Week 15: College Choices

July 9, 2020

Sunrise over Agriculture Hall, Auditorium Road and Hannah Plaza, Michigan State Univerity

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.

Week 16: Lyme

July 7, 2020

Baptist Bible Seminary near Scranton, Pa.

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.

Week 15: The Fonz

July 2, 2020

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.

We’ll miss you, Steve. Heck, we already do.

Week 15: Social?

June 30, 2020

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

I woke up this morning to a text from my 16-year-old daughter. She sent it at 2:15 a.m., which is not itself remarkable: since quarantine began, she regularly goes to sleep at 4 o’clock in the morning, rising for the day around lunchtime.

But she’s usually giggling with her friends in the wee hours. Instead, Sarah was thinking about her week ahead: the picnic lunch she’d planned at the park today with a friend from school, the surprise picnic/birthday party she’s supposed to attend tomorrow, at a different park, for a different friend, and the salon visit to get her hair dyed blonde on Friday. Both picnics involve masks when possible, social distancing at all times. The salon is a single room, vigorously disinfected between clients by the hairstylist, with masks worn by client and stylist.

It’s a great week. But my daughter was panicking. “I just want to do the right thing and I don’t want to hurt anyone, but I also want to be good to myself,” she wrote. Should she cancel one of the events? Two? All three? Sure, she has a Pinterest board devoted solely to different shades of blonde dye jobs (some more yellow, some more ashen, some with roots showing, some without), but maybe she should just skip it?

Ah, coronavirus, you nasty, insidious thing. We are so ready to be done with you, and yet you won’t go. Not only that — you flourish.

Here in California, we recently recorded an all-time, single-day high of 8,000 new cases. Our death count is now at 6,000. If any of us want to travel to the tri-state area (NY, NJ or CT) we have to quarantine for 14 days. The only consolation is we’re not alone. The numbers across this country are so eye-poppingly awful the European Union has banned almost all Americans. And now Dr. Fauci says the nation could see 100,000 new cases each day if we’re not careful.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Look at Europe. Look at Australia. Look at China, for heaven’s sake. But we all know the reasons we’ve gotten to this point, and screaming into the void won’t create leadership where none exists. So instead, I’m just here, trying to cope.

I interviewed a Beverly Hills psychologist last week, for my story about summer camps, who told me as an aside that she’s seeing new levels of anxiety in her clients these days. “Before, when the lock down happened, people were shocked, and there was a fear, and at least with everything being shut down, it was clarity,” she said. “Now that there are options – people are being bombarded with such conflicting messages, and the self doubt comes up. The second guessing is just … it can eat you up inside.”

I can’t tell you this woman’s last name, by the way (her first name is Rachel), because she and some friends are running a camp for their 8-year-olds out of their backyards, and she’s so conflicted about what she’s doing, and the appearance of what she’s doing, that she needs to retreat behind anonymity.

I get it. I totally do. I’ve been seeing my neighbors regularly, going for masked walks with our dogs — around the park, around the school, up and down the nearby streets, endless loops of same-old, same-old sidewalks. It’s the same walks we did before the lockdown. We discuss and analyze the same cast of characters — their families, my family. But this used to be part of my social life. Now there are whole weeks when these walks are my social life, at least the part that happens in person.

Meanwhile, I have another crew of friends from my temple who live a few miles away, and whom I now see mostly on Zoom. Wouldn’t it be totally zany and amazing, I thought, to get together in person? I sent out an email, inviting only the women to cut down on the numbers. I suggested we meet at Rancho Park near the temple, because it’s not my neighborhood park and these days that counts as exotic for me. I proposed we all bring our own picnic lunches and we space ourselves six feet apart. When one of the women said we could sit at the picnic tables, I nixed that for separate folding chairs, pointing out that picnic tables would bring us too close to each other.

At the last minute, two women cancelled. “Tough decision,” one of them texted me, fifteen minutes before we were supposed to meet. “Really want/miss seeing you all.” We ended up with a group of eight, in a circle so wide it could be hard to hear someone talking on the other end. Only a few of us actually ate. One woman wore a mask the entire time. I brought my lunch, then wondered if that somehow put me at greater risk. Of what, I’m not sure. Ingesting coronavirus that otherwise would have floated away?

Four days later and I feel fine. Bullet dodged, if there ever was any bullet at all. And yes, it was lovely to all be together, in person again. But then, here at our house, we barrel on to the next thing. Eli, the middle one, went to an outdoor movie night last night in a friend’s backyard. Tonight, there’s a pool party with a different crew. He swears he wears a mask at all times, and says he thinks he’ll stay out of the pool. “I know I need to cut back on my socializing,” he says, in the same tone he used to promise me in high school that he would work harder at his math homework, or dial down his marijuana consumption. Just like then, there’s always the option of my clamping down. All I’d have to do now is take away the car keys. But… really? I’m going to ground my kid, who spends his days diligently practicing jazz trombone, for spending evenings in sober, small hang outs with high school friends under the watchful eyes of their parents?

Liam, the oldest, is supposed to go to a Fourth of July BBQ in Agoura on Saturday, but with the numbers up, he’s calling the friend who’s hosting it, a list of questions in hand about social distancing.

And the hospital wants Bill back on the wards. The numbers are climbing and they need more doctors. He’ll do either the first or second full week of July.

These days, risk is the air we breathe. I can stand it, moment to moment. You know the drill: now I’m working on this assignment, now I’m talking with this child, now I’m making this dinner. Keep your head down, get through the day. But then I forget, and look up, and all I see on the horizon is more danger and more sheltering and more choices that I can’t make without regretting some part of them. And it feels impossible. Which is nuts, because it’s the only possible option I have.

One bright spot: Sarah got back from the picnic, a big smile on her face, looking forward to tomorrow’s party, ready to rock blonde locks. Some kind of blonde locks. Maybe some roots showing, but not too much roots, and possibly requiring some highlights….

Week 14: Caseload

June 25, 2020

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

Do you ever start to type “2020,” as I just did, find you’ve written “2002” instead, and wish that it wasn’t a typo?

I can’t believe I keep waking up to this year.

I can’t believe we are running from a plague we cannot corral, under the stewardship of a President who would rather rant than lead.

I can’t believe that I spent half of 2008 sending $5 and $10 donations to Barack Obama’s campaign, bopping along to newscasters declaring a “postracial nation,” floating straight through New Year’s on the high of electing the nation’s first black president, only find myself living in a society as racist as any I’ve read about in the history books.

I can’t believe that after the shitshow that was the fall of 2008 and the entire year of 2009, we have allowed so many of our fellow citizens to remain on such a precarious financial edge that this shutdown has instantly thrown them into financial desperation.

I can’t believe that, thanks to this virus, so many people have so little money dropping into their bank accounts, and the federal government is not riding out on a white horse to save them.

And of course, I can’t believe the numbers. The caseloads. The hospitals that are filling up, not in New York this time, but in Texas, Arizona and Florida. Bill tells me the numbers are up at his hospital, too, here in L.A. Can you get your head around this? I know I can’t. Are we supposed to stay in our homes for the foreseeable future? What if I do, and you don’t? What if I’m home and bored, and you’re out and having fun, and I get sick again, and you don’t?

Or what if I can’t stand it anymore either, and go making merry with my friends, and I get sick again and they do, too?

I got tested for antibodies a couple of weeks ago, and it came back negative. That should settle the question, that I didn’t have the virus. But I’m on a FB group for virus lingerers, and just about everyone on there who had a mild case has tested negative for antibodies. I’m pretty slammed with work right now, but one day when I can emerge from all these deadlines, I would love to pitch a story about whether mild COVID cases fly under the antibody radar.

That, though, is in the future. At the moment, I feel pretty decent, as long as I limit my exercise to walking. I’ve also got these pink blotches on my shins that look like someone beat my legs up. Just on the inside. Just up to the knee. The doctors can’t tell me what they are, and since they don’t hurt or itch, I try not to worry about them. They did get darker right before my last relapse, a couple of weeks ago. Right now, they’re pale, so that’s good. Still, don’t expect to see me in shorts any time soon.

But the thought I can’t escape is that I don’t have any detectable antibodies to the coronavirus, so I could get it again. Or, if I’m wrong about all this, for the first time.

Another thing I can’t believe, in a long, long list of them.

Week 14: How to Clean a Home

June 23, 2020

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

I just want to preface this slide show with the sad, but in retrospect unavoidable, result: this did not succeed.

A few weeks ago, I spent half a day of my weekend — those precious 48 hours when I try to stay as far away from my computer as work and household bill paying will allow — working on a PowerPoint for my family about how to clean the house. It wasn’t my idea, mind you, to create a PowerPoint in the first place. I didn’t even know how. But Liam, our oldest, has been having Zoom PowerPoint parties with friends, wherein they make up slides about silly subjects and present them to each other. He’d been trying to get our family to have our own PP evening, and for two weekends in a row, I’d avoided participating.

Meanwhile, Liam entertained us with a presentation on who should play different members of our family in a biopic of Liam’s own life (we do live in L.A., after all). Eli compared jazz greats to different characters in the Avengers. Sarah took us through a tour of Harry Styles’ hair dos. And Bill analyzed three different bike brands, only to discover, to his shock and dismay, that they were all manufactured by the same company (it was a lot funnier in person than it sounds, written out like this).

Finally, it was my turn. As usual, I was stewing about the state of our housekeeper-less house, and the ease with with my offspring lounged about the furniture while I scrubbed toilets and their dad mopped floors. So I created a PowerPoint that I hoped would begin to solve my problem. The good news? The kids loved it. “It was so informative!” Sarah said. “Now I know all about which cleansers to use.” The bad news? I just had to point out to Liam that he may think he cleaned his bathroom, but there’s still work to do when I can see and feel the grime on the faucet. Ah well…

Anyway. On a day when I have a ton of work to do, not a lot of brain space left beyond it, and a house I wish was cleaner, I present to you:

Week 13: Man-on-the-Street

June 18, 2020

Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

I am facing a quandary, one that comes up from time to time in my work as a journalist: how to find average people to interview, who will embody the issues in the story I’m writing?

Years ago, when I worked at local papers, the solution was straightforward, if occasionally excruciating. You’d just leave the office, notebook in hand, and go in search of a place where people were walking around. Then you’d accost complete strangers, introduce yourself and your publication, and pray they would stop walking and talk to you. If they did, I had this long pad of paper, with a spiral at the top, that fit neatly in my palm. As they talked, I scribbled and flipped over pages, scribbled and flipped over pages.

Today, I work from home as a freelance writer. And I mean literally from home. Even before the pandemic grounded me, I rarely did interviews in person anymore. Partly this was because I was talking to people all over the country for national publications. But I also wrote for USC, which often meant just schlepping across town to sit down with one or the other of their professors. If that sounds like a pleasant break from the same four walls, it was. USC has a pretty campus, and the people I interviewed there were even more interesting in person than they were on the phone. But it also meant that a 30 minute discussion could suck up hours of my time, between getting dressed in suitable business attire, driving down the 10 freeway, finding parking, walking back and forth to the office, driving home, getting resettled at the computer, etc. etc. So even in my USC work, whenever I could possibly do an interview by phone, I did.

The internet has made it astoundingly easy to find experts from the comfort of your home office. Seems like I remember. back in the Stone Ages, randomly calling major universities and asking the communications staff to recommend professors to talk to on particular subjects. I couldn’t know if they had done cutting-edge research on the topic, but I would hope that at the very least they would be familiar with the issues, and perhaps recommend other people to interview as well.

Now, like everyone else, I have Google, and Google Scholar, and a host of other services and directories.

But I do miss the days of standing in front of supermarkets, notebook in hand, calling out, “Excuse me? Excuse me?”

I recently got assigned an article about parents sending their kids to summer camps run by teens, because they (the parents) are scared of virus exposure at bigger, regular day camps — or the camps in their area are all closed. I did the usual routine: posted a request on my Facebook feed, as well as to a group for women freelance writers with kids. I got plenty of responses, more really than I need — all of them from upper-middle-class white women.

I made a vow on this blog, a few entries ago, that I would make a conscious effort to interview people who weren’t white, no matter what the topic of the story. For this particular story, the editor has even requested it. But I can’t find the women. I have sent emails to more than half a dozen mothers’ group for black and Latina moms, but only one responded, and that was to tell me they couldn’t help me. I intend to send inquiries to more tonight, tomorrow, and possibly — though I hope I’ve solved this problem by then — into the weekend.

This is a tiny problem, a minuscule problem, really, when black people are getting regularly gunned down by police, and African-American pregnancies are severely impacted by climate change, and it took a Supreme Court decision to ensure that a generation of Dreamers would not be shipped back to their countries of origin because Donald Trump wanted to fire up his base.

But it’s frustrating. And it’s embarrassing, because it points out how racially segregated my life is. I have some friends who are, to throw them all in a broad category, people of color. Some of my best friends, actually, fall in this category. But the majority of my friends are white, and the majority of those are Jewish. It’s comfortable. It’s easy. But it’s not right.

And it’s not at all helpful to me today.

Week 13: Path

June 16, 2020

Photo by Tobi on Pexels.com

I attended a freelance writing seminar this weekend (over Zoom, of course — don’t get too excited), which was mind-blowing in a lot of ways. We got to pitch a series of big-shot editors, including ones from the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Paris Review. About one third of our group of 20 was African-American, and I am still pondering the stories they told and alluded to about the way institutionalized racism impedes their careers.

As I wrote last week, I’m continuing to grapple with the idea of my unearned privilege, and what I can do to advance justice. This weekend gave me even more to consider. I’ve joined a group at my temple that is going to meet once a month, facilitated by a member who has vast, deep experience in social justice movements. I’m told we should be prepared to drag our own prejudices into the harsh light of day and examine how we can make a difference going forward. I’m sure I will have more to report on that in weeks to come.

In the meantime, I’m also thinking about writing for free.

The guy who runs these freelancing workshops is David Hochman, a journalist who writes regularly for major publications and, even more impressively, manages to raise a family in West L.A. on his freelance writing checks. This is the third time I’ve taken one of his UPOD workshops (don’t ask me why the name), and at each one he repeats the same mantra: you should never write for free.

David, actually, has a number of mantras, and mostly I agree with them. For the longest time, I agreed with this one, at least as far as non-fiction went (if you say you will not write fiction until someone pays you for it, then you will never write fiction). I agreed with David up to and including the moment I first sat down to write this blog, almost three months ago. Until March, my work life was bifurcated by the dollar: on one side, the fiction writing that I did for free, out of a compulsion born of misery when I tried to stop; and on the other side, any other writing that I did, for as much money as I could possibly earn while still respecting myself in the morning (to clarify, the respect part isn’t about the money, but about the nature of the work that earns that money).

I started this blog because I was locked up at home and ill with mysterious symptoms and bubbling over with more thoughts on all of it than I could jam into assignments on, say, precautions nursing homes should take during a pandemic, or whether the coronavirus will lead to more cashless payments (both articles I wrote in March). I didn’t think writing the blog was a great way to spend my time, because it wasn’t advancing my novel, and I wasn’t getting paid. But it felt so good, and when my body felt so crappy, that seemed like reason enough.

In some far corner of my mind, I figured that one of two things would happen. I’d either write a few entries, get bored, and move on. Or I’d tap into a vein of hitherto-undiscovered genius, and pen the precise words that would make this pandemic come into focus, and I’d be “discovered.”

Nearly three months out, neither one of these scenarios has come to pass. Some days — many days — I’m sure I have nothing left to say, until I sit down and start typing. I have more followers than when I started (79 as of this count) but nothing like the kind of numbers that translate into book deals.

And still, I keep going, because this blog is the gift that keeps on giving. Since I started writing this blog, I’ve done more work on my novel. I’ve worked better and faster on my articles. I’ve started again keeping an actual journal, by my actual bedside, paper, pen and all. And I even signed up to take this weekend’s pitching seminar, because if I can write into the void twice a week and strike a chord with many of my friends, than maybe, just maybe, I have something worthy to say.

So, yeah, don’t write for free. Don’t do any work for free. Unless it’s art. Or, unless you see a path ahead of you, and it makes no sense to head that way, but something in you urges anyway, go, go, go. You can always turn around and head back. Then again, you never know what you might find.

Week 12: The Virus

June 11, 2020

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

It almost feels indelicate to mention the coronavirus these days.

I don’t mean the debate over wearing a mask. Or whether it’s okay to visit a hair salon. Or even how we will all manage to vote this November during a pandemic.

I mean the actual disease.

It’s beginning to feel like this nation is going to plunge back into economic activity, eyes squeezed shut, hands covering our ears, crying, “No matter! No matter!” while quietly, on the sidelines, our fellow citizens are carted away, coughing, to the hospitals. Here in California, we’re opening up movie theaters. In Texas, you can get a mani-pedi . Arizona will soon be holding Trump rallies. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 caseloads in all three states are on the rise.

“There is a new wave coming in parts of the country,” Eric Toner, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told Bloomberg News this week. “It’s small and it’s distant so far, but it’s coming.”

This isn’t to say that I think we should continue indefinitely in a lock down state. That’s becoming an untenable situation, impacting mental as well as fiscal health. Just consider this one statistic — in Nevada alone, 54 percent of small businesses reported in April that they faced immediate or near-term crisis, putting 500,000 jobs in jeopardy. That’s from a study conducted by the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, in conjunction with the Brookings Institute.

Or there’s this number: 1,000 percent. That’s how much texts to a government mental health hotline were up this April, compared to the same time last year.

But pretending the virus isn’t lurking among us, darting invisibly from one unsuspecting person to the next, is folly. Yet that’s exactly what some of us — many of us? — seemed determined to do.

In Orange County, just south of where I live in L.A., the county health commissioner so angered residents that some showed up at the Board of Supervisor’s meeting with a poster of her face, on which they’d added Hitler’s mustache and swastikas. Her crime? Mandating masks in public. She’s since resigned.

In Arizona, cases of COVID-19 have spiked 115 percent since the state’s stay-at-home orders ended on May 15. The state’s health director told hospitals to “fully activate” emergency plans. Banner Health, Arizona’s largest non-profit and its largest health system, tweeted on Monday that “our ICUs are very busy caring for the sickest of the sick who are battling COVID-19. Since May 15, ventilated COVID-19 patients have quadrupled.” (the Banner Twitter feed is a remarkable example of a health system begging people to change their behavior).

There’s a number of people in Arizona asking if it’s time for a second shutdown. Not the governor though. Gov. Doug Ducey said in a press conference today that “the virus is not going away … we need to learn to live with it.” He also disputed claims that the state’s health care system was not up to the task.

“We want to reassure the public we have available bed capacity, and surge plans in place,” said Ducey. Not only are hospitals prepared, he added but “we have a lot of ventilators available in Arizona.”

Meanwhile, Trump announced rallies in Florida, Arizona, Oklahoma and North Carolina. They’ll be just like the olden days, with one exception: by clicking register, attendees waive their right to sue the campaign or the venue if they contract the virus at the event.

People! This virus is no flu. It is not a bad cold. It is a disease storm the likes of which I don’t remember in my lifetime, and which we’re only barely beginning to understand. Today is the 84th day since I fell ill with what I presume was the novel coronavirus. I’m still recovering from my rash decision yesterday to attempt a 15 minute workout, followed two hours later by a walk around the nearby elementary school, about a mile roundtrip, all of it on flat ground. By the time I neared the house, I was yawning and coughing and I felt like you do when you have a mask on your face and you’re a little out breath and need to pull it down. Only, I’d already pulled my mask down.

Today I’ve sat in the house all day. I don’t feel great, but thank heavens the cough has receded and my lungs feel expansive again. I do have these pink blotches, about the size of a drop of a water, on my shins, and no one can explain to me what they are. They don’t itch and they don’t feel like anything, but when I’m tired or rundown, they get darker. My main issue with them is they unnerve me. Every time I look at my legs, I remember that something in my body is not yet okay.

But I’m mild. I’m in a FB group (“COVID-19 Support Group (have it/had it)” if you’re interested) and a Slack channel dedicated to what I call COVID lingerers — those of us who aren’t back to normal long after we were supposed to be fine again. Many people in there are much worse than me. Some have had fevers for literally weeks on end. I mean, can you even?

I read an inspiring article in the New Yorker this week about how people in Iceland can go around without masks or worry, because through aggressive testing, contact tracing and quarantining, health authorities there have tamed the virus into submission. I still can’t believe that this great, big, advanced country of ours can’t master contact tracing on any kind of small or large scale. Like, it makes me want to stomp around my house, raging, waving my fists in the air. How is it even possible we’re in this level of mess right now?

But we are, and there’s no use ignoring it. It would be great if the government would swoop in and save us, but it looks like the folks in Washington are on to other things.

We can’t stay home forever. And yet, the world out there is no less dangerous than it was in March. So wear your masks. And stay six feet apart. And wash and wash and wash your hands.

The virus isn’t a killjoy, and it isn’t yesterday’s news, and it isn’t an economic burden. It’s a virus, and — trust me — as bored and frustrated as you are, you don’t want to get it.

Gov. Doug Ducey

Week 12: Privilege

June 9, 2020

Photo by Ivan Bertolazzi on Pexels.com

I know the internet is chock-full of silly quizzes, and I know I take them at my peril. Still, when this Buzzfeed quiz on privilege rolled up on my Facebook feed last week, I thought, hmm….

It’s one of those quizzes where you are supposed to post your results to Facebook. If you follow me on there, and don’t remember seeing my score, no worries, I didn’t post it. I was too embarrassed.

This is what popped up after I hit “calculate”:

You live with 75 out of 100 points of privilege.

You’re among the most privileged people in the world. We don’t live in an ideal world, but you happened to be born into an ideal lot. 

Good heavens. And I think my life is tough (I mean, not all the time, but I’m totally known to fly off the handle for what seem to me in the moment very good reasons).

I’ve been sitting on this declaration for days, thinking about it, turning it over in my head. It wasn’t exactly a surprise. I grew up white and Jewish in a wealthy household with both of my biological parents. I went to private high school, and a top public university. I only worked in college for pocket change.

I’ve always either worked or been supported by someone who has. Never known hunger and had only fleeting moments of economic insecurity. Today, thanks in no small part to my parents, who gave us a down payment, my husband and I live in a home we own, with a mortgage payment that is within our means, in a neighborhood that is safe and charming. And I’ve never in my life had to lie about my sexuality or any other part of my identity. Sometimes, I don’t mention that I’m Jewish, and it’s easy for me to pass because neither my last name nor my coloring is particularly Semitic. But I don’t think that really counts.

So, yeah, serious privilege.

It’s tempting now to list all the ways I’ve been unfortunate, to counter that damning conclusion. But that’s how we distract ourselves, I think. Everyone has their moments when Lady Fortune decides to go on holiday. What’s significant is the structure around life’s struggles, and mine is, I guess, unusually solid.

So I’ve been asking myself questions, the same ones I’ve asked of myself for years, only in light of the recent protests and national discussion around race and privilege, and my own privilege quiz score, with more-than-usual urgency: what do I owe the world because of how much I’ve been given? How best to repay that debt?

And maybe, most elemental of all: am I even aware of my privilege? When I’m not — because who ever does go around, consistently aware — whose souls do I trample upon?

This is no idle question, as I write for pay. For the last few years, I’ve written dozens of articles, for the same personal finance website, about credit scores, credit cards, and any and all other things credit-related. It took me until this week, and listening to a New Yorker podcast, to realize that I’d framed all these articles with “white” as the default experience.

At times, I’ve tried to bring in a diversity of views, particularly when I’m writing about personal finance advice. There are a lot of people out there, of all different backgrounds, doling out this kind of wisdom (although, come to think of it, most of them trace their financial awakening to Dave Ramsey, a cisgender white male, which is a framing problem in itself).

But I’m wrapping up work tomorrow on a story I’ve reported, on and off, for weeks, about small business financial struggles during this time of COVID-19. I didn’t ask about anyone’s skin color, but I am almost positive that everyone I interviewed for that story was white. Most of them were male. I didn’t do that because I didn’t care about other experiences. I did it because it was easy, and I was trying to be “efficient” with my time, and those were the names that popped up first, and sometimes repeatedly, when I did my Google searches.

What’s horrifying isn’t that it happened with that one article. Or that it goes on with most of my articles. What’s horrifying is that it’s true of most articles, by most reporters, most of the time.

I don’t know that I can even turn my own habits around in reporting on next week’s article, transform myself into a paragon of enlightened journalism because Now I Know. It’s hard and time-consuming and energy intensive, to do the work differently, and frankly, they only pay me just so much. But I vow to try. Really, it’s the least I can do.

I’ve also been thinking about an exchange this week I had over Messenger, with Jennifer, a yoga teacher of mine who is African-American. We’ve only been in touch sporadically since the lockdown, though I used to see her every Sunday, at her class at the YMCA. I reached out over the weekend to let her know I was thinking about her, and to see how she was doing. This is what she wrote back:

This week has been a mix of emotions from hate to hope and everything in between. It’s surreal. Definitely not freeing because there’s a long way to go to be free of the weight I have carried in this country and I don’t trust people really get it.

I’m sure I don’t. I don’t know that I ever will. But I will try, at least, to listen.

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P.S. I’m going to be attending a Zoom seminar for freelance writers this weekend, and one of the guest speakers is an African-American journalist who’s started a newsletter to chronicle how the coronavirus is impacting her community. I urge you to take a look, and consider subscribing. If it’s your jam, you may even consider supporting her work with a small monthly donation (she’s set up a Patreon account).