Sunday, July 12, 2020

Camp Chronicles

Ren and I initially bonded over a shared love of hiking and the outdoors. On the wall of hospital where we met, there was a picture of the Nagano Alps. As I stood looking at it one afternoon (What can I say? There's not much to do when you're being held against your will in a hospital as you recover from an ulcer!), Ren came up to me and introduced himself. That very first conversation was about hiking and camping and the fact that his father was born in the same small mountain hamlet where I was living. When we started dating, all of our early excursions were to the various mountain ranges of Kyushu, where we would spend the morning and afternoon hiking and the evening relaxing in natural hot springs before heading home. I always assumed that hiking and camping would be a big part of our lives together, and it's pretty ironic that camping--in the form of a Tiger Scout campout--is what did Ren's spine in.

Ren on a recent hike.
All of which is to say that I kinda thought we might never camp again, and I was sad about it for a really long time. But then, Ren had his seventh spine surgery last summer, and for whatever reason, he woke up from it feeling better than he had in years. Suddenly things that seemed impossible before became a little more possible.

Of course, just because Ren's spine seemed able to handle camping, that didn't mean the kids could. When I suggested we give it a try, Ren was skeptical. He thought it all sounded like Too. Much. Trouble. I guess packing up your car to go sleep on the ground somewhere just for fun, does seem a bit strange, but I refused to let his Debbie-downer attitude deter me. After all, I had a plan.

Step one, put up the tent. As a way of breaking the monotony of long days at home during quarantine, back in April, I convinced Ren to put up our tent in the back yard. Stow loved it. He spent his afternoon playing video games and Lego in it and then insisted that Sky spend the night with him there. When it was time to take it down, he protested strenuously. Turns out tents help him feel safe and calm. Getting that kind of a reaction from Stow was an unexpected coup. Ren has a hard time saying no to anything that helps Stow chill.

Brothers' back-yard campout
Step two, family campout at home. While sleeping on the ground in my own back yard didn't sound all that appealing to me, I knew that if we didn't practice "camping" at home, we would never be able to make it in the real world. So, we pulled out the big tent and a small tent, and everyone worked together to get them set. After dinner, we had a round of corn hole, and when it got dark, we played cards by lantern light and then sat in our chairs around an imaginary fire and told ghost stories. At lights out, Pink went off to her own tent, and the rest of us crashed in the big one.

Setting up camp that afternoon, we could only find three sleeping bags, but we were too exhausted by the heat to worry about the other two. I mean, three out of five's not so bad, right? Ren and I gave the kids the sleeping bags and shared a single blanket. I had on long sleeves and long pants, so I figured I'd be fine, but I've never been able to convince Ren to dress for the weather. (One January, he wore flip flops and a t-shirt to do a whole house move in -20 degrees and snow.) He's not as young as he used to be, though, so the cold woke him at 3 am and reminded him of how much his back hates sleeping on the ground. Not long after, he bailed on me. With no sleeping bag and none of Ren's body heat, camping became WAY less fun for me, too. Even though neither of us made it until morning, the kids did, and Stow came in for breakfast begging for more.

Step three, take the show on the road. Nearby. We are fortunate to live in an area that has many state parks and forest preserves nearby, so for the next step, we went camping at a site less than twenty minutes from our house. We left after dinner and got home before lunch; start to finish, we were gone for about 16 hours.

That evening, as I waited in line at the camp office so we could get our site permit, I couldn't help but notice the guy in front of me who was taking FOREVER to decide where he wanted to spend the night. He was dressed head to toe in worn camouflage and had handmade bracelets on every visible body joint. His wild gray hair shot out from under his hat in all directions, and he had white crocs on his tanned and otherwise bare feet. As I listened to him tell the guy in the office about the fun he had last time and about how his daughter was going to join him around 10 pm, I glanced at the parking lot and noticed his run-down, white minivan (from which he'd inexplicably peeled off or covered the Ford logo), which was missing a row of seats and packed to the ceiling with junk. My already piqued anxiety shot through the roof, and I suddenly became convinced that this whole camping idea was a terrible mistake.

Once checked in, we went in search of our spot. As we wove our way around the narrow roads looking for it, Sky pointed out how small all the sites seemed to be. I didn't know a lot about what I'd reserved other than that it had a lake view. I was trying to be optimistic, but Sky's tendency to voice my anxieties was making it hard. "Mom, this isn't at all like where I went camping for Scouts. There are hardly any trees around the camp sites." "There are people everywhere!" "Why'd you pick one next to a swamp? There'll be mosquitoes!" When we pulled in to #47 right next to the run-down, white Ford, I decided Sky was right. We were doomed.

Camo-man had his back hatch open and was unloading what had to be a tree's worth of chopped wood. With the song "El Shaddai" on repeat on his tiny radio, he continued to pull things out of the back of his van while he yelled at someone in the front seat to help. At one point, he got out a bugle and attempted a song. Once we had our stuff out of the car, Ren moved it so that it was between his site and ours. That didn't stop Dalton from coming over and introducing himself and his grandson, though. Stow was thrilled to find another kid his age, and soon he was hanging at Dalton's campsite helping chop wood and gather sticks for their fire. We spent the rest of the night watching Stow and Pink go from our campsite to theirs or having Dalton and his grandson come to ours. By the time our fire died down it was well past midnight, and I felt duly chastened for my uncharitable first impressions of Dalton (though I don't feel at all guilty about my strong animosity toward his bugle or the "El Shaddai" marathon he put us through.)

Early morning on the lake.
The next morning, I awoke before everyone and watched the sun rise over the still lake. Nearby, a blue heron made its way into the marsh, and I was reminded of exactly why I love packing up my car to go sleep on the ground.

This low-stakes first run turned out to be a pretty brilliant idea. We learned some important lessons like:
-- You should always travel with your own vinyl table cloth so that Stow won't freak out about bugs, and

--You can't trust Ren to bring the right stuff for sleeping or you will end up with too few air  mattresses and, inexplicably, a handheld vacuum.
We also learned that when we go camping, our car looks a lot like the one in the opening sequence on the Beverly Hillbillies, and finding things in it is almost impossible. So, a few days after our trip, we went to Home Depot and bought a couple of the awesome storage boxes Dalton had in the back of his minivan.

We've gone camping again since then, and we are in the process of identifying the prettiest camping sites we can find for future trips. We're working on pushing Stow out of his comfort zone re. hiking. (It turns out that he does A LOT better when there are no bugs.) And, Pink and Sky are learning to be more patient with the process. Things still aren't perfect, but the last camping trip was the first time we had the right amount of sleeping bags and mattresses for everyone, so I am feeling pretty hopeful that we might just figure out how to do this after all!

Bug-free hiking is the life for me (Stow)!

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Summer of COVID-19

This has been a weird summer. Before COVID, the plan was that I would spend just over a month in Japan teaching and doing research, Sky would take driver's ed and go to tennis camp, Pink would go to sleep-away camp in the north woods, and then all of us would go to Europe for a couple of weeks before school started again. An ambitious schedule by most measures and maybe one that would have been a huge catastrophe. We will never know, though, because first my flights to Japan were cancelled, and then driver's ed, and then camp, and finally Europe. We went from having an exciting summer ahead of us to having absolutely nothing.

I know we are not the only family going through this particular reorientation, and I also know that it didn't start with the summer. But, it has gotten harder now that the kids are out of school, especially since I'm supposed to be working on my research. We are always in each other's space, and we all seem to cycle through pandemic-caused anxiety or depression pretty regularly. The lack of clarity about when this will end makes things harder; it's a lot to process. Some days I find the changes so overwhelming, I don't know how I will keep going.

But other days, like today, I feel like maybe I have things figured out. I/We have adopted some practices during quarantine and social distancing that I/we didn't have the time to do as much before, and when I think about where we were as a family and how things were going with me and Ren a year ago, I am amazed and even a little glad that the pandemic came along to remind me to slow the heck down.*

So, here's what I've been doing. I'm curious to hear what you all are up to and how you're handling this, too.

Sunset over soy field.
1. Family drives -- At the end of May, it became clear it was time to replace our aging minivan. Thanks to COVID and my mad negotiating skills (I'm not kidding--this is the one thing you don't want to go toe to toe with me on), we were able to save about $10K on a new one that has an entertainment system that makes the kids SO excited that they want to go for drives "just because." Ironically, of course, the pandemic and concerns about spreading it mean we don't really have any place to go, so many nights we just get into the car and drive. After living here for seven years, I finally feel like I am starting to get to know the place a little! Sometimes only Stow goes along. It's a great way to help him calm and settle down before bed. Other times, everyone comes, and we swing through the drive thru and pick up soft serve ice cream cones to eat while we explore the back roads and rural towns not far from where we live. Many nights, Ren and I watch the sunset with the kids settled calmly in the back seat and all feels right with the world.

Country road.

2. Family hikes -- Last summer, when we went to Colorado, nobody died, and everyone proved their  affinity for exploring the outdoors. So, since the big trip we had planned to France and Italy fell through, Ren and I decided that this would be our summer to visit as many state parks and forest preserves as we can, either on day hikes or on overnight campouts.

Three kids hiking.
If I am being totally honest, very few of these hikes have been easy or gone well. Sky starts perseverating the moment we get out of the car and Stow HATES bugs and  being hot, which is a challenge because he overheats very easily. Meanwhile, Pink ALWAYS feels left out since so much of my time on these hikes is spent trying to keep Sky and Stow from spiraling completely. Each time we go, I've been trying different things to see if it gets easier. I do a social story about hiking and explain exactly where we are going and for how long, and once we get to the site but before we set out, I pull Sky aside to remind him that no matter what, it will be ok --it turns out his biggest anxiety is that Stow will do something mortifying or dangerous. I make sure Stow has a towel and his own bottle of ice water, and I make sure to spend at least part of the hike walking with and talking to Pink (and Pink alone). One hike we managed to make it a whole 200 meters before things fell apart, so I am choosing to maintain hope! Even with the behavior struggles, I am trying to focus on taking in the sights and enjoying what I see, hear, and smell. I'm also trying to be grateful for the fact that we are together. It sure beats spine surgery!

Very hot Stow with towel.
3. Meal planning -- I think the biggest change to come from the pandemic is that I meal plan now. Ren and I have always cooked almost all of our meals, but we've never meal planned. That degree of thinking ahead seemed harder than just making something based on whatever we could find in the refrigerator or freezer. Between Costco, the Japanese grocery, and our nearby grocery, we always had the makings for gyuudon,** fried rice, or spaghetti, if nothing else. When things shut down, and our state enacted stay-at-home orders limiting unnecessary trips out, we went from two or three grocery trips per week to one. Ren falls in the COVID high-risk category, so I have been doing all of our shopping since this began (boo!). That means that every Tuesday since mid-March, I have taken my grocery list (another novelty for me) and gathered enough groceries to get us through the week. To make this work, I actually have to know what I am going to make and what ingredients I need BEFORE I get to the store. It's funny how accomplished I feel when I do this. I don't know why, but even though we are feeding the kids just as well as we did before the pandemic, being more intentional about what we will eat for the week makes me feel like such a grownup.

The kids can't believe I planned this one. Why would anyone intentionally buy so many veggies?!
4. Meditation/ Yoga -- Yeah, I started doing yoga and meditation regularly. It helps. Of course.

5. Writing -- You wouldn't know it from my painfully long silences here on the blog, but I have been writing a lot during the weeks we've been isolated from work and friends. During my teens and early 20s, I kept a journal. (NONE of what I wrote back then is worth being seen by anyone other than me, and it's even hard for ME to read it.) Once I was married and had kids, I started writing fiction and this blog and somehow lost the ability or the desire to journal. When the pandemic hit, though, I realized I needed to record what was happening, if not for future generations, then to help me remember this weird and challenging time. I fear that most of what I write in my journal is uninspired drivel, but writing has kept me from completely losing my mind, so that seems good. The problem with all of these journals from my 20s and now is that they need a good generation or two to marinate, so I am hoping that they won't be read by my kids or my grandkids. Maybe by the time my great grandkids come along, they'll seem insightful!

None of what I/ we have been doing is all that inspired. In fact, most or all of it is the kind of thing my therapist or doctor has recommended at one point or another to help me manage my depression. It's funny that it took a pandemic for me to slow down and try some of these things. Then again, that seems about right.

How about you guys? Are you all doing ok? How have you been holding together?

* Don't get me wrong, there is a lot that is really hard about this, especially given how challenging change and surprises can be for kids on the autism spectrum, but I am choosing not to write about that stuff right now. Also, COVID-19 sucks, so if we could have avoided it altogether, OBVIOUSLY that would have been better.

**Beef bowl