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  • katherine halligan

Smeared Mascara and Video Games

“Oh,” said my incredibly talented and mind-bogglingly busy cousin (who achieved tenure at a top university by age 40, whilst simultaneously juggling the demands of two busy, bright children, solving the hunger crisis in America, and teaching ballet workouts in her spare time), “you’re one of those people who’ve been productive in quarantine.”

Given her numerous and staggeringly enormous accomplishments, I took this as a rather wonderful compliment.

However I am sorry to say that I have not lived up to that early promise. From setting up websites and starting a blog (hi!), to teaching my children ancient history through the medium of crafts and clever games, I was seriously productive during the first six weeks of lockdown. Absent the grinding and exhausting routine of our pre-COVID lives, all that pent up creativity and longing to spend more time doing meaningful things with my children found its outlet, and we were on fire.

Then, slowly, almost invisibly, standards started to slip. As the tedium of being cooped up and lonely took its terrible toll, especially on my elementary-school-aged children who suffered visibly and dramatically without their busy, happy, highly social lives, we argued and clashed. We lashed out at each other, because there was no one else, and we understood at a deep and personal level why caged animals become aggressive: they are frightened and trapped and everything in their nature longs to be free, so they become angry. We argued because we were railing against the sadness and the unfairness and the wrongness of our new normal, and because we desperately longed for something better. We fought because we cared.

And then something far worse happened: slowly, but very visibly, we stopped caring. My daughters, who previously loved their dancing, began to resent it. Dance is a performing art, after all, so without their fellow dancers, without the costumes and the lights and the stage, it began to lose its lustre. As we watched, their little lights went out. They became sullen and surly and silent. We did not recognise them, or indeed ourselves.

My husband’s quarantined-themed jokes to his colleagues — which, with our open- plan office, we all had to hear, every day — became less chuckle-inducing and more stale. I had much to say, but no inspiration with which to say it. I had much to do, but no energy with which to do it. We did some impressive spring cleaning, moving furniture and clearing out three-year-old dust bunnies (actually ‘bunnies’ sounds too cute — these were the size of enormous wild hares), but then, after our brief flurry of sorting and organising, spurred on by the promise of a puppy which has yet to materialise, we lost our motivation. With the discipline of many decades of doing things we don’t particularly like, my husband and I still rally ourselves to tidy and clean, a bit — we are grownups, after all, and we still sometimes to manage to behave somewhat like them. But our children now hate us for making them do chores, because we used to motivate them with the excitement of friends coming over, and they would buzz about busily and happily helping. Without that reward, why bother?

After our grand adventure to see Granddad and the Grand Canyon, we returned to… nothing. Camps were cancelled, or else indoors and therefore A Very Bad Idea. The Fourth of July felt flat and friendless. Our trip to Target was initially exciting, but by the time we were done with our errand, we were all desperate to get out from under the fluorescent lighting, away from what felt like COVID-infested confinement, and back home. We downshifted toward depression and embraced boredom, for the first time ever in our collective lives. My children have watched more television in the last month than in the previous year. For the first time ever, I hear that famous refrain, “I’m bored!” It is a novel sensation for all of us, and it doesn’t sit well.

We are spiralling down the drain.

As I start to wonder how low we can go, I think of the guilty pleasures I have enjoyed of late, all of which are unprecedented and never even crossed my mind in my previously busy, engaged, rather loftier lifestyle.

I’ve secretly scoffed s’mores for breakfast — having also enjoyed them in bed the night before, watching Bonfire of Destiny, with large amounts of red wine (the wine was at night, not breakfast — we aren’t quite there.… yet. Although, with another year of online school looming, there is a distinct possibility that wine will indeed be on the breakfast menu at our house).

I didn’t wash my younger daughter’s hair for an impressive and rather shocking nine days. Granted, it’s a task that would daunt the bravest of parents; I have previously had to don a swimsuit and earplugs to survive this experience. I worry that our neighbours will report us to social services, because she shrieks blue murder when she gets (tear-free, ultra gentle) soap in her eyes, and her own solution of wearing swim goggles backfires because she shrieks even louder when the elastic strap tugs at her hair upon removal. Faced with this enticing experience, I just…. didn’t.

Just do it? No, just DON’T. That’s my new motto.

I hardly recognise myself. (Nor do I recognise my small, wild-haired progeny, who looks like a cave child, and likely has creatures living in her mad mop of hair along with the leaves and twigs are very definitely stuck in it; we’re not talking wombats here, but certainly something the size of a field mouse or a small hedgehog could take up residence without our knowing).

I most definitely don’t recognise the person indulging in my latest guilty pleasure, which is playing video games on my phone. I am deeply ashamed to admit this, but the idea of this blog was to share my life, so here goes nothing: from the more edifying crossword puzzles and Sudoku, to downright mortifying home decorating games, I am totally hooked. While my husband works around the clock to keep a roof over our heads (guilt!) and my children rot their brains watching endless hours of television (more guilt!), I pop bubbles and blast ducks and bash piñatas. I refuse to spend a penny on these apps, so luckily I get timed out pretty quickly, lose all my lives, and am forced to walk away and function semi-normally again.

And of course I am losing my life in much bigger ways, which is what this is really all about. On the plus side, there is meditation and flow and, frankly, fun to be had; on the downside I think I am starting to scare my children. I point out that they play games on their devices, or watch TV, so why can’t I? Because I am supposed to be the grownup. I am supposed to be creative and fun and reassuring, and I still manage that for a reasonable part of most days. But all day, every day, all summer long? Right now, that’s just too tall an order.

Perhaps the biggest guilty pleasure of all is the fact that I am taking any pleasure whatsoever in this strange time of fear and sickness and death. My formerly Catholic husband says I am the guiltiest Protestant he knows, but my WASPy roots also mean I’m genetically programmed to feel bad whenever I am not working and doing. My real work has dried up for the nonce, as publishers delay and rearrange and frantically scramble to adjust to a world where bookshops were closed for months on end, and people bought toilet paper instead of stories. And all my dozens of ideas for new projects just languish, because I am languishing too.

Please don’t misunderstand me: it’s not all as bad as I am making it out to be. I am feeding my children semi-nutritious food multiple times a day; they are usually clean (banshee hair aside); they are cared for and cuddled and loved. We watch movies together — because while before I was busy cooking or cleaning or being a generally productive parent, now I just flop down with them, guilty but happy. We read books together, albeit fewer than the huge stacks we normally dive into during summer vacation. We go to the beach several days a week, splashing in the surf together, taking huge lungfuls of ozone-rich air. We see friends, outside, at a distance, the masks hiding our enormous grins.

But it’s those small, in-between moments which are so radically different these days. Restless, bored, worried, angry at the mess this country is in, I need mindlessness. I seek it out and have grown to depend on it. I’ve always enjoyed a bit of mind candy, but now I depend on it like a drug.

When I’ve been depressed in the past, I have learned that I need, sometimes, to let myself sink down to the bottom so I can kick off and rise back up to the surface where I belong. Perpetually Pollyannaish, I am a natural optimist, but I have realised over the years that sometimes I just have to let myself frown on the world instead. It’s exhausting being relentlessly positive, so I know that I need to allow myself to stop. Even Pollyanna had her low moments, when she faced the probability of paralysis. I’m facing paralysis of a different sort, as our lives are on a semi-permanent pause, so I see that I need to hit a low, which will allow me to then rise from the ashes of my own self-immolation, like a phoenix. But what if I can’t stop? What if I like it too much? What if I can’t get back up for air?

The other day my seven-year-old, tripped into my bedroom in full makeup and high heels (at least she’s being creative during her incarceration), and said to me, scathingly, shaking her mop of hair, “You used to be a really good mom, but now it’s all smeared mascara and video games.”

I said not a word, because there was nothing to say.

Excuse me, but I need to go blow up a duck.

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