Sixteen Things to Do While Sheltering In Place

The last blog post before my blogging hiatus was called “Hand Sanitizer and Other Imperfect Tricks.” Not to overthink things, but that strikes me as ironic—almost prophetic—for these times of isolation and Coronaschooling, when hand sanitizer is priceless and many of my efforts seem imperfect at best. (Anyone else?)

Thursday, March 12 was the last day that Sonny and Ace were in “real” school. That evening we discussed their disappointment over canceled field trips and programs but predicted that school would probably still continue, at least for a while. But within hours the governor had called off all Michigan schools; Sonny and Ace awoke to the news that I would be their “teacher” for a while. “This will be fun!” said Sonny! (Dear reader, he swiftly changed his mind.)

Thanks to Sonny and Ace’s real teachers and to Google Classroom and Zoom, the kids have not lacked enriching activities or opportunities to connect. Still, isolation is growing heavy, and while it’s comforting to know that boredom breeds creativity (although am I the only one kind of nervous about April Fool’s Day this year?), time is plodding. Here are some things that we’ve tried or are hoping to try in order to sprinkle some variety into our sheltered-in days. (What are your ideas? Please share them in the comment section.)

  1. Explore Morse code. Print a Morse Code key, and challenge your kids to first learn to tap out their names. Additional ideas:
    • Suggest that your kids become fluent enough to tap out messages to each other. Tip: If that happens, you may want to learn Morse Code too, lest they plot against you (in your very presence, no less), and you will be none the wiser.
    • Print this starter sheet of messages. (Translations are included.) Cut the messages apart, choose those that appeal to you,
      page-1

      Print out three pages of Morse Code messages for others to translate.

      and challenge your kids to translate them.

    • Use this online translator to create your own messages.
  2. Listen to a variety show online. Then create your own. Include music, comedy, news, and stories. Don’t forget the advertisements! Perform it live, audio record it for that old-time radio feel, or make a video. 
  3. Have a family progressive dinner. Each person can responsible for one course, served in a different room. (Play fast and loose with the term course. Apple slices count. Packaged snack cakes count. No pressure to get fancy if you don’t want to.) Each server can provide the ambiance (decor and music) for his or her venue and create a menu description for that course.
  4. Invent a new kind of sandwich. If it turns out to be good, name it and record the recipe. (Share it with the rest of us so that we too can expand our palates!) Have a family sandwich “cookoff.” 
  5. Create a code based on symbols. Write a note to someone in that code, and include the key with your note.
  6. Learn to juggle. YouTube may help. (Include the juggling in your variety show.) 
  7. Design a Rube Goldberg machine (real or on paper). You may want to give your kids a challenge: Design a machine that will feed the cat. Design a machine that will pick up dirty socks. Design a machine that will tickle someone’s nose.
  8. Create colorful artwork, and hang it in the window so that your neighbors can see it. Switch it out occasionally.
  9. Keep a running list of people who would appreciate connection. Each day, send at least one note, drawing, or text to someone on your list.
  10. Write a poem (haikus and limericks are fun!) or a song, or change some of the words of an existing poem or song to make a new one.  Here are some limerick starters: “There once were some kids stuck inside . . . ” “I was looking for something to do . . .” “One month I had nowhere to go . . .”
  11. Make puppets from found materials. Paper lunch bags work well, as do socks that have for months (years?) been languishing for their mate. Put on a puppet show; create your own, or tell an existing story. Consider recording the puppet show and sending it to someone.
  12. Make a simple loaf of bread. (Consider it a science lesson if you need one for Coronaschooling.) Here are some ideas: no-knead bread, sourdough bread (this requires no yeast, but starting the sourdough does take a few days), and beer bread, which also requires no yeast. You can substitute soda for the beer if you wish.
  13. Journal with comic strips instead of only words to tell about your day. Family members can do separate journals, or you can collaborate on one.
  14. Take pictures of your pets and of family members in the same poses as your pets. Curl up like your cat, stretch out like your dog, or nibble a piece of carrot like your hamster.
  15. If you have a driveway, have your kids measure it. Then have them calculate how many laps of your driveway are in a mile. (Presto: gym class!) Challenge them with a distance and a different style of moving (running, walking backward, skipping, etc.) for each lap. How many miles can they collectively run (or walk or skip) in a week?
  16. If you have older kids, choose a show that they enjoyed when they were younger, and watch an episode together. Surreptitiously observe their nostalgia.

 

Whichever ideas you choose, feel free to do them imperfectly. There is no other way, especially now.

Be gentle with yourself, and be well.

 

On Grandpa’s Birthday

“I wish I could call Grandpa-Great,” Sonny said the other day. I wish so, too. Especially today, which would have been his 100th birthday.

I thought of him the other day while reading an article on minimalism. (He probably would have been bemused that this philosophy—which, for most of history, was just the way all people lived—is now considered a) the latest trend and b) something that takes work to achieve.) In any case, minimalists would approve of the handful of belongings he chose to keep toward the end of his life. Of course, when you are a nonagenarian and live in an assisted living facility you don’t need a car or specialty cleaners or an extra pair of boots or plates or half a can of spray paint that, who knows, you might use for something someday. You don’t bother with shelves of books, and any extraneous furniture is just in the way. When you’re 97 you’re satisfied with one TV; it doesn’t occur to you to acquire the army of devices that rule the rest of us.

Still, even for a 97-year-old, he traveled lightly. Almost everything that was packed up after his death harbored significance.

His chair. Grandpa often expressed concern that the kids would be bored while visiting him, as he didn’t have any toys. But no worries; who could be bored in a room that featured not only Grandpa-Great but a remote-control lift recliner, which he freely allowed young boys to operate as they chatted?

“We flew a kite yesterday. It was striped and shaped like a bird. Did you ever fly a kite when you were a boy?” (Up went the chair.)

“Yes.”

“What was it shaped like?”

“Like something that didn’t want to fly. We made our own kites, and they didn’t work very well. But we made them anyway.” (Down went the chair.)

“Did your mom let you watch PBS Kids while she took a shower?”

“No. We didn’t have TVs.”

“What did you do instead?”

“We fixed our kites.”

He would point to his collage of photographs, many of them over half a century old, and tell of the people they featured. “That was your Papa and his horse. He loved that horse . . .” And stories poured forth from the comfort—and entertainment—of the chair.

A framed print of a bird in flight. This piece of mass-produced art seemed inconsequential until my dad and uncle took it down to box up. Discovered taped to the back of the print: a sheet of notebook paper on which Grandpa had hand-copied the poem “To a Waterfowl”  by William Cullen Bryant.

Whither, ‘midst falling dew,
While glow the heavens with the last steps of day,
Far, through their rosy depths, dost thou pursue
      Thy solitary way? . . .

. . . He, who, from zone to zone,
Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight,
In the long way that I must tread alone,
      Will lead my steps aright.

It can’t be a stretch to presume that that he words he had copied on notebook paper (and likely in his memory also—“We used to memorize things,” he said once, and proved it by reciting a few lines of Shakespeare) gave him assurance. The print must have served as a ready reminder of this comfort.

A desk. Its contents were the usual: Pens. A letter opener, its handle engraved with the name of bank, both the engraving and blade dulled by decades of letter opening. Paper clips, because every desk houses paper clips even though most people seldom use them. (Do they?) But also, tucked farther back:

A small toy horse, one leg broken off. The horse had been a gift from his parents upon their return from Mayo Clinic around 1923, when Grandpa was seven. The memories of receiving the toy horse in a time when gifts were rare (“We used to get one thing for Christmas, and we were happy” he mentioned once) must have been inextricable from those of the devastating diagnosis that his father also brought back from Rochester. How often did Grandpa hold that horse during his father’s last months and in the first months without him? In any case, he kept it for over 90 years, remembering.

A Camels pack, still holding a few cigarettes, circa early 1950s and deliberately crushed. Although Grandpa was frugal and seldom wasted anything, he’d apparently quit mid-pack and saved the evidence for over 60 years. I wonder why he kept them. To recall a battle he’d won? To remind himself to avoid destructive habits?

A treasure trove of treats. Fun-sized candy bars, mints, jelly beans or candy corn or miniature candy canes (depending on which holiday was in the vicinity) squirreled away for his great-grandkids. Although he couldn’t remember our names at the end, he never forgot the candy. “Make sure the boys get some candy before they leave,” he said. “Did they get some candy? They can have more than one.”

And, of course, he left behind memories, too many to mention. But one that stands out is one that he deliberately planted. When we were kids, he and Grandma would ask visiting grandchildren to read aloud from the Bible after supper. The reader was free to choose the passage. (This did involve risks; just ask the hapless grandchild who, as a young teenager, let the Bible fall open randomly and started reading before realizing too late that the passage was one of those embarrassing ones about lust. Oops. If you ever wanted to hear Grandpa laugh, you could just ask him to tell of how his grandkid, blushing and stammering, read aloud about harlots in front of the familly.)

But one evening during a visit, instead of asking my sisters or me to read, he chose the passage himself and asked us to listen closely. “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, ‘I find no pleasure in them’ . . .”

He unpacked each metaphor for us—“when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men stoop, when the grinders cease because they are few, and those looking through the windows grow dim . . .” But upon concluding (“ . . . and the spirit returns to God who gave it”) he did not expound further. He was confident that we understood his message, which was subtle but clear.

As were the other messages he left us, woven into his few remaining belongings.

So his spirit has returned to God who gave it, and although I can’t help wishing he could have held out to celebrate today, I am glad to have so much time with him, and I am glad that Sonny and Ace knew him and remember him. I am thankful for him—what he gave when he was here and what he’s left behind.

Happy birthday, Grandpa.