By Ky-Phong Tran
I think this is week nine of California’s Stay Safer at Home orders. Who knows? In the Great Quarantine of 2020, every day flows into the next like the waves at the beach just three miles from my house in Torrance. The beach that along with most everything else these days – parks, malls, restaurantss, and libraries – we cannot visit due to COVID-19.
All across California, the nation and the world, there are millions of families like mine who are juggling work and homeschool for their children. In our case, my wife works as a genetic counselor for a genetic testing lab based in the Bay Area. She’s worked from home for almost a decade, so the big change for her is having three new unexpected and unruly co-workers. For me, I’m a high school English teacher at a public arts high school in Long Beach. My sons are ages 8 and 4, the older boy wrapping up second grade and the younger one entering kindergarten this fall.
Unlike the students in my school district, where almost 70% qualify for free or reduced lunch, we are fortunate to have a litany of resources: two full-time jobs, health insurance, a home with a yard, Wi-Fi,. computers and tablets, printers with ink, paper, and art supplies.
Yet with all that we have, as each day fades into the next, as the dishes pile up after yet another meal (do children really need three meals a day?), as week #1 Zoom business casual attire (at least from the waist up) has digressed into week #7 maybe-clean sweatpants, I must admit we are struggling. And we are thriving. Like any good story, it’s complicated.
First and foremost, our first dilemma is space. Physical, literal, geographic floorspace. We have about 1,100 square feet of it, and it’s not enough for a place to live, study and work in 24 hours a day. We are on top of each other, four humans and a dog, and this week’s stuff is stacked on last week’s junk. To meet the demands of working and learning from home, we’ve reclaimed our office, which was mainly just used for storage. The living room is now a classroom for both boys. But because only one of us can work in the office at a time, I’ve simply set up a folding table and laptop in the backyard. When we’ve had three simultaneous Zoom calls, and the house sounds like the Tower of Babel with video chat.
But more significantly, what we need and are sorely missing, is quiet space, our own time to gather ourselves and our thoughts. We need that more than ever because when I am at home, I am a husband and father. Those are my roles. I love them and think I am successful at them most of the time. But it’s certainly not all of me.
At work, I am a teacher, but also a co-worker, mentor, coach, tutor and unpaid comedian. With my writing group, I am a dreamer who wants to change the world with words. As the coach of my son’s second grade basketball team, I strive to be the Vietnamese John Wooden. Among my friends, I prefer the raunchiest and darkest of jokes. (Man, I miss profanity.) If the coronavirus has taken anything from me, it’s my many complex, overlapping identities.
Add it all up and the Great Quarantine is the perfect formula for moodiness. And lots of it. No one is in their routine or role, no one is getting enough sleep or exercise, and no one is experiencing the formerly-underrated-but-now-never-again-underappreciated-joy of their peers. My 4-year old is usually pretty mellow, but without his regular amazing teachers, friends, yard time, friends and nap time, he can be a tyrant, too. Sometimes I’m the one fleeing the room in fear of his mood swings. Imagine that! And I’m equally if not more guilty because as a writer, part of the job is to remember and lament things, only now I’m just remembering my life before all this and lamenting it. Bad.
When you are home this much, you inevitably work on home-improvement projects you never had the time or proximity to do. To clean out our office, I had to first organize our garage to handle the overflow. The benefits of a clean garage have been random but also helpful in keeping with the theme of self-care at this time. In Marie Kondo’s parlance, the crap in the garage brought me no “joy.”
Clearing out the floor space – it only took a week, but what is time but a four-letter word these days – not only took off this strange emotional burden I was carrying for the past two years, it also allowed me to build a home gym where I can cycle, lift weights and hit a punching bag. box. I bought a cheap subwoofer (with flashing party lights) on Amazon, and I’ve found it’s hard to stay stressed while exercising to good music and hard beats.
My family has utilized the outdoor space we are fortunate to have. The front yard has seen badminton games, obstacle courses and heated bocce matches, while the streets and sidewalks are now de facto scooter and bike paths. The backyard is blessed with a basketball hoop that keeps me sane (I’ve totally improved my jumpshot!) and a $15 DIY sandbox, that only cost $15, a giant cardboard box that already hasd been a museum and library for the boys, and two gardening bins where they planted strawberries, tomatoes and squash. The cherry on top was a recent Friday night, where we waited for the sun to set and watched the “Lion King” on lawn chairs, using a blank wall as a movie screen.
Of course, a great tragedy of this time has been both my boys missing school. We’re lucky because my second grader can navigate both his assignments and the technology to do them on his own. We try our best to monitor both the completion and quality of his work, but after a long day, I confess, it’s sometimes the last thing we want to do.
The younger one is the opposite. I feel, in many ways, he’s suffering the most. He had great teachers and friends and was on his way to kindergarten. Now he has the least to do and it’s hard for him to set up learning activities on his own. (Zoom and FaceTime bore him.) I’ve gone out of my way to design “units” for him where he watches videos about topics he’s interested in, then draws, acts and builds models of them. The list of topics is pretty much what you’d expect from a 4-year old, and it’s kinda awesome: mummies, raptors, underwater robot submarines, fossils, castles and gardening. At dinner, he has to make presentations for us. They’re just like TED Talks except they’re shorter and less pretentious.
After all this ends, if it even has a definitive “end,” what am I going to remember? What will I take away from the Great Stay at Home of 2020?
Well, I certainly don’t see this as some grand societal reset or a great time to “learn a new skill” or “start a business.” But I do see it as a time to do the most important thing people can do: Learn. I’ve learned that my wife can handle chaos – work, stress, cooking, shopping, my moods and the kids – with grace. I’ve learned my oldest boy is both incredibly independent when it comes to tasks but very dependent in needing to share his thoughts. I’ve learned that 4-year olds can do, say, create and think way more than what people give them credit for. They’re also incredibly clever and funny, too.
I’ve learned about my home and how to reuse and repurpose pretty much anything and everything. An old beer box can house a velociraptor diorama and an empty Gatorade bottle is a submarine that can explore the ocean depths. That plastic table I placed outside under a tree is the best office I’ve ever had. A cheap inflatable pool on a hot day might as well be the North Shore of Hawaii.
Most importantly, I’ve learned about myself in this time of rediscovery. My constants are concrete. I still love reading and basketball way too much; I’ve finished a couple of books and completed my basketball coach’s license. But I’ve also tried new things I thought I’d never try. Spin classes (cheesy, but effective). Scotch (perfect, very effective). Facial hair (itchy and definitely not effective, according to my wife).
One night during week three of the shutdown, my wife and I bundled up and sat in our Adirondack chairs on our front lawn. The kids finally had fallen asleep. It was chilly and the California night was a blend of blues, indigo seeping into sapphire. We talked about serious things like infection rates and the “flattening of the curve.” (Funny how no one cared about math until math made everyone care about it). We talked about silly things, how the silhouette of our neighbors’ trees looked like a giant chicken. We held hands and talked about the future.
The current talk surrounding the shutdown these days is about determining the value of work and people. Who and what is essential. Essential workers. Essential businesses. Essential medical equipment. But as I think about that night outside, holding my wife’s hand, that most basic of human connections, I think of my friends, my relatives, my co-workers, my basketball team. I think of my buddy who manages a grocery store and my many friends in the medical profession. I think of my fellow teachers, trying to engage and more importantly, reassure our students. Heck, I think of the strangers I high-five at Lakers games and the random people you groove with at concerts.
In that rare moment of quiet, I know who is essential. We all are. I hope that’s what we all keep from this time.