Tagged your-feed-selfcare

Well, So Much for Dry January

Noted

So Much for Dry January?

It’s been an intense and distressing month in America.

This you?
This you?Credit…Getty Images
Alex Williams

  • Jan. 12, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

Well, that was quick.

Dry January, the social-media fueled month of voluntary sobriety, became Damp January in under a week for many temporary teetotalers. Many were horrified enough by the assault on the U.S. Capitol and the ensuing protracted situation to break their vow and reach for the bottle, as evidenced by jokes, confessions and memes ricocheting around Twitter and Instagram.

Among bandwagoneers, the should-I-or-shouldn’t-I conversation was happening offline, too, as many attempting four weeks as non-tipplers decided that a national crisis was bigger than a 31-day health kick.

Dry January at least seemed like a sensible way to start fresh in 2021, said Nina McConigley, an assistant honors professor at the University of Wyoming in Laramie who swore off her extended pandemic cocktail kick.

But as she and her husband watched the tragedy unfold on television, feeling “sad and useless,” a nice dinner and a bottle of tempranillo seemed like the only balm, Ms. McConigley, 45, said: “I am of color, watching the Confederate flag being paraded in the Capitol, it was the worst. The act of a hot warm dinner and nice wine, it felt self-preserving.”

After five days of lemon detox tea, for example, Emily Titelman, an event producer in Los Angeles, detoured to tequila and orange juice on Wednesday, to ease her nerves after witnessing a mob send elected officials, their staff and media into hiding for their lives.

“As someone who is very politically engaged, I felt morally obligated to return to the news,” Ms. Titelman, 35, said. The drink, she added, “absolutely took the edge off my very real anger.”

People surround the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
People surround the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.Credit…Jason Andrew for The New York Times

A year of quarantine had converted Adam Roberts, 41, the creator of Amateur Gourmet, a food blog, from social drinker to a regular home drinker, he said. It got to the point that he had vowed that very day, on a walk with his husband, the film director Craig Johnson, and their dog in the Atwater Village neighborhood of Los Angeles, to cut out drinking on weekdays during January.

“But when we got home and saw the images of a guy in a Camp Auschwitz sweatshirt storming the U.S. Capitol, I said, ‘I changed my mind. Make me a Oaxacanite,” he said.

Others who had pledged a month of sobriety managed to stay dry through the crisis, if barely.

Hitha Palepu, a pharmaceuticals executive in New York, leaned on more than 20 Dry January accountability groups she had started on Instagram to convince her to to boil a kettle for tea (albeit, with a drop or two of CBD,) rather than uncork a bottle of pinot noir.

“I had spent the past four years numbing the feelings that the news brought me with wine,” Ms. Palepu, 36, said. “This time, I chose to fully feel these feelings and find a new way to process them. It was my own little act of resistance for my present and future self, against my past self.”

The vision of the president of the United States goading his supporters against Congress, the Senate and his own vice president proved to be a shocking test for Frauke Weston, who is German and a marketing manager in Brooklyn. She was wondering if she could stick with her alcohol-free month she began, as she awaits her final interview to gain citizenship later this month.

“I keep getting messages from German and American friends alike, jokingly asking ‘Are you sure you want to sign up for this?’” Ms. Weston said.

For those who signed on to Dry January as a wellness experiment, like a juice cleanse, it seemed all in good fun to ditch their resolve after a few days and post jokey memes on Twitter, like the oft-quoted line from the 1980 comedy film “Airplane” — “Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue.”

But for many with addiction issues, the crisis of Jan. 6 was a graver matter, particularly after a wearying 2020 that seemed like a stress-ridden version of the movie “Groundhog Day,” said Dr. Joseph Lee, the medical director of Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation in Minneapolis.

“You’re seeing the intersection of pandemic stress, economic stress, political and social strife, and all those things have added together and predictably have increased the consumption of various substances by high-risk people,” Dr. Lee said in an email.

A lot of people, he said, were posting messages on social media like, “‘We made it five days, then everything went dumpster-fire-emoji,’” he said. “But on a serious level, when people are isolated and already over-interpreting the news, worrying too much, and losing confidence in our sense of democracy, all these things can be tipping points for people at risk.”

For those with the luxury of experimenting with sobriety by choice, however, the evenings of hot tea with lemon will last only through a month, even if the political chaos does not.

A day after breaking her Dry January vow, Ms. McConigley was back on the wagon, intent to last through the month. Well, most of the month, anyway.

“My one exception for the month has always been Jan 20,” she said. “We have a special bottle of champagne we are saving for Inauguration Day.”

Thinking About Growing a Beard in 2021?

Thinking About Growing a Beard in 2021?

Jeff’s Beard Board, a 20-year-old forum for facial hair, may be a useful resource.

Credit…Emily Simms for The New York Times
Bianca Giaever

  • Jan. 4, 2021, 12:28 p.m. ET

Andrew Peterka had given up hope that he could ever grow serious facial hair. “My beard history has been … a bare parking lot of hair growth,” Mr. Peterka, 41, said. “I am other people’s patches. I’m the negative space of real men.”

But stuck at his home in the suburbs of Atlanta during the pandemic, he craved an outlet for self-expression. Lacking talent in writing and painting, and wary of the permanence of tattoos, his mind returned to beards.

After entering a few queries into a search engine, he came across a thread titled “Patchy Beard Success Stories” on a forum called Jeff’s Beard Board. In the comments, men celebrated and complimented each other, using expressions like “Grow on!” and “Beard on!”

While many corners of the internet, despite their idealistic underpinnings, continue to breed trolls and leave bad behavior unchecked, the users of Beard Board present a counternarrative to those often male-dominated spaces with their unfettered positivity. They adhere to 23 agreed-upon rules of engagement, including no discrimination, no harassment and no recommending Rogaine to promote growth.

Mr. Peterka said Beard Board felt different from any other website he’d visited. He described it as almost religious — a “peaceful place” with “a prevailing spirit” moving through it.

“We’ve got people who’ve been members since the board started, 20 years ago,” said Jeff Falberg, 56, of Bridgeport, Conn., who founded the site in 2001. Back then, he spent three to four hours per day maintaining its forums; now he has 10 moderators and four administrators who review every post and write encouraging responses.

Geoff Coleman, 48, a soft-spoken Canadian with a hefty gray beard, is one of those admins. A typical day for him begins at 4 a.m., when he wakes up at his home in Ottawa and spends 30 minutes reading new posts and leaving encouraging comments. After six and a half years on the site, he’s now posted more than 20,000 responses to beard posts.

“A common misconception is that whatever you can grow when you’re 20 is what you’ll grow for the rest of your life,” Mr. Coleman said. “But your beard will continue to mature into your 40s.”

Another misconception is that it only takes a couple of weeks to grow a beard, when in fact some hair follicles can take weeks to sprout. The board recommends waiting 13 weeks to see how much hair you can grow, and members are there to encourage you while you wait.

Aspirational beard growers come to the site from all over the world, and range from teenagers to senior citizens. Lorenzo Simonazzi, 21, of Savosa, Switzerland, came to the board shortly after the end of a relationship. “I felt I needed to change something in myself,” he said. A self-described perfectionist, he wasn’t sure where to place the neck line, whether he should trim his mustache, and if his cheek growth was full enough. Now Mr. Simonazzi is a moderator and spends about an hour a day talking to people.

He said the values he’s learned on the board include patience, delivering feedback and goal setting: “It’s about not putting the bar too high. Don’t have too many expectations, appreciate what you have, and focus on the strong points.”

While beards and a lumberjack aesthetic have been trendy in recent years, the stigma around men who agonize over appearance remains. “I think gone are the times when fathers tell sons how to do stuff,” Mr. Coleman said. “People turn, eventually, to the internet.” In his daily life, he doesn’t talk about his involvement with the board. “I don’t know how people would respond if they found out I’m a moderator,” he said with a laugh.

Mr. Coleman sees his work as a form of volunteerism, helping men feel their best in every aspect of their lives, from job interviews to first dates. “In growing their beard, they start to feel more confident in who they are,” he said.

As for Mr. Peterka, he’s now 10 weeks into his “beard journey.” Though he’s received a lot of support, he’s beginning to realize that a beard isn’t going to happen for him. But he still plans to stick it out a bit longer. Even if he can’t grow a beard, the board has helped him rethink what he considers normal.

“I’m under five-eight, and I always thought I was short,” he said. “But then I looked it up, and five-eight is actually one-third of the population. So I’m like, wait a minute, I’m kind of average.”

“I think people grow up wondering, am I enough?” he continued. “Am I normal? Am I OK? Am I on track?” As a father, he hopes that accepting his imperfect beard will leave an impression. “I want to let my kids know, where you’re at is where you’re supposed to be.”

Your Most-Played Song of 2020 Is … White Noise?

Your Most-Played Song of 2020 Is … White Noise?

Ambient music, background noise and calming sound effects have soothed the anxious, isolated and sleep deprived this year.

Credit…Matt Schwerin for The New York Times

  • Dec. 24, 2020, 3:00 a.m. ET

The soundtrack to Maya Montoya’s year was white noise. Specifically, a track on Spotify called “Celestial White Noise”: three whole hours of warm, soothing fuzz.

Ms. Montoya, who is 27 and lives in Everett, Wash., had been a nanny up until the pandemic. But when she found herself out of work in April, she began indulging in daytime naps, which ruined her sleep schedule. “I’ve been listening to the white noise all the time,” she said.

Despite playing the track most nights for the better part of 2020, Ms. Montoya was still surprised when “Celestial White Noise” appeared at the top of her Spotify Wrapped chart this month. She posted a screen shot from the app on Instagram, which was met with a deluge of affirmation from her followers.

“So many people messaged me saying they got the exact same thing,” she said. “It was nice to know I wasn’t the only one blasting white noise into the ether so that I could sleep throughout all this.”

In an average year, Spotify Wrapped is a sharing-optimized novelty hinging on nostalgia for a time that’s barely passed. But in 2020, this data mirror instead presented many users with unexpected empirical evidence of their pandemic coping mechanisms: a strange hit parade of ambient music, background noise and calming sound effects that soothed them through an unusually anxious and sleepless time. (Spotify declined to comment on this trend.)

While thousands of users posted in disbelief about their stress-inflected results, the situation made sense to Liz Pelly, a cultural critic who has written extensively about how Spotify and its competitors work to shape our listening habits. “It says a lot about the ways that corporate streaming services have ingrained themselves into our lives and facilitated music listening becoming more of a background experience,” she said.

Credit…Matt Schwerin for The New York Times

Some listeners have used sound as a coping mechanism for years but became more reliant on it over the last nine months. Isobel Snellenberger, a 21-year-old in Fargo, N.D., has anxiety and is neurodivergent (a category that includes a range of neurological differences including autism spectrum disorder and dyslexia), both of which she manages in a variety of ways, including with music.

“Especially toward the beginning of Covid, my mind was riddled with intrusive thoughts about my friends and family’s safety, and my brain would go into panic mode,” Ms. Snellenberger said. So, she began playing rain sounds almost round-the-clock, which helped her turn off the cognitive noise.

When her Spotify roundup arrived, nine of her top 10 tracks were rain sounds. “Even though I listen to them a lot, I was still caught off guard,” she said, noting that Harry Styles and David Bowie typically dominate her list. Like Ms. Montoya, she found the results both sad and funny.

The findings of some forthcoming research about pandemic coping mechanisms suggest ambient listening may be part of a larger pattern. Pablo Ripollés, a professor at New York University who studies music and the brain, was part of an international team of researchers that surveyed lockdown habits in Italy, Spain and the United States.

Of 43 activities mentioned in a survey the team conducted, like cooking, prayer, exercise and sex, listening to or playing music had one of the biggest increases in engagement during lockdown, as well as the highest number of respondents who said it was the activity that helped them the most.

“People realizing from their Spotify Wrapped that they were listening to a lot more background music to cope with the pandemic fits with what we saw,” Dr. Ripollés said.

But not everyone wants to have the darkness of this year reflected back at them. With the pandemic expected to endure, at least in some countries, well into 2021, a few savvy subscribers are using a workaround to ensure that next year’s recap is a little less grim.

Dylan River Lopez, a 29-year-old video editor who uses non-gendered pronouns, has relied throughout the pandemic on a track called “Brown Noise — 90 Minutes” to drown out many distractions, including their partner’s phone calls in a newly shared office and nighttime restlessness similar to Ms. Montoya’s. “I pretty much developed a relationship with the noise,” Mx. Lopez said.

When it appeared as their No. 1, Mx. Lopez searched online about how to block Spotify from counting those minutes. The answer: a feature called Private Session, which they now turn on along with the brown noise.

“The main thing I learned from this experience,” Mx. Lopez said, “is how to stop Spotify from tracking it.”

Sex Educators Teach About Consent and Healthy Sex

These Educators and Activists Can Help You Navigate Intimacy Now

Credit…Illustration by Megan Tatem

They’ve taught people how to be close through H.I.V., S.T.I.s and now the coronavirus.

Julia Carmel

Dec. 15, 2020

This year, physical distance and safety became part of a suddenly urgent conversation for everyone. But for educators focused on intimacy and consent, questions about bodies and boundaries are a constant focus. Here’s how a number of experts are teaching people how to treat themselves and others well — and where they can teach you.

Who Has Time to Think About Pleasure Now? You Do.

Robyn Dalzen has facilitated consent workshops around the world for the last four years, often coaching individuals and couples through the complexities of physical intimacy. This work has now indefinitely shifted to the virtual realm.

“We all have desires and we all have barriers that keep us from speaking up and asking for what we want,” Ms. Dalzen said. “At a very fundamental level, just the process of naming our desire and asking for what we want is incredibly vulnerable.”

Ms. Dalzen became a consent educator after learning about the tool called the Wheel of Consent from its creator, Betty Martin. Ms. Martin invented the wheel based on two factors that are always at play when people touch each other: who is doing, and whom it’s for.

The Wheel of Consent created by Betty Martin.Credit…Illustration by Megan Tatem

The wheel introduces nuanced ideas about “giving” and “receiving,” topics that are fraught for many people — and that some may have never thought to ask about.

“To have a lot more fun, consent needs to be expanded to mean ‘What’s our agreement?’” Ms. Martin said. “‘What is it that we both want? What is it that we both don’t want? What are some options?’”

“We arrive at consent together,” Ms. Martin continued, “instead of somebody giving consent or getting consent.”

There are silver linings to moving these workshops online; people who weren’t previously comfortable attending them, or who didn’t have the time or means to show up in person, are now able to participate. These conversations can also bear new weight in a year where perceptions of personal autonomy and privilege have changed for many people.

“When we’re in the midst of a pandemic, and major disruptions politically in this country and racial injustices coming to light — what place does pleasure have in this current reality?” Ms. Dalzen asked. “Is it something frivolous? Is it taking away from where we should be putting our focus and attention?”

Her decision remains that pleasure is necessary in the worst of times.

“The more connected we are — to ourselves, to our desires — and the more we express that in the world,” Ms. Dalzen said. “It’s not taking away from or diverting from these major social and health issues, but it’s actually focusing in on who we are as individuals and what kind of world we want to live in.”

Setting Boundaries at the Store

Nenna Joiner outside the Feelmore sex shop in Oakland, Calif.Credit…Jason Henry for The New York Times; Photo Illustration by Megan Tatem

Nenna Joiner, who runs the Feelmore sex shops in Oakland and Berkeley, Calif., kept their stores open throughout the pandemic.

In the store, Mx. Joiner, who uses nongendered pronouns, tries to show customers how to mindfully ask intimate questions and assert the boundaries of their comfort zones.

“The ‘no’ is powerful in the workplace, where there’s no sex happening,” Mx. Joiner said. “It’s powerful in relationships, and it’s also empowering in general. There’s always room for it.”

“We make sure we’re talking about exactly what the customer wants, regardless of what our personal beliefs are,” Mx. Joiner said. “The benefit of owning, operating and working at a sex shop is that you are really there for the needs of the community.”

Pleasure activists, and Mx. Joiner is one, believe that personal pleasure is important politically and that healthy sexuality gives strength and power to people — particularly those who’ve been ignored in these conversations.

“If you read a lot of the sex books that have been written out there, most of them were definitely not written with women of color in mind,” Mx. Joiner said. “When you’re thinking about pleasure, or you’re thinking about activism, you’re thinking last about brown women.”

Keeping It Spicy (and Educational) on YouTube

Credit…Illustration by Megan Tatem; via Shan Boodram

“Sex education is bad sex. It’s dry, it’s faceless, it’s monotonous, it’s boring, it’s systematic,” said Shan Boodram, who’s known as Shan Boody on YouTube. “So I wanted to utilize the education that I had gotten, which was interesting people, and salacious stories and story lines that you wanted to follow, and I wanted to merge those two together.”

Social media allows her to reach more people, including those who may not have the time, money or resources to attend an in-person workshop. Her videos, starting with their titles and image covers, are spicy — and straight to the point.

But once inside, she teaches people that the way they think about sex and, particularly, consent isn’t the same for everyone. “In the kink community, everything is a ‘no’ until you get a ‘yes,’” she said. “In the vanilla community, everything is a ‘yes’ until you get a ‘no.’”

“When you start saying to somebody ‘Oh, your lips are so sexy, do you mind if I kiss them?’ or ‘Your skin feels so good, can I run my tongue along it?’ consent becomes a part of the foreplay and a part of the dialogue,” she said. “Everybody benefits when there is sexy, enthusiastic yes-focused dialogue.”

Opening the Dialogue on Instagram

Amalie HaveCredit…Photo Illustration by Megan Tatem; via Amalie Have

After Amalie Have was sexually assaulted in 2014, she wrote a blog post detailing her process trying to report the incident. She had a surveillance tape that showed a man approaching her tent repeatedly; two witnesses, who heard her saying “no”; and she completed a rape kit — yet her assailant was still acquitted.

Ms. Have, who lives in Copenhagen, said Danish women reached out to her about the post to share similar experiences. She took to Instagram to continue the conversation.

The platform allowed her to quickly and effectively mobilize people. But the backlash she encountered was also jarring.

“People were like, ‘Yeah, but you were traveling alone; you looked like you did; you had a few beers prior; you were sleeping in a tent; and you were wearing the dress you wore,’” Ms. Have said. “And especially the last thing — I was like, ‘Oh, OK, this is interesting. Let me use that as a visual conversation starter.’”

She continued to wear the dress from the night of the incident, creating a project called “The Green Dress.” Her work has also taken her offline; earlier this year she campaigned for consent-based legislature at the Danish parliament and worked on Amnesty International’s “Let’s Talk About Yes” campaign.

As the coronavirus pandemic unfolds, Ms. Have has watched it shape her life in both physical and digital realms. “You’re so aware of other people now, and whether they’re in your space or five inches from you,” she said.

“This has highlighted that we have a problem when other people set boundaries and they’re different from our own,” she said. “We feel like it’s somehow criticizing what we’re doing ourselves or limiting our way of navigating freely.”

She has also worked to keep the conversations about consent sex-positive: “Because I was like, OK, I also need to survive in this.”

Modern Love: He Seduced Me With Bread

Modern Love

He Seduced Me With Bread

An Italian woman, trapped in lockdown, takes daily calls from strangers until she finds one who really knows how to cook.

Credit…Brian Rea

  • Dec. 11, 2020, 12:00 a.m. ET

Years ago, with a friend, I played one of those psychological games where you begin by listing 15 things you would bring to a desert island and then narrow the list until you’re down to the two most important. By painfully dismissing one cherished item after another, I was left with my final choices: a guitar and “the people I don’t yet know.”

It may sound weird, especially for an Italian who talks to her mother every day, to choose a bunch of strangers over those closest to her. But for some reason, I’ve always been drawn to those I don’t know.

In pre-Covid-19 life, this meant I was the kind of person who makes friends on planes, talks to the next in line while waiting and knows everyone in the office. During the first wave of the pandemic, since the only regular contact I had was with my boyfriend (too close) and my family and friends on Zoom (too distant, as I was then living in Romania), I indulged in a new and seemingly harmless habit — connecting by phone, daily, with strangers.

DialUp is an app born from a simple yet brilliant idea: Every day you receive a phone call from a stranger somewhere on earth. No video. No pictures. Only voice.

I met many people this way, some more interesting than others. We talked about our jobs, the latest Covid-19 news, how hard the lockdown was in our countries and so on. The dose of mystery gave each day a little jolt of surprise.

One afternoon, while I was sunbathing on the rooftop with my Twitter-addict boyfriend, trying to bring some color to my pale, lockdown skin, the phone rang. I don’t like to talk to strangers in front of my boyfriend; it makes him grumpy. So I wandered away before picking up to hear a clear, happy-sounding voice say, “Hello.”

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After the first 10 seconds of these calls, I can usually paint a portrait in my mind of the person I’m talking to. From the timbre of the voice and the fact that he was from Amsterdam, I pictured Senne as blond, with long hair. I thought we were the roughly same age, mid-30s, though maybe I was older. I didn’t ask and neither did he.

He told me that a few days earlier he’d gone for a walk in Amsterdam’s city center and, because of the lack of people and noise, was able to hear, for the first time in his life, the sound of the water in the canals. We talked about how strange it would be to walk around Venice right now, without tourists. Then I introduced my favorite topic: cooking.

I am not obsessed with food, but when I travel, I plan the restaurants before the hotels. During lockdown, I had decided to learn the ancient art of bread making. A friend in Barcelona had sent me a recipe, saying I should try it. I told Senne I was a bread beginner. Apparently, he was a bread master.

From there, the conversation shifted to sourdough tips, oven recommendations, and the pros and cons of different kinds of flour. Senne told me he owns hundreds of cookbooks. He had eaten at what was once regarded as the best restaurant in the world, Central of Lima, in Peru.

Yet he had never been to Sicily, which for me is where food, history and sea coexist in an esoteric equilibrium. Our enthusiasm reached its peak when I told him I only use olive oil from my own trees in Umbria.

That’s when he said, laughing: “I think I am falling in love.”

By then, I had mentioned having a boyfriend, and he had mentioned having a girlfriend, which somehow made me feel more at ease.

At the end of the conversation, we were breathless, enthralled. In that second of silence, I think we were both wondering the same thing: “What now?”

We agreed to keep in touch on Facebook. I was so curious to see the face of that beautiful voice. By then, my phone battery was at four percent, and my boyfriend’s expression was inversely proportional to my gleeful one.

From Senne’s 2009 profile picture, I could see he was not 35 but was, like my boyfriend, a boomer in his late 50s. And he was not the strapping blonde I had imagined but dark-skinned, short and a little chubby. I searched for the youth of his voice in every picture, to no avail. I waited for him to log on and say something.

Half an hour later, he typed: “It was nice talking to you.”

Standard, but reserved. Was he unsure of himself now that we had revealed our faces? He didn’t seem eager to chat. Later that day, he sent me a picture of steamy, homemade bread, still inside a Le Creuset casserole, and the image actually made me feel aroused.

I should make a point here: Making bread is closer to sex than to cooking. It’s about diving in with your hands, massaging it, making it rise. And there is no fast climax; it takes at least 24 hours to make decent bread. All this time you have to care for it lovingly while you wait. And wait.

I pictured Senne’s expert hands turning a shapeless mass into that beautiful loaf. I imagined him waiting for the dough to rise in his Northern European kitchen.

Was he going to share it with someone? I told myself it didn’t matter. That bread was clearly made for me.

Senne knew how to wait. Often, he was not the first to send a message, and it could take hours before he replied. Other times, he was more prolific and shared recipes and songs. Despite our age difference, his taste in music was close to mine. He sent me a playlist of arias that evoked an image of him listening to opera in wooden rooms with a glass of wine, cutting vegetables.

He answered my questions about fermentation and introduced me to the art of growing my own sourdough starter. We shared daily pictures of the meals we prepared, congratulating each other. The excitement reflected a shared, unspoken thought: I’d love to be there and eat that with you.

One day he asked if I knew Sichuan pepper.

“Enlighten me, please,” I said.

“It’s a Chinese kind of pepper, sharp but flowery,” he said. “It gives you the feeling of soda water.”

How would I get some? Besides being in lockdown, I wasn’t living in my country and didn’t know where to find it.

“I could send you some,” he said.

My first thought was that my boyfriend would surely find out, since he is the one who checks the mail. Was it wrong to receive exotic pepper in the mail from another man?

I explained the situation to my friend Paula. We agreed that it would be better not to say anything, and she suggested that he send the pepper to her.

The idea of that brave envelope flying through Europe during a pandemic, with elegant handwriting and a Dutch stamp, was the thought I had before falling sleep for the next few days.

Finally, Paula called; it had arrived.

I put on my sports pants and acted as if I were going out to run, which was an accepted outdoor activity in Bucharest during lockdown. It wasn’t a lie. I was running to get my pepper.

On the way home, I stopped to open the package and felt a rush of happiness in seeing a little note with the bag of pepper, written in the same style I had imagined for his handwriting, that said: “To Albertina, because dishes sometimes deserve a special sparkle, and life too.”

This was before everything. Before my boyfriend would ask me about all the time I had been spending on my phone, and I would tell him about the stranger in Amsterdam. Before the pandemic would ebb enough for Senne and me to meet in Rome, where we would have a glorious time as tourists in my near-empty city.

It was before, on a wholly separate trip, my boyfriend would agree to come join us, and we would all hang out in surprising harmony. And it was before Senne and I would return to our previous lives in distant lands, unable to sustain our magical summer, leaving my boyfriend and me to find our way back to each other — a little warily, but with fresh eyes.

On the streets of Bucharest that day, in a world immobilized by fear and grief, I opened a packet of pepper, took a deep breath and fell in love with a stranger.

Albertina Coacci is an advertising copywriter in Rome, Italy.

Modern Love can be reached at modernlove@nytimes.com.

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For Parents, Every Day Is Bird School

Me, my wife, our teenager and our 5-year old, we knew nothing about birds before the lockdown sent us inside in March. Our cramped home was suburban-convenient before the pandemic hit, nestled a few blocks from a school we don’t go in and a train downtown we won’t ride, and now it is just small.

It was a bedroom short and had nothing a person could call work space beyond the dining room table even before it became our entire lives. But it did have windows, sunny and bright in the morning, that looked out on the worn patch of yard just outside so I bought a bird feeder and some cheap seed and mounted it just outside our dining room window. We needed a distraction.

The birds came in swarms, tiny brown ones at first that constantly pecked at each other over the absolute trash seed we’d put out. It was like we’d opened an avian fight club. Then came the cardinals, regal and red, and the goldfinches, a hallucinatory yellow. They all fought, too, but they were beautiful.

The 5-year-old kept telling us he’d seen a blue jay, but it would always fly off, he’d claim, when we turned around. We thought it was a way of getting attention after losing his preschool, his swim lessons, his friends — everything his tiny world encompassed — to the pandemic. A phantom bird for attention, a way of controlling the tiny slice of world that existed outside our window. When I saw it for the first time, its iridescent blue tail catching the late spring sunlight, I screamed. He was right.

Credit…Dan Sinker

The pandemic required full days of work to become half days, our time now split down the middle between work and child care. We began drawing birds, my son and I, making a poster a week, one bird a day. He and I drew in the mornings, and he would study the birds with his mother in the afternoons. The time split was inconvenient, but how long could it possibly last, we asked.

Spring turned into summer and we were still inside. That one feeder became two and then three. A suction-cup feeder on the window. A thistle feeder on the fence. When the 5-year-old and I were kicking a soccer ball in our tiny mud patch of a yard and a hummingbird flew overhead, that was the next feeder we hung.

Remote school ended for our teenage son, and summer break meant more of the same. We were forever indoors, but the world was alive in our tiny yard that was more weeds and dirt than grass.

I bought a pole that could hold six feeders at a time. We’ve only gotten drive-through twice in the last eight months, but kept our fly-up fully stocked at all times. Two kinds of suet. A feeder built for woodpeckers. One that could hold whole peanuts for the blue jays; it became a prize the neighborhood squirrels dedicated their lives to claim. A second hummingbird feeder went up after we read they were highly territorial.

The five-year-old got a children’s guide to birds for his birthday, a birthday celebrated inside. He spent hours poring over it, teaching himself to read by sheer desire, calling out for help with words that grew longer and more complex as the weeks wore on. He memorized page after page.

The posters we draw line the walls of our dining room now — 25 at this point, one a week, the number always increasing. His tiny hand was unsure at first, lines and lettering halting and hesitant, but as weeks became months, he’s grown more confident and ambitious. Backyard birds. Sea birds. Exotics, Crayola bright. They reach the ceiling. We’re running out of space.

A new school year started and we were still inside. The teenager retreated to high school in his bedroom while we crammed a tiny desk into the corner of our dining room. Zoom kindergarten unfolded on a tablet screen, birds swarming the feeders just outside. For show and tell the 5-year-old flipped the camera and let the other kids see the birds. Zoom school isn’t all bad.

School’s start gave way to fall, leaves glowing in yellows and reds. We prepare for the unknowns of the “dark winter” ahead, holding on to fall like a rope above a pit. Cases are up everywhere, over a million in just a week. The numbers — the numbers are people, I remind myself when I check them every day — seem impossible, yet experts warn they’ll grow even larger when winter comes.

Things are changing, rapidly. We stay inside and look out.

The feeders are changing too. Migratory birds visit for stopovers unexpectedly, gone as quickly as they come. Woodpeckers, once a novelty, are now regulars; their usual supply of insects have disappeared with the onset of cold. The red-bellied woodpecker, whose head sports a shocking red stripe and whose wings are an op-art dream of black-and-white polka dots, now regularly gets in fights with the little trash birds, throwing his sharp beak in their direction when they swarm too close.

We knock ice off the bird bath — just a plastic tray on an upside-down flower pot — most mornings now. I make a mental note to research warmers. It’s been 255 days since the boys were last in school. It was a cold day that last day, and it’s cold days again now. Whole seasons inside.

“That’s a dark-eyed junco” the 5-year-old announced excitedly one morning a week or two ago (what’s time anymore?), pointing at a bird that, to my eyes, looked just like the trash birds we get by the hundreds. It was maybe a little darker, its beak a little lighter. Its only distinguishing mark was a little flick of a white tail I never would have noticed. He noticed.

This time I didn’t question him. I just looked it up in his bird book and there it was, exactly as he said, a dark-eyed junco. They only come in winter.