Week 18: Will College be a Super-Spreader Event?

July 30, 2020

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

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.

Week 17: Finding Joy

July 21, 2020

Photo by Jill Wellington on Pexels.com

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.
  • Donald Trump will lose the popular vote, lose the Electoral College, and try to maintain his grip on power anyway.
  • Somebody close to me, or to you, will fall ill.

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

Twitter, especially Susan Orleans’ epic drunken twitter thread on Saturday night. Because, serendipity.

What about you? Where do you find joy?

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 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 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.

—————————–

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).

Week 11: Social Anxiety

June 4, 2020

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

I just fled a graduation party.

My smart, articulate, lovely niece graduated high school today, and my father and his wife wanted to throw her a celebration. She deserves it. First of all, because she’s worked hard. Second, because she didn’t get a prom or a senior ditch day or a walk down the graduation aisle.

So they set up TV screens in their backyard and placed tables at strategic distances, and about 20 of us sat down to watch the virtual ceremony: my two nieces, my brother and his wife; my dad and his wife; my mom and her boyfriend; my sister-in-law’s parents and brother; three of my niece’s friends; and me and my three kids (my husband was still at work, because it’s a Thursday and the ceremony was at 5 p.m.)

It’s a lot of people, even in a good-sized backyard. Still, I think I could have managed it.

But none of the guests wore masks, and people from different households sat in chairs with far less than six feet between them.

Masked waiters served passed hors d’eouvres, which you had to pluck from the plate with your fingers. Later, after the ceremony, the same waiters would serve dinner, made by (masked) chefs in the kitchen. Ingress and egress was through the house. Teenagers were hugging.

Even still, I might have been able to make it through. I saw no signs of the virus. The evening was lovely, the hostess had been meticulous in her planning and presentation, and the guest of honor is a young lady I dearly love.

But my mom’s boyfriend, Richard, has been ill with cancer for a few months now, and when I left, he was seated right in the middle of it all, mask dangling from his chair, next to my mother, who had also set her mask aside. I tried to tell myself that they are grown ups, and responsible for themselves. I know the risks are low — all of us outdoors, a relatively small crowd of apparently robustly healthy people.

Still. Every time I looked at my mom and her boyfriend, I thought I would sob. I felt horrible about that, because they looked so happy. They have been cooped up since his January diagnosis to a degree that even I, as much as I shelter in place, cannot begin to comprehend. I can see the argument that life is not worth living if you have to spend it caged inside in the same home, day after day.

But that didn’t make it any easier for me to watch them. From the moment he got diagnosed, five months ago now, all I could think was that he must survive this. Richard is one of the best things that ever happened to my mother, and we all love him very much, in no small part because of how good he is to her. I can’t lose him, I thought. I can’t lose him. The word “coronavirus” started to echo in my head. I felt my anxiety start to come at me, like snow rolling down a hill, gathering snow as it goes, threatening to become an avalanche. And I realized there was certainly someone who was going to get sick out of this, and it was me, from stress.

I made an excuse to my dad about a queasy stomach, which wasn’t too far from the truth, and scurried out of there. Now I’m home, writing this blog. The kids will text me when it’s wrapping up, and I will get in the car and drive 15 minutes to get them.

I am not going to argue that I was rational, or that I made a rational choice. I’m emotional and anxious in the best of times. Of course, I’m even more so these days. We are all more so these days.

Here’s what I learned: the world is still out there, and one by one, people are rejoining it. I am, too, to a small degree. I also went to the dentist today, and to Trader Joe’s. But I’m not ready for a party.

I wish I were. I really, really wish I were.

Week 11: Quandary for our times

June 2, 2020

I’ve been thinking about rage.

There’s the rage on our streets, when people smash store windows and steal goods and destroy the livelihood of businesses already crippled by the pandemic.

Or when demonstrators throw firecrackers at police, screaming at them, daring them.

Or when police fire rubber bullets into crowds and smash into protesters — even peaceful ones, even journalists.

Or when no one throws anything or hits anyone. When the marches are “peaceful,” they are still full of rage. You don’t brave the threat of tear gas and pepper spray and coronavirus to march down crowded streets on a weekday if you’re not on fire with fury at the injustice all around you.

Within our homes, there’s rage too. I’ve spent the last three and a half years distraught at our national politics, but I’ve never been this angry.

Here in Los Angeles, we are going on our fourth night of curfew, with no end in sight. The city convulses and convulses again, like major cities all over this country. Yes, we’re horrified by the George Floyd murder. Yes, we’re appalled at the violence casually inflicted on black people at the hands of our authorities.

But here in L.A., we know that too many black people are homeless. Too many people are homeless, period. If we’re paying attention, we know that the COVID wards are filled with the poor and the underprivileged. Our city is a beautiful cauldron of inequity. I worry we’re seeing its contents bubble over.

The one person who is supposed to ease down the heat, our President, instead threatens to call the military on us, then has officers clearing protesters with tear gas and clubs so he can walk across a plaza to a church where he holds up a Bible.

The guns and the threats and the religious symbol — which for him is probably all it is — I defy him to describe even part of what’s inside those covers — it makes me feel as though I will explode, like those emojis with the top of the scalp blowing off. I don’t know what to do with this fury of mine, that’s both potent and noteworthy and completely insignificant, all at the same time.

I have a list of black-owned businesses I can frequent — check. I have and will continue to donate money to causes — check. Once I meet my work deadlines, if I feel well enough that day (still recovering from the virus, in fits and starts), and the protests are still ongoing, I may march.

I don’t know if any of it will matter. The forces arrayed against justice are formidable, and growing more so every day.

In conclusion… well, there are no suitable conclusions to this. Instead, here are two things people said to me that keep echoing in my head, and one story unique to early June, 2020

  1. My mom today, on the phone: “I don’t think anyone is happy right now.”
  2. My friend on Saturday, in reply to my text asking how she was doing because she lives near the rioting: “We are ok, just super sad for the state of our city and our country. Not sure how much more everyone can take.”

And finally, a story. Yesterday, Liam was trying to pick up a Chipotle burrito to join a friend for a socially distanced lunch. He’d made it from Mar Vista to Rancho Park when he realized that they’d given him the wrong order. He’d already driven past boarded up store fronts and stationed police cars and didn’t care to do it again. But he needed his order, so he grit his teeth and went back.

Rattled by … well, everything … he was pulling out of the parking lot when he swerved to avoid a pedestrian and scraped the side of my minivan against a pole. It didn’t look pretty and the bumper seemed to be dangling a bit. I asked him if he could pop it back into place, and he could, so I told him to go ahead, we’d deal with it later. What’s a scraped bumper amid rioting and a pandemic?

Then the President did his shenanigans and we all forgot all about the car.

Today, Liam and Eli drove the minivan down to Manhattan Beach for a protest. They walked five miles round trip during the peaceful rally. When they got back, Eli took the car out again to get groceries for my mother (because she’s in her 80s and remember? there’s still a virus out there). There was a long line in front of Ralphs; inside, the patrons were testy and the clerks were exhausted. When he offered to bag his own groceries, the cashier, an older African-American lady, thanked him and told him he had no idea what kind of a day it had been.

On the way home from dropping the groceries at my mom’s in Westwood, driving down the freeway, he heard a funny scraping noise. A guy in another car yelled at him that he’d better get off the highway and check out what’s going on.

And this is how my son ends up parked at the corner of Amherst and Pearl at 5:30 p.m. with a bumper half-dangling off his car and a curfew barreling his way in 30 minutes.

It turns out there is a unique flavor of panic to getting a call from your kid that a bumper is half off a car and he’s a half hour away from being arrested for breaking curfew. There is no guidebook or precedent that I know of for what you do in that situation.

What did he do? What do you think? He smashed that bumper back into place as best he could, and drove home as carefully as possible. Tomorrow, we will figure out how to get it fixed during a pandemic, skirting protests and riots.

I know this isn’t the fault of the Establishment, or the Bad Cops, or even Donald J. Trump. But it sure feels like it is.