These days, I find myself singing “Happy Birthday” several times between daybreak and bedtime. As the next birthday in our family is weeks away, I feel a bit silly about it, even though I mostly confine the singing to my head. Since I am running out of people to silently and undeservedly congratulate, I have started making up my own, birthday-unrelated lyrics to go with the melody. None of them are going to win me a Grammy.
I am not going mad, at least not more than anybody else. Singing the popular song twice while washing your hands to ensure appropriate cleanliness in the times of you-know-what is just one of the tips I received from one of the many parenting newsletters I seem to be subscribing to. Unfortunately, I’m running out of lyric ideas. Thank God, there’s already a backlash against incessant handwashing, as I learned from another newsletter. Apparently, excessive washing can also kill the good bacteria that is supposed to kill the bad bacteria.
Not home alone
Bragging about your kids does not necessarily endear you to other parents (or anyone). But if you are really into alienation, I found the ultimate boast to make you unpopular: “Well, our daughter’s preschool is still open.”
What can I say, it is. Last week, however, we had the opportunity to try out the worst-case scenario when my wife’s company ordered her to work from home until further notice, and our daughter fell ill (unrelated to recent headline news, not to worry). I work mostly from home, anyway, so we were all together all day, and 5-year-old Hana could finally prove that she understood the concept of “Mommy and Daddy have to work, sweetie.” She didn’t. At least not for longer than five consecutive minutes.
I will fight tooth and nail anybody who claims that freelance work is not real work. It is true, however, that we freelancers can be a bit more liberal with our time management than members of the fully employed workforce (why else do it?). So, it was mostly up to me to entertain our daughter while her mother had meetings on the phone. On our third and (for the time being) final day together, I was finally able to convince the child to take a long afternoon nap. It took me so much effort that I laid down right beside her. I found myself typing away at night again, like I did in my younger years when that seemed the only appropriate time for achieving literary greatness. (Enjoy it while it lasts, kids. Parenthood will make you a morning person.)
What are you doing?
Now that Hana is back at school, and I share the home office with just my wife, I actually get more work done than ever before because I feel like I’m constantly being watched and judged. Of course, my wife does no such thing; she’s much too busy (and in another room). But it’s ingrained in me. Scarred by working in the corporate world for 20 years, I still feel guilty when work turns out to be fun. If it comes too easy and brings too much joy, I’m afraid I’m not doing it right. I can block it out when I’m alone, but not when I’m around someone.
One of my daily work routines, when unchecked, is an extended TV break after lunch. Since much of my writing and editing is TV-related, I consider it research. Now, with somebody doing actual work in the other room, my research has been cut considerably shorter. The number of pages I fill in a day, however, has miraculously increased.
Queueing without a cause
Walking the streets after dropping Hana at preschool (did I mention it’s open?), I recently found myself doing something I used to make fun of when I heard of others doing it: When I see a queue in front of a store, I line up too. Usually, without knowing what for. Most of the time I’m disappointed: Just toilet paper and paper towels. Frankly, I don’t understand this sudden urge to stock up. Why now? Isn’t one of the first things you learn when you move to Japan (and ingrained in you from an early age when you have been born here) that you have to be a bit of a prepper? On our balcony, there are two big emergency boxes filled with instant ramen, nonspicy curry, canned bread, the most essential sanitary items and mountaineering equipment (in case the undead chose the front door and we have to scale the rear of the building). This kind of preparatory work is what friendly municipal government brochures recommend you do from the moment you move into a neighborhood. It’s what my Japanese family taught me. I thought everybody was doing it. Now, I feel like an eager beaver sitting securely on my comfortable stock of toilet rolls and noodles. No, I’m not selling.
Granted, when you think “emergency” in Japan, you usually think of earthquakes, not sci-fi movie viruses. So, the one thing we haven’t stocked in large quantities is flu masks (lesson learned). Anybody selling? Or willing to trade for toilet paper? I can cut you a good deal.
My wife and I are not barricading ourselves indoors yet. In fact, we are secretly and guiltily enjoying the increased availability of seats on the trains and in restaurants. Still, the virus has interfered with our mobility. We have aborted plans to visit my home country of Germany this spring. Not (just) for fears of airplanes and airports, but also because folks in Europe have not shown the most level-headed reactions to Asian-looking people in their midst. While this is, of course, utterly unacceptable, I fully accept that my Japanese wife doesn’t want to be the one to tell them in person.
We limit the wearing of our limited mask supply to public transport and crowded places, so we get to explore our neighborhood more. With my wife and I working side by side for once, we can actually go on lunch breaks together; something that in pre-COVID times required so much planning that we confined it to every other anniversary. At last, we get to sample all those places that for years we have wanted to try yet never did, as we thought: “Oh, we can do that anytime.” Yes, you can, but you don’t. It takes a global pandemic.
Getting to know you
These most contradictory of times, when people are growing further apart and coming closer together in equal measure, are an excellent opportunity to finally get to know those people that you see almost every day but rarely speak to. Didn’t you always want to know what those other dads who drop their kids off at your child’s preschool while not wearing a suit are doing professionally? Now is the time to find out! You might need them when the dreaded message arrives that the school will succumb to political pressure and close its doors, after all. Pre-emptively, we had a fun emergency-talk dinner with the parents of a girl our daughter had befriended. We discussed how to organize our work and our children’s entertainment in a worst-case scenario, and we had beer. It didn’t look all that bad, after a while.
To be continued
The latest news, hot off the press: My wife’s homestay has just been extended for three more weeks. To my own surprise, my reaction wasn’t one of horror and despair. I was actually relieved. For her, because she’ll be able to get a bit more sleep in the morning and save herself the hassle of the commute. For me, because, with my phantom fear of her watching every move I make (through the walls), I will finally get some work done. Sure, I might fall a bit behind on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Schitt’s Creek,” but in times like these we all have to make sacrifices.
Andreas Neuenkirchen is a German novelist and essayist based in Tokyo.