Week 22: How to Drive Yourself Crazy Buying a Car Long Distance

August 25, 2020

Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

I have not been this stressed in a while.

A week and a day ago, I still believed that our middle child, Eli, would be moving into his dorm at Michigan State University this Friday.

Then we found out the school would be completely online, and the dorms would be closed to all but the neediest students. So maybe Eli would stay home. But then he and three friends got together and decided to rent a house. Only they couldn’t find a house. They thought as musicians they’d be too noisy for an apartment building — until they learned the practice rooms on campus would be open. So they looked for an apartment together. But all the four bedroom apartments turned out to be in buildings run by a company that has one-star ratings on Yelp (good job, Eli, checking that out before we signed a lease!). All seemed lost — until they realized they could split up, and rent a pair of two-bedroom apartments in the same building.

Saturday morning, he and his friend Juan (sax player, Florida) signed a lease on a two-bedroom, and Emma (bass, Sacramento) and Andrew (piano, South Dakota) committed to its twin in a neighboring building, after Emma’s dad checked out one of the units, because luckily, he happens to be in the area right now, tending to his mother who lives in Michigan.

The rent must be high for this part of the country, because from the pics, Eli will have a nicer kitchen than we do out here (this is not a super-high bar; our kitchen dates from 1952, but still, granite counter tops for a kid who just learned how to make tuna salad on Monday?). Anyway, it’s done. He has a place to live.

But that turned out to be only the start of our worries. He needs a bed. A frying pan. Dishes. Forks. Something to sit on. A way to vacuum the wall-to-wall carpet. A toilet brush, so that I can have the fantasy he will clean the bathroom from time to time. Oh, and a car. He’s 1.7 miles from campus, where he will need to go to practice, apparently, and the already-sketchy bus service has been further reduced due to the pandemic. Juan, the roommate, has a car, but they don’t know how their schedules will mesh.

I’m sure there are more challenging tasks in life, but that said, it is NOT easy trying to buy a used car in Michigan when you live in California. I know what you’re thinking — why not let Eli deal with it when he arrives? This is a perfectly sensible question. And here’s the honest answer: he’s already pretty stressed about this entire new life he finds himself in. All day long, he’s twitching, or tapping his fingers, or juggling his leg when he sits. He’s not there, in more ways than one.

Okay, that’s fine, I’ve bought numerous cars in my day, new and used. I’m up for the task. But here’s the big surprise: there are hardly any cars to be found. You find a used car with reasonable mileage, at a low price? You’d better be on that lot within the hour, cash in hand, or it is gone. I’ve literally never seen anything like this. One salesman told me this all goes back a few months, to the stimulus checks the government mailed out this spring. Lots of people, apparently, decided to use them to buy or lease cars. But because the automakers had shut down production due to the virus, there were no new cars coming onto the lots. So when buyers ran out of new cars, they started buying used. Meanwhile, people who wanted new cars, or who wanted to exchange older leased models for a brand new lease, were unable to do so, further limiting the used car inventory.

Here’s what this looks like in practice: I find a 2010 Honda CR-V with 65,000 miles on it and an excellent service record. It seems rather over-priced, but I’m confident I can bid them way down. I find a nearby mechanic who says he can look over the car for me, then I call the dealership to arrange the drop off at the mechanic’s shop. This is at 11 a.m. my time, yesterday. The guy says he’ll ring up the mechanic, then call me back. By 1:45 p.m., I still haven’t heard from him, so I call the salesman back. Someone’s looking at the car. By evening it’s sold. I ask about the 2009 on the lot, the one with 106,000 miles. Sold too, yesterday, but they haven’t had time to take it down online. I bet. Busy, busy over there.

I find an old Subaru at a different dealer, and call the next morning. Someone is just signing on the dotted line for that one, as we speak. Then the salesman for the 2010 Honda calls me back. Yesterday’s deal fell through. Am I still interested? Yes! Okay, he says, he’ll call me right back. When an hour passes, then two, I know what’s happened. It sold again, even as we were discussing it on the phone.

Meanwhile, have I worked? Have I caught up on my emails? Have I phoned GE to find out why our refrigerator says the water filter is 10 days expired, but its automatic replacement has not shown up in the mail? No, no and no (though as I write this, I realize the missing filter may be less about GE and more about the Post Office under President Trump).

I went on a dog walk with my friend Uttara today and talked her ear off about this car thing for a good 15 minutes before it occurred to me that I am trying to buy a car at one of the worst possible moments of the year, if not of the decade, and that Eli could simply make do until October. That’s when one of the salesmen told me the new cars will start arriving in dealerships again, freeing up the entire system. So unless some amazing deal falls into our lap, I informed Eli at lunchtime, we have officially put car buying on ice until later in the fall.

That gave me a moment to fire off a few emails for an article, and then turn to the next important matter at hand: the apartment itself. This was a walk in the park compared to the cars. Eli plopped down in a chair next to me, and we bought a mattress that will rest on a black wooden platform that the saleswoman at the local mattress store convinced him will be the essence of cool (I’m convinced there’s something in it for them, but I couldn’t figure out what). They’re delivering it the afternoon of the day he arrives in East Lansing. Then we went on the Bed Bath and Beyond site and bought pans and sheets and plates and a few other things that seemed essential. His friend Josh can take him there after he picks him up at the airport, and they can get it all curbside. The store was out of flatware, but Eli said don’t worry, he’ll make do with plastic for awhile. And a colander, as critical as it seemed to me for a pasta lover like himself, was something he says he can figure out down the line, along with a toaster and a trash can.

I was hoping — I crossed and double-crossed my fingers — that I was now done with my part of the move to an apartment in the Upper Midwest.

Then Eli came home from an errand and said he understood about waiting on the car buying thing, he totally got it. But he was stressed, worrying about how he would get around East Lansing when he was too scared to use Uber or Lyft, due to the virus. He didn’t want to be a burden on his friends. He didn’t think it was safe to try to ride a bike with the trombone strapped to his back. He was so, so stressed.

I saw where this was headed. I fired up my internet browser and typed in http://www.edmunds.com. Three hours later and we’re looking at cutting a check tomorrow to Dunning Toyota of Ann Arbor for a 2017 Toyota Corolla with 28K miles on it.

It’s a newer car than we planned on, but it turns out that if he gets Michigan insurance, they don’t ding you for newer model cars there like they do in California. Plus, the cost of the auto insurance in Michigan is less than half of what it would be here in L.A. It’s also a pricier car than we planned to get, but with all the money we’re saving on insurance, we can afford it.

So that’s it, right? I’m just about done with all this apartment stuff? All this spending, throwing the money away so fast it’s like the stuff is on fire and I’m trying not to burn my hands.

Well, after I get him renter’s insurance.

Then comes the hard part. We have to say good-bye.

Day 46: Georgia

May 12, 2020

Photo by Lum3n on Pexels.com

There’s this lady I interview frequently about debt and personal finance. She’s smart and articulate, plus she gives great quotes. I always enjoy talking to her.

We never talked about where we lived. Until today, comparing notes on our coronavirus experience. Turns out she lives in Georgia. And that, it seems, means we live in two different universes.

Here in L.A., the trails and beaches are opening, and I can do a drive-by skirt purchase, for whatever that’s worth. Otherwise, we’ll almost certainly be staying at home until mid-August. Many of the college students will be home even longer. The Cal State system just announced it’s cancelling most in-person classes and going online in the fall.

Meanwhile, in a suburb of Atlanta, the personal finance expert is weighing whether and how to venture out. This week she went to Target (an adventure also available to me). Next week, she’s getting a pedicure. What she’d really love to do is sit down at the salon and get her hair cut and colored — if that isn’t too risky.

“Things are opening up around here,” she said. “We’re all wearing masks and being careful.”

Of course, she added, you have to be more careful if you live somewhere like me. Somewhere like Los Angeles, where the number of cases keeps going up, and up. “I’m in an area where it’s not too active,” she said of the virus.

But is that true? And should it even matter to me, what she and her fellow Georgians get right or wrong?

On the one hand, no. I’m going to continue to stay at home, no matter what she does or doesn’t do. And she lives thousands of miles away. Airplanes are practically grounded. No one’s doing road trips. It won’t be easy for her germs to get to my city.

On the other hand, almost no one alive today has lived through a pandemic before. And humanity has never faced a pandemic with this level of information at our fingertips. We have no idea what will happen when we decide to quarantine indefinitely.

So is the Georgia way better? Is it even comparable, or is she right — she’s safer there than I am here?

There’s no straight answer to that question. There’s this:

Georgia has had a relatively consistent number of daily new cases since April 24. In this period, the seven-day average of the number of new cases per day has only been as low as 628 and as high 769, and the overall trend remains relatively steady.

From the CNN website today

But the state also has a new COVID-19 hot spot, among the Latino community in a town called Gainesville. The disease has been hitting black and brown communities in Georgia especially hard — 80 percent of all coronavirus hospitalizations in Atlanta are African-American.

Also, a new study out of Georgia Tech predicts a second rise in the state’s coronavirus cases, sometime between early June and August, if residents don’t continue to practice social distancing. “I hope that many people in Georgia, wherever they are, continue the social distancing, the physical distancing to the extent it’s possible,” a Georgia Tech researcher told Fox 5 news in Atlanta.

Basically, our governor has told us what to do. Theirs is leaving the decision up to each individual. It’s so hard, though, to figure it out for yourself. My Georgia source figures if she goes to a nail salon and just has them work on her feet — only a pedi, no mani — she should be okay. But this article I read last night would argue otherwise. It’s not just about the person who’s painting her toenails. It’s about sitting for a half hour or more in one room filled with many other workers and patrons, any one of whom could have the virus. Think about it: when you go to the market, you’re in a large space through which you’re moving pretty much constantly. In a nail salon, the room is much smaller, and you’re exposed to the same group of people for longer periods of time.

Still, I get her logic — and her fear. “Just because things are open, doesn’t mean I’m going there,” she said. “I really need a haircut — but I’m holding out. A little while longer.”

I wish that were all it would take. Another week or two, and “normal” will return. Maybe the virus truly does spread more slowly in her suburb, where she says the houses are spread out and neighbors were distanced before social distancing ever became a thing. Maybe it doesn’t, but it doesn’t matter, because they’ve decided what reality is, and it doesn’t look like ours out here.

I don’t understand how we can both be living in the same country. And that does matter. It feels lately like it’s starting to matter more and more.

Day 39: Normal

May 5, 2020

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels.com

I’m writing today, as I have every day lately, from my dining room table. Behind me is a window twice my size, that looks out onto a world I more observe than inhabit.

But the opening is coming! So I read in the papers. So I see in the news. We’ll get back to business, our President promises. “Normal” will return again.

“Normal,” hand in hand with the coronavirus. Whatever that looks like.

I have no idea what the right path forward is. California’s governor is inching us into more economic activity, and that may be a good thing. As I wrote yesterday, I don’t know that we can live like this forever.

But here’s the conversation so many of us aren’t having: what are we willing to accept in exchange for a paycheck? In a swap for profits?

I just read an op-ed in the New York Times that wonders if our response to the continuing pandemic will come to resemble our reaction to gun violence fatalities.

“The coronavirus scenario I can’t stop thinking about,” wrote Charlie Warzel in the Times, “is the one where we simply get used to all the dying.”

It’s not such a fantastical scenario. The Times reported today that the Trump administration is discussing winding down the White House Coronavirus Task Force; as Trump himself toured a mask manufacturing plant in Phoenix, wearing safety goggles but no mask (like his VP, when he toured the Mayo clinic last week); and where he responded to a reporter’s question about the task force’s possible demise by saying, “”I think we are looking at Phase 2, and we are looking at other phases” of the pandemic.

Of course, Trump is only leading the way. From Florida to Georgia to Iowa, states are lifting quarantine orders. There’s also a cresting frustration in conservative swaths of this state. On Friday, a 24-hour fitness studio called the Gym, in Victorville, Calif., opened for business in defiance of the state’s mandate, with an 8-foot by 10-foot printout of the Constitution posted by the front door.

“This virus is political,” the Gym’s owner, Jacob D. Lewis, told the Los Angeles Times. “It comes down to our civil rights. There’s one thing that people in power forget, one thing that makes us all the same, and that’s the Constitution.

“They can’t force us to shut our doors,” he continued. “We did it voluntarily in the beginning because they hyped it so much, but guess what? They lied to us.”

Meanwhile, the number of COVID-19 cases nationwide continued to climb. And Riverside County, which contains Victorville, has the second-highest caseload in the state. At 4,354, it’s a fraction of the 28,000-plus cases in Los Angeles County, but more than double the 1,760 cases in San Francisco.

I can imagine an alternative path, one in which we continue to expand testing and demand people wear masks in public while staying home, in private spaces, as much as they can. Meanwhile, we ramp up our contact tracing abilities and invest in a great antibody test, like the one produced by Roche. Once our case numbers come down to a level officials deem acceptable, then we open up, slowly, testing for antibodies so we know who is safe to wander about, while continuing to test for new infections, and then tracing down and quarantining those who came in contact with the ill person.

It’s not a perfect solution, not by a long shot. Even if we have the best antibody test possible, we still don’t know what those antibodies mean. Do they confer immunity? If so, for how long? Also, we’ve burnt up so much precious time this winter and spring not investing in testing, not producing enough masks or hand sanitizer or PPE or any of the other items we need to prevent virus transmission, that we arrived in May hobbled by an economic crisis unlike any I’ve seen before in my lifetime, while here in LA and around most of the nation, more and more people are falling ill. I don’t fault our mayor or our governor, who did the best they could with the tools they had. But it’s also true that the people have been patient, and thanks to bungling at the highest levels, we don’t have enough progress to show for our sacrifices.

I realize I may be ruffling feathers here, and I’m sorry for anyone I’ve upset. But my husband is a doctor, and if we as a nation decide we’re not going to worry about the coronavirus, well, he won’t have that luxury. It’ll be in his exam room and in the ER and in the hospital. He will be exposed to it again and again and again, in a way he’s so far avoided thanks to the quick and decisive actions of our state and local leaders.

And anyway, I don’t know if any of us have that luxury. I just read today about a Ralph’s supermarket in Hollywood where 21 of the 158 employees have tested positive for the virus. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t be in much of a hurry to shop there now. If we loose our controls, if we turn our backs on this virus, return to life as we used to live it, the virus won’t just creep away. It will creep inside us. That’s what viruses do. And then where will we be? And how will we function?

Day 38: Stuck

May 4, 2020

Photo by Wendy Wei on Pexels.com

I feel like I should be celebrating. Our governor, Gavin Newsom, just announced the easing of some stay-at-home rules, starting as early as the end of the week.

We’ll be able to buy clothes and flowers and basketballs from actual stores. Okay, they’ll have to bring purchases to the curb (I think that’s what he’s saying). But it’s a start. It’s like cracking the window and letting in the spring air after a long, hard winter.

But I’ve spent today intent on the virus. Not in the general sense, either; in the specific. In the way it refuses to leave my body.

I’ve tried so hard to be patient and thoughtful, to treat my health with the careful, ginger touch befitting an antique China doll.

But still, the virus comes back.

If I walk up Mar Vista hill, it comes back.

If I do a 15 minute exercise video, and then two days later do a 20 minute exercise video, it comes back.

If something stressful happens, it comes back.

If I eat food that aggravates my delicate stomach, it comes back.

If the plants bloom in the garden outside my bedroom, and my allergies flare, it comes back.

I don’t mean to say I’m lying around all the time, curled up on the couch, shivering and aching from head to toe, like when this first started. I’ve never popped a fever. I’ve never been short of breath.

But I still get some body aches and some headaches and some fatigue and some chest pain. Sometimes I wake up at 3 a.m. and my stomach hurts and I want to throw up and I’m wondering if I should head to the bathroom, only I’m so dizzy I end up lying there, debating which is more likely, vomiting or tripping. Sometimes — well, this morning — I finally got out of bed and stuck my finger into a pulse oximeter because my chest felt like someone slid a corset around it and pulled and the little device said 93 — which is just a touch too low.

But then I had some tea and puttered about the kitchen, and about three quarters of an hour later, I tried the device again and it now showed a perfect pulse ox of 99. The nausea drifted away, coaxing the dizziness along with it. The chest and body and head aches diminished, until they were mere whispers of their former selves, just a tension I only noticed if I stopped to inquire of myself.

It turns out I’m not alone in this. The prevailing wisdom is a mild case of the coronavirus should span no more than two weeks, before disappearing into the ether, like any other cold or flu. But like so much else with this virus, the prevailing wisdom is a pastiche of observation and wishful thinking. It may also be more appropriate for men than for women.

The South Korean government has been tracking relapse cases of COVID-19. Out of the 163 people they are following, 109 (or two-thirds) are women.

Another risk factor for relapse may be a pre-existing condition. I’ve had Lyme disease in the past, which may or may not be active these days (my understanding is it’s impossible to tell, because my positive Western Blot test only confirms that I was exposed, not that I’m still fighting the infection). But the one gift the Lyme seems to have left behind was a case of IBS that can flare to truly epic proportions. I’m working with physicians and therapists and herbalists on changing things, but at the moment, a dinner with onions and garlic will keep me up with stomach pain half the night.

A woman who struggled to recover from the coronavirus created a Slack group for others like her; when she surveyed her members, two-thirds reported having a pre-existing condition, such as seasonal allergies or asthma.

I joined this Slack group today, as well as a similar group on Reddit. While it is alarming to see channels like #60plus-days, there’s comfort in seeing I’m not alone, and, as appalling as it sounds, in reading about people who are worse off than I am. Day 40 of a fever, anyone?

To get this sickness is to tumble into a world of conjecture, where prayer feels nearly as potent as medicine.

I keep thinking about this woman, Laurie Garrett, whom Frank Bruni interviewed for his column in yesterday’s New York Times. She’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who’s been predicting a pandemic like this for years now. She pictures the pandemic coming in waves, hitting Houston this time, Boston the next, going and going and going on.

“I’ve been telling everybody that my event horizon is about 36 months, and that’s my best-case scenario,” she told Bruni.

What we don’t know about this virus could fill Donald Trump’s White House and spill out onto the South Lawn. Whatever we do, however we go forward from here, we need to remember that. Surprises lie ahead. Danger lies ahead. But it seems like we have to try. Doesn’t it?

On a side note, I’m not sure how often I will continue to write this blog once the world starts to open up again. I think I will keep it going, at least for awhile, but possibly not every day. Like with everything else, we’ll just have to see how it goes.

Day 29: Jabberwocky

April 23, 2020

Lewis Carroll

These days!

When have we ever seen anything like these days?

When I dare to look up from my daily grind, I wonder if I’m living a nonsense version of my life.

Like, take my iPhone calendar. It keeps issuing reminders of phantom events. “The Antipodes MT,” it announces. “April 25, 2020 at 2:30 p.m.”

Also, “Calculus Camp, Today.”

These two events actually were not supposed to co-exist. Our 16-year-old goes to a public school that takes Advanced Placement exams very seriously — a little too seriously, I tend to think. But one silver lining to this obsession is that the teachers actually drive all calculus students up to the San Bernardino Mountains, east of the city, for a four-day calculus extravaganza every April. In between lessons, the kids get to hang out in nature and with each other, plus they snag Calculus Camp sweatshirts to wear proudly back at school. Plus they tend to pass the exam.

Since our two boys were supposed to be away, one at college in Michigan and one studying abroad in Ghana, that meant my husband and I would have three nights to ourselves. It’s our 25th wedding anniversary on May 6th, and we’d talked about going away somewhere this weekend, even just overnight. I had dreams of Terranea.

That, of course, conflicted with “The Antipodes.” We have season tickets, with our neighbors Dave and Cheryl, to the Mark Taper Forum. For years, Cheryl and I would walk our dogs and talk about all the great cultural events we would attend if not for the soccer games at the park, or the child who needed a ride to a birthday party. Finally, last year, I called her up and said the time had come. We’ve seen more than half a dozen plays since then, most of them dramas on their national tour after a stint on Broadway. My husband’s been saying he wants tickets to musicals or the Philharmonic next year. Enough with all this Sturm und Drang. But for me, it’s been a dream.

See, this is the kind of problem I used to deal with: remembering to call the Taper and exchange our Antipodes tickets for a different weekend.

Today, the Terranea’s website says the resort, out of the typical “abundance of caution,” is closed. So is the Taper.

I have no idea what “The Antipodes” is about but I would give my eye teeth to go downtown this weekend and see it performed. Every time the reminder comes up on my phone, I salivate.

I used to jot down every appointment on my virtual calendar, because if I didn’t, I’d forget. I even had color codes — yellow for family, blue for me, red for work appointments and deadlines. I still punch in things now and then, but it’s more out of habit than anything else. There isn’t that much going on in my life. I tend to remember what’s coming.

But the calendar was about more than just ensuring I didn’t miss an engagement. I mean, I thought that was the purpose. Now I understand — it was also a way of marking the future. Like a dog lifting its leg to pee on a tree, I was claiming the next day, week, month as mine, and knowable.

I don’t know anything anymore. Our governor says we’re not close to meeting criteria for reopening the state, so he can’t give us a date. But c’mon. Are we looking at weeks? Months?

This is absurd. It’s like living in a Samuel Beckett play, issuing pronouncements that don’t make sense in the real world, waiting on something that’s in no rush to come, if it comes at all.

Because — well, I don’t mean to rain on anybody’s parade here folks, but if it’s occurred to me, it must have occurred to you: what if normal never returns? What if this starts a cascade of events that changes our lives forever?

See, here I go again, trying to know the future by imagining the worst. But the worst I can imagine is rarely what comes to pass. Instead, it’s something else.

There’s this poem I used to love as a kid, called “Jabberwocky,” by Lewis Carroll (he of Alice in Wonderland fame). It’s a poem that almost makes sense, but not quite. You feel like if you squint and look at it just so, its odd pieces will fall into place. Only you can never get the angle of the squint quite right.

These days, I think, are Jabberwocky days. That’s the only way they make any kind of sense at all.

In case you don’t remember it, or if hasn’t yet graced your life, I’m going to let Lewis Carroll and his nonsense poem take us out today:

Jabberwocky

BY LEWIS CARROLL

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
      And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
      The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
      The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand;
      Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree
      And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
      The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
      And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
      The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
      He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
      Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
      He chortled in his joy.

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
      And the mome raths outgrabe.

Day 22: Letters of Transit

April 16, 2020

Last night, we sat down with our kids to see “Casablanca.” Not all three kids — the middle one took a pass. He often takes a pass. This is how he missed seeing “Come From Away” at the Ahmanson two Decembers ago, a theatrical experience the other four of us still gush about with wonder.

But I digress.

So there we were, me and the 16-year-old and the 21-year-old curled up on the couch, my possibly-COVID husband relegated to another option (he vacillated between the floor and an ottoman). And maybe it was because we kept pausing the movie to explain plot details to the 16-year-old (while her older brother rolled his eyes and threatened, “If she needs to stop one more time, I’m leaving” — but she did, and he didn’t). Or maybe I’ve finally seen this thing so many times that I can get beyond wondering what Ingrid Bergman would’ve looked like without soft focus, and sighing over the tragedy of thwarted love.

But for the first time, I understood in a visceral way the relief those characters must have felt to land in Casablanca, and yet, the burning desire, even need, they had to leave.

Until this virus landed in my community, I’d never been stalked by an enemy before. I thought my dreams of Nazis chasing me sort of counted. I thought the fear I felt the night of September 11, 2001, looking up into a Los Angeles sky brightened only by starlight, wondering if my city would be next — I thought that counted.

No, it didn’t. Not for me, anyway. But now I know what it’s like to find my society up against something implacable and potentially lethal. To make a rough correlation, the outside is Vichy France. My home is Casablanca. It’s safe — for now. I can afford to stay here — for now. There are adequate provisions — for now. But I want — we all want — to get to safety.

That war, when it caught you in its crosshairs, was so much deadlier than this virus. But it was ungainlier, couldn’t travel with the same smooth, voracious ease.

President Trump wants to open up the nation as soon as possible — May 1st, or even earlier for some locales, he reportedly told governors on a phone call today. I confess, I am usually knee-jerk negative on all things Trump. And of course, this nation remains woefully unprepared to confront this pandemic, short as we are on testing, and ventilators, and ICU beds, and ill-equipped as we are to do proper contact tracing.

But what is our alternative? Here in California, we are what’s considered a raging COVID success story. “State’s scariest virus scenarios finally yield to ray of optimism,” read the headline in this morning’s LA Times. “Coronavirus cases in California may be peaking, models show, provided we stick with social distancing.” (italics are mine)

That means everything — so many lives saved — and nothing. I don’t understand how we keep doing this. I see friends posting on Facebook that neither they nor their spouse have had any income for a month. Two, three, four months like this seems unsustainable.

In such moments, I turn to my younger brother, who loves numbers. When he was a kid, he’d grab the sports section each morning and lie on his stomach on the den carpet, the paper spread out before him to the stats section, chewing up the numbers in his head, breaking them down. Today, with business in the doldrums, he fills his time scouring the internet for COVID-19 spread data. Sometimes he sends me what he finds. (Sometimes he makes graphs of infection rates by region, country or state. I’m trying to get him to make a few that I can share here, but so far, he’s a no go.)

Yesterday, he sent me this link. As of today, the New York state infection rate is 11,530 per one million people. California’s is 704. Sure, we can re-open this state, but whether we inch forward, or throw ourselves a big “return to normalcy” party, we still must grapple with the intractable fact that most of us remain unexposed to the virus and don’t have immunity.

But are New Yorkers much better off? Definitely, there are a lot more people in the five boroughs that have survived COVID-19 than in Los Angeles. But we still don’t know what that hard-won exposure is worth in immunity. I came across a study in Science Magazine the other day that sent chills down my spine. The authors — Harvard University professors — explained that viral immunity could be anywhere from five years or more to a handful of months. We just don’t know. And, they added, what’s going on now may not be the worst we’re going to see. I’m just going to quote from their paper here, because they explain it better than me:

One-time social distancing efforts may push the SARS-CoV-2 epidemic peak into the autumn, potentially exacerbating the load on critical care resources if there is increased wintertime transmissibility. Intermittent social distancing might maintain critical care demand within current thresholds, but widespread surveillance will be required to time the distancing measures correctly and avoid overshooting critical care capacity. New therapeutics, vaccines, or other interventions such as aggressive contact tracing and quarantine – impractical now in many places but more practical once case numbers have been reduced and testing scaled up (43) – could alleviate the need for stringent social distancing to maintain control of the epidemic. In the absence of such interventions, surveillance and intermittent distancing (or sustained distancing if it is highly effective) may need to be maintained into 2022, which would present a substantial social and economic burden.

“Projecting the transmission dynamics of SARS-CoV-2 through the postpandemic period,” Science Magazine, April 14, 2020

In other words, if this doesn’t work out right, we could be asked to do this for two more years. But we can’t. Can we? People who had solid lives will lose their homes. People won’t have money for food. And will the food even be there? What of our vaunted supply chains, when the virus keeps striking and striking, and we keep shutting down in response?

Just like Victor Laszlo and his soft-focus Ilsa, we all just want safety. We sit here on uncomfortable bar stools in Casablanca, throwing back our cocktails, trying to figure out how to get letters of transit so we can leave this beautiful hellhole.

Remember, in “Casablanca,” security was only an illusion. It was a free French territory, but the Germans kept finding ways to convert life to death. And so we wait in our homes, while the economy crumbles, and we’re “safe” — maybe from the virus, probably not from the economic damage being wrought all around us.

We want safe passage. But maybe there’s no entirely safe passage through this thing.

Day 15: Passover

April 9, 2020

Is it ungrateful to be sad?

Is it unreasonable — after not one but two carefully planned Seders, full of dear friends and family who smiled and sang and reached deep inside themselves to offer up truth over the Cloud — to feel grief at the memory of what once was, and the glimpse of what could have been these last two nights?

Is it right to be so angry at a virus, a thing so tiny even a cell dwarfs it?

It may be ungrateful, and unreasonable, and wrong. But here I am, after the second of two Seders, a little emptier than I wish I was, having one of those moments that come every now and again, when I just want to fling this lockdown aside and live.

Even if I were to break all the rules, though, it wouldn’t matter. I’m in California, where everyone around me is so, so good. I’d be hugging and shaking hands with the air.

A Seder, for those of you don’t live in worlds like mine, is basically a second Thanksgiving for Jews, with a ritualized service at the dinner table before you eat. You have a book called a Haggadah, which among other things tells the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. At specific moments you drink wine and eat certain foods and sing certain songs. The whole thing (meaning, the service part) can take anywhere from 30 minutes to many hours, and can be done all in English, partly in Hebrew, or all in Hebrew, depending upon the religiosity and stamina of the people at the table.

Usually, we go to my cousin Susan’s house in Carthay Circle for the first night Seder, and we often host a smaller, second night one at our house, with family and neighbors. The same pattern basically held this year, except, of course, we did both on Zoom.

There were some obvious bright spots. To amend a phrase from the Haggadah, on any other Passover night, we would not have had all five members of our immediate family at the table. My older son would have been in Ghana, where he was studying abroad for the second semester of his junior year in college (and where he’d planned to travel to the north of the country, to celebrate with the small Jewish community there). My younger son would have been in college in the Midwest. Who knows what he would have been doing? Attending a Seder at his roommate’s parents’ house? Homework? Partying? For sure, he wouldn’t have been with us.

On the first night, we were joined by my cousin Alyse, who’s nearly 104 years old. She didn’t seem like she would have been able to make a dinner in-person. What’s more, our Seder included people in Ohio, Chicago and New York City. Together, we reached out across a continent to laugh and sing and pray and eat together.

Usually, at our house, we use the Haggadahs we purchased when our boys were in preschool, and the mood is light to match. We sing songs about frogs jumping on Pharoah (“frogs here! frogs there! frogs were jumping everywhere — even in his underwear!”), and toss plague finger puppets (blood! locusts! boils!) onto the table with merry abandon.

Can you even imagine? As if a plague were a joke from long ago?

Tonight, we used a downloaded Haggadah compiled by our rabbis for this coronavirus time, and we went around the screen, from square image to square image, sharing what we’d lately learned about ourselves and the world.

“I’ve learned it can be scary to go to the grocery store,” one person said.

“I’ve learned I like L.A. this quiet,” said another.

In that moment, or in moments like when Susan’s group recited the blessing over the bread together, in six different cities in four different states, I felt connection like you rarely feel in groups, Zoom or otherwise. And my soul was calmed.

There’s so much of that these days, these crazy, whipsawed days. I am deeply calm in the knowledge that what I feel, others around me feel as well. In that feeling, there’s no loneliness. There’s no isolation.

But I’m anxious about the state of our imploding world (or perhaps it’s not imploding? maybe I’ve got it all, pessimistically wrong? See, this is how I get anxious). And I’m missing the part of life I never knew could go away — the leaning-over-to-whisper, the glass-clinking, the cheek-kissing. I miss the moment at Susan’s house when she passes around a basket of green onions, and we all slap each other with them during the Dayenu song (though our middle son managed to make a pretty entertaining drum out of his scallion and the stray Haggadah page that landed on his dad’s lap last night). I miss the way, once dinner is done, we’d all push back our chairs at our house and talk about anything and everything, while bored children wandered to screens, to hang out with each other, or even back to their own houses, around the corner or down the street.

This pandemic time is like panning for gold. I come regularly upon nuggets, large and small, that glitter and shine and have real worth. But the sun burns my neck, my back aches from bending over, and from time to time I look down to see my jeans and sleeves are soaked, black crescents top my fingernails and my shoes are encrusted with mud.

Enough, I think.

I want my old, imperfect life back.

Now would not be a moment too soon.