That is how it starts. My 11 year old son, K, tells me there is crackling in his ear. I remain calm. I ask him all the right questions. Does it hurt? How long have you been hearing it? Is it all the time, or just when you move your jaw? I file the information away mentally in case he started getting earaches or other signs of ear infections. I tell him it was probably just allergies or ear wax and we will keep an eye on it.
Because that is what a normal parent does.
I, however, a parent who thrives on House M.D., Pimple Popper MD, and YouTube videos of gross medical anomalies, am thinking one thing and one thing only.
WHAT if there is a SPIDER living IN HIS EAR!?!?!?!
You see it, you know — on the interwebs. Videos of people having bugs extracted from their ears. Pictures of a many-eyed fuzzy spider face peeking out from inside someone’s ear canal. I can imagine few things more horrifying.
And I spend an inordinate amount of time imagining horrifying things. It’s like a hobby for me. You should see me on an airplane. You would not want to talk to me on an airplane, though.
A couple of days go by. He hasn’t been complaining and I more or less forget about it, consumed by the demands of day to day life.
Then, in the middle of the night, K wakes me. He holds an immense wad of paper towels to the side of his face. I can see blood on his shirt. “Mom, I think I need to go to the hospital. Loki [our cat] bit my ear off.”
This results in the flurry of activity you can expect. I’ve got the lights on, trying to look at K’s ear. He is holding the paper towels to his face, unwilling to let me see even though he wants me to look at it. During the course of all of this, I do determine that the cat has not, in fact, bitten K’s ear OFF. He has, however, bitten it HARD. Hard enough to cause an alarming gash across the top of the ear and to cause a flood of bleeding.
My son, because he is MY son, is certain he needs to go to the emergency room. He has heard somewhere that cat bites get infected badly and you should always go to the ER if your skin is punctured by a cat bite. I assure him that because this is a tear, not a puncture wound, and it is bleeding and we can put antibiotics on it that it is okay to keep a close eye on it and not head to the emergency room at two in the morning.
Once he lets me look at it, we clean the wound. I put antibiotic ointment on it, and we band-aid it up. I give him some ibuprofen and tell him we’ll check it in the morning. He heads back to bed.
Then I panick. All-out freak-out. My heart pounds. My hands shake. I am one hundred percent certain, at this point, that he has a spider living in his ear. It probably emerges at night, and that’s what Loki saw that made him attack K’s ear so viciously. I can picture it. Little tiny spider leg extends out of K’s ear. Loki sees it, pats it, and pounces. I’m so sure this is what it is. I look for our otoscope, planning to sneak into K’s room and try to look inside his ear without him knowing. I CANNOT FIND our otoscope! Where the crap is it?
By now it’s close to four A.M. I find an otoscope that I can order and have delivered that afternoon.
When morning comes, I’m acting normally. I check K’s cut. It looks great – no redness. Meanwhile, I have looked it up and apparently Cat Scratch Fever is not just a song — it’s a real infection you can get from cat bites/scratches.
So now my son definitely has a spider living in his ear and may have a deadly infection.
I am freaking out like nobody’s business. On the inside.
The otoscope arrives. I very calmly tell my son I need to check inside his ear. I do not tell him I am looking for spiders. He’s already going to have a physical scar. I don’t need to give him an emotional one. I steel myself, ready to encounter hairy legs and multiple beady eyes . . .
There’s nothing in there. No spiders. No bugs. Not even any redness. Looks, as far as I can tell from comparing it to Google Images, like a regular eardrum in a regular ear. I’m no doctor, but there’s definitely no bug in there.
Three days later, the cut is already visibly healing.
I have finally done it. Weeks after everyone else went through their ‘coloring the hair during quarantine’ phase, I finally succumbed.
I believe I showed remarkable restraint the first few weeks. Every so often I’d call my good friend who is also my hairdresser and say that I wanted to color my hair at home. She always talked me down, reminding me that home color and salon color don’t play well together. I know she is right,
We are now coming up on five months since things started shutting down, and realistically it looks like there’s no chance that either of us are going to be getting out and about before the New Year. That is why, when I texted her and said, “I’ve been watching Brad Mondo and I want to Live My Extra Life!” she responded, “You should live your extra life!” We then concocted a strategy by which I’d use semi permanent hair color on the ends of my hair that are going to be cut off anyway whenever we are able to get back together.
The plan we put together for my hair would use gentle products and would not damage my hair.
So of course without my hairdresser’s knowledge or consent, I decided to bleach first.
Please understand — I was the epitome of 90’s college student back in the day. Wide leg jeans, belly ring, the whole nine. This means that I, as all good 90’s college girls did, dyed my hair regularly with henna red. I know from that experience that my hair is too dark to show color really well. So I thought, hey, I’ll lighten it just a bit.
So here’s what happened. I fought and fought with the bleach and foils, taking much longer than I had anticipated. Meanwhile, it was dinner time and the kids, you know, wanted food or something. So I knew that the extremely nutritious cheezy hot dog wraps I had planned could be put together in a couple minutes then bake for ten. Perfect. The bleach would set on my hair for ten-fifteen minutes.
Except after 10 minutes dinner was not ready.
After 15 minutes dinner was not ready.
I kept opening the oven to check, which obviously makes food cook faster. It wound up being 30 minutes before I could wash off the bleach. I seriously put the food on plates, shouted, “it’s on the kitchen counter!” and ran upstairs.
You see the result of my bleaching. There were a couple of spots that turned white and cottony and had a bit of breakage, but nothing too noticeable. I’m looking at this and I’m not hating it, for putting color on top of. Like I didn’t want clean red and orange stripes in my hair anyway. I wanted the colors to vary. The idea would be that it would be like fire or lava. I wanted an organic look. Well, skunks are organic, right?
This image does not do justice to how stripey my hair was. I missed ENTIRE sections.
That is where I had to pause everything for a week, because after almost running out of bleach I realized I might not have enough color. I bought a second tube of red and had to wait for it to arrive.
And, didn’t realize until I was getting ready to apply that I had bought a different red. I didn’t let that stop me. I decided to lean in to it. I was already planning to go yellow, orange, red. I just added dark red to the ends. Nothing was going to stop me at this point.
Here you have it — the FINAL RESULT! I am well aware that normal hair blog protocol dictates that I should wear makeup and style my hair for this final shot, but I’ve got crap to do so this is as good as it’s going to get.
I know that from a technical perspective it’s a hot mess, but I honestly kind of love it. I really like the lighter red in the middle and the darker at the bottom, so happy accident there.
If I had to change anything, I would have less orange and more red. And I might forego the yellow altogether because IRL it kind of looks like I just didn’t color that part.
But I’m not about to go through all of that again.
It feels like we’ve been under lockdown forever, but it’s only been three weeks and four days. It’s astonishing how completely my world has transformed.
Let’s go back before the stay at home orders, before social distancing, and look at where we were just six weeks ago. We’d had the first American death, international travel restrictions had been expanded to include European countries, and we were seeing evidence that the virus was showing up in people with no international travel at all. American life, however, was largely unchanged.
I live in the Seattle area, so at this time all of the American cases were within roughly fifty miles of me. I was frightened by what I was seeing on the news, devouring every word from the White House and from Governor Inslee. My friends and I worried about sending our kids to school, but were still going about our daily routines. Over the next three weeks, nearby school districts shut down as students or staff were suspected to be positive. Tests were not available. There was no way to know if a teacher or friend or coworker had the virus. There was no way to know if you had the virus. If you got sick with a fever, your household was to stay home in voluntary isolation for fourteen days. Otherwise it was business as usual. Wash your hands. Sneeze into your arm. Hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes disappeared from the shelves. So, inexplicably, did toilet paper. But those who were not sick were told not to worry. If you’re not sick, you can continue with your routine.
But you know all of this. We all know all of this.
Of course we know it, because it was LAST MONTH.
Even three and a half weeks ago, even in Seattle, we didn’t really GET IT. Late in the week, they announced that Friday would be our last day until further notice. We all still sent our kids to school. They had to pick up their stuff, right? Say goodbye to their friends? I picked my kids up among joyous declarations that we were Out Of School for a three weeks! We dropped by a convenience store, at which point I told the kids that this would be our last trip to the 7-11 for a while. I said that since they are going through the hardship of closing the schools, it is our job to follow the intent of the rules and stay away from other people for at least a couple of weeks. Already I’d had a couple of other parents contact me about playdates, and I was the weirdo who said no, who said we would not be engaging in social activities.
Let me state again: Three weeks ago, in the Seattle area which was the hot spot at the time, parents were planning PLAYDATES. And study groups. Getting together at parks and playgrounds. Just three weeks ago.
I was not much better. It sounds like I had a good handle on things, right? I rejected offers of socialization. But still I didn’t GET IT. The day after the school closed, I took my kids to get their hair cut. It was an appointment I’d set up days before, and didn’t want to cancel. It’s a small shop. I’m supporting local business. It’s not social.
Over the next week I also kept my appointment to get my car’s oil changed. I sat in a waiting room with six other people in close proximity. No masks. I had a tiny bottle of sanitizer in my pocket. It had been the only sanitizer left at the convenience store. I used the sanitizer constantly, kept my head down, tried not to interact, but I was still there. Also that week I went to the grocery store to stock up on what I thought would be two weeks of food. Spoiler alert: it did not last two weeks. I also kept my appointment with the tax guy, because IRS.
At the time it felt like I was being super cautious, hardly leaving my house at all.
Three weeks ago.
Now I look back at that in horror. How could I be so irresponsible? I now take all of my groceries by delivery. I have the delivery driver leave them on the doorstep. I bring everything in to a staging area where I wipe everything down as I put it away. The one time I left the house to get some items I’d pre-ordered, I wore a mask and a jacket which went in the wash the second I got home. We go outside to work in the yard, to walk the dog, etc. but instead of stopping to chat, we wave at other people from across the street.
Very quickly, the life I led last month feels alien and dangerous.
How bizarre is that? The world is practically at a standstill, and I still can’t keep up.
As of this writing, my kids’ school has been closed for three weeks. Our entire state has been under social distancing for that time and has been under a stay at home order for a week. Or two. What is time? Calendars are meaningless.
When the schools first closed, I breathed a sigh of relief. I’d been slowly drowning in my failures to adult properly. It had gotten so the kids were late to school at least three days a week, often with homework not completed. At least twice a week I was interrupted in getting breakfast ready by the call of, “MAHM! I GOT NO CLEAN PANTS!” I was falling behind at work, which as an hourly contract worker meant my pocketbook was losing massive amounts of weight. My hips were not. My house, which is usually a disaster zone, had risen to Hoarders level. I am STILL making Christmas gifts for my sister in law and nephew. (They’ve met me so they’re not surprised.) I thought a break from routine would give me a chance to catch up.
My introverted, arts and crafts heart was a teeny bit ecstatic at the idea of having a Staycation with my kids in which to reconnect and take a breather. I devoured the social media posts displaying suggested schedules, websites, videos, projects to keep kids entertained and engaged while home from school. I made a list of things we could do. I planned twice daily walks with the dog. I put together A TRAINING SCHEDULE to literally teach my dog new tricks. I planned large projects for us to work on as a family, so at the end of this time together we’d have great memories and these awesome artworks/videos to show for it.
Sweet, summer child.
The first two weeks of our family togetherness, our daily schedule consisted of me firmly stating, “In thirty minutes, you’ll have to put down the screens and read for a while!” every couple of hours until bedtime. I was trying to work during the day, trying to cook meals in the evening, and trying to fit in about 30 hours a day of Coronavirus news.
The third week was different. The school district officially began distance learning. My kids’ teachers each emailed me the lesson plans and each set up one online class meeting for the week. It was time to get serious about setting a schedule and being efficient with our time at home. By this time my mom-guilt laden heart was very aware that my friends were already on home school schedules, were going for hikes with their kids, had made amazing art projects. It was time for me to get on board, at least with the school part.
THAT week our schedule consisted of me working in the morning, yelling down the stairs, “Remember at one o’clock you’ll have to put down your screens and start schoolwork!” every half hour until one o’clock. At that time I switched back to the “In thirty minutes . . . ” rotation.
By the end of the week, I started to get the swing of things, but the kids were really only getting an hour of school per day, and I was exhausted. Let’s talk about Friday. I set my alarm for seven, hit the snooze every ten minutes for two hours, got out of bed at nine. From nine until one, I sat in my office and worked while the kids were left to their own devices (the kind of devices with screens.) I only left my office to let the dog out because she was barking, let the dog back in because she was barking, break up about four different fights, help someone figure out their password to Fortnight or some crap, help someone find their clean pants in the dryer, and to grab a snack. My laser focus only strayed from my work when I checked the news every fifteen minutes, checked social media every ten minutes, told my kids they could get their own juice, listened to my kid tell me about his dream. Suffice it to say, between nine and one I only got an hour and a half of billable work done.
At one o’clock, I descended the stairs to make lunch. By two-thirty we were ready to sit down to do schoolwork. My plan, which was puny, was to try to get some work done on my laptop while my two little men worked independently. But, okay, this may shock you but kids generally need some assistance with school work. And not all parents are good at helping with that. Frustrations abounded as I tried to simultaneously help one child log into his school websites while consoling the other one about the unfair math assignment. There were tears. There were screams. Some things may have been thrown. I MIGHT have slammed a cup of kool-aid down on the table so hard that I had to wipe off the ceiling. After an hour and a half, I released all of us from the torture. They returned to their tablets while I put in another hour of work.
After work, I flopped down on the sofa and was immediately greeted with, “I’m SO HUNGRY!” So up again I went, to prepare some sort of supper. When we were done eating, we played D&D until past their bedtime. So much fun, it was my favorite part of the day. But I still hadn’t had any of this relaxation/crochet/reading time I had been so sure I’d get.
Too exhaused to even look at the dinner dishes after tucking the kids in, I realized I was even farther behind than I was when the shutdown began.
Even though each day feels like it is a year long, there are still somehow not enough hours in it. There are not enough hours to work, to prepare and clean up two daily meals (the kids are on their own for breakfast,) to assist with homework, to manage online meetings, to spend meaningful time together as a family, to keep the house and ourselves clean. There definitely are not enough hours in the day to make art, to make terrible music, to make TikTok videos, to learn new software, to make this a positive experience in the kids’ memories.
I’d really like to be able to take this time to focus on us. All I want to do is hold my kids close and maybe make a Rube Goldberg machine. But the world continues to limp along. Bills must be paid, work must be done, lessons must be completed.
So I find myself absurdly yelling into this frozen time stream that things need to slow down.
Mother’s Day was last week, and what started as a general ‘meh’ feeling eventually descended into an impressive bout of sadness.
Why? That makes no sense. I’ve never suffered a child loss. I have a wonderful mother who is extremely active in our lives. My mother in law is the sweetest. Why would losing a husband cast a shadow over Mother’s Day?
I’ll tell you why. It is a day to appreciate the moms in your life, and the honest truth is that kids don’t appreciate shit.
For married moms, this holiday is when their spouse shows gratitude for everything they do as a mom. We tell ourselves it’s about the kids thanking their moms. The fact is, however, kids are blissfully and sometimes willfully unaware of everything their parents do for them. They take us for granted, demand our constant attention and care, and complain when something does not go according to their ever-changing plans. Their priorities constantly shift. Their expected timelines for action are unrealistic. They do not recognize the inability to complete multiple projects simultaneously within a limited time frame.
They are the worst bosses.
On Mother’s Day, they will thank you for being their mom. You will get lots of hugs and snuggles and kisses, and this is all wonderful and greatly appreciated. But they still don’t GET IT. As evidenced by their persistence in requesting you bring them juice all day long instead of getting it for themselves. Which they are perfectly capable of doing.
So . . . The week leading up to Mother’s Day bursted with talk of plans for the day. The question, “What are you doing for Mother’s Day?” was tossed around, everyone anxiously awaiting a chance to share their plans.
“My husband is going to fix the faucet.”
“I’ve told my husband that I don’t care what we do. I just don’t want to cook at all that day. He’s going to cook or order the meals.”
“We have brunch reservations.”
“He and the kids do that whole breakfast in bed thing. It’s always such a mess, though!”
At some point, sometimes, a lull in the conversation would cause everyone to realize I hadn’t shared. The question would be shot directly at me.
“So, do you have any big plans for Mother’s Day?”
“Um, oh, well. I’ll just be taking it easy that day, you know? Get some reading and some crocheting done. Maybe paint my nails.” All the women nod wisely at this planned day of deserved self care.
It’s a lie, though.
My mom made sure the kids got me little gifts, which was super nice. One kid woke me up to wish me Happy Mother’s Day. The other let me sleep and gave me a hug and a Happy Mother’s Day when I came downstairs.
Then I made breakfast, washed the dishes, started a load of laundry. The kids played video games. I broke up fights, brought juice and snacks, made lunch, washed the dishes. I picked socks up off the floor while complaining loudly. I pulled some weeds in the flowerbed and made the kids come outside with me where they whined incessantly about their mean mom daring to make them breathe fresh air.
I’ve made it sound like a miserable day. It wasn’t. It was a nice day, with nice weather and no real plans. A typical Lazy Sunday. It was just that, however — typical.
I have nobody in my home to give me a break by making meals and tending to the kids’ needs. I have nobody to rally the kids to perform some ridiculous and messy but heartwarming gesture. Nobody makes me breakfast. Nobody repairs or paints anything. Nobody takes me to brunch. (Bringing two kids to brunch by myself on the busiest brunch day of the year isn’t enticing.) Nobody who really understands the challenges and rewards of parenting our kids is there to tell me that they notice and appreciate me.
A couple of weeks ago, the second anniversary of my husband’s death passed by.
And by “passed by,” I mean “tore me to shreds.”
Once again, though, the days leading up to it were much worse than the day itself.
This year I did myself a favor and pretty well cleared my schedule for the month of February. I put my pathological need to volunteer for every damned thing on pause, because I knew I wouldn’t be able to follow through with any promises anyway. I did volunteer do do one small thing for the kids’ Cub Scout troop, and I failed to come through. It was not a critical issue, though, so while I feel bad about it, it really didn’t matter to anyone else.
I just kept saying, “No, February is bad for me.” I’m ridic proud of myself for doing that. For saying no. I’m so glad I did. Because I was useless.
Last year I was fighting a strange sense of dread, like something else terrible was going to happen. This year it was a classic grieving sadness like you see in the movies. I’d hold it together pretty well during the day, but once the kids were in bed it was all comfort eating and staring at the wall.
I cried at the dishes. I cried at TV commercials. I cried at Twitter. I cried at Critical Role. I cried at How to Train Your Dragon. I cried a lot, is what I’m saying.
Pro tip: don’t attempt to watch the video of your wedding any time during your spouse’s death month.
Like last year, I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle day to day life in the days leading up to the suckaversary, so I pulled the kids out of school and we drove across the state line into Astoria, Oregon where we spent a couple of days. I call it the “Annual Wilson Family Running Away From Our Emotions Tour,” and it is the best thing ever.
The first day of our trip was my 42nd birthday. We got on the road earlier than I had expected. I listened to my eighties playlists part of the way, and audiobooks part of the way. (Dune is not a good choice of audiobook for keeping you alert on the road, by the way.) K gave me the best gift in the world when he proclaimed, “The best music is from the eighties!” Yes son, I’m just a small town girl who has been shot through the total eclipse of the heart but just wants to have fun.
After setting ourselves up in our room and relaxing for a bit, we started to change into our swimsuits. I had just wrestled mine on when we got a call from the front desk. The pool had been shut down for the day due to some sort of problem (which is usually poop in the pool, isn’t it?) Ugh. Are you shitting me? Swimming in the hotel pool was going to be the highlight of the trip! The kids didn’t mind, though. More Minecraft time for them. More crochet time for me. As a bonus, there was some sort of Harry Potter marathon on one of the channels the whole time we were there, so most of our vacay was spent with the kids buries in their games while I crocheted and watched HP. Exciting? Nope. Relaxing and pretty much exactly what we needed? Yup.
We did get out of the hotel some. The day after our arrival we visited the Oregon Film Museum, which is more or less a Goonies museum. My kids have not seen the Goonies. I have tried to show them, obviously. I’m not a monster. To them, however, it has always been one of Mom’s boring old movies. Therefore, visiting the actual jail from the movie was not super thrilling for them. H was terrified of accidentally getting locked in, and wanted nothing to do with their standup cutout of Sloth. K had fun pretending to be in jail, though. We also went to the Astoria Column, which was cooler than it sounds.
The next day was the day. The actual death anniversary. (Yes, it’s two days after my birthday.) We drove to the beach, because his ashes are in the Pacific Ocean.
Holy crap the weather was awful! It was comically terrible, especially considering how sunny it had been the day before. It was so cold and cloudy. The wind howled, hurling sideways rain at us. It was so miserable! We drove up on to the beach, and tried to get out of the Jeep. So much trash blew out that by the time we got all the trash retrieved and stowed safely back in my floorboards, we were freezing and soaked. We sat inside the warm car and watched the waves for a while before heading to the aquarium.
The aquarium was a tiny rinky-dink place, but it was fun. They had an octopus in a tank without a lid, and between that and the crabs H wanted to Leave. But then we got to feed the seals and it was all good. Well, I got to feed the seals. Once the kids saw the trays of cut up sardines, they were not on board with touching that nonsense. I cannot believe they are so gross sometimes, and other times you’d think they were princesses. Of course, as always, the gift shop was the best part.
We then went to THE BEST burger place. It reminded me of a restaurant back home called the Hamburger King. Thin beef patties grilled on a flat griddle, the edges crispy, the buns toasted. Mmmmmmm. H, who had wanted pizza, thanked me for making him eat there instead.
Back at the hotel, I had used up all of my “everything is fine” energy and took a nap. And then more nap. And then ordered pizza to the room, and then another nap.
The next day we headed home.
Now we embark on our third year without him.
Last year, I was still expecting to see him come down the stairs sometimes. I would still see something, and start to plan how I was going to tell him about it. I still worried about what he would think about my actions. At some point during this year, that all went away. I no longer glance up the stairs on Saturday, wondering when he will get up before remembering he is gone. I no longer look forward to telling him about my day, only to be saddened by the realization that I will never have a conversation with him again.
In some ways it is good to not have that constant forget-and-remember cycle. In other ways, however, it hurts to know that he is no longer a part of our routine. So much of our lives is different than it was when he was here with us.
That’s what everyone said. It was the title of every human interest article. It was scrawled on the underneath of skate tracks, graffiti sprayed onto warehouse lockers. It was the mantra of the derby girls. I wanted so much to feel that. To feel right. To feel I’d found something that had been a part of me all along, waiting to be discovered.
Derby didn’t do that for me. I loved it, despite being terrible at it. I made friends, loved skating, nursed bruises and pushed myself harder than I thought possible. I never, however, felt like it was the missing piece of myself. I never felt like I truly belonged in the community. It was fun, and then it was over. I felt like I would never find “my thing,” because derby was the answer for so many people and yet it was not an answer for me.
Dungeons and Dragons, however — that saved my soul.
I’ve always been curious about the game, but have never had the opportunity to play. I never knew anyone who played. Sometimes I’d see it mentioned on a TV show and think, “I wonder what that’s all about. I’d like to try it someday.”
Come to find out my husband used to play! He said he played in High School.
“Wait. We were dating in school. I don’t remember you playing D&D. I don’t remember anyone at our school playing D&D.”
“Well, yeah. We didn’t tell any girls that we played. And once I got a girlfriend, I stopped.”
“Do you think we can try now?”
“Nah, you need a group of people who play and you need to be able to play for like twenty hours at a time. ”
Then he died. I mean, not immediately following that conversation, but at a later time. And I struggled to find myself.
When you are widowed, especially if you spouse possessed a particularly strong personality, you spend quite a bit of time figuring out what it means to be you. You as an individual. You as a just you, not as half of a couple.
After he died, I though my life was over. Jesus, that’s such a cliche. I remember even saying those words out loud, “My life is over.” All of the things we had done together seemed meaningless without anyone to share the memories with. All of the things we would do together felt pointless and lonely without him. I cleared the DVR of his favorite shows, to find there was nothing left. Nothing left of us. Nothing left of me. I needed to find my own things, my own life.
As part of that effort, my counselor said I had to go out from my home, to find people, to make FRIENDS. I told her many counselors had tried to get me to make friends, and that I would become social around the time pigs started to fly. I knew, however, that she was right. I couldn’t let my kids see me alone all the time. I had to show them that a person can have a life, a real life with activities and friends, even if they do not have a significant other. I had to let them see that I am not pitiful or lonely. I am more than a mom and a widow.
I started joining groups to meet friends. Not like Tinder, but like groups where you meet with other women for coffee and chatting. It just depressed me. I had nothing in common with any of these people except that we all had nowhere else to be on a Tuesday morning. At this point my counselor told me I was being a nincompoop. She said I needed to find an ACTIVITY that I liked, and would meet people doing that activity.
One of the groups I’d tried was a board game group, and it met at a local game cafe. People there had been playing D&D, and it got me thinking about it again.
At some point I will tell the story of my first year foray into TTRPG. It is not easy to break into as a new person, but I understand it is easier now than it ever has been. It has been a little over a year. I have participated in a handful of one-shots, and just started my first full campaigns a couple of months ago.
In that time, I have found myself. I have found a part of me that was missing. It turns out that when I am not a part of a couple, when I am not being a mom, when I am not being an architect, I am a huge Nerdy McNerdface.
This is what I had been looking for. Not all of my individual experiences have been positive. Not every person I have met has been a treat. Overall, however, I feel welcomed as part of this community. I want more. I want to be doing this all of the time, even though it means talking to other people.
Oh, I’m talking to other people. Voluntarily. I’m inviting people INTO MY HOME. (I have the big dining table.) On a regular basis, people come into my home and I engage with them for like four hours. Afterwards I fall into an exhausted heap on my sofa. I am an introvert, and this game drains all of my batteries. I’ve learned to plan hot dogs or frozen dinners on game days, because there is no way I’m cooking or washing dishes. But I LOVE it. I spend my free time watching people play D&D on YouTube or Twitch. I study the rules and the lore. I follow TTRPG based social media feeds. I pore over my characters, tweaking backstories, creating mood boards, drawing portraits.
I’m DRAWING again. In fact, I got out my paints and tried painting a miniature.
You don’t realize how much depression strips from you until you find motivation to do the things you had stopped doing.
I can’t explain what it is the game does for me. I feel a part of a community. I have a creative outlet. I can laugh and meet people with similar senses of humor. I get to study and use sticky notes and binders. Seriously. I have a binder with slots for each of my campaigns and places for all of my character sheets. I feel like Dungeons and Dragons was specifically made for me, to pull me out of my dark places and give me a reason to blink away the tears caused by the light.
D – Half Elf Rogue Swashbuckler
I love my characters, and I love my teammate’s characters. I love the stories and I love feeling like it matters if I get out of bed.
More than once I have been simply thinking of Dungeons & Dragons, and how happy I am that I finally have it in my life, and I have cried with gratitude.
It is a cheesy and predictable thing to say, but it is the depths of truth:
A while back, I posted on the Twitter dot com. I don’t know how to easily search for my previous tweets, so I will paraphrase.
“DM’s, if you have a new player, especially a female one, consider holding your first session in a public place so you are not asking her to enter a potentially scary situation.”
I expected to receive positive responses ranging from, “Oh, of course we already do that!” to “Oh, I never thought of that!” I did get some of these responses. Surprising me, however, was the amount of push back I got to this comment. The push back fell into three main camps:
What are you talking about? Usually people who get together to play already know each other.
Nobody would feel comfortable playing in a public place.
DnD has always been played at people’s houses. Everybody knows that’s how it’s done, and nobody feels uncomfortable. It’s no big deal.
I have responses to the above concerns, but first would like to tell you about my most recent experience. (Nothing terrible happened.)
A new player with only a single one-shot under my belt, I was scrambling to find anyone starting a campaign I could join. I went to Zulus Board Game Cafe to see what they had going on. I joined Facebook groups and looked on Twitter. I also searched Meetup. On meetup, I found a group advertising that they were looking for players, new or experienced, to meet every other week at a home in my town. I signed up for it, and was never really expecting to hear back. These groups tend to fizzle out.
I was thrilled to promptly receive an email through the Meetup system from the owner of the group. He was gauging my level of interest/availability, and confirming what days of the week would work for me. He told me once again that it would meet every two weeks at his home. Thrilled at the prospect of getting game play, I told him my schedule. I also asked his address.
I didn’t hear back.
I figured my schedule was not compatible with everyone else’s, so it was not a big deal. I did get to thinking about what I would do about going over to a stranger’s house if the game had materialized. It had occurred to me that I would prefer to not meet a stranger at his home. I had been considering whether I was going to feel comfortable enough to request a public meeting. This is when I tweeted my suggestion about meeting in a public place. Since I didn’t hear back from the meeting organizer, it became a moot point.
Until two weeks ago, when he contacted me again. He said he’d held their first meeting the previous week for character creation. They were in need of a healer. Their second meeting would be in two weeks.
Okay that’s weird. Why wasn’t I invited to the first session? His message didn’t make it clear whether they decided to add an extra player to get a healer, or whether he had been expecting me at the meeting. Meetup should have notified me if anything was scheduled. I’d have to check my settings. Meanwhile, it gave me a perfect “in” to ask about a public meeting.
My reply was uber casual.
“Oh hey I’m sure I’ll be able to make the next one! I’ll need to double check my child care situation, but I’m sure it will be fine. You said four pm at your house, right? And I figure it will last until the nine/ten time frame? What’s your address?
“Should I just roll up a character, or do you want to oversee it? I’d be happy to meet you at Zulus or at a Starbucks or something any time in the next couple of weeks.”
His reply, also casual, was a bit incomplete:
‘Yes. Four pm my house. There’s no need to meet ahead of time to make a character. We’ll take care of that first thing at the meeting.”
Should I go to a stranger’s house? It’s probably fine. I’d feel better with a public meeting, or with a last name or address I could google. I’m sure it’s fine.
We emailed back and forth over the next week. We talked about my race and class choices, and recommendations on where to get the 4e books. All the emails went through the Meetup mail server. After a week, I still had no clue what his address is. Or his last name. Or anything about him. Or the other players. Questions about any of that seemed to not be seen.
I consulted Twitter. Am I walking into a Silence of the Lambs situation? My responses ranged from, “It’s probably okay, but you need to be extra sure to take the usual precautions.,” to, “Get the fuck out of that situation!” One person actually said, “This has red flags all over it! Get out now!” A weight lifted from my mind. I had started to self-apply the dreaded words: hysterical, panicking, overreacting. I’m just a ridiculous woman seeing danger around every corner. I should get over myself. Nobody is trying to attack me. But seeing that other people shared my concerns helped me to realize that I wasn’t being ridiculous. If anything, it was ridiculous of the organizer to invite me over without giving me any information.
I went back to the Meetup page. There were no actual meetings scheduled for this group. There wasn’t a listing for last week’s meeting, nor for the upcoming one. The group had no additional information about the organizer. It also didn’t have many recently active members. The group does have over 200 members altogether, which is confusing. The organizer is looking for six people. Has he been unable to cobble together six people from this group? Why have most of the members not visited over the past year? Where did he get the other players? The Meetup group looks long abandoned, but I am being contacted through it. I didn’t even have his email address, as all of our correspondence went through the Meetup server. And his first name isn’t exactly unique. I tried to google and FB search him, but I couldn’t find anything except links to the Meetup Group. I sent emails to a couple of the most recent visitors to the site to see if they were at character creation, and was unable to find anyone who had met the organizer in person.
I looked at my information. I had a first name and a city, and the number of people who were supposedly going to be there. That’s it. That is all the information I had, and based on that I was planning to show up alone at some guy’s house?
I AM NOT TRYING TO PUT ANY LOTION IN ANY BASKETS, Y’ALL.
I sent out one more email to him, asking his address and if he could tell me anything about the other players. Despite having within-the-hour responses to my questions about character creation, I got nothing but crickets with this inquiry. Meanwhile, I spoke with a friend who gave me some pretty darned wise advice. He said that if I’m already this uncomfortable, I’m not going to have a good time. Even if everything is safe and awesome, I’m going to be on edge.
Oh, yeah — having a good time is supposed to be a major part of it.
At this point my email asking for details had set overnight unanswered. I sent another email simply stating that it looked like I wouldn’t be able to make it. Five minutes later, I received a response saying that was fine and thanks for my interest.
Hmmmm. . . .
Did I avoid being kidnapped and kept in a well until my skin loosened enough to wear as a suit? Probably not. (But as a “big fat person,” you never know. Joke would be on him, though. My body’s metabolism is so screwed up from fad diets he could keep me in that damn well for a year and I’d never lose enough weight to loosen my skin.)
Is he a regular guy trying to put together a game, and is either too busy or too tone deaf to realize how sketchy the whole thing was from my point of view? Probably. Did I want to take that chance? No. That would be dumb. By and large, I try to avoid doing things that would make me yell at a female movie character for doing.
Could I have been explicit that the reason I wanted to meet ahead of time was to meet him before going to his home? I could have. Could I have directly asked for his last name and the names of the other players, being honest that I needed to ensure the situation is safe? I could have.
But I wouldn’t have.
Because some guys get mad.
This is an illustration of the huge problem with the #notallmen camp. When women say that they are afraid in situations with strange men, because of our personal experiences and the experiences of others we know, men often react in defensive anger. This happens even when the man is not being addressed individually. A general statement online (or a razor commercial) stating that men need to be allies with women will be met with outraged anger that we could suggest they personally might be toxic.
What would it look like if one of these men were met directly with a woman saying, “I need this from you in order for me to feel safe?” I can tell you what happens. They get pissed. Usually when it is an in-person encounter, you will not be met with threats or violence, but you will be met with surly anger. I don’t want to start a D&D game with that vibe, so, no, I wouldn’t be this direct with a stranger about my need for safety.
And this is why the #notallmen attitude is so dangerous to women. It creates a situation where we are uncomfortable advocating for our own safety.
In any event, let me address the three Twitter pushbacks above:
Usually people who get together to play already know each other.
This was from people who expressed confusion about the issue, because their experience is getting together with friends to play. Obviously, if everyone knows everyone it is not an issue. I encourage you to look around, however, and see how the landscape of D&D is changing. Many people do not have a regular group, and seek games through online meeting applications and whatnot.
Nobody would feel comfortable playing in a public place.
Sure, I can see that. It would be weird to sit in a Starbucks playing. It didn’t occur to me immediately, because I live in a city with several game cafes. Many libraries have meeting rooms you can schedule for free. But it doesn’t have to be a game session. It could literally be a meet and greet. Everyone meets at a cafe or bar. It might be a good time to trade ideas on the race/class makeup of the team, preferred play styles, etc. Sort of a pre-character creation. Thirty minutes, even less, is all the time you have to dedicate to increase someone’s feeling of safety.
DnD has always been played at people’s houses. Everybody knows that’s how it’s done, and nobody feels uncomfortable. It’s no big deal.
It is a big deal, and people do feel uncomfortable. I’m talking about women, because I am one of those and this is from my experience, but I imagine a lot of people would feel hesitant about going to a perfect stranger’s house due to safety issues. Search for posts from women and members of the LGBTQ community regarding inclusion in the world of tabletop games. You will find a lot of extremely uncomfortable people desperately finding a safe space in which to play. Because we love the game. Also, I’m not suggesting that you don’t play at your home — just that you are aware of steps you can take to make someone feel safe about approaching your house for the first time.
Please consider that Dungeons and Dragons is becoming increasingly more inclusive. Don’t make people ask you for information. If you are asking them to come to your home, recognize that giving your name and address, even a Facebook page or Twitter handle, is not much to ask. Prepare to be Googled.
Schedule a pre-game meeting a week or two beforehand so everyone can meet each other. That is probably good for the game anyway, as it can help coordinate schedules and priorities of the game play.
If someone suggests meeting in a public place, that is a huge hint. Take it.
Also, more specific to my situation: if you met the person on Meetup, but the details of the event on the Meetup group. Publicly proclaiming that you are inviting people over makes it seem less likely that you will be wearing that person later.
There are some drawbacks to starting your first ever Dungeons and Dragons campaign start pretty much the same weekend as your second ever campaign and the same week as your third ever campaign.
One drawback — Awesomeness Overload. It’s a thing, people.
Another drawback is making the same mistake across all three campaigns.
Case in point: Shopping.
Apparently in the beginning of a campaign it is super common for the party to go shopping. In all of my campaigns, I sat and watched/listened as my fellow characters made beelines for items befitting their characters. Some characters sought out books. Others perused the herbs. Some sought out incense or gems.
Me? I checked my inventory. Short and long range weapons. Appropriate armor. Food. Rope. It looks like I’m good.
I think I would know a lot more about my characters if I knew what they would shop for. I may have to visit that question when I’m building a character.
Let me consider my current ladies:
Dreeta, the Tiefling fighter. She was noble born and is unlikely to be impressed by anything at the local bazaars. She has armor and weaponry. Maybe she is always on the lookout for higher quality armor? Leaning towards understated quality, she is not hunting for flashy jewelry. I feel like she would enjoy alcohol. Perhaps some high quality spirits. Perhaps something that will help make her accommodations more comfortable or clean, since adventuring means sleeping in some unsavory conditions.
What else? I’m at a loss.
Ukryty, the Dimir Rogue Half-Elf. She left her home voluntarily after legal troubles and learned how to survive by wits and a loose moral code. Eventually she was hired by the Dimir as a courier. What does she want from the shops in town? She is not a scholar. Perhaps disguises, items such as thieves, forgery and lockpicking kits? Are there items that could increase stealth? What about non-functional items, just as part of her personality? She has high charisma. Maybe she carries an assortment of games. Maybe she collects fake/cheap jewels that she can try to pass as real ones when bargaining.
I also have a hill dwarf druid. She is probably one that would appreciate books. She prides herself on her intelligence. She is older. What would the books be about? She has spent much of her life studying, so what topics are left for her to want to learn more about?