Home for the holidays–except it’s my own home

We spent Christmas in an unprecedented place: our house. Like many of you (I hope all of you), we scratched our travel plans on account of the pandemic that as of today has killed more than one in every thousand Americans. The end of December has involved travel by plane, train or automobile for me ever year since high school, but that streak finally ended.

Homemade wreath on a front door

I have to admit that it felt oddly calming to wrap up my shopping on the evening of Dec. 23, the latest day I’ve headed out of town, and realize I could take my time browsing at the Downtown Holiday Market instead of worrying about having to pack once I got home. Between this immense simplification of holiday logistics and the absence of the usual barrage of CES PR pitches, it’s been a less stressful season.

Celebrating Christmas at home also allowed our cat to be part of the festivities. It turns out that Abel likes playing with wrapping paper and ribbons, so this worked out well for him and for us.

Plus, we had a few snow flurries, so the day met the technical definition of a white Christmas.

The downside is that it’s now been more than 13 months since I’ve seen my mom and my brother, and it’s been almost as long since my wife saw her parents and her sister. FaceTime and phone calls have been poor substitutes for hugs.

I would very much like to think that by the end of March, enough people will have been vaccinated to have the pandemic rapidly receding and family travel plausible again. But I’ve been wrong so many times in my pandemic forecasts here before that I’m nervous even writing that hope now.

Thanksgiving almost entirely from scratch, and on short notice

More than three decades after I moved out, I finally cooked Thanksgiving without parental help. This was not my original plan for the holiday, but the pandemic led us to scrap that a week before the holiday–giving me just enough time to shop and plan a downsized meal.

The turkey was the first item to cross off the to-do list. I thought about buying just a turkey breast, but when I realized that Virginia’s EcoFriendly Foods had half turkeys for sale, I picked up one at the Arlington farmers market on Saturday. FYI, it is significantly easier to carry less than 7 pounds of half a bird–yes, I lived up to local stereotype by buying a left-wing turkey–than 14 pounds of a complete one.

I also came home from the market with a few pounds of potatoes, leaving surprisingly little shopping for other ingredients over the next few days: sweet potatoes, fennel, and stuffing mix.

Thanksgiving itself started a little before 9 a.m. with mixing dough for two baguettes. Julia Child’s recipe from The Way To Cook spans five pages and requires three rises; it’s far more effort than the no-knead bread I’ve done in previous years, but a complete baguette freezes better than half a loaf.

As the dough rose, I made the crust and filling for pumpkin pie from my usual recipe; getting dessert finished before 1:30 p.m. was a good morale booster. The baguettes went into the oven next (accompanied by a head of garlic), while on the stove top I boiled the potatoes.

But what about the turkey, the entree that my brother’s wife had handled when we had family Thanksgiving here last year? I had been tempted to follow Kamala Harris’s advice about wet brining but didn’t get around to that Wednesday, so I limited myself to rubbing butter on the bird and then seasoning it with salt, pepper, herbes de Provence and some diced rosemary from the garden.

I mostly followed the roasting directions in my go-to cookbook, Mark Bittman’s How To Cool Everything, except that I cooked it at 450 degrees instead of 500 for the first 20 or so minutes before backing down to 350 degrees. I stuck the temperature probe for a ThermoWorks Dot into what seemed the thickest part of the bird and set the alarm on that remote thermometer to 165 degrees.

Meanwhile, my daughter helped mash the potatoes as I threw too much butter and some of the roast garlic into that pot while my wife handled the stuffing and crafted some tangy cranberry sauce from scratch, using a recipe she’d looked up that afternoon.

After about two hours in the over–another advantage to getting half a bird–the turkey was done and looked and tasted amazing. Folks, this doesn’t have to be hard; like many other areas of cooking, throwing butter at the problem works. Speaking of which, I whipped up some gravy from the drippings in the pan. I will admit that the results were lumpy, not that anybody cared.

The only real misfire in this entire cooking production was the roast vegetables–putting that dish of sweet potatoes, carrots and fennel on the top rack in the oven meant that I didn’t see it when I took out the turkey and so left them a bit overdone. But roast veggies are pretty fault tolerant, and everybody ate enough of everything that we had to walk around the neighborhood to check out the earliest Christmas decorations before indulging in dessert.

Thanksgiving was not the same with relatives only visible on an iPad’s screen, but at least we did dinner right. And now we’re going to see how long Thanksgiving leftovers last with only three people around to eat them.

An unlikely return to the skies

Weeks spent wondering when I might next get on a plane turned into months–and then that wait ended a little after 7 a.m. Friday, when I boarded a flight from National Airport to Newark.

I had no personal or business appointment near EWR. I just had my habit developed over the last nine years of flying on Sept. 11–plus a stash of future flight credit on United with no imminent use, a growing despondency over my grounded status, an empty schedule Friday, and enough research to establish that I could take a day trip then on largely-empty planes for a reasonable fare.

Commercial aviation’s pandemic-wracked status made this short-notice jaunt possible, in that I didn’t book Friday’s itinerary until Wednesday. The price of procrastination was a little complexity: The cheapest itinerary that would let me leave my city and altitude and arrive home in time for dinner without brittle connections had me flying from National to Newark to Columbus back to Newark and then home to Dulles.

That’s a bit ridiculous, but as a card-carrying avgeek I could not turn it down.

The flights themselves were fine and seemed safe. I spent more time near more random people making my grocery-store visits this week than I did up in the air, and airplanes have much better air ventilation and filtration. It helped that my frequent-flyer status on United allowed my upgrades to clear on all four legs–but note that a seat up front doesn’t get you much more in these pandemic days than extra personal space. I kept my mask on except to have a beverage or a snack on each flight, and everybody near me did the same.

But the real reward consisted of the chances to appreciate the memorial United employees once again set up at EWR to commemorate the crews of UA 93 and UA 175, soak in the post-departure perspective of a Manhattan skyline that doesn’t match the one I knew up to Sept. 11, 2001, and treasure returning safely to one of my two home airports.

I, cat herder

Sunday will mark our fourth month in the cat-American demographic. Adopting a cat is only one of the many unanticipated consequences of pandemic life, but no other has left the same dent in my afternoons.

As in, getting a cat means I can’t enjoy my usual catnapping. The lounge chair that has served me so well for postprandial repose is now largely the property of the newest member of our family… and like any good cat daddy, I am okay with that, I guess.

We didn’t have cat adoption on our to-do list back in March, but as the weeks ground on, our daughter kept making the case for a pet. We understood that a cat would be on the low-maintenance end of the spectrum, so when the Humane Rescue Alliance’s site listed a domestic shorthair up for adoption, we proceeded.

The first few weeks with Abel home were tricky. (We don’t know the backstory to the name, but I assume it means he’s down to eight lives.) He was extremely skittish and spent most of his time in the safe space we’d set up in a closet–and we all paid for getting too close with scratches. But then he warmed up to our abode and has since shown a remarkable ability to find different spots in which to nap.

One of his favorite locations continues to be the chair I used to call mine. Abel will curl up there, soak in the afternoon light, and then settle into a sort of squeaky snoring. For at least an hour. The feline social engineering that cats have developed to get humans to dote on them is really something to see.

When Abel is awake, he enjoys pouncing on various household objects. Despite a lack of depth perception from one eye never developing properly, he can be remarkably fierce in attack mode; if he ever finds any of the mice that have occasionally surfaced in the basement, they’re goners. Abel also likes playing with cables and wires of any sort, so I can’t go a day without having to shoo him away from trying to paw at or nibble on my laptop’s charging cable.

I also now have a much better grasp of the unintentional comedic potential of cats. Abel and I have figured out how to play a form of soccer that involves me rolling a wine cork to him, him gnawing on it and then rolling it back, and then me passing it back to repeat the cycle. He’s also learned how to vault himself onto my desk, then slouch behind the computer and ignore my entreaties to vacate my workspace.

I would like to have contributed more cat imagery to the Internet by now. But another thing I’ve realized in my new cat-person lifestyle is that getting a non-blurry shot of an animal that embodies “short attention span” is not as easy as the pros make it look.

Same t-shirt, different day

Wednesday was like Sunday for one unlikely reason: I wore the same t-shirt both days without a wash day in between. The same situation applies to today, except I don’t remember which day I had put aside the barely worn t-shirt that I threw on this morning.

Folded t-shirts in a drawerThis kind of clothing recycling is usually unthinkable in August here. But between the novel-coronavirus pandemic having nuked all of my work social schedule, most of my other excuses to leave home vanishing, and the weather being so unseasonably cool it lets me pretend I’ve traveled someplace, I can get away with this sad little lifehack.

It may be somewhat sadder that I’m not taking advantage of this sartorial judgment-free zone to get into some deep cuts from a t-shirt set that goes back to the 1980s. (Learning the Marie Kondo t-shirt fold spared me from having to cull this collection… which I know is completely antithetical to the KonMari ethos.) But breaking out a Reagan Decade-vintage concert t-shirt for anything short of an ’80s-tied gathering seems wrong.

Instead, I keep going back to favorites from the last 15 or so years: the not-really-free shirts I got for going to conferences like the Online News Association’s gatherings and XOXO, the less expensive freebies I’ve picked up at Nats games and at running or cycling events, even some shirts I’ve paid for. That includes the most recent acquisition you can see in the photo here: one from the late, great Post Pub.

(I don’t know why I didn’t make the effort to buy an Iota t-shirt when I had the chance.)

None of these t-shirts make much of a fashion statement, but they all feel comfortable and comforting after years of wear and impose almost no cognitive load. Collectively, they’re my low-budget answer to Steve Jobs’ black mock turtleneck.

Unlike Jobs, I can’t expect to make this look work for my occasional professional appearance. Fortunately, it’s difficult to put much wear into a button-down t-shirt in a 10-minute TV hit via Skype or even an hour-long Zoom panel. So I just might be able to get through summer without having to wash those shirts at all.

The wrong kind of endless summer

Today is Aug. 22, and I need to look at the lock screen of my phone more than usual to confirm that fact.

Months after the novel-coronavirus pandemic’s swift demolition of my business-travel schedule, the days and weeks blur into one another. Not only has no work travel since appeared on my calendar, personal travel has vanished too.

Visiting my mom and brother in Massachusetts became a non-starter once that state declared a 14-day quarantine for arrivals (you’re exempt if you can produce a negative COVID-19 test result from no more than 72 hours before your entrance, but good luck with that turnaround time). We thought about visiting my wife’s family in the Bay Area but decided to hold off on spending that much time in airports and airplanes, and now the latest bout of wildfires make a visit there ill-advised for anybody.

And we never got it together to plan any other trip anywhere because of [gestures weakly] all of this.

So for the first time since… ugh, 1993, I will go nowhere for the summer. And back then, at least I had plenty of opportunities to leave my sad Crystal City apartment and get lost in the city.

This summer offers almost nothing: no lunchtime panels, no evening receptions, no weekend parties, not much of anything aside from such brief escapes as a timed-ticket visit to the National Zoo or a crab feast on a neighbor’s deck. Lately, I can’t even count on the arrival of the mail to remind me that it’s Saturday versus Sunday.

The only respite has come from, of all the things, the weather, which has mixed things up with a delightfully cool spell over the last week and change. Opening the front door to temperatures in the 70s has let me pretend I’ve woken up in California or Europe–until seeing the untidy state of the lawn reminds me of overdue chores here.

Having written all that, I feel utterly unentitled to any pity. The three of us may be growing weary of all this time cooped up at home, but lots of people have never had the money or the time off to go anywhere fun for vacation. And many others have been treated exponentially worse by this accursed pandemic.

Yesterday, I was chatting online with a friend who has been recovering from some severe depression this summer. Not quite knowing what to write, I typed this: “This entire year… I think if we can all get through it, nothing will ever seem as hard.”

God, I hope that’s true.

Protests, vicariously

Donald Trump’s administration began with American cities packed with protesters, and today–150 days before Election Day–their streets are again overflowing with people exercising their First Amendment rights.

The situation in 2020 is more grave than in 2017. People aren’t marching to show their rejection of one new president and the prospect of his authoritarian misrule, but their anger about an entire system that tolerates the killing of black people by police and neighbors for little more than living in their American skin. These protests are happening while a global pandemic makes large gatherings dangerous, especially for those not wearing a mask.

And too many police have greeted these protesters–and sometimes journalists–with beatings, tear gas, bullets sold as non-lethal, and even bike theft. These alleged law-enforcement professionals could have picked no surer way to show that people denouncing police abuse of power have a point.

But as I did three and a half years ago, I stayed home today to perform the modern-parenting task of watching our kid while my wife marched.

My entire experience of what’s going on around the newly-fortified area formerly known as the White House grounds, just a few miles from my home, has been weirdly distant. About the only difference in my daily routine has been hearing what might be a few more sirens, which could reflect a response to protests or the occasional and disgraceful outbreak of looting or could have been first-responder business as usual.

The one protest I’ve seen firsthand happened Tuesday around the Clarendon Metro; it was peaceful, and the Arlington County police officers watching it did not wear riot gear. At another protest in Arlington last weekend, my spouse (a county government employee with no role in law enforcement) noted that ACPD officers cleared a lane of traffic and handed out water bottles.

Some of the same officers, however, responded Monday to a mutual-aid-agreement request by the U.S. Park Police and helped forcibly clear peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square so President Trump could have his picture taken fondling a Bible outside St. John’s Church.

Arlington’s police leadership has since shown itself willing to hear constructive criticism, and once again I feel insulated from the problems around me. 

All of which is to say, the past two weeks have provided the opportunity and the need for me to consider my own privilege in this society and how each of the few times I’ve been pulled over by a cop, it’s left me to fear little beyond getting points on my insurance.

Return to flight

For the first time in almost nine years, Americans began a journey to space from Florida instead of Kazakhstan. SpaceX’s successful launch Saturday afternoon of NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on a Crew Dragon capsule atop a Falcon 9 rocket closed the longest gap ever in human spaceflight from U.S. soil and broke a government monopoly on travel to orbit.

The long wait after the last shuttle mission in July 2011 for this day and this liftoff took me back all the way to 1981. That’s when my 10-year-old self woke up unnaturally early on a Sunday morning to watch the space shuttle Columbia roar to life, taking John Young and Bob Crippen to orbit after a more than five-year drought that followed the splashdown of the U.S. half of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in July of 1975.

I didn’t get to watch that launch on YouTube on a flat-panel TV–instead, it was an over-the-air CBS signal on a cathode-ray-tube set. There was also no social media; the only people I could rejoice with afterwards were my brother and my mom and dad.

But then as now, the United States had been through hard times. Not only did NASA have to sit and watch as the Soviet Union sent cosmonauts to orbit and the shuttle program’s delays dragged on, the end of the 1970s saw our country reeling from an oil crisis, an economic crisis, and the hostage crisis. The USSR felt free to invade Afghanistan and throw its weight around the rest of the world.

It was a lot for a nine-year-old boy who had only recently gotten into the habit of reading the New York Times and watching the evening news. It felt like my country kept getting kicked around.

The past year has not been like the year running up to STS-1. It’s worse. So much worse. A global pandemic has killed more than 102,000 Americans and wrecked the U.S. economy (with the inconsequential collateral damage of my being unable to cover the SpaceX launch in person as I did 2018’s Falcon Heavy launch). The president is a ignorant bigot, a pathological liar, and a magnet for the corrupt and the incompetent–NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine being a blessed exception. The streets of some American cities were on fire Friday night.

The state of American spaceflight was nowhere as bad before today as it was at the end of 1980–astronauts have kept flying to space on Russian rockets without the shuttle’s fatal vulnerabilities, and the ISS is a spacecraft big enough to see from the ground. But all the other things make today’s misery index exponentially higher.

And this time, the kid trying to make sense of the world is my daughter. I try to help her with that, but I don’t know that I’m doing that much. Could anybody?

Saturday’s launch doesn’t cure the novel coronavirus, put tens of millions of Americans back to work, vote Trump out of office or banish his brand of cruelty from American politics, bring George Floyd back to life, or excise systemic racism. But as my friend Maura Corbett put it in a tweet, this accomplishment gave “a grieving and broken country some wonder and hope today.” And it should remind everybody that hard work and a willingness to learn may ultimately take you through adversity. And to the stars.

Plaguebeard status

It’s now been four weeks since I last shaved, which means I’ve completed the dubious facial-hair accomplishment of having to wash my beard after meals. And here I thought I’d adopted the low-maintenance alternative to shaving!

Ditching that almost-daily ritual of shaving my face is yet another thing I’ve done to try to simplify my life as the novel-coronavirus pandemic grinds on. Besides, it had been almost 24 years since I’d last tried growing a beard, so why not give it another shot when my professional visibility would be limited to people on the other side of a webcam?

(That prior experiment started when two other guys in the Washington Post’s Weekend section stopped shaving, two more of us decided to do the same, a “beardguys” group somehow appeared for us in the newsroom messaging system, and then three weeks later everybody called it quits. That probably had something to do with September in D.C. being a not-comfortable time to have facial hair.)

On the positive side, it didn’t take me long this time to get past the significant-other-disapproval stage of stubble, while our daughter finds this addition to my face generally amusing. My beard has grown out with a predominance of gray around my chin that adds a certain gravitas. And having that much extra hair around my face helps balance out how untidy the hair on my head is starting to look after five weeks without the services of a barber.

On the negative side, my beard sometimes itches and, as mentioned previously, is starting to complicate eating. I have no idea what sort of beard grooming I should be doing, although I hope it doesn’t involve as many different products as I’ve seen recommended. And as it gets warmer and warmer outside, having this extra insulation for my face may seem pointless.

It would be nice to think that we could exit this lockdown state before we reach the depths of summer heat and humidity. But while I can count on the latter, I can’t count on the former.

Housework when nobody leaves the house: The dishes are never done

We’re now wrapping up two weeks of staying at home together as a family. It feels more like a month, and I mostly blame the dishwasher for that.

I’m no stranger to housework after almost nine years of working from home full-time. But having everybody else in the family cooped up at home to avoid the coronavirus is a different thing. The biggest surprise, as I suppose many of you have been learning, is how often you run the dishes when everybody eats every meal at home.

For the three of us, that’s at least nine sets of utensils, glasses and plates or bowls each day. Running the dishwasher that we’d idly thought of replacing because of how long it takes has become an every-three-days proposition at best. And now I really hope this appliance that conveyed with the house almost 16 years ago does not pick this season to break on us.

Laundry, meanwhile, has become surprisingly easier. Why? When I rarely leave the house and never do so to meet anybody for professional reasons, I might as well wear the same pair of pants at least twice before washing them. I’m also finding myself okay with getting two days out of a shirt while the temperatures stay below the 70s.

And as long as I don’t work too hard gardening during what are supposed to be brief breaks from work. Fortunately or unfortunately, my seasonal outdoor distraction from my occupation is even stronger this spring. Because removing some plants and moving others around to make our house look better seems like one of the few things I can control in my life right now.