no

The stout man swaggers down the impossibly narrow lane

Black hair, cropped short, white mask, tied tight.

He is unconcerned

With me, with the stray dog meandering by, with a task that demands little – but receives all – of his attention. An indifference to anything else. With precise intent, he drops the blue plastic bag lined with food scraps, containers, kleenex, just outside what must be his gate.

He pauses, arches his back just so, and his gaze reaches and lingers, just long enough, at the sky, as if to say

Not today

A trio of octogenarians. Abreast down the lane, framed neatly by the hanging ivy, green and blazing overhead. A slight limp slows the first, her left leg bending awkwardly. But they keep a steady pace. They are kin, somehow. Self-assured and resolute in their belief, together

Not today

A peek in the rearview. A wisp of a man emerges from a slotted metal gate. Tank top, short shorts. His striking eyebrows invite scrutiny. But he’s upstaged by his dogs. A tiny one, and then, somehow, a tinier one. Pugs, I think, waddling, just as one would expect tiny pugs to waddle down an impossible alley. He whistles after them as they trot ahead, purposeful ducklings, tracking mama. And, like their owner, they too, know what’s what

Not today

This city, like many in the world, has drawn in, backed off. Shuttered. Shut down.

But life, as it will, goes on.

Hanoi and its people know crisis. They’ve beaten back marauders, from near, and from far, for hundreds of years. Withstood them all. Replete, resplendent, resolute.

Not today

They said.

And here, yet again, now, an adversary knocks. A bully, here to cajole, to maraud, to threaten. And possibly to invade.

And here, yet again, now, these resilient and remarkable humans assert, with calm, assured confidence

Not today

gone quiet

The faded pink horse and yellow butterfly are deserted

Suspended just above the ground on the rusty swing set, they creak with promise in the breeze

But not a kid in sight

We take a chance that the narrow pathway is a short cut, not a dead end. And, this time, we are lucky. We emerge into Bia Hoi, an outdoor beer garden both destined and designed to be packed with revelers on a typical lazy Sunday

But today is not typical

there is no soul in sight

Apart from the dark-haired, willowy gentleman, bravely sitting watch.

We glide by on our bicycles, pretending this is normal, as he stares at his phone.

Xin chao

We greet him, to no response.

Xin chao

We try again.

Ah! Xin chao! Xin chao!

He snaps out of his reverie.

Closed today?

Closed! Closed!

He responds with a shrug and a smile.

In a neighborhood typically jammed with people decked in Sunday best and casual worst, bouncing between market stalls, the market stalls.

And he is the only one we see.

Often when a combat submarine is attempting to evade enemy radar, it goes quiet. To avoid detection, it shuts down non-essential systems and operates with as little sound as possible. To allies, tracking the sub via radar, this sudden silence presents as two options:

One. The sub has gone quiet

Trust the captain

Two. The sub, has gone

Davy Jones’ locker calling

As we pedal gently, I consider which of these options this sleepy corner presents to us today. Has the neighborhood simply gone quiet

Or has it simply gone

And our casual jaunt by bicycle has taken a sudden turn

to dystopia

After Burner

I slide out of the steady stream of motorbikes and ease my scooter onto the tiled sidewalk. I halt, and peek.

The hotel where we landed so gently months ago on the left. The low plastic chairs, stainless tables, steaming giant metal pot where we had our first true pho, dead ahead.

This is a bustling street. Restaurants, shops, impossible alleyways all beckon. Kerfuffle, sound, fury.

I’m taking it all in, when I spot the slender dark-haired woman, with fire in her hand.

She’s gently pinching a white piece of lined paper, handwritten notes in blue ink defining the red lines. At first I can’t tell why it holds my gaze, but then I see.

A whisk of flame, nibbling the corner, dancing, threatening to gasp and whimper away

but a breeze brings the fuel it needs.

The paper catches and, with a satisfied look, she leaves it on the concrete to burn.

As the tiny wisps of smoke climb across the street,

I have questions.

Is this an attempt to lure lucky spirits?

Meant to whisk away bad omens?

A note from a lover, spurned?

Soon-to-be deleted evidence of wrongdoing?

Her way of recycling?

This seems like the best spot for this

she must be thinking.

Unflappable, unfazed, she retreats down the stairwell into her nail salon below the striking blue sign

SPA

Leaving only the paper and me, this tiny spectacle. I can only stare as the flame builds then fades in a matter of seconds.

Soon, only ash, the fire out.

I’m still so puzzled.

And then, she returns, this time with a broom. She coaxes the ashes into her pan and retreats yet again.

And, now,

There is a charcoal stain on the sidewalk

and on my brain.

spinner

My wheels are spinning

Cognitive load is real

A virtual meeting with 60 colleagues.

But keep your distance, y’all.

Plenty of gratitude and smiles, and a sense of ‘we’re in this together’ fuel me for a while. It’s not the same as being together, in a real room, but it’s better than nothing.

After that, team meetings and planning. All, exclusively, behind the keys, staring, staring, staring at the magic picture box.

We’re focused, productive. We’ve been through this and are getting better at it.

But it’s still exhausting.

I leave my team and take care of my own to dos. Powering through on our video message, first steps modeling a research summative.

The work, when you’re in a classroom with kiddos on the daily, feels endless. When you’re implementing Distance Learning, it actually is.

I’m not great at setting limits. Self care is an after thought as my head still spins. Seconds hurtle into minutes, minutes to hours. I pause, check the time.

Shit, after 4 already

I could push through, keep going, as I do.

But a voice of reason creeps into my head.

Stop spinning

Maybe a ride around the lake

I check the AQI and think better of it.

Instead, I haul the trainer and bicycle upstairs, making a conscious choice to shun any device, even for music. It’s just me and the bike, now. I throw on my Ghana kicks, hop on the rock hard saddle

Is the saddle really that hard or is my behind just too soft

I throw my legs in motion. Slowly but surely I find a rhythm and the sound of the rear wheel against the training guidewheel kicks in, sliding throughout the stairwell

fffzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz fffzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

And as I spin my wheels, the sweat glides down my cheeks, grounding me, settling me, bringing my spinning wheels

To a stop.

social distancing

I’m living in a 2-dimensional world.

The keys clack gently and I respond to another thread.

Thread.

What’s the plan for Inquiry next week?

Thread.

Can you respond to that parent email?

Thread.

We need to strategize to streamline our communication.

All consciousness, all ideas, all trapped in a 13-inch screen. Unraveling, before me.

And I realize before too long that I’m not feeling so hot.

Threadbare.

Don’t worry friends, it’s not COVID. There’s just no pep in my step.

Week 7 of Distance Learning on Monday. The novelty is gone and the ups and downs of this wave take their toll. Three weeks ago the promise of kids, in class, together at last.

But now as the first cases have been identified here, DL continues, and the school, and the world, have withdrawn.

Streets, always bustling, lay dormant.

People draw in.

Of course, in a city of 9 million, there will still be people about. And in a city of 9 million, for the overwhelming majority, life goes on.

I’m craving people, real people. Real life. Not the kind trapped behind this screen.

So I close it.

Stand up.

Open the door, and step outside.

With one breath and three steps, the gentle breeze teasing the tree above me, the neighbor’s dog growling his usual gentle hello, and the children passing on bikes reassure me.

I’m living in a 3-dimensional world.

it’s these moments

Elephant nestles in next to me, that ‘just showered’ smell lingering throughout his room.

Excuse me

he says after gulping down the rest of the water

It is in these moments, before sleep, making sense of a busy day, when his train of thought steams up and sets forth from the station

Papa

did you know that in some countries, I can’t remember which ones

burping is a sign that you liked the meal. That it was good. In some places it’s a sign of appreciation.

Uh huh.

I respond, looking him in the eye.

The train gathers speed and continues down the track. Next stop, mastication station.

What happens to gum when you swallow it? Is it okay to swallow it?

Gum is hard to break when you’re chewing it. It’s easier to break when it’s new. You just break it off. Clunk, like that.

<pause>

He rolls over and faces me. Extends his finger, starting just beside my ear, tracing a gentle arc down my chin, below my mouth, and up the other side.

Papa, this is your beard line.

He extends both hands, rubbing them on my cheeks, a smile appears on his face. Continues up, peeking at the peak.

And it goes up to your hair line! You’re bald!

He says with a giggle, this revelation seemingly fresh, novel, despite telling us something we both already know.

A moment of connection, on a day of disconnect. Rare on today, a day of impatience, overload, too many thoughts and not enough time.

And I’m grateful I took a moment to catch his train

bike pedaler

Mr. Dung’s shop is waiting for me, again.

I pass it every day. And every day I vow to go to another shop, a place where I might get better parts, better prices. But, when I think about it, probably not better service.

Nestled quietly between the temple and the most impossible tiny corner store (more on that later), his shop is not always open.

When it is, this tiny patch of sidewalk arrays second-, third-, and fourth-hand bikes of all colors, shapes, sizes, and states of disrepair. Greasy, remodeled, eyeing potential buyers like puppies, they cry out for love.

Pick me

His prices vary. For me, an obvious visitor, they go up. We don’t really haggle, and usually our moments end with a “too much” and I walk away. But we usually both smile.

We have an understanding.

In early days, desperate, I acquiesced and bought a second-hand mamachari – black basket, sturdy back rack, and twinkle bell adorned with an “I love Hanoi” sticker. It’s my sweet, sweet ride, and I probably paid too much.

Nah, I definitely paid too much.

These days, my red Klein is decked out with pro clips, fitted for sturdy bike shoes, way too technical for me. I grabbed it off the Want Ads at a good price. It’s designed for a real rider, someone who wants to lean in, to go pro, to fly by.

That’s not me. But like I said, the price was right. And now I need pedals, cause I sure don’t have the shoes.

I type ‘pedal clips’ in and click to find an image to show him.

Do you have these?

I ask, in perfect English.

He shakes his head, says something along the lines of “nah, none of those, sorry”, in flawless Vietnamese.

He retreats behind the green, corrugated wall featuring an extreme variety of pegs, chains, tires, sprockets, locks, and who knows what else from the world of bikes. All of it ancient, full of grime, hanging, forever.

He returns, a couple pedals in hand. No clips, but they’ll do in a pinch.

He swings the wrench around with flair. The pedals are on in a heartbeat. He services my chain, charges me way too much

And smiles because he knows I’ll be back.

do caution

The workers lazily amble back from lunch.

It’s Sunday for us, work day for them.

Do they ever get a day off?

The corrugated, graffiti’d walls tower over the sidewalk, masking the monstrous new edifice on its way to our hood. Stretching for hundreds of meters, the block is blocked from view.

Except for the entrance gate.

Uniformly attired in green jackets, jeans crusted and browned with dried soil. Every worker with a hard hat. Drones, funneling into the hive, toothpaste squeezing back in tube.

The woman who wanders past has her helmet perched higher. It wobbles, more accessory than safety.

Why is it so high?

She must have a bun up there

Why is there such a queue?

The foreman, checking returnees with a digital thermometer (touch- free, natch). One by one, they make their way to the gate. A couple seconds to pause, they pass.

No fevers here, yet.

It’s an unusual measure. And an unusual measure. I don’t imagine this is standard workplace procedure.

But here we are, in place and time.

What if

The heat is coming

I can already sense a difference. Three days ago, a chill winter day with a cool, wet breeze. I bundled up on the ride home but still caught chill.

Today’s a different animal. Humidity and heat peek through the hazy sky and, frisbee tucked under my arm, sweat leaking, I make my way home.

The boys run ahead, they’re trying to get a workout in. I hang back, watching the local couples strike a pose next to the lake. And I step onto my mental soapbox.

If you need a blankety-blank Day, or Blankety-blank Month, chances are you’re doing it wrong the rest of the time.

Instead of International Women’s Day, how about International Women’s Year. Decade. Century?

Men have had a long run in power, and I can’t say it’s going particularly well.

I round the bend and run into my neighbor with her daughter.

Happy IWD!

Thanks. Apparently it’s a big deal with the Vietnamese.

I instantly worry, and make a mental note to text T, T, and H with a special wish.

But if I buy into this superficial day aren’t I just enabling the entrenched patriarchy and its band-aid lip service?

I add on a pact with myself – to empower the little ones I work with to make the world better. I know it’s not the answer to systemic inequity,

but it’s a start.

So, while I’m at it.

J, Mom, sisters, grandmas (rest in peace), aunties, nieces, colleagues, bosses, mentors, teammates, friends, students, children, icons, role models. I’m so grateful for you all.

You are change makers, stalwarts, and superstars. Here’s to taking the sentiment of today and making it real, broader, better.

And permanent.

be flat

Elephant nestles between my shoulder and ribs

Papa

Yes bud

The hierarchy goes like this

I instantly wonder if he knows what a hierarchy is.

I gaze at the ceiling fan as it drifts slowly to a stop, and I pause to hear myself breathe. It’s been a day. Too much to manage.

But this is a moment to put some space, between.

And there’s no space, between. We’re snuggled in together, bugs in rug, those enchanted moments prior to sleep. Teeth brushed, jammers on.

He slows down. And so do I.

His chest rises and falls, his soft, fine hair curling against my shirt. It’s getting long, but he’s expressly said he wants to let it go.

He’s growing up so fast

His arm bends, suspended parallel to his chest.

It climbs, still horizontal, reaching up incrementally towards the now-stationary blades.

Mama is here, at the bottom

Then Rhino

His arm demarcates each level with precision, intent.

Then you

And I’m here

I wonder what he’s describing, how this hierarchy he’s talking about has come to be, and what exactly he’s attempting to quantify.

So I ask.

What hierarchy?

And he responds.

It’s the smelliness of our farts

He says with a giggle, and I join him, and suddenly we’re just a couple snickering ninnies, together, in the dark, thinking about farts

He definitely knows what a hierarchy is