I read that there are thousands (millions?) of people across this country who refuse to wear a mask. Over here, in my little corner of West LA, I’m doing my part to counteract that.
I own so many masks. I have a black mask, and a blue one, and an orangey-red one. I have one with cranberry flowered fabric and blue lace straps that slide over the neck and the back of the head. I have two or three tie-dyed ones with cotton straps that loop over the ears. I just opened a mail packet to find two masks inside, one white with embroidered flowers, the other one pink-checked. I have no idea when I ordered these things. I must have thought I lacked that pink gingham touch around my mouth?
Honestly, on any given day around here, you can open up an Amazon-delivered pouch to find new, random masks inside.
Mostly they’re for me. The boys seem to rotate between one or two cloth masks, even though I insist that’s not sanitary. Sarah has a cute collection of satiny white and black ones with swirly patterns, but half the time she uses disposables because she can’t find any of the others. And Bill always uses disposables. We keep a tray of them by the front door, for grab and go. I don’t think they’re eco-conscious, but I purchased the tray when the boxes of them kept appearing, and looked so unattractive on the entry way table. I guess that makes me an enabler.
I suppose I keep hoping that if my mask looks cheery, or at least attractive, it will sweeten the reason for wearing it. To me, those disposable masks look like defeat, like an ugly, paper, medicinal concession to the virus (I also think they have a chemical smell, and wonder what I’m doing to my body if I inhale that every day). I also hold out this hope that somewhere out there is the Perfect Mask — the one that won’t fog up glasses, or slide down until the tip of my nose is practically poking out, or make it prohibitive for me to breath and talk at the same time.
I’m still looking for the mask of my dreams, but if you’re curious, here are links to two of my favorites so far:
Four days ago, a mom named Sonia posted this to the Michigan State Spartan Parents Group on Facebook: “Please tell me are you nervous about Covid-19?”
Two hundred people have answered — so far — and here’s the breakdown:
Yes — 80
Believe it’s manageable with precautions — 29
No — 91
I’m not going to bore you with the “yes”es and their reasons. The manageable-with-precautions group seems to rest its faith in the ubiquity of hand sanitizer, the efficacy of cloth masks, and the maturity of college students. I think I begin to teeter after the hand sanitizer and fall off completely after the cloth masks.
Finally, here are a few of the “no” answers.
“Hell no!” responded Alisa.
“Nope … not at all,” wrote Monica. “Why are you asking the question?”
“Nope,” said Becky. “Have other things more pressing.”
“NO, not in the least,” wrote Julie. “My Dr told me my kids have a much higher chance of dying from a lightening strike. And a car accident is more likely, too. This is in God’s hands like everything else.”
And the kicker, for me anyway, from a dude named Dennis: “Nope. It’ll be over November 5th.”
(“Nope,” btw, is a real favorite of the “what-me-worry?” crowd. There’s an absoluteness about it, I guess, that a simple “no” presumably fails to convey.)
I was struck by many things as I scrolled down the interminable list of replies, but one in particular that stood out, from people on both sides of the question, was the assumption that the worry was individual and particular. They were, or they weren’t, worried about whether their own child would get the coronavirus at school.
This occurs to me because I’m working on that exact article, about parental anxiety surrounding kids going back to college. But the more I report it out, the more convinced I become that it’s not our college-age sons and daughters we should be worried about, when we talk about a return to campus. It’s everyone else. What we are doing this fall, as a nation, is highly risky.
There’s been lots of talk about which colleges are holding in-person classes and which are going completely online. The New York Times even has a database, where you can type in the name of a college and learn about its plan for the upcoming semester. But we forget — this isn’t elementary school. It’s not even community college. Just because you lock up the classrooms doesn’t mean the kids stay at home.
At Cal, where my older son goes, only freshmen live in the dorms, and not even all of them, because demand outstrips supply. Nearly every sophomore, junior, senior and graduate student lives in off-campus housing, whether that’s an apartment, a co-op, a rented house with friends, or a fraternity or sorority. Berkeley has gone 100 percent virtual for the fall. But that’s education-only. Dorms are open and, more importantly, the kids are heading back to town.
Just think, how many thousands of people will be on the move in August and September, criss-crossing county lines and state boundaries and the nation itself. And many of these people, if they catch the virus, will have a mild or even asymptomatic case. Plus they are young, with a high tolerance for risk. I don’t see how this is going to work out well, or even manageably, given the current state of things.
I just got off the phone with an infectious disease doctor at the University of Michigan. The danger, she said, really isn’t to the students. It’s exceedingly rare for young people without pre-existing conditions to end up hospitalized with COVID, she said. At most, they tend to have a fever for three or four days, then they bounce back up and go about their business.
The trouble, she said, is for the rest of the community. The virus may begin on a residence hall, or in a fraternity house (already, in California alone, there have been such cases at U.C. Berkeley and USC), but if the university doesn’t have robust contact tracing and quarantining practices in place — or if it does, but they get overwhelmed — then that’s not where it ends.
Sorry. I know this is scary stuff. But after reading article after article, and preparing to write one myself on this subject, I feel like we’re failing to see the elephant in this room. It’s not just about keeping the students safe, or the faculty, or how many people can share a classroom. It’s about what happens in every college town in every city in the country this fall, and how safe those people, newly arrived from literally all over, can keep the rest of us.
Richard’s in the hospital again this afternoon, and honestly, it’s hard to think about anything else.
Richard is my mom’s boyfriend of 15 years. They met in 2004, and shortly after became bridge partners. He was a retired school teacher, a widower with no children of his own. She was a retired real estate agent, with two grown children and four grandchildren (now five — hello, Elle!). She was also still married to my dad — but as I can attest, it wasn’t going very well. She left my dad in October, and six months later, started dating Richard.
Given the history here, I was predisposed not to like her new paramour. But he turned out to be so likable — kind and friendly, easy-going, and difficult to rattle. My mom can run high-strung and stressed out; in him she found a partner who not only refuses to rise her level of anxiety, but who actually calms her down. “Now, Kris,” he often says, “that’s not a big a deal.” And pretty much always, it turns out it’s not.
(No worries about my father. My mother formally moved out in the morning, and he went on his first J-Date that evening. Two dates a day on the weekdays and three dates a day on the weekend, for two months straight, until he met Joyce in December. This past February, they celebrated their 14th wedding anniversary.)
Richard turns out to have two obsessions: bridge and politics. I don’t know too much about his bridge side, though my mother tells me he’s a great player. But I’m well acquainted with his political fixation. At 81 years old, he’s an old-school Democrat (think Biden, pre-pandemic). A measure of his intensity is that I did not notice a particular uptick in his news diet when Trump got elected. The way we’ve all become attuned to every twist and turn of the D.C. drama? That’s how he was about the Iraq War when I met him, and it hasn’t waned since.
But I don’t know if he’s been tracking the details of the Republicans’ latest coronavirus relief bill, or that Trump just claimed that much of the country is “corona free.” He may be too busy fighting to breathe.
A few years ago, Richard did a preventative scan, and to everyone’s surprise, they found cancer in one kidney. So they went in and took out the kidney and honestly, I barely even noticed there’d been a surgery. He just went on as before, as though nothing much had happened. Two or three years passed, and cancer turned up again, in an adrenal gland. Another surgery, another excision, another shrug, and he was back to his life of politics tracking, bridge with my mom, travel with my mom (sometimes bridge and travel together, when they went on bridge cruises) and walking their rescue dog, Sadie.
Then, in January, his back hurt badly enough that he had my mom take him to the ER. I’m picturing excruciating pain, because nothing less seems to catch his attention. It turned out the kidney cancer had metastasized to his spine and his lungs. That was a bad day, and the days have not gotten appreciably better since then.
There’s been immunotherapy. There’s been the side effects of immunotherapy. There’ve been scans and blood work and more scans. Earlier this month, there was a week in the hospital, followed by about 10 days in rehab, where they tried to increase his weight and strength. Then this morning, he could hardly breath. My mom drove him back to UCLA, where’s he supposed to spend the night. When he comes home tomorrow, it will be with a tank of oxygen.
There’s the hope that the oxygen will make it easier for him to breathe, and give him back some ease in his days. There’s the hope that the treatment the oncologist plans to start on Friday will be the magic bullet we’ve been seeking for the last six months.
Hope feels narrower and more tenuous each day, but — maybe — there’s enough still to clutch onto and try to hold fast.
What’s certain is that this is hard to watch. It’s hard to watch Richard suffer. It’s also hard to watch my mom struggle with his illness. She doesn’t whine and she’s been remarkably composed through these last few months. But Richard has made her happier than I’ve ever seen her in my life, and so I’m not surprised that this has been a brutal journey for her, too.
I’m not sure how to end this post. Sunshine does break through cloudy skies, right? Well, we’re all waiting on the sun.
For the last four years, we’ve been an outlier among our friends. In 2015, we added a third driver. In 2018, we added a fourth. At some point, our 16-year-old will get in the last of her driving lessons and take the test and we’ll add a fifth driver.
We still have two cars.
The only reason this is possible is that my husband, Bill, likes to ride his bicycle to work. He’s spent entire summers, when one or both boys were at home, barely getting behind the wheel. These days, all five of us are home, and there have been weeks, when the bike path was closed, when Bill had to drive every day. That was fine, though. The rest of us had nowhere to go anyway.
But even though cases are going through the proverbial roof in L.A., we’re also moving around more these days. Part of that is we’re stir-crazy. But it’s also true that we don’t know anyone who is sick with the virus. We did back in March.
I think I had it, but I tested negative for the virus and for antibodies, and so my “illness” is a source of fierce debate around this house. But leaving me aside, we knew quite a few other people who fell ill with odd respiratory symptoms, and some of them did test positive. The germs felt pervasive, and universal.
Today? There’s no sign of it except in the news. This makes me feel bad, because I suspect that’s a sign of affluence. My husband and my physician friends tell me COVID is rampaging through poor households, and that the hospitals are filled with Latino patients. I heard a story today of one such household — a nuclear family of a mother, asthmatic father and three little kids; a grandma and a grandpa with a lung condition; and two uncles, all sharing a four bedroom apartment. The mother and the asthmatic father and the grandmother all have tested positive for COVID, and the mom, dad and three kids have spent the last two weeks in one room together, trying to shelter from the others.
Same city as me. Different world altogether.
This is not fair. Of course not. None of this is fair. Not only can I afford a third car when many Angelenos can’t even afford one. But now, it turns out, my family and I can afford to not know anyone who is ill. Our privilege surrounds us like a vast ocean, lapping away from us all the way to the horizon.
Some days, I feel like the very fact of this virus will crush me. But that’s me being fragile. Imaginative. Too drenched in the news. The truth is, I have time and space to worry about possible exposure at a time when there are so many cases, L.A. is running out of tests.
Meanwhile, I’ve got three kids who try very hard to stay safe. They wear masks. They socially distance. They keep their friend circles small and somewhat exclusive. But they’ve also been cooped up here for months, and the last thing I want is three depressed young adults on my hands. So at the moment, their lives are — how shall I put this — not exactly isolated.
One of these days, Sarah will drive, too. I suspect it may be time to break down and get that third car, if just to avoid the ear-splitting arguments when everyone’s back home in December and there aren’t nearly enough wheels to go around.
We have one hybrid already, a Ford Fusion. Liam, who studies environmental economics, insists our third car be green as well. I don’t want to lavish a lot of money on this thing and anyway, our insurance tells me if I get them a car that’s new or new-ish, my insurance bill will leap by 5K annually once Sarah gets her license. But if I get them a seven or eight year old car, it’ll inch up by $600. At the moment, I have my eye on a 2012 Lincoln hybrid sedan. Not too sexy (sorry, guys) but not too thirsty, either, and what a deal, because who else would want it?
I’m not sure I do, either. But life is getting busy, and soon there will be five of us vying for the driver’s seat.
You know, we all keep waiting for this to get better. But it could get much, much worse.
I realize this isn’t very upbeat of me. And I’m not writing it to send anyone into a pit of despair. The question I’m asking myself — that I guess I’m asking all of us — is this: if it gets worse, how we will stay well? I don’t mean physically well, though of course, that too. What I mean is mentally well? How will we keep smiling if the world outside our doors continues to crumble?
There are so many bad things that could happen:
The virus could continue to spread, forcing us into lockdowns more severe than the one we had in March. Once a week grocery shopping, anyone?
The flu will come this fall, and it will be bad. It could even be a second pandemic. There’s no law saying you can’t have two pandemics at once.
There will be a vaccine, but trust in the government will be so low that not enough people will get it. The virus will continue to roam our cities, and since no vaccine is 100 percent, even those who get vaccinated may need to protect themselves from over-exposure to the virus.
The Trump administration will continue to expand its new practice of sending troops into cities that haven’t requested them, to further political ends.
And on, and on. What I mean by all this is, there is simply no guarantee that life outside our homes will improve in the next six months, and lots of reasons to think it could devolve further. So I think it’s really important during this time to remember what makes us happy in our own lives. Write a list, if you must. Pin it to the wall where you can see it when you wake up. Remember that the world is too busy these days to offer us joy or entertainment, so we must grab it for ourselves, and hold it close and tight.
As for me, what makes me happy is …
My family. My husband, my kids, my parents and their partners, my in-laws, my cousins, my husband’s cousins. Because they give my life meaning.
My dog. Because she thinks everything I do is perfectly done, and because she’s soft, fluffy and cute.
My friends. Because they make me feel like I walk through life with a net beneath me, so I don’t have to worry about tripping now and then.
My writing. Because in it, I can lose myself for a little while. I’m too much with myself these days. It’s a great relief.
My house. Because it’s so comfortable.
My neighborhood. Because it’s so pleasant.
The climate here in West L.A. Because it’s mostly so temperate.
The ocean. Because though I rarely visit, I know it’s there, only four miles away, and its wide expanse makes me feel a bit more free.
Novels and movies and TV shows. Because they keep me entertained
‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’.
I’ve waited 16 years, and it might not ever have happened without the pandemic, but here it is, finally: my daughter and I are reading Pride and Prejudice together. That sentence above is Jane Austen’s iconic first line that perfectly sets up her novel, a wry take on the marriage market of Regency-era England. I have read this book so many times I couldn’t possibly begin to count. I adore the heroine, Elizabeth Bennett, who brooks no fools, and her sexy but infuriating love interest, Mr. Darcy, who — gasp — comes to admit his own mistakes. I love the balls and the gentry and the absurd formality of their lives. But most of all, I love how Austen addresses prejudice and inequity while still making me laugh aloud. Sure, it’s prejudice and inequity directed by one very rich class of white people against one not-so-rich class of white people. I will admit, it’s hardly the world’s biggest leap. But it’s startling, to see how even members of the same society and skin color can find ways to look down upon each other.
There’s also lots of big vocabulary words, which Sarah says will come in handy when she takes the SAT this fall.
When we first went into lockdown four (four!!) months ago this week, I did not exactly pull on my Super Teacher Mom cape. At first, it was like a tsunami hit: we were locked indoors, and then one son flew in prematurely from the Midwest and then another son flew in prematurely from Africa and what on earth was this new life, anyways? Where and how would I work, and how would I get groceries, and could I finally squeeze in daily time for fiction writing? And then I got sick, and was worried even more about me: how would I get better, and when would I get better, and what exactly was I getting better from, since I never got definitive word on what I had?
Meanwhile, Sarah’s high school went online and I thought, okay, that’s not great, but it’s also pretty straightforward. Same classes, same teachers, just on Zoom instead of in person. But as anyone knows who’s been raising a teenager through this shitshow we call quarantine, Zoom learning is anything but straightforward.
Some teachers didn’t show. Some teachers hardly showed. Some expected too much and some not much at all. Sarah stayed up to all hours chatting on Facetime, watching movies and TV shows with friends around the city, and I was just glad each night, as I drifted off to sleep, to hear her giggling down the hall.
Despite the giggles, this turned out to be anything but a happy time. The life of an A.P.-taking, ambitious high schooler in America in 2020 is already an existential question: why? Why must I learn subjects I will never use again? Why must I labor to build a “resume” that will become irrevelant the moment I set foot in my freshman dorm, and another, even more consequential race begins? Why, in fact, am I racing at all?
At this age, friends can be a delight and a torture.. But at least they are there, in the trenches with you. Unlike your teachers, your counselors and your parents, who want want want from you, like you’re a product with an expiration date quickly approaching.
During quarantine, though, even the mixed solace of peers has been tempered in a fundamental way. No hugs. No whispers in class. No trading bits of gossip in the halls or at lunch. No bonding at the mall, or the beach, or a party.
No matter, though: you must learn. Now. Tick-tock, time isn’t waiting on the coronavirus or you. Get going.
It was a lot to ask of anyone, much less a 16-year-old girl who delights in making her bullet journal, crushing on Harry Styles and sketching out dresses on scrap paper. I will not ask her to lift such a heavy burden again all by herself.
LA Unified just announced, as we expected, that school this fall will begin online. Sarah, who will be in 11th grade, is signed up for four A.P. classes — Spanish, calculus (the second half of freshman year college calc; she took the first half last year), English and something called A.P. Seminar, which is the first year of a two-year-long research project. Plus, of course, regular chemistry and U.S. history. It’s a very full load.
At the moment, following the excellent lead of my thoughtful friend Anne, I’m trying to gather a pod of about two or three kids who are also taking A.P. Calc B.C. and whose parents would like to split a tutor with me. Because one lesson we learned loud and clear last spring was that, as hard as calculus is in a classroom, it’s twice as hard over Zoom. It was a Herculean effort for Sarah to pass her A.P. calculus exam this spring, made even more trying by a College Board software glitch. I don’t want to subject her to the loneliness of that again.
I think I’d better find another tutor for Spanish, and make myself available for English, history and seminar help. Chemistry, her physician father can handle. She says she doesn’t need us for those subjects, but I’m coming to understand, it’s not strictly about ability, or capability. It’s about having a person, in the flesh, who is invested in your academic life on a daily basis. That used to be her teachers. For the foreseeable future, that will be me and her dad.
To be clear, this is not how I want to spend my time this fall, hovering over my 11th grader’s textbooks. If we could afford $40K a year for private school for her, maybe I wouldn’t have to. The private school teachers, even over Zoom, have more time for each student, and the private schools may have the space and money to pull off in-person learning. Our public schools have been underfunded to the point of breaking for years, and now the fissures are turning into cracks that no one can help but see.
That, though, is the subject of another post, for another day.
In the meantime, Sarah and I are reading a book together. A book that has unusual words like draught and solicitude, which will no doubt be of assistance when it comes time to take a standardized test. My daughter is learning that young women who lived on a different continent 200 years ago were not so different from herself and her friends, and that their problems could be entertaining without being ridiculous.
I’m remembering how much I love to see Sarah laugh.
And I’m coming to understand that, for now, education, in all its many forms, begins and ends within these four walls.
When I was a kid, growing up in Encino, we had a pool in our backyard. It was what they call in the real estate business “kidney-shaped” (though do you really want to think about kidneys and swimming in the same breath?), and it had rounded concrete edges and a diving board with a nice, solid bounce.
There was very little to do in that house in the 1970s on a summer day. We lived on a busy street on one of those hills that are ubiquitous in the south San Fernando Valley — not really a hill, but the side of a Santa Monica Mountain — and the cars whooshed by on their way to either the flat, sidewalked streets at the top, or to Ventura Boulevard down below. There were hardly any kids around to play with, and none who were my friends. So when I think of the summers, I have two memories: day camp, or lounging for long hours by the pool with my younger brother, Mark.
The pool was surrounded by a chain link fence, I guess so no one could accidentally drown in it. Though I don’t remember a time when we couldn’t open the gate and a dog did drown in the pool once, a Scottish terrier named Heather, who was only 14 months old, and the fence had nothing to do with it. But anyway, there it was, and to get there you’d walk out the back door and across the asphalt driveway — where a pepper tree shed crushable red pellets and lizards dashed, from one spot of shade to the next — up three cement steps, to the gate with one of those horseshoe-shaped latches that you’d have to lift up with one hand while you pushed the gate with the other. This was not easy when you were holding towels and drinks and god knows whatever else you needed to sustain you because the back door was always too far to go.
And then you were there, and there were so many possibilities. You could sit in a chair or lie on a chaise lounge. All were made out of metal frames criss-crossed with plastic strips that stuck to the back of your legs and left checked red marks when you got up. The chaise lounges, though, were fun, because they could be adjusted, from barely reclining to lying flat out on your back, and if you positioned your beach towel well enough, only the backs of your heels and ankles got glued to the furniture. Maybe you’d lie there and read a book, or sit part-way up and color in one.
You could turn on the radio, plugged into an electrical outlet, to KHJ-AM, and listen to the latest hits. Just don’t touch the cord when you’re wet.
The pavement was always scorching hot, so you could try walking on it barefoot and see how long you could go until the pain was so searing you leapt into the nearest chair, or the pool.
And the pool! You could have races. You could see how long you could hold your breath underwater. You could pretend there was an imaginary world underwater and pretend to have conversations with your imaginary friends, until you ran out of breath and had to resurface so you could gulp air and continue the story.
You could dive off the diving board, which was made of decaying wood topped by some peeling material that could occasionally leave you at risk of splinters. But mostly it was okay. You could do a cannonball. You could do a belly flop. You could learn how much belly flops hurt and teach yourself how to execute a proper dive.
You could also walk along the pool’s edge, one foot in front of the other, not quite balanced, about to either fall in sideways or simply stumble on the broiling cement.
At a time when I lacked neighbors and 24 hour screens, it was about as much fun as I could possibly have on a hot day when school was out and, for whatever reason, camp wasn’t on the schedule. I knew it was good. But I knew other kids had it better — more friends to play with, more space to play in — and even as I enjoyed myself, there was no denying the isolation and even loneliness of those long, summer days.
Friends, I think we are all stuck this summer in some version of my Encino backyard. There’s the trappings of the season — the heat and the wet and the family and the furniture we know too well and the creative-fun making. Many of us are privileged, and some are not, but we are all united in wanting more. No matter how much fun that pool is, in the end it’s not the ocean. It’s not even a lake. And as many games as you and your brother can dream up, is it ungrateful to wish that a few more people could join the party?
Here’s the difference: summer ended, and we went back to school. But school’s back online this fall. The country is shutting down again. Across the world, other nations are getting back to normal. Taiwan just held a film festival. New Zealand managed to bring the virus to heel, and the government has lifted almost all restrictions. In the entire nation of Canada, there were 321 cases last week. Meanwhile, Florida tops 15,000 in one day alone.
I love my home life, just like I loved that backyard in Encino. But I’ve been here all spring. I’m going to stay here all summer. Looks like the fall will be more of the same. It doesn’t have to be this way. We are destroying ourselves with our lack of imagination, our inability to pivot in a crisis, our insistence that the way we’ve always done it — each person for herself, individual before community, community before nation — is the way we must barrel forward.
And so here we will remain, stranded in what my family used to so poetically call the “pool area,” making games out of hot concrete and a splintering diving board and a mammoth bowl of chlorinated water. Better order up some foam noodles, and a couple of rafts. It’s going to be a long one.
In less than six weeks, we’re going to have to start making some consequential decisions about schooling.
Our oldest, Liam, is supposed to start his senior year at U.C. Berkeley next month. He wants to drive up north, from our home in L.A., on August 19. He says I should unload him and his stuff on the sidewalk in front of his fraternity house, give him one last hug and speed away. All of his classes will be online, which will keep professors and staff safe. As for Liam, he’ll be living with 30 to 40 other guys, in a house that never seemed that clean to me to begin with.
Our middle son, Eli, is still waiting on a move-in date for his dorm at Michigan State, where he’ll be a sophomore. The school says it’s a go for a late August start, which in Eli’s case means living on campus, one history class online, and a slew of music classes that are listed as hybrid, or even in-person. The School of Music hasn’t released many details, so he and his friends have filled in the blanks, imagining music theory classes where you go once a week, on your assigned day, in person, and the rest of the time participate as best you can from your computer screen in your room. He’s a trombone player, and he’s hoping to do some of his playing in person. Can you imagine being a middle-aged professor in a room, no matter what the size, with eight or nine kids blowing through their horns, during this pandemic? No, I can’t either.
Eli’d like me to fly with him across the country, so I can help him retrieve his things from a friend’s basement, where they’ve been stored since he rushed home in March, and move them into his new room. But that seems like a lot of unnecessary exposure for me. He’ll have to go alone this time.
Meanwhile, LA Unified continues to try to plot out a path forward, but it’s looking narrower every day. I just don’t see, with the city’s numbers the way they are, how the district will bring kids back for in-person classes. This will be a hard pill for Sarah to swallow: after months of isolation, months more ahead. But I will know she’s safe. And maybe we can finally go somewhere. Bill has to reserve vacation time months in advance, and when everything was going haywire during the initial lockdown, we forgot to book days during the summer. We figure if classes are online, maybe she could do online from a rented condo in Palm Springs for a week in October or November. Something to look forward to, at least.
Meanwhile, I worry about my boys. I don’t see how either of them goes back to school and escapes exposure to the virus. And not just a little exposure, but high, repeated, viral loads worth of exposure. They’re 21 and 19, both in excellent health. They should be fine. But as we now know, this virus is capricious. I don’t want to keep them at home when they want to be there. I also don’t want to spend my fall worrying about them, plotting what I would do if they got hospitalized and I needed to go to them.
But that’s the crisis tomorrow. In the meantime, Bill’s on hospital service again this week. This never happens during the summer, but then again, COVID-19 never happened during the summer. He’s not on the COVID ward, but yesterday his duties involved a trip to the ER, which is pretty much COVID Central. So, not great. But he comes home each day in good health and he leaves each morning after running for miles and miles. We don’t exactly get used to it. But I, at least, have learned to live with his risk in the background of my days.
I suppose that’s my model for the fall, and my boys. Fret a lot and often at first. Then, loosen my grip, and allow it to slide it to the background, just one more noise in the low hum of threat all around.
I did a handful of blood tests a couple of weeks ago. One was for COVID antibodies, and it came back negative. Another was for Lyme disease. It came back positive. But I already knew it would.
The first time I got tested for Lyme disease was back in the winter of 2012. We’d been East for Thanksgiving, celebrating with my husband’s family in Scranton, Pa. The weather was unseasonably warm. Earlier that month, the temperature had reached an historic high in the low 70s. On Thanksgiving day, when I went tramping through a woodsy bible seminary campus with Bill’s cousin, Christine, the high was a balmy 55 degrees.
The reason this matters is because the ticks that carry Lyme lie dormant in the cold, but are active in warmer weather. And there are a lot more of these Lyme-carrying ticks in the Northeast than out here in Los Angeles.
I never saw a tick on my body, nor did I ever spot a bite. Or if I did, I don’t remember it. That’s not uncommon. Estimates vary as to how many Lyme patients actually get a classic “bullseye” rash, but a sizable percentage have no visible sign of infection.
The main thing is, after that Thanksgiving day walk, my body changed. The next day, I was out walking the city’s hills by myself when I became dizzy, and alternately chilled and feverish. It turned out it was a migraine coming on, but the symptoms weren’t usually that strong. That night, I had stomach pain so searing I couldn’t sleep.
The next day, though, I felt fine. We got on a plane and flew home. Then, exactly a week later, I stood up from a chair and the whole room spun around. I went home, lay down and slept for four hours, until one of the kids woke me up to make dinner.
By the time I got tested for Lyme, three weeks after Thanksgiving Day, I could barely get off the living room couch. I’d have these rolling episodes, starting with a heart palpitation, followed by dizziness, shaking and a panic attack, wrapping up with an exhaustion so deep I could hardly keep my eyes open. Only I couldn’t sleep, because I couldn’t calm down. I was frantic, all the time, because I’d become convinced I could die at any moment. I’d never experienced a fear like that before. It didn’t make any sense at all, but there was no talking me out of it. It was a primal thing.
Kaiser, where Bill works and where I’m a patient, has this number-scoring thing it does for Lyme tests. If you score below 119, you don’t have Lyme. If you score between 119 and 159, you’re borderline. Anything above that, you’ve been infected. They do two tests, the ELISA, followed by the Western Blot, if indicated. I don’t know which test corresponds to those numbers and a cursory search online was not illuminating. Suffice to say, when I tested three weeks out from a possible bite, I had a score of 115.
The CDC says test scores are not accurate until four to six weeks after infection. But we (Bill, who ordered the test and I, who requested it) didn’t know that at the time.
The second time I got tested for Lyme was a little over a year ago, in January 2019. By that point, I’d been through years of Chinese herbs and Western antibiotics and various prescriptions and treatments and targeted diets. A doctor in urgent care — the third one I’d seen in nearly as many weeks — listened to my tale of woe, how I’d get better, and then a new symptom would appear, and then I’d get worse, and how, for the last month, I’d been unable to eat more than about a dozen foods without having what felt like an allergic reaction. When I was through, she said, “Did you say you were in Pennsylvania for Thanksgiving?”
She meant in 2018. We go every two years (excluding pandemics). Yes, I said, and I went on a walk in the woods, with the same cousin. But it was bitterly cold, 15 degrees at the warmest, and I was wrapped from head to toe. There was no way, I said, that I could’ve gotten a tick bite.
Nevertheless, she ordered a Lyme test. This time, my number was 186. Bingo — a diagnosis. Only it was one that didn’t make any sense, at least at first. I didn’t have the joint pain typical of Lyme patients. No fever. No flu-like symptoms. And I’d been sick — well, let’s just say, chronically under the weather — for more than six years, on and off.
Then I thought back to 2012, how the bible college grounds were damp and fragrant, how the leaves mushed under our feet and the twigs crackled as we stomped on them. I remembered the days that followed, the symptoms that looked like chronic fatigue and a nervous breakdown all rolled into one. After six months, a Chinese herbalist got me back on my feet. But it was always a shaky recovery, prone to unpredictable and novel relapse.
It turns out that fatigue and panic attacks are common symptoms of tick borne illnesses. It also turns out that Lyme, like COVID-19, is not an equal-opportunity attacker. I’ve read about people who never get off that couch, who find themselves disabled by Lyme as well as co-infections, which many ticks carry as well. I’m a pretty lucky Lyme patient, in that I’ve tested negative for almost all co-infections, and I’m able to cope without too many interventions. I’m even lucky that I tested positive in the first place. Many people with symptoms more classic than mine test negative over and over again, a situation that must be crazy-making in and of itself (and which I’ve had a taste of with this COVID stuff).
The third time I got tested for Lyme was last month. I’m often running some weird symptom or other — unusually tired, or too many headaches, or odd aches and pains — and so my MD did the usual blood counts and liver panel and thyroid check, plus she tossed in a COVID antibody test and, just for kicks, another Lyme test, to see if anything had changed. As usual, all my blood work came back perfect. Well, except the Lyme, which came back better than before: my number had gone down, to 150.
My doctor thought it was a great sign, as did my husband, Bill. It’s so confusing, though, because back when I tested 186, physicians said the score could only tell me that I’d had Lyme once. It could not tell me whether I had an active infection. In 2019, they tried giving me the traditional antibiotic course, but I had an allergic-type reaction after five days and we had to stop. After that, Western medicine was out of tools and ideas.
My primary Lyme symptom seems to be a revving up of my nervous system. I’ve always had anxious tendencies, but since 2012, anxiety has become a beast I’ve had to wrestle to the mat. So what brought my number down, and restored me to a level of health I hadn’t seen in years, was hypnotherapy. I’ve had to duck around my conscious mind to soothe and calm my frantic brain. If you come to my house any day around 3 p.m., you’ll find me lying on my bed, shades drawn, listening to a recording of my hypnotherapist’s voice reminding me I can relax, that I have nothing to do, nowhere I need to be. I don’t know why, but it works.
This coronavirus illness, then, has been scary, because whatever I had in the spring slammed me back on that couch, a place I don’t want to be again. Plus, I spent six years, between my probable tick bite and my positive Lyme test, struggling with an illness that had no name and made no sense. Been there, done that.
I just saw an herbalist today who sent me home with a Lyme formulation. I had a functional medicine doctor last year who wanted to try something like this on me, but I’m so reactive, she didn’t dare. Instead, she sent me to the hypnotherapist, which wasn’t a bad idea at all.
Time, though, has passed. The doctors who said last year that my Lyme score couldn’t tell them how sick I was now say the lower number means I’m getting better. I’d roll my eyes, but I am doing better. I’m too tired, but I’m not exhausted. My stomach still hurts after meals, but less often and less so. And it’s harder and harder to freak me out.
So I’ll try the Lyme formulation. And we’ll see.
It’s a little scary — it’s a lot scary, actually — to go after the Lyme directly. I know that sometimes symptoms flare up in reaction to treatments that ultimately work. But after seven and a half years, the thought of life without Lyme, as mild as this case of mine is, is too tantalizing to resist.
I imagine testing next year, and getting a score of 115 again. Or maybe no score at all. And that idea makes me smile.
It’s late at night, and I’m thinking about an old friend.
I met Steve K. in third grade and saw him — for the last time I can remember, anyway — in sixth grade. That would be (gasp!) 40 years ago this month. It’s not much time to make an impression on someone, especially not after so much time has passed.
But four years when you’re twelve is one third of your life. And we were part of a group of 20-odd kids, at a public elementary school in the San Fernando Valley, who traveled as a unit through third, fourth, fifth and sixth grades. So I knew the guy. But more than that, he was part of the fabric of my childhood.
I had a pretty vibrant childhood. If I had spools of thread and got to weave said fabric myself, it would be a rainbow of colors. The red thread would be for Steve.
He was a short kid, with a shag of straight blond hair and a bridge of freckles across his nose. He had a smile like trouble coming and a twinkle in his eyes that promised it would be fun. The main thing I remember about him is that for the longest time, I thought he bugged the living daylights out of me.
This was the late ’70s. One of my biggest claims to fame at the time was I had an AYSO soccer coach who was also a well-known LA radio D.J., called Charlie Tuna (I kid you not). Charlie (I don’t remember his real name) was so well-connected that he had access to the ultimate VIP experience: a taping of the TV show “Happy Days,” and one day, at the end of the season, he took me and his daughter and the rest of the team to see the show filmed. I came this close to shaking Fonzie’s hand, but got overwhelmed at the last minute and ducked away.
All this to say, the Fonz was the very image of cool when I was in elementary school, and Steve used to try to fling around phrases with the same aplomb as Henry Winkler, who played the leather-jacketed dude on the small screen. He’d call after us girls, “Yowsah yowsah yowsah!” on the playground, and I thought this was a form of expression just short of caveman. For a while there, he claimed to have a crush on me. But honestly, I was never sure. Sometimes, I thought it just gave him another excuse to flip his would-be Fonz switch and yell “Yowsah yowsah yowsah!” over and over and over again.
Kind of harassment-y, yeah. But these were the 70s. We had dads who worked in aerospace and moms who stayed at home, unless our parents got divorced, which was its own kind of pandemic in those days, and then our moms scrambled for whatever jobs they could find, which sure as heck didn’t provide the same kind of paycheck as those Dad jobs in aerospace. And there was disco, and sometimes it seemed like sex was everywhere and nowhere at all, and abstinence was a word no one ever, ever mentioned.
We were so not-woke.
So, no, I didn’t love getting cat-called at four-square. But it was done with such a lack of guile, and with such genuine enthusiasm, that it was impossible to get mad at him. Eventually, by the time we got to sixth grade, two things happened simultaneously: Steve relinquished the Fonzie persona, and he got cute. I never developed a full-blown crush on him — too many “yowsahs,” still too fresh in my head — but I realized that somewhere along the way, I’d come to like him, and we’d become friends.
After we graduated elementary school, a lot of the kids went on together to the same junior high. But it was the busing era, money was draining out of the public schools like water from a burst pipe, and my (wealthy) parents were nervous. Consequently, I was ripped out of my beloved rainbow fabric and dropped into an elite private girls school, where I knew no one, and where I spent the next six years trying to decode behaviors and patterns that had little to nothing to do with the aerospace dads and single moms and four-square games and Fonzie imitations of my previous existence. The new world swallowed me whole, as new worlds did in those days before the internet and social media. I hardly saw any of my former classmates anymore, and when we did run into each other … well, we were 13, 14. It could get awkward fast.
But today, not only do we have the World Wide Web and Facebook. We also have Zoom, and a pandemic. Since I can’t meet anybody new anymore — can’t even easily engage in forgettable conversation in line at the grocery checkout — I’ve decided to go deep, instead. If I can’t fling myself forward, I’ll lean back. Plus I’m bored.
That same high school class, the once-new world now another sepia-toned memory, started having Zoom reunions and to my surprise, they’ve become a highlight of my quarantine. So I thought I’d try to organize a similar Zoom session for the elementary school crew. I began with a Facebook page, and added the half dozen or so people I’d already friended online. Then we began a search for the rest of us.
We’re at about 15 now. It’s looking like some we may never find, particularly women who changed their last names when they married, or men with common names who’ve avoided social media. But Steve’s last name isn’t a common last name. And he wasn’t hiding somewhere off line.
“Hi Connie,” my friend Sloane wrote me in an email, “I don’t like conveying terrible news but I noticed a while back, when I had checked onto fb, that someone posted that Steve K___ has died (back in 2017). So hard to believe.”
She sent me a link to his obituary in the L.A. Times. There was the same bright smile. He’d had a wife and two daughters. “Steve was a constant jokester and loved to be funny and loved to laugh,” read the obit. “He was the life of the party and made friends wherever he went. Steve loved all sports, reading the paper, and pop culture. He became a die-hard University of Alabama fan when his oldest daughter started college there and was so excited for his youngest daughter to join her sister in Alabama this fall. Steve was beyond proud of his girls.”
It’s been 40 years since I last saw Steve. Almost as many years since I last thought of him in any sustained way. But there I was, staring at the computer screen, thinking no no, please no, no, no…
I knew that the odds were high that not all of us would have survived these four decades. I don’t know which of us I was prepared to lose. No one, I guess. Certainly not him.
It’s going to be a bit of a juggling act, organizing this reunion. Some of us refuse to have anything to do with Facebook, which of course complicates the matter. But we’ll get there, we’ll get there. And when we do, I’m sure it will be a mind-blowing experience, seeing people leapfrog from twelve to 52 years old right before my eyes. But it will be lacking something. That narrow, bright, red thread.
And, you know, damn. The Fonz is always cool. The Fonz is always young. The Fonz is not supposed to die.