Episode IV: Can You Save the World While Dressed Like This?
Kathy: My self-quarantining has reached a new low. This morning, I was leaf-blowing the driveway in my pajamas.
Summer: I’m getting used to being at home all the time, and it kinda freaks me out.
To clarify, it took me half a day to realize it was Thursday, but then as I made lunch, I realized that means I hadn’t been to the store—or anywhere—in seven days. And it doesn’t feel like a very big deal. Three weeks ago, that was a huge deal.
Also, I am wearing athleisure today. So it’s all downhill from here.
Kathy: Welcome to the dark side, my friend. It’s comfier over here, and comes with built-in expansion room for chocolate-cherry sourdough.
In related sartorial news, I discovered a new life hack (and you know how I love me a good life hack): Start the day in the leggings you will wear for Virtual Pilates at the end of the day. That way, you only have to change the top half.
Summer: I’m definitely going to do that. Lately, this is how my clothing day goes:
Morning to midafternoon: Put on what I’ve dubbed my “fancy” sweats/leggings and real top. Because professional woman.
Midafternoon to dinner: Change into workout leggings and top. Presumably I’ll be sweating and then cooking. And I wouldn’t want food splatter on my fancy sweats.
After dinner: Excuse myself to assemble my evening look—some people would call this pajamas—for TV marathon.
Could this be the future of the Mrs. America competition?
Kathy: Which we were both totally teed up to win before this all began.
My son just broke a giant glass bowl. Sec.
[13 minutes pass]
More than a sec. Small disaster.
[14 minutes pass]
Almost back. Moving furniture while husband vacuums. In other news: Can lift 100-pound child out of pile of glass shards!
Summer: OMG disaster. I can’t believe you lifted him!
Kathy: ME NEITHER. But he was panicked and standing on one foot, which he can’t do for very long, and the husband was . . . using the bidet.
Summer: Of course.
Aww, that was a nice bowl.
have had two of them. One given to me by Chaos Muppet parent and the other given to me by Order Muppet parent. Who have been divorced for more than 35 years, and yet have the uncanny ability to give my sister and me the same gifts.
Where were we, again? Oh, yes. I was thinking about how time is elastic. As are fancy sweats.
Summer: I wonder if I’ll ever put on heels again. And you know me—I have a reverse height complex, which means I think I’m three inches taller than I actually am. I wear heels to work most days so that I don’t have to accept my 5'5" reality. Now I can’t even fathom going back to walking in those.
I’m definitely in a phase where I am realizing just how unessential I am. As California lays out its tiptoe plan to reopen, it’s pretty clear I’ll be working from home until 2030. And why would an unessential person get so dressed up? Or maybe only the unessential people get dressed up. . . . Hmm, psychology.
Kathy: Apparently, I have been unessential for years now, as I wear fancy sneakers to work. That is, I did when I used to go to work, all the way back in March. By the way, it’s still March in my brain, even though intellectually I know it’s May.
Summer: Well, we are essential to each other. And I’m trying to find the ways I can do good. But aside from not seeing other humans, I’m not sure what that is. And I’m losing motivation to try. I can’t sew masks. I can’t intubate anyone. I’m not even a science writer. So that leaves me making videos with big-deal alums—which I do love—and hoping that providing relief from stress is helpful.
I think I’ve just described myself as the court jester.
Kathy: But see, the court jester is vital. I remember being so frustrated after 9/11 when everyone said irony was dead. We have to laugh. It’s part of coping. Also, you made a video in which Art Streiber, ’84, photographer to the stars, teaches people how to make commemorative portraits of their kids whose graduation ceremonies have been canceled. Just think of how many people that’s going to benefit.
Meanwhile, after many hours with a dusty sewing machine, I managed to make a very sad prototype of a rudimentary mask. This week, I made 10 masks for patients at a community health clinic. (Badthought: But other people made 50!) And when I go to Trader Joe’s, I pick up a few bags of groceries for a friend who can’t go herself because she has Stage IV lung cancer. (Badthought: But other people actually treat cancer!)
I try to tell myself that I’m doing enough—that I can pitch in in small, community-minded ways; that I don’t have to change the world. But I am not convinced.
We are essential to each other! I’m just going to keep repeating that.
Summer: Full disclosure: I had slippers on when I talked to Art. You are right, that video will help many people. Art made me 10 times the photographer I was in just a few minutes.
Ooh, ooh! I donated to my local food bank!
And you make an excellent larger point. We are all doing what we can, and in many cases, what we can do is just survive it. And by “it” I mostly mean the day. But also the pandemic. Not everyone can save the world.
Actually, I take that back. What am I, a Cal grad? I’ll figure out some way to save the world. Eventually.
Episode III: In Which ‘It’ Gets Real
Kathy: The bidet is possessed.
Summer: I need to know everything.
Kathy: It auto-opens and closes. But in a 20-square-foot bathroom, it auto-opens and closes all the time.
The dog barks and growls at it.
It also “pre-mists” as soon as it auto-opens.
In other words, it is always making some sort of noise, not to mention using water and electricity. One turns off these features using the handy remote control, and they turn themselves back on, seemingly at random.
Summer: The bidet is alive.
Kathy: Also, it was designed by a man. The dryer dries only the rear part. One must scoot.
I’m beginning to understand why, even at a time when the TP-deprived are scouring the internet for bidets, this particular model was deeply discounted.
Summer: Is this a freestanding thing, or is it an attachment to the toilet? Clearly, I need to learn more about bidets in general.
Kathy: It is a very fancy toilet seat.
Summer: It’s a good thing you can’t have guests over, because I feel I would need warning that I will be pre-misted upon sitting.
Kathy: The pre-misting is for the BOWL.
Summer: Oh! Wait, why?? There is already water in the bowl.
Kathy: To make sure the bowl is thoroughly clean afterward. Because low-flow toilet.
It is possible this should be in the kids’ bathroom. Because it is harder to walk in front of that toilet while doing things like getting clothes out of your dresser or opening your bedroom blinds.
On the other hand, my son is scared of it.
Summer: Oh, Smallest Batte would definitely be scared. I’d have to demonstrate, and that alone is too scary.
FYI, this is the most novel and interesting conversation of my week.
I do feel better that I will not be pre-misted.
Kathy: Happy to be of service.
This is certainly the most novel conversation of my week, but—and don’t take this the wrong way—I’m afraid I can’t say it’s the most interesting. I’ve had two friends call me in tears because their college-age kids were hard to parent on a good day, and having them at home unexpectedly and indefinitely is not a good day. And one of my family members lost (most of) her job. Her texts are wrenching.
In other words, methinks the bidet may be a metaphor: It’s getting real.
Summer: It’s getting REAL real. I have a group text of Stanford friends that includes a doctor who has had the “what you should do if I become fatally ill with this virus” conversation with her husband. I know some family members are teetering on the edge of unemployment. I’m just kind of crossing my fingers that those texts don’t come.
When my household lost internet for several days in April, I spiraled into end-of-the-world thinking very quickly.
Kathy: I remember my deepest doomsday spiral with eerie precision. It began on Friday the 13th (of March, that is).
Summer: When we first lost internet—not just Wi-Fi but ALL the interweb—I did not panic. My husband did, because he made the jump to certain destruction immediately. And one of the main reasons we’ve been married 16 years is that only one of us freaks out at a time.
I believed we’d wake up the next day and the internet would work. It was tired and needed rest. (I anthropomorphize a lot.) When it didn’t work the next day or the day after that, the husband had already settled into acceptance of our inevitable demise, which meant it was my turn to lose my mind.
It is the stupidest thing in the world to freak out about. And yet, the internet has become possibly the most essential thing in our lives. I finally fully grokked that without it, EVERYTHING was over. We could not work, which meant we’d have no money and would starve. My daughter could not do schoolwork, which meant she’d never graduate from middle school, let alone get the PhD in genetics that she wants. We’d lose the house. We’d divorce from the stress. The cat would never get his bad tooth extracted.
Not only could we not do the things we needed to do, but we could not employ our usual means of family downtime (streaming TV and movies) to distract us from our approaching tragic end.
The internet was fixed. It took family teamwork; a really, really long ethernet cord; and—I’m only a little bit ashamed to say—me crying on the phone to a customer-service rep. The experience was absolutely a first-world crisis, as coronavirus crises go. But it was real. And it made me much more appreciative of the anxiety and pressure on people who are facing serious stressors right now.
Kathy: Mine also started with a certain amount of innocence. We’d been working from home for a week, but the vibe was more “precautionary measure” than “public health mandate.” Short-term school closures were announced that afternoon. I went to my regular Pilates class and physical therapy appointment with precautions (think hand-washing, sanitizing, and solemn, mutual testaments of health). I walked out to an email that made it clear that life in the Bay Area was about to change: Initial social-distancing measures were not sufficient to stem the spread of the virus.
I came home in a state of self-blame. Sure, PT was “essential,” but I could have managed a little extra back pain. And Pilates, even though it was in the same facility, added exposure to an additional person outside of our home. What if I had unnecessarily exposed my kids to the virus by rationalizing a selfish desire to exercise? (I’m in the unusual situation of having teenagers who may be at higher risk of complications than their middle-aged parents.)
So I spent the weekend alternating between self-flagellation and catatonia. On Monday, I read an excellent set of tips from Stanford psychiatrist David Spiegel on coping with coronavirus anxiety—and followed precisely none of them. Instead, I canceled everything, starting with my noon haircut. Then, as I was driving to pick up the final piece of my apocalypse puzzle—the contact lenses that allow me to see out of my right eye—I got two pieces of news: The Bay Area was announcing shelter-in-place orders, and my husband and son had been exposed to the coronavirus nine days prior. Somewhere on Alma Street, there’s a curb with tread marks on it where I nearly drove off the road. Which I immediately realized would be an indefensible way to die in the middle of a pandemic.
Six weeks later, all four of us are healthy, my baseline stress level fluctuates between normal agitation and orange alert, and I really need a haircut.
Summer: The scars of my downward spiral will remain for a long time. In the form of cables snaking through my home from the secondary ethernet connection we discovered upstairs, taped to floors, walls and railings down to the shrine—I mean router—we’ve installed in the living room. It’s all kinds of ugly, and I don’t care because it’s keeping us alive, and it’s not like anyone is coming over. (I also kind of want to attach Lego mini-figs to the cable so they are rappelling down the wall, but that’s another story.)
Kathy: Ah, technology. It really knows when to bite us in the butt. Speaking of, I must go attend to the bidet. I think it’s pre-misting again.
Episode II: Chaos/Control
Kathy Zonana: So here’s a question: Which of us was better prepared to stay home? Interpret “better” any way you see fit. (My bet’s on you, BTW.)
Summer Moore Batte: Well, I managed to build a life with one of the most introverted people on the planet—and then spawn his equal—so I think personality-wise, we were well prepared. My husband leads doomsday efforts for our house. He has us PREPARED for an earthquake. He also led the charge to Costco two weeks before the March shelter-in-place orders, for toilet paper and frozen chicken. So yes, materially, we were also in pretty good shape.
Kathy: If you had toilet paper and frozen chicken, then you should declare victory. Because I ended up with a bidet and an air-chilled duck.
Summer: But see, your future stories of the Dark Times will be so much more interesting! Mine will be about how I dragged people on daily walks and we binge-watched shows from the early ’00s.
Kathy: My story can be summed up as follows: I am an Order Muppet married to a Chaos Muppet. (Brief pause while you behold the brilliant classification scheme of Dahlia Lithwick, JD ’96. She does advocate Chaos-Order intermarriage, incidentally.)
The Chaos Muppet is in charge of managing the online subscription services. Which he does in his Chaos Muppety way, by eyeballing how much toilet paper we have left and using his superior math skills to estimate the rate of use by three people who spend most of their waking hours outside the home.
Only one problem: The Chaos Muppet is a chronic optimist. It never occurred to him to bulk up the TP order in case four people (now including our college student) had to shelter in place during a pandemic. And earthquake prep? Bah!
Summer: So maybe I had more supplies. But since everyone in my family has between a 40- and 90-minute commute each way to jobs/school/activities, I had some errand efficiencies in place and severe constraints on free time that made life in the old world work. Most of those are shot—I can’t get a grocery delivery time; my 5 a.m. commute and 6:15 a.m. workouts are not happening, because nobody does that unless they have to. But that minute-by-minute schedule was my organizing principle. Now I’m all over the place. YOU, meanwhile, have lists.
Kathy: Boy, do I. In real life, I have two sets of Now/Soon/Later lists: one for work and one for personal tasks. In quarantine life, I have five new lists:
In my defense, the Chaos Muppet did ask what we should do with our time; I’m just the one who actually put ideas down on paper. And categorized them.
The lists have come in handy strategically. When I hear “I’m bored,” I shove my son’s list in front of him. When the husband muses aloud that he wants a physical task, I try to pretend that “refinish table” was his spontaneous idea, not the first item on some tyrannical list.
My secret goal is to get through everything on my list(s). Then I will have won quarantine.
Summer: OK, couple of things here. First, your lists are inspiring. Second, I’m evidently a Chaos Muppet who tries to be perceived as an Order Muppet, and married an Order Muppet who is all too happy to let Chaos run the show. Which is why we have a chore calendar (that nobody but me uses for chores) that has become a haphazard lockdown calendar, where I scribble down exposures to the outside world, take weekly TP counts, and each evening mark survival with a satisfying red X.
Kathy: That calendar gives this Order Muppet the warm fuzzies. And she feels duty-bound to ask why you are tracking exposures.
Summer: It’s because days blend together and I figured we might need/want to know where we potentially acquired COVID-19 and how long it had been since exposure.
So it’s grocery trips and food deliveries. And it’s always my initials by the event. I will be the vector.
Kathy: I, too, will be the vector. I am the lowest-risk person in my house, so I do the hunting and gathering. (You, I take it, are the lowest-risk person who drives.)
Summer: Lowest-risk and the one who needs to occasionally glimpse life beyond our four walls. Also, I do have lists. One is even called “Someday When There Is Time,” which you’d think would be now. But it contains items like “prepare for Y2K,” so . . . I’m just not going to look at it. To me, how to win quarantine becomes more of a mystery the longer it goes on. I know I have a tendency to grab the shiniest new object and make a project out of it. And I know I don’t really care about being perfect—just being the best. But when this all went down, I was already in the middle of writing a book (as the most competitive and verbal among us feel compelled to do). And it has a deadline, so I need to somehow maintain focus on that and not worry that others are “better” at quarantine than I am. Maybe that would be a win of its own.
My secret goal is to come out of this 15 pounds lighter. We can talk later about my unreasonable aspirations.
Kathy: Oh. Yes. That. Must add “stop eating comfort carbs” to my list. Because to console myself about my inability to make sourdough, I bought a loaf with cherries and chocolate embedded in it. It is everything you could imagine and more.
Summer: My head might explode. That sounds amazing.
Kathy: Oh, it is. And if only we could get together, I’d offer you some. Instead, I’ll share the deepest secret of the Order Muppet: We never get around to doing all the things on our lists. It is nearly as pleasing to cross off an item that expired 20 years ago as it is to cross off one that is due 20 minutes from now. (Another clue that I might be a perfectionist: I procrastinate. Because things have to be done right—otherwise, what’s the point?)
So when I say “winning” quarantine, I just mean I want to meet my own unattainable standards. Now, why I think I need to do that I’m not sure, especially when I’m feeling jittery about the state of the world and have absolutely no idea when I’ll wear the jewelry I aspire to clean or the clothes I imagine I’ll iron. But I have a feeling it may have something to do with control.
Summer: Ah, control. There is so little of it right now, I think everyone is seeking it out in new ways. Most things that used to feel permanent or solid have been flushed. Which reminds me, we need to talk soon about the Bidet.
Episode I: Ducks in Quarantine
Summer Moore Batte: I’ve genuinely always thought that if my family didn’t have such ridiculous commutes, our lives would be totally different. We’d somehow do worthwhile things: volunteer, bond, learn languages and have an immaculate home.
Well, myth busted. At least 25 person-hours per week of driving has gone away for my household, and still I just work, default to pasta way too often and do laundry. Barely. How is that possible in a world where I can’t leave my house? And how does everyone else seem to have time to make sourdough bread? Am I quarantining wrong?
Kathy Zonana: Well, I have managed to screw up my attempts at sourdough starter twice so far. I’m not sure why I think I can cook under a shelter-in-place order when I can’t under normal circumstances.
But yeah. What is with the plethora of articles about how to better ourselves during a pandemic? How to improve your family’s eating habits. Which TV shows to stream. How to homeschool. When to deep-six the homeschooling. Heck, Stanford magazine is guilty as charged.
Summer: The last thing we need is pressure to somehow turn what is possibly the most stressful event in our lifetimes into an “opportunity.” And yet, I feel the pressure. Earlier today, I snapped at my 13-year-old for not doing the amazing things I see other people’s teenagers doing (on Instagram . . . which means my parenting is flawed on many, many levels right now). And a few days ago, I nearly joined a Zoom yoga class because I figured this is what one does now. But I don’t even take yoga classes in the real world!
Instead, I made a list with my family of 30 movies we should watch. That feels more like our kind of accomplishment.
Also, you know there are breads that don’t require a starter, right? Why are people making this so hard?
Kathy: Because we can’t buy eggs or yeast! Or toilet paper, but I digress.
I think there might be a “type” who is particularly susceptible to these alleged opportunities. She’s not a physician treating COVID-19 patients, a grocery store cashier or a parent of toddlers whose day care center is closed. She can work from home, and said home is far away enough from others to allow for reasonable social distancing. And although she has high-risk family members—who doesn’t?—she’s not out of her mind with worry because someone she loves is seriously ill.
In short, she is . . . us.
Summer: I think you are absolutely correct. And I think Stanford alums who fit this recipe also have a common “starter” made of perfectionism, competitiveness or a need to change the world.
You see what I did there?
That starter makes us who we are. It’s probably responsible for many of our successes in life. But it also makes us feel like there’s a right (or winningest) way to do everything and want to project that to the world.
It may be why I’m wearing a blazer this morning even though my sole officemate is a sleeping cat.
Kathy: It’s the Stanford Duck Syndrome: a perceived imperative to glide serenely along the surface, taking pains to ensure that no one sees how furiously we’re paddling beneath. (I must say, though, that my perfectionism does not extend to dressing for the virtual office. Despite this eloquent defense of button pants by Corinne Purtill, ’02, I am unabashedly Team Athleisure.)
So this is an invitation to our fellow ducks (by which I mean Stanford Cardinal lowercase ducks, not University of Oregon uppercase Ducks): Let’s do a little quacking about why so many of us feel like we should be optimizing ourselves right now, and why that may not be realistic for reasons of time or logistics or mental health. Or how to reconcile our high-achievement-itis with the knowledge that being self-focused is not the most appropriate response to a pandemic. Or how even that realization can inspire guilt in our ruminating brains: How can I be most useful to the world right now—and if I’m not doing exactly that, am I failing?
Over the next however many weeks, Summer and I are going to unpack these issues with each other and with a few guest stars. If you, dear fellow members of Nerd Nation, see yourself in what we write—or don’t, and think we’re missing something—we hope you’ll let us know.
Here’s to the duck in each of us.