing day, the impossible becomes possible, the unthinkable becomes reality, the nightmare becomes the norm. Perhaps I should not tempt fate by suggesting things cannot possibly get worse. Because if things don’t go well in November, and Nero doesn’t get booted out of the White House and into prison where he belongs, then things will very definitely be worse, as we descend from a nationwide forest fire to the raging infernos of hell.

So I hope against hope that things will soon be different, brighter, better.

The grass is indeed always greener.

Unless of course it’s on fire.

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