Week 10: Thanks

May 28, 2020

Photo by Prateek Katyal on Pexels.com

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about my attitude. I’ve been wondering, why are these days so dispiriting? My family is, miraculously, all here in Los Angeles and everyone is in at least decent health. My city has never looked better, with its scrubbed-blue sky and barely-congested roads.

Plus, I have the sweetest dog, and now we get to be together all the time.

Yes, I know there’s a deadly virus lurking out there. Yes, the country is on the verge of economic collapse. But this moment…. this day… when I’m fairly healthy and we have enough money to pay the bills … why at even the best times, do I feel kind of sad?

On Sunday, I read this editorial in the New York Times and it hit me: the sadness is at least partly due to our collective, American mood. Every day, it seems, there’s some new horror, another injustice, a different reason to scream at each other. We’re all so angry, so angry we’re enraged, and that rage makes us sad. Meanwhile, our leader taunts and rails and posts falsehoods to Twitter. And then we’re madder still, either because we hate what he says, or we hate that others seem determined to get him wrong.

But here is what we should have: someone to congratulate us. This is hard, this staying inside and waiting at home and twiddling our thumbs until the pads get callused. We should have a leader who says “Thank you!” and “Wow, I’m so proud of all of you!” and “You are setting an example for generations to follow, with your determination and courage and sacrifice.”

Because we are. We have shut ourselves down, at great cost to our personal lives and our financial futures, putting our mental health in peril, and not necessarily to save ourselves. To save everyone.

We’ve heard about the Greatest Generation, those folks that braved the Depression and then turned around and won World War II. But we are upstanding, too. We are worthy of praise. We thought we were soft and iPhone-addled and addicted to Easy. Look at us now. Some of us, I grant you, are trying to pretend that none of this is happening, and their determined ignorance increases the danger for everyone.

But most people are trying. And that’s kind of incredible, when you think about it. The economy isn’t roaring back anywhere, even in states where governors have declared they are open for business, because so many of us continue to stay home.

We don’t have a leader who sees our sacrifice or recognizes our valor. But we should remember that we’re doing something we would have sworn, as recently as January, was simply impossible.

It would be a balm to the soul to hear our leaders in Washington say this . But they are too busy fighting. So I’ll say it.

Thank you.

Thank you for wearing a mask.

Thank you for staying home.

Thank you for washing your hands. And washing your hands. And washing your hands.

Thank you for not hugging your elderly relatives, though you miss their embrace.

Thank you for not going out to dinner, or the movies, or the theater, or any of the other venues and events that make life exciting and fun.

Thank you for letting your children watch hours of screen time, though it breaks every rule you so painstakingly laid down since they were first able to sit upright and stare at a TV.

Thank you for not working, even though you need the money.

Thank you for working from home, even though there are days you want to hurl that laptop across the room.

Thank you for entertaining your children when you have no more fun left in you.

Thank you for working, even though it puts your life in danger.

Thank you for working out alone to videos in your living room, instead of at the gym with your friends.

Thank you for cancelling that European vacation, that Alaskan cruise, that jaunt to San Francisco.

Thank you for not visiting your parents who live across the country, even though they are frail, and you don’t know when you will see them in person again.

Thank you for not cutting your hair, or coloring your roots, or getting that mani-pedi you miss so much.

Thank you for not touching others, not exhaling onto others, not offering your hand, or reaching out to kiss a cheek — even when that means no one touches you anymore, and you touch no one.

Thank you for managing to live with the same handful of people, and not killing them in the process.

And thank you for getting up each day, and doing it again, and doing it again.

We need this. We see your efforts. And we really, really are grateful.

Week 10: Memorial Day

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Photo by Aaron Schwartz on Pexels.com

Our street organized a COVID-style, Memorial Day barbeque last night: bring out your own chairs to the sidewalk, sit at least six feet apart from your neighbors, slap on a mask, and remove it only long enough to eat the food you brought from your own home.

I was so excited about this I looked forward to it all day. But as with many things lockdown-related, the anticipation and the experience itself were hardly universal in my household.

I first sensed trouble when it was time to grab dinner. Bill, the boys and I had set up our chairs; Sarah was still inside, doing a dance class on Zoom. As the boys headed in to get the falafel boxes I’d picked up for them earlier in the day, I asked if they could also bring out one for their father. He looked so relaxed and happy sitting there in that chair. His life — treating COVID patients, worrying about treating COVID patients — has been so stressful these last few months. Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, not to break this spell?

But the boys, striding up the walk, refused.

“It’s okay, Con,” my husband said, getting up. “I can do it.”

But all I could think, watching Liam walk away, was this was the same kid who rode Bill’s bike every day high up into the mountains and down by the ocean and along city streets while his father, who cherishes his bike rides to work, drove his car instead. So I strode after him, yelling that this would not do, that he needed to show respect, that he’d better not, or… or…

Soon I had Bill enraged as well. The younger brother, Eli — an expert at evading responsibility — scooped up his food and slipped back outside. Meanwhile, Liam and Bill and I hollered at each other in the kitchen. Sarah, trying to dance in the next room, slammed the adjoining door, but not before whisper-yelling at us that we were humiliating her in front of her studio.

Finally, I told Liam please, please, please go to your room.

He did so, after throwing a few choice words at us on his way out.

“Oh my God,” Sarah said, sticking her head through the door. “You guys have to stop. Now.”

We didn’t see Liam for the next three hours. He missed the “barbeque,” and another one of our neighborhood, COVID birthday celebrations afterward.

As Bill and I loaded up the dishwasher at the end of the night, I reminded him of how I’d gotten so incensed with our younger son on Mother’s Day. Eli has turned my home office in the garage into his music studio. This is no small transformation either — he practices jazz trombone day and night. I’d asked for the space back for Mother’s Day, and when the time came, I requested that he move my chair back in for me. But he said he was too busy, and anyway, it was enough he’d cleaned up and vacated for the day.

What is wrong, I said, with both these boys, taking our precious possessions as if they were their birthright, not even pausing once to thank us or even remark upon our sacrifice?

This was a parenting fail, we agreed. And it was ending tonight. We started plotting a meeting of the four of us (Sarah being full of her own righteous indignation at her interrupted dance session, deflecting apologies with a blink and a mutter). You defend me to the younger son, I suggested to Bill, and I’ll defend you to the older one.

Then the older one walked in the kitchen.

“I don’t think I was treated fairly,” he said, plopping down on the banquette.

I thought he was treated more than fairly, but I was also glad he was talking and not yelling or cursing at me anymore. I took a deep breath. “Okay,” I said. “Why?”

We started again, around and around. At some juncture — many of the finer points of the argument having become a blur, just 12 hours later — Liam said that Bill and I couldn’t possibly understand what he was going through because our lives haven’t changed at all in the last few weeks.

“I lost my office!” I said.

Okay, he said, he would give me that. But Dad — look at him, the same work routine, nothing changed one iota.

I could hear my voice rising as I reminded Liam about how the very nature of his father’s work had transformed, from a job where he was helping patients in need to one in which every person who walked through his door was a potential lethal threat.

“But he still goes to work every day,” Liam insisted.

“I don’t know why I’m giving my bike up for this,” Bill said, his words clipped and sharp.

“Look,” Liam said. “I lost Africa. I lost my summer internship in D.C. The bike is all I have.”

Oh, I thought.

And the office-cum-studio is all Eli has. And the dancing classes are one of Sarah’s only reprieves from the hellscape that is 10th grade online.

The boys have watched junior year abroad vanish and spring of freshman year evaporate. Liam doesn’t get that summer in the nation’s capital that he’s talked about since high school. Eli’s valiant attempts to learn guitar won’t bear fruit this summer because there’s no sleep away camp, so he won’t be a song leader. And Sarah… well, this isn’t what 16 is supposed to be like. Or should be like, for that matter.

The bike is all he has, I thought. And I started to cry.

“Mom?” Liam shifted in his seat.

“Aww, no, here she goes,” my husband said. “Honey?”

I could really have let loose. All I had to do was think about how a few months, or even a year, lost in your 50s is easily replicable, later on down the line. But the same time lost at my kids’ iconic ages — 21, 19 and 16 — is time gone forever.

At 21, I spent the entire spring semester in Oxford, England, during which I memorized granular details about 19th Century English parliamentary dramas; fell in love and got my heart broken; traveled across Europe and the Soviet Union on my spring break; and made one of the best friends of my life (hello, Orley).

At 19, I walked hand in hand with my first boyfriend across the Berkeley campus, and cemented new friendships at my sorority, and reveled in huge lecture classes where no one knew my name.

At 16, I loved attending my A.P. Euro History classes and writing articles for the school paper and hanging out with friends on the lawn at Westlake Girls School. I hated just about everything else that year, but at least I got to hate it in person.

Meanwhile, my three are home. And though I despair at the thought of what they’re missing, I have to admit to a greedy satisfaction at having them all under our roof again.

My gain. But surely, their loss.

I stopped crying after a sob or two. Liam apologized for his behavior, and thanked Bill for the ongoing loan of the bike. We both told Liam how sorry we are for his losses.

Then he headed back to his room. Time for another phone call with another buddy, who’s somewhere that isn’t here.

I’ve heard from so many friends these days who say their kids are sulking, or angry, or just plain rude. And I know we all know this, but still, it bears repeating: they are grieving. And they have more to grieve than we do.

I hope the five of us can make something beautiful out of this time together, something we will even cherish when we look back on it, years from now. But that’s tomorrow’s judgement. Today we have to muddle through, remembering what should have been, knowing it would have been great.

Day 54: Florida

May 20, 2020

Photo by Nextvoyage on Pexels.com

I had a goal of writing a week’s worth of posts about the blessings this quarantine has brought me. And maybe I’ll get back to it tomorrow. But today, I’m thinking about Florida.

Specifically, I’m fascinated by the state’s coronavirus response. This started with an article my brother Mark sent me this morning: Where Does Ron DeSantis Go To Get His Apology? It’s from a conservative news site called The National Review.

Here’s how the article, by writer Rich Lowry, begins:

A couple of months ago, the media, almost as one, decided that Governor Ron DeSantis was a public menace who was going to get Floridians killed with his lax response to the coronavirus crisis.

In an interview with National Review, DeSantis says he was surprised at “how knee-jerk” the hostile coverage was, but he “also knew that none of these people knew anything about Florida at all, so I didn’t care what they were saying.”

source: TNR

The article argues that Florida has had a better COVID-19 outcome than New York or California by bucking conventional wisdom. Rather than rushing to shut down the state, Governor DeSantis used his powers strategically. He focused on containing the virus at nursing homes and elder-care facilities, directing protective gear to these vulnerable facilities, even at the expense of hospitals, and eventually creating COVID-19–only nursing homes to isolate those with the virus.

Meanwhile, DeSantis told TNR, the media were freaking out about spring break sunbathers on Florida’s beaches.  “I always believed that respiratory viruses were less likely to be transmitted in a hot outdoor environment,” he said. The science, he added, has proved him right on that count.

It all sounds so good. I confess, I want to be convinced. How wonderful it would be if we could contain this wily virus by targeting specific areas and populations, with minimal restrictions on the majority of the population?

Going forward, DeSantis said, he will continue to be flexible, but cautious. “Being measured and being thoughtful and just following data is important,” he said.

I was also excited about the data Mark sent me, which shows that Florida has had about 2,200 cases per one million residents, very similar to California’s 2,127 per million (and much less than New York, which is up around 18,000). This despite the fact that it was one of the last states to shutdown, going into lockdown only on April 3.

As is my wont, I went digging for more information.

And this is the headline I found, from this morning’s USA Today: After Scientist Fired, Governor Calls Coronavirus Data Manipulation Charge a “Non-Issue.”

Here’s the gist: Rebekah Jones managed the geographic information system team at Florida’s Department of Health. According to NPR, she helped create a COVID-19 dashboard that’s won praise from fellow scientists as well as the White House for it ease of accessibility and its detailed presentation of cases by ZIP code.

However, Florida Today, a division of USA Today, reports that “over the last few weeks [the COVID-19 dashboard] had “crashed” and gone offline; data has gone missing without explanation and access to the underlying data sheets has become increasingly difficult.” 

Then on Friday, in an email to public health researchers, and members of the public who had signed up to receive updates from the portal, Jones wrote that the dashboard had been removed from her team’s management, and handed over to a different group, “for reasons beyond my division’s control.”

A few things happened on Monday. For one, phase one of Florida’s re-opening plan went into full effect. Most Floridians can now get their hair professionally cut, return library books, head to the gym and go out to eat, with restrictions.

Also on Monday, Jones left her job. DeSantis said he understood that she resigned because “she was tired and needed a break.” Jones told a local CBS affiliate that she was fired because she refused to  “manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen.”

Today, DeSantis called her insubordinate and said, of her claims that she created the dashboard:  “She is not the chief architect of our Web portal. That is another false statement, and what she was doing was she was putting data on the portal, which the scientists didn’t believe was valid data.”

I realize this is only one state out of 50, and one issue out of many facing our nation right now. It wouldn’t even seem close to the biggest — unless you stop to think about it for a moment. Florida is re-opening based on data. But if we’re to believe the scientist who created the database for the state, until the state took it away from her before firing her, the data is cooked.

The governor says she’s lying. She implies he is. The rest of us find ourselves in a world where the official numbers are now suspect, and we have no way of knowing what the true numbers are.

And this isn’t the Soviet Union, or some Latin American dictatorship, or even China. It’s Florida. And apparently, neighboring Georgia’s data looks questionable as well.

I want to believe there’s a better way to do this than the lockdown I’m living in. But when databases go wonky and scientists get fired and governors go on the attack, I lose my faith in pronouncements. I don’t know where to turn for something as simple as the facts.

Today, the battle for truth is in Florida. I live in California, so I’m okay. But then I remember: that’s what we said in January, about the virus and Wuhan.

Day 52: Health

May 18, 2020

Photo by Josh Hild on Pexels.com

I’ve decided to try to write about good things and gratitude this week, because frankly, the pall over this time is real, and living in shadows is a tough existence.

So. A bit of sunshine.

Today, I’m grateful for health. I’m grateful that my health is getting better. A nap a day seems to keep the fatigue at bay.

But more than that, I’m grateful that my husband is healthy, because back in March, when this whole thing started, I was so scared he wouldn’t be. Bill is an internist who mostly sees patients in clinic, but sometimes does weeks in the hospital. Today, actually, is his last day of seven in a row on hospital service. In these last couple of months, he’s treated patients who he feared had the coronavirus — and thankfully, they didn’t. He’s also worn a surgical mask (instead of an N-95) to treat a non-COVID patient who later turned out to have the disease. It’s been such a roller coaster.

I was also worried I would give him the virus. But, nothing.

About once a year, Bill gets the flu, and it can be a pretty violent affair — for 24 hours, he retreats to bed and can barely move. Then he’s up, and it’s over, and he returns to work. This year, that happened in January. I don’t think it was the coronavirus because I got that bug after him (as I’ve mentioned before, I get everything), and it did not feel anything like what felled me in March. It felt, basically, like the flu.

I worried that, for Bill, COVID-19 would be the flu on steroids. But so far, it’s been more like one of the colds that whip through our house from time to time: knocking me sideways, inconveniencing a kid or two, slipping right past my husband without so much as a sniffle.

I’m also grateful for the health of my parents and their partners. It’s not clear at this point if my father’s stroke last month was caused by a heart arrhythmia or by the coronavirus. He’s tested negative for the virus and the antibody test failed to come up with anything, but his constellation of symptoms was so strange that even his doctor has floated the possibility. In any case, he’s well again, as is his wife, Joyce, and for that I’m thankful.

My mother’s boyfriend, Richard, continues to recover, which in itself feels like a miracle, because he’s spent the entirety of 2020 so far quite ill from metastatic kidney cancer. But every time we see him these days, he stands a little straighter and his color’s a little brighter. My mom has stayed healthy, though the effort of nearly cutting herself off from the world leaves her quite bored.

My in-laws in upstate New York are healthy. My brother, and my husband’s brother, and their families are healthy. So are my kids. So is my extended family. So are my friends. At least, as far as I know.

I’ve never thought so much about illness at a time when I’m surrounded by such an abundance of good, even robust health.

The virus has, for the most part, treated my world gently. I pray it continues that way, for me and for you.

Sunday Interview: Liam

May 17, 2020

My oldest son, Liam, was supposed to spend this spring in Ghana. Then the coronavirus hit, and he took up bike riding instead.

Since he landed at LAX on March 17, on a plane from Accra, Ghana by way of Dulles International, he’s logged roughly 1,700 miles on his dad’s bike (a Surly Straggler, for those who care about such things). He’s ridden south to Redondo and north to Malibu; up Benedict Canyon and down Coldwater; east as far as Pasadena, and northwest into Agoura. Last week, he hit a personal goal with a 106 mile ride that took him over the Sepulveda Pass, through the San Fernando and Conejo Valleys, across the hilly farmland separating Thousand Oaks and Camarillo, and to the campus of Cal State Channel Islands, where he spent last summer working as a counselor at a sleep-away camp. Then he wound through more farmland to Pacific Coast Highway, until he climbed up Temescal in the Pacific Palisades and headed home to Mar Vista — seven hours total (Bill — my husband, his dad — and his younger brother were his wingmen, meeting him along the way with food and drink).

I’ve watched all this from my dining room desk, him riding while I type away. And I’ve observed it from the couch or the bed, him riding while I rest, either ill with a virus or, later, recovering from it. I can’t believe he’s done all this. I’m proud that he’s done all this. I envy him to Pasadena and back again.

Especially those first few weeks, when we all huddled inside, afraid to go anywhere or see anyone, sure the virus lurked around every corner — and in our house, it probably did — Liam had the streets of Los Angeles to himself. Mandeville Canyon was empty. The hills of Hollywood were empty. He flew down Venice Boulevard with a handful of cars and a stray bus or two. For many of us, this quarantine has been a time of confinement. For my 21-year-old son — his schoolwork from Ghana minimal at most — it’s been a period of freedom, the likes of which he may never see again.

He wasn’t born an athlete. When he was a toddler, he needed occupational therapy to learn how to walk and run without stumbling, because he strongly favored his right side over his left. It took him years to learn how to reliably dunk a basketball through a hoop. He struggled through four years of cross-country in high school and still, by senior year, hadn’t quite gotten the hang of it.

.”In cross-country, I was the worst boy on the team,” he said. “Here I don’t know how I compare, but it doesn’t matter. I know I’m good, because I put in so much time and effort. And I enjoy it.”

His dad has ridden thousands of miles over the course of his five-plus decades on this planet, but Liam fell in love with riding at that same sleepaway camp last summer, climbing the nearby mountains on camp bikes with his supervisor Adam, on their hours off. Then, this past winter break, he began looping down to the beach in the morning, just to get in some exercise. When he left for Ghana in January, he figured that was that — he only planned to linger here a couple of weeks in May, in between his time abroad and a summer internship in Washington, D.C.

Then, over the course of a week in March, the plans changed. Ghana is seven hours ahead of Los Angeles, so when Liam got home his internal clock was all off. He went to bed early and woke up at 6 a.m., the sun just beginning to brighten the sky. For weeks, his Ghanaian professors didn’t assign any work at all. The days stretched before him, long and empty. But there was the Surly, waiting in the garage.

I started exploring the beach bike path. Sometimes, I would go up to the Pacific Palisades to see my cousins. Sometimes, I’d ride down to Redondo. That was the first two weeks.

But then they closed the bike path, and I was like, shoot, I don’t know where else I’m going to bike. Because L.A. is not a biking city. I thought I might be done.

The next day I went to check out Sullivan Ridge [a bike trail in the Santa Monica Mountains above the Palisades]. Dad had mentioned it to me and I thought it might be a good ride. But when I got to the top, I was winded, and so I headed back down without doing the trail. The next day, I got up there and I was all ready to ride the trail, but they’d closed all the trails, too. I thought, Well, this kind of stinks.

I rode down the mountain and stopped in at my grandfather’s house in the Palisades.  He said, “Oh, you should check out Mandeville Canyon [in nearby Brentwood]. I know people bike there.” So the next day I did that. And it was very hard, the hardest ride I’d done so far. When I got to the top, I was winded, so I sat down, and this guy who was riding behind me the whole way sat down nearby. I asked him where he’d been, and he said he’d gone up Nichols Canyon, then down Benedict…. And I thought, Oh my gosh, there are so many canyons for me to do!

Soon he found himself biking along Mulholland Drive (“I would’ve thought it was out of reach as a bike destination. I couldn’t believe I’d ridden there. It was very pretty.”). He tried out Sepulveda Boulevard, and decided that even in the time of quarantine and coronavirus, it was a little too much of a speedway for his taste. He rode Coldwater instead, to the San Fernando Valley and back . He did a 50-mile roundtrip to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, that involved a return through Silverlake and Griffith Park, to say hi to a friend living in the Hollywood hills. 

I felt like I had a good amount of freedom, even though I didn’t come close to anybody. It was nice to expand my radius, especially when my radius was so restricted by quarantine. The city felt pretty empty. It’s odd now, to see the traffic picking up again. There are so many people out on Ocean Park boulevard, at the beaches. It feels odd to me, because I’m used to seeing it so empty. I know that this is part of an apocalyptic feel for some people, but I liked it when it was cloudy out and everything was empty, and the city felt chill.

He was doing about 125 miles a week at this point. His dad said, “You know, serious riders do 200 miles,” and Liam thought he could probably get up to that. He started by riding to Topanga.

When I was in high school, I dated a girl who lived in Calabasas, so I’d do that drive all the time. I’d see cyclists out on the road and I always wondered what it would be like to do that. It turned out, it wasn’t a terribly difficult ride. I had a new lens through which I judged my ability. And it was around this time, around mid-April, that I decided I was going to do 100 miles.

He began to train, riding PCH out to the Ventura County line and back. He did Topanga a second time. Finally, a week and a half before the Big Ride, he mapped out a 75-miler over Kanan in Agoura. It turned out to be the hardest ride of all, the upward slope of the mountain not steep but relentless. He nearly passed out in the tunnel from exhaustion and worried he was in trouble when he started to get the chills despite the heat. Nearly out of water, he ate his apple to stave off dehydration and was fine (it’s good to be 21!).

On Saturday, May 9th, he did his 100-miler. There were lots of highlights, but the best part may have come at the very end. 

When I was a kid, I could never get up Grand View (a street that climbs Mar Vista Hill, near our house). On the way back home, though, I set a personal record – two minutes and 28 seconds, Venice to Palms.

These days, he’s still riding, still considering his next big jaunt. Santa Barbara calls.

The days I don’t go on bike rides, I go crazy because I can’t go. But sometimes I need to rest. It’s nice to be outside and exercise and listen to my podcasts as I go [he recommends The Daily, Pod Save the World, Stuff You Should Know, Rabbit Hole, and Oh, Hello]. I really like junk food, especially cheesy gordita crunch and strawberry freeze at Taco Bell. I love Taco Bell so much. I don’t have to worry about eating it now, because I’m biking so much.

I asked him if, in a way, this quarantine has been a blessing for him.

I don’t know about a blessing. It’s not what I thought was going to happen. But it’s been nice.

Day 49: Bye-bye Camp

May 15, 2020

Gindling Hilltop Camp, Summer 2015

Tomorrow (Saturday) is my day of rest. See you back here on Sunday!

Welp, that’s it. They’ve cancelled summer.

No Hollywood Bowl. No traveling out of Los Angeles (so says the mayor). And now, no camps.

We’ve had at least one kid at Jewish sleep-away camp (Gindling Hilltop, to be precise) since the summer of 2009. Even this year, with our youngest graduated from the camper program and our oldest aging out of the counselor track, our 19-year-old was supposed to be there as a counselor and song leader. He was so excited to do this that, back in the innocent days of January, he told the guidance counselor at his college jazz program not to bother finding him summer opportunities. He had his plan.

Then, yesterday, we got the email. “I am greatly saddened to share…” it began. I’m sure you know how that goes, and where it ends.

It’s hardly an outlier. Tumbleweed Day Camp in Brentwood, the local Girl Scout camps, JCA Shalom in Malibu — all of them are closed. I found a few still hanging on, hoping against hope for a summer miracle, including my childhood haunts, Cali-Camp and Riverway Ranch Camp. But you have to wonder, are they that much smarter or luckier than everyone else?

Of course, it’s a tragedy for the campers, all those little kids who’ve tried so hard to sit still in front of computers for weeks on end, and their parents, who don’t know how they can bear another minute alongside them. I feel for all of them. I have friends in that boat.

But it’s not easy for my son, either. Right now, he’s outside in the garage office, trying to coax some music from his trombone. It’s maddeningly hard to concentrate, he says.

I told him I heard the online classes at the local community college are filling up fast. He’s talked about clearing some Gen Eds out of the way this summer. But now, he’s not ready to register.

He’s also talked about working at a grocery store. At first, I said no way. We’ve already got enough germs walking in the door every night when his dad returns from clinic. Now, though, I figure — just do it. Something to get him up in the morning is better than a whole lot of nothing.

My friends say there’s a Help Wanted sign at the local bagel shop.

Maybe, he says.

I don’t know, he says.

I’m going outside to practice, he says.

It’s frustrating to make a decision you never wanted to make. It’s sad to lay down plans for June, July and August, three months that are no longer a summer, when your perfect summer just slipped through your grasp.

He’s mourning, I guess. Just like the rest of us. I guess you have to take time to say goodbye to the summer that was supposed to be, before you can greet the months that lie before you.

Day 48: AP Exams

May 14, 2020

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

This post, in a slightly edited format, is now live at Grown & Flown, a wonderful website and blog about parenting older kids. You can find the post here.

Two weeks ago, my daughter’s AP Calculus AB exam looked like it was over before it had begun.

Sarah had barely cracked a textbook since school shut down on March 16th. Her public school calculus class wasn’t meeting on Zoom, so there wasn’t an imperative to show up at her computer screen on time. Sometimes, Sarah would log onto Khan Academy, the free learning site, for instructional videos.

Meanwhile, she made and watched TikTok videos. She FaceTimed friends and decorated pages in her journal. Come 11 p.m., she and her 10th grade crew met up on something called Netflix Watch Parties, which could and often did stretch on until 4 in the morning.

She’s usually a straight-A student who puts intense pressure on herself to do well. So when I walked by her bedroom and heard giggles, I just smiled and kept on going. I assumed she had it under control. Plus, she had this awful, hacking cough which could be heard through closed doors and hallways. I have the unfortunate tendency to focus on one crisis per child. So I worried about the cough.

Then, one Sunday night (or maybe it was Monday… or Tuesday… they all flow together), she started to sound like a modern-day Paul Revere. Only, it wasn’t the British who were coming. It was the A.P.s. It was like she’d woken up and discovered that she’d signed up for three Advanced Placement classes this year; the exams were about to attack; and our army was asleep in bed.

Quarantine has been taking its toll on our entire household, in ways that only seem predictable in retrospect. For Sarah, who always battles a tendency to procrastinate, the school days that barely existed, the calc teacher who couldn’t be seen, the classrooms she no longer inhabited — it all felt unreal, like something that could be put off, just one more hour, or perhaps one more day.

Or maybe it wasn’t her perception at all that was at fault. Maybe we adults expected too much of our 16-year-olds this spring. We figured they knew how to do this distance learning thing. But they had no idea. How could they? We didn’t. Many of us still don’t.

Anyway, there we are, just as April is turning to March, and my daughter is hysterical. The A.P.s are coming! The A.P.s are coming! And she’s surely going to fail them. How did this happen, she cried. How did this happen?

There are many possible reactions to this realization. Here’s the one Sarah chose: she doubled down. She cut out the late nights and the sugar. She added running and began her days with strawberry-banana-kale smoothies. And she started studying. Morning, noon, night. Weekdays, weekends. When she couldn’t figure something out, she called up her friends. When they all couldn’t figure it out, she dragged her brother, the college junior, out of his lair. He took two years of calculus in high school; now he was recruited back into action.

By Tuesday morning, she was ready. Somehow, she said, she’d learned it. She thought she might just pass this thing.

“Good luck, Sarah,” I said as I sat down at my computer to do an interview for an article.

“Good luck, Sarah,” said the college junior as he took off on another one of his bike rides.

“Good luck, Sarah!” the trombone-playing brother said, vacating the office-turned-music studio to give Sarah privacy and quiet. She arrived a half hour early, set up, logged in. In the dining room (me), and the family room (trombone boy), and out on the bike trail, and over at the hospital (her dad, working), we all said a prayer for our hard-working calculus student.

Dear reader, if you’ve gotten this far with me, be assured that she finished the entire exam. She even felt like she slayed the damn thing. But when she went to turn it in, the computer wouldn’t accept it.

She started trying to turn it in with four and a half minutes to spare. For four and a half minutes, Sarah tried everything she could think of to get the College Board, which administers the test, to accept her uploads of her work. That’s required to pass the exam. But the site refused to take it. And refused. And refused.

Then, after four and a half minutes, it shut her down.

The College Board says this has happened to 2 percent of all AP test takers this spring. But from what Sarah can see, among her friends and on social media, it feels like more than that — especially for this calculus exam, because it demanded uploads of handwritten calculations.

Yes, she raged. Of course, she cried. She questioned her technical capabilities and despaired at the time and effort sacrificed for this empty result.

She pulled it briefly together, to request a makeup exam in June. Then she got the trombone brother to take her to frozen yogurt, and over to a friend’s house, where the girls sat in the backyard and, six feet apart, Sarah nursed her wounds.

She’s got two A.P. exams next week — A.P. Biology and A.P. World History. It’s hard, she says, to get motivated to study for them.

This quarantine, folks. It’s a shit show. Old people, young people, middle aged ones like me — none of us are spared its slow, draining drip. But I hate especially the toll it takes on kids. To be a child is to hope and to dream, to have wild enthusiasms and mad determination, born not out of experience but the lack of it.

Of course, adolescence can be dark. But we adults, watching from the far shore, hope that the joy of this seemingly endless possibility, of what looks at 16 like a limitless future, can shine a light sufficient to banish the gloom. Probably not all the time, but often enough to make these years endurable.

This is the rub of quarantine. Possibility doesn’t feel easy to come by. The future seems to have disintegrated one dreadful week in March. We are left in a today that stubbornly refuses to become tomorrow.

It is challenging enough for me, with 52 years of experience under my belt, to create a satisfying existence out of these subpar materials. How much more difficult then, for someone with only 16 years behind her, a girl just starting to step out on her own, at a time when the path is so hard to make out.

I know the people at the College Board are trying. What happened to Sarah is exactly what they wanted to avoid. So I’m not mad at them. But I am mad. We both are mad. All five of us are mad about this. Mad, with nowhere to put it.

And so, we carry on. Pull out the next Barron’s Study Guide, Sarah. Bio’s on Tuesday.

Day 47: The Bowl

May 13, 2020

Of course the Hollywood Bowl will be closed this summer.

Think about it: you sit in traffic on Highland Boulevard, glancing from the car’s dashboard clock to your phone’s screen to your watch if you’re wearing one, just in case one of them affords you an extra minute or two, because it’s always more jammed and moving more slowly than you expected.

If you’re like me, a very occasional Bowl attendee, you don’t have a designated parking spot, nor any particular allegiance to a lot. You just want to get as close as you can for as reasonable a price as you can. You always end up spending a little more than you want, but eventually, there’s a lot you pick, and you pull in and the cars are too close and you swear you’ll never get out until the last guy leaves, but whatever, you’re stuck, plus you’ve already handed over the cash.

So you gather the food you brought, and the blankets and sweatshirts you hopefully remembered (because there’s already a bite to the air, and it’s just getting chillier as the sun wraps up its daily arc), and you scurry out into the crowd, which swallows you up.

You’re swallowed up, like Jonah in the whale, only this whale is the swarm of people, walking and shuffling and skedaddling up the sidewalk. You walk one block, two, three, four (the Bowl is always further away than you anticipate), and with each block, the whale grows. By the time you pass through the Bowl’s front gate, if you don’t keep your companions in sight, you’ll lose them in the surge of bodies.

Finally, you land at the escalators, and now you’re going up, all of you, a throng elbow to elbow, practically toe to toe, with one common purpose — to get there. Because even though you’re on the Bowl property, you haven’t arrived. Not quite yet.

Here’s when you arrive: when you get to the entry that corresponds to your seat, and the whale of people spits you out into the amphitheater — the wide, open amphitheater, where there’s a seat for everyone, where your ceiling is the sky, and where the crowd is no longer a swarm or a throng or a whale. It’s no longer any kind of impediment at all. It’s necessary. It’s the hum of the evening, the thrumming energy powering the stage. And you melt into it, becoming both you, and not you, listening, maybe cheering, maybe singing, maybe turning to the person next to you, who you’ve never met before in your life and you’ll never see again, and saying, “Isn’t this amazing?”

You may have tears in your eyes. They may have tears in theirs. And they’ll nod, because you’re all in the thing together for some more minutes, maybe a few more, hopefully a lot.

And behind the stage there’s the mountains. Above it, eventually, there are stars and a moon. And you think, this is the best of L.A.

See, there’s just no way. This isn’t a time of shuffling whales or melting consciousnesses or turning sideways to chat with strangers.

Talk about a super-spreader event.

I’m embarrassed to admit that many summers I haven’t made it to the Bowl at all. I have my excuses, none of them good enough. Not when you can buy nosebleed seats to some performances for less than $20 a ticket. But I always knew it was there. I always sat with the purple brochure that landed in my mailbox each spring and thought, “How about this one? And this one? And this one? Definitely, at the very least, the Sound of Music sing-along.”

Now, I can’t even do that.

It’s been a startling spring. An alarming, head-spinning, heart-palpitating spring. But I fear it will be a dull summer. The sun will be out and the colors will pop, but our lives may feel muted. So much that makes summer thrilling, from venues like the Bowl to sunbathing on the beach to road trips and jet planes and staying somewhere that isn’t our homes, simply won’t happen.

Shoot.

The Bowl is furloughing a quarter of its staff and all of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. It’s also laying off all seasonal employees. If you love the Bowl, please consider donating what you can.

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 45: Butterscotch Lollipops

May 11, 2020

A few minutes ago, I was scrolling through my emails, thinking I’d forgotten about something today, when my eye alighted on the clock in the bottom right corner, and it hit me — I hadn’t written this blog.

Not only hadn’t I written it. I hadn’t even thought about it, all day long.

I’d felt adrift this afternoon. Maybe this was the reason why. Or maybe that’s the kind of times these are. Times when the minutes float into hours, and the hours melt into entire afternoons, and we fail to notice, because we’re drifting along in this fuzzy quarantine dream.

My calendar is full these days. A Zoom call tonight, a Zoom writing seminar tomorrow, another Zoom call on Thursday. And yet, it feels as empty as Venice Boulevard on lockdown. I don’t know why this is. Not only am I seeing the same people as usual. I’m actually seeing more of people I don’t usually see that often. But virtual meet-ups… well, they make me think of those Dum-Dums lollipops that used to fill my treat bag on Halloween. Sure, the cherry ones taste good. So do the grape. Butterscotch was always my favorite.

But after awhile, you want a real cherry. An actual grape. A butterscotch sauce or pudding that doesn’t sport a chemical aftertaste.

So, yeah, that’s my social life these days — a Dum-Dum lollipop. Butterscotch flavor. But still.

There’s many moments when the world itself feels virtual. I see so little of it these days. I must trust that it’s still there. I have to believe that there’s more to life than my house, its inhabitants and the coronavirus. But forgive me if I wonder: do I still have to worry about climate change? Peace in the Middle East? Whether Meghan and Harry can make it on their own without the Royal Family? (Of course I know I have to worry about Trump — he is The Inescapable Man.)

I wonder if I’ll look back on this with nostalgia one day. “Imagine– we didn’t go anywhere or do anything,” I’ll tell my grandchildren, and I’ll sigh. “It was so simple then.”

I hope I’ll remember that simple can be boring. And perplexing. And so fuzzy around the edges that sometimes, in the slow tick of the minutes, entire days slip through your fingers.