Making the pandemic bearable with an electric cargo bike

The last thing I bought before the pandemic also happens to be the best thing I’ve bought all year.

In March, I bought a Tern GSD electric cargo bike, specced for carrying my 6 year old son (and occasionally a buddy) on the back. I had big plans for this thing: I would ride it across town to pick him up from school. We’d explore all our DC parks. We’d have picnics and playdates and all kinds of adventures.

But, you know: 2020 happened.

I had saved up for my bike for months, figuring I’d buy it in early spring to get maximum use out of it before the weather got bad again. I took a deep breath and placed the order for it on March 8th. The last day of in-person school was March 13th. I picked up the bike March 14th. And then DC locked down, even parks and playgrounds. I spent a month or so with buyer’s remorse; I had just spent thousands of dollars on a fancy bike to carry the kid around on and we had nowhere to go!

But as the weather warmed up, we started to find our rhythm with it. We scheduled outdoor, masked playdates on the college campus quad up the street. Eventually playgrounds re-opened. And since outdoors is the safest way for my extroverted, only child to get the social interaction he craves, we started finding ways to make long stretches of outdoor time more comfortable.

DC summers are extremely humid. I didn’t understand what “it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity” truly meant until I moved here. And we have tons of mosquitoes, especially in our neighborhood. Congress’ annual August recess started because it’s so terrible here at that time. Usually I spend summer indoors, avoiding the sweat, the sunburn, and the bugs, but that wasn’t going to work for us this year. So we had to find ways to make outdoors work for us. Enter the GSD.

Along the Northwest Branch of the Anacostia River

The thing about a bike is that unlike a car, you can roll it right up to wherever you happen to be hanging out, instead of parking it on the street and walking. And of course, a cargo bike can carry much more than passengers, and the electric assist makes it feasible to take on the extra weight. So in addition to being a mode of transport, a cargo bike is also an excellent cart for transporting all the creature comforts that make a long stretch of outdoor socializing comfortable. Here are a few of the things we’ve taken to bringing along with us (none of these links are affiliate links):

  • Ultralight camp chair: Bringing your own chair means that you can always place it in shade instead of being at the mercy of whatever park benches are available. I like this one from Helinox, because it has a high weight rating (critical for the plus-sized user!) and packs down to practically nothing. I can and have carried a standard camp chair with us on outings with the help of some bungies for stability, but this weighs practically nothing, fits entirely inside my pannier, and doesn’t make it awkward for my son to sit on the back of the bike. This pretty much just lives in my pannier now.
  • Growler of ice water: We always bring our water bottles, but running around and playing with your buddies is thirsty work, and especially in humidity, wearing a mask over your nose and mouth no less. Having enough water can turn an hour-long playdate into a multi-hour one. So I bring a half-gallon, insulated growler of ice water from home to refill water bottles with. It’s enough for us and his friends. We usually use this one from Swig Savvy, but we’ve used this one from Duluth Trading Company as well. The key is that they’re well-insulated, and the mouths are wide enough to fit ice in.
  • Lightweight beach blanket: Eventually the kids get tired/cranky and want to rest, but don’t have their own camp chair in the shade. So I put out a blanket to lie on. I use this one because I had it on hand from an actual trip to the beach, but I like it because it folds down to fit in a tiny stuff sack, and being water-resistant and sand-resistant means it stays pretty clean when spread out on grass, too. I just put stuff on the corners of it to keep it from blowing away.
  • Other miscellaneous comforts: I keep sun screen and bug spray in the front basket. Charlie usually likes to bring a variety of Hot Wheels cars to share with whoever we’re meeting up with. There’s usually a frisbee stuck in a pannier, a bag of snacks, a light-colored towel (good for draping over seats if the bike is parked in the sun, good for wiping down playground equipment after a rain), and a tote bag stashed to bring things into the house with when we’re done.
  • Bluetooth shower speaker (UPDATED 9/17/20): I added a $20 speaker to the rear bars of the bike so we can listen to music while we ride. This seems to have been the tipping point. Now my son actually asks me to take him places on the bike instead of the car. The model I bought has a rubber strap on the back so it affixes firmly to the child bars, and it gets about 4-5 hours of playtime from a charge, which is enough for many jaunts around the neighborhood, or one long afternoon playdate.
Me and my copilot, heading out for an adventure.

Sustaining the unsustainable.

Now that we’ve been in physical distancing mode for a few weeks, I’m trying to get out of bunker mentality and figure out how to live like this for a while. Depending on who you ask and which theory of the the testing numbers they subscribe to, we could be doing this straight through for a year or more, or we could be doing it in waves for a while.

There’s been a weird impulse to engage in pre-nostalgia for this time, with lots of preachy memes about the value of everyone slowing down and cooking more and spending time with their families, and children looking back on this time as an extended summer vacation, and just… gross. This is a crisis caused in large part by a failure of political leadership. It didn’t have to be this way. I plan to hold our national leadership accountable for that failure in any way I can.

And yet. We have this enforced time at home together whether we want it or not. While I feel a certain sense of responsibility to stay angry about it, it’s also my job to help keep the family running, and to ensure my son feels safe and protected. So it would not be the worst thing if he grows up and remembers long afternoons playing with LEGO, reading books, making pizza dough with Dad, and taking family bike rides.

So I’m giving myself a break on anything I can. I’m only emphasizing some basic skills practice for school, plus the video calls so he can feel connected to his teacher and classmates. Reading books and acting out elaborate stories with his toys is plenty of exercise for his mind at this age.

I’m trying to add what I can, too. I try to eat breakfast and/or lunch with the fam. I’m trying to prioritize getting out on my bike as much as possible, even though my grand designs of picking Charlie up from school and taking him and his friends to the playground on it are on hold. I’m doing Zoom happy hours with friends (but not too many, because we overdid it that first week and it was exhausting). I’m trying to get more outdoors time, at least before the mosquitos start showing up.

And I’m resisting (loudly at times) the urge to ratchet up the precautions and the sanitizing of every possible surface and the shaming others for not social distancing to some arbitrary standard of “correctness.” Not because people shouldn’t Clorox wipe their Amazon boxes if it really makes them feel better, but because this performative “I’m being SO much more careful which means I will be extra safe, and therefore I need YOU to do the same thing” behavior is counterproductive and anxiety-inducing for everyone else. We have to live like this, possibly for a long time. We cannot do that if we are constantly worried if we’re doing enough, perfectly enough, to say 100% safe.

Preparing for Pandemic Parenting Pandemonium

While state and local governments are scrambling to limit the effects of COVID-19 in their communities, there’s a lot of talk about how to handle being suddenly forced into remote work.

Since I work at Automattic, I’m already working remotely and my job will remain largely the same. But I’m anticipating that my 6 year old son’s school will soon announce a lengthy closure, and that means I’ll need to juggle my job with his needs all day, for potentially weeks at a time. I can take some time off, of course; we have unlimited PTO. But since hundreds of my coworkers will potentially be in the same position, how much time and when it makes sense to take it is still very much a question. And besides, with everything closed, I’ll just be sitting at home anyway.

My son is very social, and an only child, so our usual way of occupying him when there’s no school is playdates with friends. Those are harder to come by as we’re all practicing social distancing.

So this is what I’m thinking for how we’ll get through the next several weeks:

Consistency: I’m thinking I’ll write up a daily schedule, with clearly-designated times for screen time, playing or reading by himself, any school assignments that need to be completed, and doing activities with Mom and/or Dad. Perhaps we’ll even go over it every morning like they do in circle time at school.

Novelty: I’m working on getting a stash of small LEGO sets and other small toys that I can occasionally dole out, sort of like the “bring wrapped toys on airplane trips” advice, but stretched out over multiple weeks.

Choice: We’ll make a list of activities that he can choose for the time with parents. We can cross them off as we do them, so we don’t end up playing SORRY! ten days in a row. Some of my ideas:

  • Bake banana bread (math! fractions! following directions! deliciousness!)
  • Play board or card games.
  • Write a story, then stage scenes with LEGO minifigs, and then I’ll take photos of them and print them out with my smartphone photo printer, and we can make a book out of it.
  • Go for a ride on a cargo bike to explore the outdoors a bit.
  • Listen while a parent reads some of a chapter book.
  • Playground time.
  • Watercolor painting.
  • FaceTime with a friend.

I think this is going to be a long period of disruption, friends. Stay safe out there.

Blue canary in the outlet by the light switch…

Tonight I learned that They Might Be Giants is doing a tour next year for the 30th anniversary of Flood. My delight at this news was tempered by the way I crumbled into dust when I realized that album will indeed be 30 years old next year.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of Flood for people who were nerdy kids in the early 90s. You see, in the long long ago, before most people had the Internet, and before the stuff we liked was being made into major international blockbusters, before geeks were cool, Flood was a nerdy-kid shibboleth. If you dropped a reference to the “blue canary in the outlet by the light switch” and someone got it, you knew you were going to be friends.

And unlike a lot of the things we loved in the early 90s, Flood holds up pretty well. I will never hear the phrase “minimum wage” without immediately imagining that whip-crack sound effect afterward, reminding us that minimum wage is effectively “I would pay you less if I could.” The lyrics of “Your Racist Friend” are sadly as relevant as ever, with literal white nationalists setting national policy.

So when the tour hits DC in April, I’ll be there, singing every word to every song.

Who is cleaning the juicer?

It’s not a new observation, but I’m pretty well done reading articles about productivity and “morning routines to help you win your day” (is my day a competition?) from wealthy dudes* who do not have caregiving responsibilities.

Like, you can get up at 5 AM and go for a run in the park and then come back and meditate for 30 minutes and drink a perfectly-balanced green juice before taking a cold shower, reading for 30 minutes, writing in your journal, and THEN commute to the office? How nice for you. Who is cleaning the juicer?

My morning starts at 6 when my alarm goes off. I do not make the bed at this point, because my husband is still in it. I try to get up a bit before everyone else in the hope of being up and showered and dressed before my 6 year old wakes up and wants my attention. (Admittedly, I move very slowly in the mornings and need to build in “stare into space and think about stuff” time; not everyone does.) He’s pretty capable of getting himself dressed, though he frequently argues with me about it, so my husband and I tag-team him through it. If I’m very lucky, I get downstairs before him and have a few minutes to think about my own breakfast needs before he comes tumbling down and wanting a waffle or a jelly sandwich or something, which I will repeatedly remind him to eat while he gets distracted by telling elaborate stories with his Legos.

If it’s my turn to take him to school, we leave around 8-ish, fight traffic and get to school around 8:30-ish, and then when I have the car to myself on my way back, I can sneak in a podcast or some new music I’ve been wanting to listen to. If traffic is on my side, I can steal a few more minutes to read something or do some other hobby before I get online at 9AM.

If it’s my husband’s turn to take him to school, they leave around 8-ish, and I have the unspeakable luxury of an entire hour to myself to do whatever I think will start my day off right. I try to fit in some reading or some art time, but the truth is I’m often using this time to finish up the dishes or tidy up a little.

And look, I’m pretty privileged: I have a well-paid job, where I work entirely from home. I don’t have to worry about making it to an office on time, and if I get online a little later than I wanted to, no one is standing over me to question me about it. I have a partner who can and does actively participate in parenting, and I only have the one child to be responsible for. Just one school drop-off, no elder-care or other caregiving responsibilities. But the presence of one young child in my house pretty much wrests away control of my morning.

So here are the habits I’m trying to stick with, because I have a reasonable level of control over them:

Get 8 hours of sleep. I just need it. I can get by on 6 or 7, but that catches up to me quick. I’m just happier and more functional when I prioritize getting 8 hours.

No devices for 1-2 hours after waking up. At our Automattic Grand Meetup a couple of weeks ago, Jim Kwik spoke, and something he said stuck with me: for the first hour after you wake up in the morning, your brain is at its most relaxed and focused it will be all day, so if the first thing you do is reach for your smartphone, you’re just training yourself to be distracted. So I’ve set my phone to show me no notifications at all until 8AM. Frequently by 7:30, our day has gotten rolling enough that I need to look things up or start an Instacart order or something, but by then I’ve theoretically been awake for 90 minutes. I’ve been liking the results from this.

Make time for reading and other self-enrichment activities. I can’t read novels in 30-minute chunks; all I want is to lose myself in a story for hours. But I can read books to learn stuff in small chunks, and I can draw quick sketches or write out quick journal entries. I’m only going to be able to do more than one of these activities on days when I’m not taking my son to school, but on days when I do, I can carve out time for one of them. The point of this exercise is as much about the actual activity as it is about making the effort to prioritize myself when allocating my own time, which is something I’m notoriously bad at.

*I mean, I’m done reading these takes from people without caregiving responsibilities in general, but it’s almost always dudes whose articles about the 25 things they do every morning that require complete solitude go viral.

Playgroup Strong

Our neighborhood playgroup got an email this morning from one of the parents on it, breaking the news that they have been diagnosed with a medical condition that will require a grueling course of treatment that will likely last months, but also expressing gratitude for the way they knew they could count on us to show up for their family in the times ahead.

And they were right. The mobilization was immediate and impressive. Our phones lit up with WhatsApp notifications: plans to provide child care and meals, to take the older child along on the playgroup beach weekend that the affected family was going to have to back out of, and to designate point people to coordinate our efforts so they wouldn’t be overwhelmed. “Playgroup Strong,” we tell each other.

Continue reading “Playgroup Strong”

Self-care is a stocked freezer

When I’m feeling a very particular combination of helplessness and rage, say, the kind I felt the day Christine Blasey Ford testified, my coping strategy is to cook.

I don’t mean that I pick a new recipe and cook an elaborate meal. I don’t mean that I bake decadent treats to self-soothe by sheetcaking. I mean that I cook like your great-grandmother who lived through the Depression. I cook like a pioneer farmer’s wife. I make huge vats of stock from scraps and bones. I cook beans in that stock and make stew. I fill the freezer with enough dinners to last weeks.

So anyway, after our family got some upsetting news about someone important to us, tonight I took out a vacuum-sealed bag of homemade meatballs from the 5 pound batch I made the day Bill Barr’s half-assed summary of the Mueller Report came out, simmered them on the stove for half an hour in some crushed tomatoes, garlic, and herbs, and fed my family homemade meatball subs for dinner.

Because cooking is how I remind myself that I always have my own back.

Welcome to Happy Valley

I wrote the original version of this upon visiting State College, PA for the PSU MacAdmins conference in 2018. After the 2019 conference, my husband performed a dramatic reading of it actually at the Berkey Creamery, and I’ve started to expand it.

The Creamery is indeed excellent, but having grown up in Pennsylvania, I’m already aware of it, thank you.

You mention that you’re visiting State College, PA this week. You hear a sound, a low-pitched vibration just at the edge of your perception. “You must go to the Creamery,” your acquaintance says with a smile, looking steadily at the center of your forehead.

“O…K. What’s the best thing to get at the Creamery?”

“You must go,” they say, their smile unchanging, “to the Creamery.”

You turn to leave, but to your immediate left is a stranger, wearing a Penn State sweatshirt, smiling as they stare at your forehead. The buzzing is louder now. “Yes, you must go to the Creamery.”


You get into your car at the end of your day in State College. You turn the car on and start to back up. Then you turn the car off and look out the window. You remember nothing since turning the car on, but now you are at the Creamery. 

You start the car again, and as you drive down the street, you ask Siri for directions home. She guides you swiftly around the block until you return. “Siri, I need directions to HOME.” “You must go to the Creamery,” Siri replies. 


All the doors of the Creamery have signs admonishing you to use the correct door for what you are ordering. There is no correct door. They are all the wrong door.


You sit at a table among the gleaming white tiles of the Creamery, eating your chocolate ice cream cone. A drop of melted ice cream falls from your cone to the table. You reach for a napkin to clean up after yourself, but the drop is gone. You feel a shift in the air, a barely-perceptible rousing. Another drop falls. It is absorbed into the table, and you hear the faintest of whispers:

More.


There are rumors that, after the scandal, the agricultural department stopped production of Peachy Paterno and staff pulled all the stock off the shelves.

The next morning, the Peachy Paterno shelf was once again full.

No Peachy Paterno is being manufactured.

The shelf at the Creamery is always full.


Sated at last, you return to your car, shoulders drooping under the weight of insulated bags laden with gallons upon gallons of ice cream. You are bringing this ice cream home to share with your friends and loved ones.

You will take the pints and gallons from the bags as though unveiling a rare and precious jewel. “Try this ice cream,” you will say, staring at their foreheads. “It is from the Creamery.”

You are compelled to share the Creamery with others. You must share…the Creamery.


Hidden spaces, public oasis

We returned today from a trip to Australia, where we spent 6 days in Sydney and a weekend in Melbourne.

Something that struck me again and again during the course of the trip is how intentionally these cities make use of hard-to-use space. We visited a literal alley into which a street food market had been built, and an alley dedicated to urban street art, but it was an afternoon spent finding and wandering around in Wendy Whiteley’s Secret Garden that really got me thinking.

Continue reading “Hidden spaces, public oasis”

Sometimes, you CAN blame your tools.

I got caught up in an Instagram/YouTube rabbit hole the other day (YouTube rabbit holes: for more than just Nazi recruitment!) and ended up on this video about cheap vs. quality water color paper:

I’d been hearing forever that “Arches is the best! Just use Arches!” but a. that stuff is expensive, and b. they don’t really make sketchbooks, just loose sheets and block. And I had never really run across the explanation of what it is that makes a high quality watercolor paper, or why should care about that if you’re still in the “make a lot of crappy work” stage of making art. I knew about hot press (smooth) vs. cold press (rougher) paper, but beyond that, it was all kind of a mystery what makes one paper better than another.

TURNS OUT, the difference is wood pulp vs. cotton fiber. This video does a detailed comparison (seriously, it must have taken him most of a day to film) of different watercolor techniques across three wood pulp papers of varying quality vs. a 100% cotton sheet from Arches.

So I went back through my art supplies last night, and sure enough, the pads and books holding the pieces where I found the paint most frustrating to work with were the cheap wood pulp ones, and the pieces I liked best and found the paint easiest to work with on were on 100% cotton paper (not Arches, but still noticeably better than the others). So I guess that settles that. (The exception is my Stillman & Birn Beta series pocket-sized art journal in my portable kit- I can’t find anything about the paper composition in it, but I love it and will probably buy another one when this one runs out.)

The problem is, I’ve got this stack of cheap watercolor paper sitting here and it feels wasteful not to use it up. I’ll probably go way more experimental with those now.

Being still very much a beginner, I hate to sound like I’m blaming my tools, because if I were a more skilled artist, I could make crappy materials work better, if not ideally, but: There’s something validating about looking at the uneven color in some of my sketchbooks and comparing it with the much better color in the work on higher-quality paper and understanding which is a better reflection of my actual skill level.