I think the last time I published something on a personal blog was 2014 and the last time I published anything substantive was, gosh, 2009 or 10. I phoned it in and wrote with fits and starts for awhile. I bought this domain in 2016 and this WordPress installation is on its 4th theme without ever being published, so I’m still very me in my freak in the stylesheets sort of way.
All of that is to say, let’s catch up.
My dad retired. After decades of working – just shy of two full decades of working with me – he retired at the end of January. My daughter, Ada, was absolutely over the moon as he was now free to pick her up at school, chauffeur her around to her one million activities, hang out and do puzzles. We planned all that – more time with her.
We didn’t plan as much of the time together, me and him, that actually happened. I never work on Wednesdays (I like to say that with a dramatic sigh and a knowing look as if, you know, those goddamn Wednesdays, but there’s really no rhyme or reason to it.) Dad and I started hanging out on Wednesdays, frequently at Costco, which just opened in Rockford a few months ago.
So there are many, many reasons that a trip to Costco with Dad is better than any other form of entertainment, but my personal favorite is that no matter what the samples are, Dad will ask the sample person “Is this healthy?”
Dad, it’s maple syrup. Dad, I don’t even know why they are sampling Pepsi, but no it’s not healthy.
So when I finally went to Costco without Dad, after months of it being our weekly hangout, it was that week in March there before we realized the world was ending but we suspected just enough, you know? Yeah we definitely knew just enough. It’s awkward now. But anyway, I went to Costco without my dad and I ran into Dad. I was carrying vodka and Zach was pushing a cart that looked like we were headed to a bunker but honestly we were just out of taquitos and that’s how we do Costco.
Zach, the guy pushing the taquito cart through the Last Beautiful Day of Costco, Zach is my husband. Zach and I were married in November of 2018 in about the most dramatic series of days we thought we could ever string together.
In mid-October, we closed on our house and then I gave notice at my job nearly immediately after I returned to the office from the title company. This was the job which probably caused you to give my cell number to your cousin to ask me questions about their furnace? That job. I haven’t worked in trades in any capacity since 2018. Guys, I don’t even know what is new and exciting in regards to split post compressor grommets. Done. Out. Mic drop. After nearly 20 years!
We didn’t plan it that way, swear. I saved a lot of texts where he and I are talking about how maybe by the end of 2020, we’ll be in a place where I can quit and come work at his business, or just quit, or go be a consultant or something. But by October of 2018, the level of stress in my life was unbearable, my kid needed more mom, and in the parking lot of the title company, Zach gave me the all-clear sign.
(Zach – the local newspaper’s reader’s choice Best Real Estate Attorney of 2018 – didn’t read any of our documents because I had assigned him the task of making sure we got tickets for Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit at Red Rocks, which went on sale at the exact time that our closing was scheduled.)
That’s how I bought a house, quit my job, had a surprise private wedding, told everybody with an email, went on a honeymoon, and hosted a reception for 200 people who only had 10 days notice, and started a new job, all in roughly 4 weeks.
I will absolutely never have to throw such an enormous plan with such huge consequences together in such a short period of time ever again.– probably Beth Wagner Townsend, 2018
I had been joking with people for several years that if I was ever going to leave my previous employer, it would not be to go work somewhere else, it would be to lay on my couch eating french onion dip and watching West Wing all day. That’s how much I loved what I did. On my last day, I left the house and wandered around Schnucks choking back tears a little. And I came home with five different containers of french onion dip.
I’d committed to taking eight weeks off before I even showed my face at my new family business, which is a law firm, where my role would be to get staffing and processes and marketing in place and then check out, it would not be my forever job. But the thing is, we needed a new paralegal and I had a lead on one through networking connections and I am incapable of just sitting still. I hired her – and in the 1.5 years since, I’ve hired five other people – and I still haven’t started the clock on eight weeks off. I don’t work on Wednesdays – okay, some Wednesdays I don’t work, I do my best to not work on Wednesdays – as a bit of a concession to my bad habit of full speed ahead and in charge of freaking everything. Forty Wednesdays is the same as eight weeks? No?
(And Trader Joe’s caramelized onion dip is better than anything at Schnucks, for the record.)
I talk about the whirlwind that was October/November of 2018 because it was the precursor to the whirlwind of the winter of 2019, when all of that full speed ahead, man, it caught up to me. Because it turns out that the only thing harder than being the person who becomes the instant leader and never says no to anything and can’t function without a nonstop double-booked calendar . . . is raising a person like that.
Ada is a force of nature. Her schedule includes weekly art classes, piano, voice, and theater commitments, twice weekly swim club, biweekly Girl Scouts, and an assortment of other random things. She regularly argues passionately to add something – dance, hockey, or figure skating are the usual suspects – because there is one night that never has something, so it would fit there. And this schedule doesn’t overwhelm her. She seems overwhelmed when there’s nowhere to go after school.
So Dad’s retirement couldn’t have come at a better time, as Tech Week of her first musical – The Music Man, where she was cast in the pivotal role of ensemble group 2, weekend 1 – loomed large on the horizon. I made him a to-do list of the things I never manage to get done around my house. Dad can hang all the artwork at the office! Dad can run to the dry cleaners! Dad and I measured my spare bedroom and camped out on the IKEA website designing a closet system to turn an entire bedroom into a walk-in closet with a mile of shoe storage.
We ran into Dad at the Costco the Saturday before Tech Week started, after we had dropped Ada off at the theater for rehearsal. We were wandering around throwing things in the cart with that weird knot in our stomachs like, those people over there are prepping and hoarding for an emergency but we’re just out of taquitos, so it’s fine. And also, we just dropped our kid off for rehearsal for the musical that is definitely going to happen, this huge stage production that she’s been working on for months, nothing bad can happen to it.
I think I can identify the exact moment when the uneasy feeling completely overtook my brain, and it’s when we rounded the corner to the toilet paper aisle and the ladies who used to handle samples were now basically a security force, arguing with people and removing excess from their carts. It flipped the switch in my brain because whether the pandemic was coming or not, our society was already showing its ass.
Did I mention that this was my birthday weekend? It feels a hundred years ago and yet I’m still only 39.
On Thursday, I interviewed – and on Friday, I hired – employee #7. On Friday I also announced that no staff was to enter the courthouse anymore, only attorneys. And we were going to stop shaking hands. I think of this several times a day now, I remember the day I said “we aren’t shaking hands anymore” and everyone kind of awkwardly looked back and forth at each other.
On Monday, I had tickets to see Wilco with my dear friend Katie, who flew across the country to see Wilco with me right after my birthday. We had tickets and hotel rooms booked long before Tech Week was announced, before I had a new employee starting, and I was anxious about all of this overlap. Yet alone, that other stuff ~waving vaguely towards impending doom~.
I went to Wilco while my brain SCREAMED at me that it was dumb, it was a bad idea, I shouldn’t have oh my god I shouldn’t be doing this. There hadn’t been a single case announced in my county yet, there were only single digits in Madison. They weren’t Wilco fans, I convinced myself. Jeff Tweedy said goodbye at the close of the show and told us to stay safe, and awkwardly stuttered, “We shouldn’t be here right now.” I showered for nearly 40 minutes when I got back to the hotel, I scrubbed my hands until they were raw. The next morning, I had breakfast with Katie and memorized every detail of her face. Maybe I didn’t do it in real time, maybe I just froze those memories. She was my last social in-person non-work contact.
On Tuesday afternoon when I returned to the office, I leaned all the way into my anxiety. I propped all the doors open, even the sacred private conference room. We don’t shake hands and we don’t touch doorknobs anymore. We’re wearing gloves to handle cash. I watched our front desk receptionist hand a client a cup of coffee, and try very hard to limit contact, but she couldn’t, he was dropping creamer and sugar packet garbage back into her hands. It was my zombie movie moment.
I announced we weren’t meeting people in person anymore. Change everything to the telephone. Stop closing the door, goddamnit. I ordered 4 laptop computers and a box of headsets online without even really glancing at the specs. We might have to work from home for a bit? I can return them if we don’t. I swear to god I’m serious, stop closing the door, Zach. I left work early to get Ada to rehearsal from 4pm to 9pm. Tech Week! Parent Preview Night! I tried to communicate with Ada telepathically from the audience. I see you in the wings. Stop touching people. Yes, even Harold Hill.
Wednesday. I told everybody to start practicing answering the phone through our software instead of the physical phone on their desk. I paid to upgrade our DocuSign account. Nobody will have a printer and we generate a pallet of paper worth of documents a day. Amazon had wipes. Everybody gets a laptop. Everybody gets wipes. Oh my god, do I have to take the doors off the hinges. We don’t shut doors anymore. If we don’t have to go home, I thought, we’ll just be better at our jobs anyway. DocuSign worked better now. The phone has features we have paid for since 2018 and never used. This is probably just practice. Tech Week! 4pm to 9pm.
Thursday. I commandeered the 6′ wide dry erase board and started vomiting my fears and anxieties onto it. To everybody else, I think it looked like a plan. Two years of building beautiful processes for every step. We blew it up in eight hours.
I worked at the speed of a 6 hour day though, because Ada’s musical had its first performance during the day, for other school kids, and her spring concert at school was that night. Can’t believe they’re still having it. Seriously who shut the door. Why aren’t the laptops here yet.
2:30pm: Please have your child to the school fifteen minutes early. Dad can you go get Ada. I have some stuff going on.
4:43pm: Out of an abundance of caution we have canceled the concert. Dad can you tell Ada. She’s gonna be crushed. At least she still might have the musical.
5:24pm: Dad can you tell Ada the musical is off.
I wheeled a single cart of office supplies home that night. This way, I only have to make one trip to the car tomorrow, I thought.
Friday, I made it official. Everybody knew they’d leave that night and not come back on Monday. I covered the conference room table in laptops and installed all of the necessary software and checked all of the settings and tested phones and just fucking crossed my fingers.
I fired off emails to reception. I’m gonna need envelopes I guess? I guess I do all the mail now. Stamps? She made a pile, which doubled and doubled again. By the end of the day, we all felt like we were moving. Can we take our chairs? Yes. We locked up our desks as though bands of roving thieves would have access to our stuff. 4pm became 6pm became 8pm.
I texted with other business owner friends. We have started wiping our desks down. Cool we are getting the fuck out of here.
With just four of us left, I burst into tears. Then we shut those motherfucking doors and I finally knew peace.
I don’t exaggerate when I say that I finally knew peace. I’ve decided that I have a very specific type of anxiety – it’s doomsday anxiety, if that’s a thing. Thirty-odd years of preparing for the end of the world and it’s finally here and when we arrived home on Friday night, I felt every tension exit my body. I am the best, most relaxed, most at peace that I have ever been in my entire life and humanity is on fire.
On Saturday morning, my beautiful future walk-in shoe closet died so that my law firm could live. And I got a decent visual representation of why my very tall husband hates full size mattresses when we moved our guest bed to storage.
It’s been 41 days and we still have every staff member working full-time, all from home. We talk all day long in a group text chat through our phone system as if we are still able to yell down the hallway. It sucks in a very small handful of ways but I can’t even list those without effort because mostly, what we managed to pull off is jaw-droppingly amazing.
Ada’s school Chromebook came home with her and she’s been doing remote online learning since day one. Our district was already using Google Classroom so heavily that she needed zero adjustment to the process. She’s often done with school by 10am.
By the 2nd week or so, her music studio had figured out how to take lessons online, so she still has weekly piano and voice lessons. She also signed up for ukulele lessons online through Fender. Her art classes are through Young Rembrandts, which also pivoted online.
I like to occasionally tell her to put on a suit and jump in the bathtub, it’s time for online swim club. I think the joke is getting old.
Our daily life has become schedule-less because my body and brain have naturally reverted to the schedule I kept during the summer as a teenager, where I am awake a large portion of the night and take a substantial nap in the afternoon, and kind of split the sleep time into two big parts.
I have also let the kid’s schedule become a lawless wonderland, because her new school assignments get posted around 9am, and I have to complete her attendance form marking what she did that day by 8pm. The rest is just a blank slate. I refuse to die on the hill of maintaining a normal bedtime because this isn’t normal, we won’t ever have the old normal back, and in the new normal, we worry about trauma, we don’t worry about bedtime.
I wouldn’t say that I cook a lot now, but I do heat things up a lot. I bought an Instant Pot Vortex Plus air fryer about a month before the lockdown, it’s the one that looks more like a toaster oven than a traditional air fryer. Incredibly smart purchase. We crunch through those taquitos even better now.
We make a lot of bowls. I roast the vegetables we have, and I put them on top of whatever quick-heating grain we have, and there’s probably an egg on top.
And it’s breakfast.
Okay, it’s also lunch.
And lunch is at 3:30pm today but it’s going to be at 9:45am tomorrow.
We’ve been super-blessed in terms of the ease with which we get groceries – Costco delivery through Instacart, and I hear Dad’s voice asking the sample ladies “Is this healthy?” as I wipe everything down with disinfectant before it comes into the house. I can cover every meal with an egg, there is milk for the cereal, I’ve never stressed about toilet paper.
(Full disclosure, I stressed about eggs in week 1 and traded a spare laptop to my mom for 5 dozen eggs.)
Ada can grab an Uncrustable out of the freezer whenever roasted brussel sprouts and quinoa from a bag don’t sound appetizing to her, and I laugh at the absurdity of buying pre-made PBJs but we worry about trauma in this house, we don’t worry about lunch drama.
It’s peaceful. We’re blessed beyond measure. I don’t let a day go by without acknowledging that.
Ada has a new active standing desk for her school work station. She takes her Power Wheels for a spin in the yard a couple of times a day. She builds box forts in the lawn when there’s enough cardboard accumulated in the garage. Tonight, she worked out a plan to video chat with Grandpa whenever she is weeding the flower bed and can’t tell if something is a weed or a flower – she’s going to have it ready for their summer garden plans.
She told me last Saturday was the best day of her entire life, and then she said it again on Monday or so. The good days are frequent. The best day of her life is always easily traceable back to this guy.
On Saturday night, my afternoon sleep went late and at around 9pm, I woke up to an empty house and followed the smell of a campfire to our backyard where Ada was bundled up in a chair and Zach was roasting hot dogs and his guitar was waiting, ready to tackle some songs from Moana.
I think about these decisions I make rapidly, these plans that just crash into existence in a matter of days – from getting married to every rash move I’ve made since – and how we talk about the way it all worked out so well as if it were luck. It isn’t luck. It’s Zach. I mean, it’s me too – it’s partnership. But it’s Zach. He’s a safety net I’ve never had as an adult. Nobody has ever made me feel as safe and secure as I do right now, when safety and security are at a premium.
One of our many, many “our song”s is Jason Isbell’s “If We Were Vampires” and the line “I’ll work hard ’til the end of my shift” has never felt more real than the last 41 days. It’s work, this is hard. I don’t want to paint any of it with the brush of “if we can do it, so can you”. We’re safe, we’re happy, we work very hard for that.
Well, not as much on Wednesdays. But I’m trying.
Great writing! You are aaaaamazing…
Well, this made me cry happy tears. It is good to “hear” you.
So glad you are back!
Honored to have watched so much of this unfold/explode into being over the recent years. Beth you write a remarkable narrative and are a remarkable woman. You, Zach and Ada keep in rocking the world the way you do.
Oh, that song. It gets to me in the best way. I heard someone refer to their pre-virus plans as their “ghost calendar.” I have(had) plans to hear that song in person twice this summer.
I tried to recreate the events of That Week and put them down on paper. It was impossible for me to properly convey the progression of emotions and thoughts and worries, but you did it well here.
This is SO good, Beth. I think you’ve done just a bang-up job raising Ada, and I love hearing you talk about Zach the way you do. You deserve all the “luck” in the world.