A stick figure laying alone on a large grassy field under a blue sky, all in watercolor.
What I work for. Credit: Amy J. Ko

Work, play, rest, recover

I spent much of my childhood home alone, with my younger brother. My parents worked: my Mom as a 5th grade teacher almost an hour’s drive away, leaving well before I caught the bus to school and coming home well after I returned home. And my Dad, working in quality assurance with frozen berries, also an hour away. We usually ate dinner together, then watched the nightly news and an episode of the The Simpsons, and then we would sleep, and do it all again. We spent weekends together, but much of our time was on errands, as our parents moved us from house to house every two years, flipping them one at a time. Weekend family time was productive, tiling bathrooms, landscaping yards, and building retaining walls. After my parents divorced, Oregon cut school funding, and the FDA deregulated food quality assurance, I saw them even less as their lives and careers destabilized. But didn’t feel any less loved.

Because my parents were busy, I spent most of my time at home, unsupervised. My brother and I would ride the bus home from school together, hatching plans with friends. We’d make ourselves a snack, sometimes a bag of Frito chips and a can of chili, sometimes a tortilla filled with a pound of shredded cheddar, or a large Costco bag of nacho cheese Doritos. We would munch over homework, and around 4pm, reunite with friends, going for a bike ride, playing basketball at the elementary school, or playing Street Fighter II Turbo. Our friends came not only for play, but because their mothers were at home, and our home was free of surveillance until 6 or 7 each night. Sometimes, our parents would call to say they’d be late, stuck in traffic, in an emergency parent-teacher meeting, or dealing with a crisis at the lab. We’d make ourselves dinner, sometimes feeding our friends, and trying to ensure there were leftovers for our tired parents. Sometimes we’d go to our friends’ houses for dinner. And when our parents came home, we would hug them, warm up the leftovers, and reconnect before saying goodbye again.

I think about those weekday afternoons of work and play a lot right now, and their wondrous sense of possibility and creativity. Would I build a fort with my brother? Create a challenge course for our pet rat? Get drenched over an outdoor game of H-O-R-S-E in the rain? Would we challenge ourselves to the most difficult puzzles in Tetris Attack? Or would I just lay down by a heater vent by a window and disappear into a novel, or just close my eyes? Four hours a day of play and rest, even bookended with the responsibilities of homework and dinner, was an immense privilege. It taught me how to work through boredom with my imagination. It taught me how to be present. There was no pressure to succeed, or to do something useful with our time, or to prove our merits for college admissions. There were not even parents to monitor or evaluate us. I could simply be.

I still have such time now, but it is limited. Work ends at 6 instead of 3, and after comes dinner prep and house chores and bills and taxes and errands and adulthood. At quiet dinners with my wife, we process the stress, drama, and trauma of our work. We might find an hour for games, a video chat with friends and family, or cat videos. I get ready for bed early, giving myself space to care for my body, and an hour to escape into a book, a show, or yoga. That moment, just before I sleep, is the most peaceful, before I rise early again to face the chaos. And these days, with so many weekday appointments for therapy and health care, my Saturdays are catching up on work, then an afternoon and evening of refueling cars, pantries, fridges, and freezers. And half of my Sundays are doing laundry, cleaning and repairing the house, while I catch up on news in my backlog of podcasts.

Sunday afternoons, then, are a return to the peaceful rest and recovery of my my childhood afternoons. I have nothing left to give to work or our home. I have food. I’ve cleaned my shelter. What remains is that same anxious feeling of boredom and the excitement of possibility. But in this cold winter pandemic home, there are no friends in our neighborhood to safely see, and I do not want to play games, and I have no energy left to read. Instead, I find myself reflecting, writing, listening to music, and sometimes, as I did as a child, laying under a blanket in silence, feeling my heartbeat.

Professor of programming + learning + design + justice at the University of Washington Information School. Trans; she/her. #BlackLivesMatter.

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