Week 21: Cancelled

August 18, 2020

I cannot get used to this time we are living through. I’m trying to refocus and recalibrate and reconfigure — my life, my expectations, all of it. But 2020 keeps throwing me off balance, no matter how flexible I attempt to be.

Tomorrow, we are supposed to take Liam, our 21-year-old, back to his fraternity house in Berkeley (I would say back to college, but the campus is closed). That plan is intact. I can’t imagine what would cause that to change, short of a literal earthquake. The guy is determined to return to his friends and whatever semblance of a collegiate existence he can muster.

The following week, Eli was supposed to return to Michigan State, which had opened the dorms and was planning on a hybrid learning experience. Then, at around 3 p.m. today, the university’s president sent an email that announced:

It has become evident to me that, despite our best efforts and strong planning, it is unlikely we can prevent widespread transmission of COVID-19 between students if our undergraduates return to campus. So, effective immediately, we are asking undergraduate students who planned to live in our residence halls this fall to stay home and continue their education with MSU remotely.

He ran into my bedroom, where I was about to take a nap, yelling that it was all off, he would be home, school was over. Kind of with a wild look in his eyes, hair ruffled, glasses askew. I sat there for a few minutes, absorbing that news, wondering if my fall was about to get emotional in ways I hadn’t managed to predict despite all my attempts to predict every possible fall scenario. I mean, I’d figured he’d at least get a few weeks in the dorms before they kicked them all out, you know? I guess the news about UNC yesterday did it.

Anyway, I sat there for a few minutes, thinking all this, then I went down the hall to find him. He shooed me away, on the phone with his friends. I went back to my room, locked the door and tried to fall asleep, because I was really very tired. It’s been a long week around here, helping my mother process her grief and planning a Zoom memorial service for her longtime partner, Richard, who died of cancer a week ago. We still don’t have a funeral date, because he was a veteran and will be buried at the National Cemetery, on Wilshire Boulevard, and they appear to be backed up. But everything connected with the funeral business seems backed up these days. The mortuary can’t even cremate the body for ten days. There’s much that’s unsettled, and it has a wearing effect. Plus, Richard’s gone, and we all miss him.

So despite the drama, I fell asleep. When I woke up a half hour later, Eli was buzzing about a new plan. He and three other friends would head out to Michigan anyway, and rent a place off-campus. There’s Emma, the bass player from Sacramento, and Andrew, the pianist from South Dakota, and Juan, the sax player from Florida, and Eli, who plays trombone. They are all finding it increasingly challenging to focus on their music after months of being disconnected from each other and their music program. At least, they thought, if they were together in Michigan, they could feed off of and encourage each other.

Students are vacating East Lansing apartments right and left today, opting to stay home rather than take their chances with a pandemic. But a household of four musicians would not make great apartment neighbors. They wouldn’t even make great townhome, or duplex neighbors. To ensure they don’t get banned from practicing at all hours, they need a house.

There are exactly two houses left that fit their need. One has 23 other applicants on it. The other one … well, they’re crossing their fingers.

I thought I had mastered this pandemic thing. But that’s an absurd idea. It’s the nature of this time to throw us curve ball after curve ball.

Meanwhile, I’m nervous about this road trip tomorrow. I also went to college at Cal, and the campus and its surroundings are one of my favorite places on Earth. One of the things I’ve always loved about Berkeley is the people — so many people. A crush of people. A cascade of characters. Berkeley is fun, exciting, invigorating, always fascinating. But I’m scared that tomorrow, I’ll just find it depressing.

Eli was supposed to come up with us, mostly so I didn’t have to drive home on I-5 alone on Thursday. Now he’s too busy trying to figure out housing 2,500 miles away. But it’ll be okay. I have an audiobook downloaded to my phone, plus an endless supply of podcasts. I figure as long as I don’t stop in the Central Valley, a Trump zone where the residents apparently don’t believe in masks and the virus is running rampant, I should be fine.

I just wish I could make this year okay for Eli. I wish I could make a house appear out of the ether. I wish I could do something as simple as providing him the tools he needed — at this point, money for tuition and rent — and let him use them to build a bridge from childhood to adulthood. But thanks to the coronavirus, I may not be able to do that.

Twenty-four hours ago, I had two sons going away to school this month. Now I have one son going and the other in limbo. Oh, and my daughter started 11th grade today, online. Then promptly got a migraine and lost hours of the afternoon to it. We’re all kind of reeling around here. At least we’re not alone. It feels the rest of the nation is spinning right along with us.

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 16: Lyme

July 7, 2020

Baptist Bible Seminary near Scranton, Pa.

I did a handful of blood tests a couple of weeks ago. One was for COVID antibodies, and it came back negative. Another was for Lyme disease. It came back positive. But I already knew it would.

The first time I got tested for Lyme disease was back in the winter of 2012. We’d been East for Thanksgiving, celebrating with my husband’s family in Scranton, Pa. The weather was unseasonably warm. Earlier that month, the temperature had reached an historic high in the low 70s. On Thanksgiving day, when I went tramping through a woodsy bible seminary campus with Bill’s cousin, Christine, the high was a balmy 55 degrees.

The reason this matters is because the ticks that carry Lyme lie dormant in the cold, but are active in warmer weather. And there are a lot more of these Lyme-carrying ticks in the Northeast than out here in Los Angeles.

I never saw a tick on my body, nor did I ever spot a bite. Or if I did, I don’t remember it. That’s not uncommon. Estimates vary as to how many Lyme patients actually get a classic “bullseye” rash, but a sizable percentage have no visible sign of infection.

The main thing is, after that Thanksgiving day walk, my body changed. The next day, I was out walking the city’s hills by myself when I became dizzy, and alternately chilled and feverish. It turned out it was a migraine coming on, but the symptoms weren’t usually that strong. That night, I had stomach pain so searing I couldn’t sleep.

The next day, though, I felt fine. We got on a plane and flew home. Then, exactly a week later, I stood up from a chair and the whole room spun around. I went home, lay down and slept for four hours, until one of the kids woke me up to make dinner.

By the time I got tested for Lyme, three weeks after Thanksgiving Day, I could barely get off the living room couch. I’d have these rolling episodes, starting with a heart palpitation, followed by dizziness, shaking and a panic attack, wrapping up with an exhaustion so deep I could hardly keep my eyes open. Only I couldn’t sleep, because I couldn’t calm down. I was frantic, all the time, because I’d become convinced I could die at any moment. I’d never experienced a fear like that before. It didn’t make any sense at all, but there was no talking me out of it. It was a primal thing.

Kaiser, where Bill works and where I’m a patient, has this number-scoring thing it does for Lyme tests. If you score below 119, you don’t have Lyme. If you score between 119 and 159, you’re borderline. Anything above that, you’ve been infected. They do two tests, the ELISA, followed by the Western Blot, if indicated. I don’t know which test corresponds to those numbers and a cursory search online was not illuminating. Suffice to say, when I tested three weeks out from a possible bite, I had a score of 115.

The CDC says test scores are not accurate until four to six weeks after infection. But we (Bill, who ordered the test and I, who requested it) didn’t know that at the time.

The second time I got tested for Lyme was a little over a year ago, in January 2019. By that point, I’d been through years of Chinese herbs and Western antibiotics and various prescriptions and treatments and targeted diets. A doctor in urgent care — the third one I’d seen in nearly as many weeks — listened to my tale of woe, how I’d get better, and then a new symptom would appear, and then I’d get worse, and how, for the last month, I’d been unable to eat more than about a dozen foods without having what felt like an allergic reaction. When I was through, she said, “Did you say you were in Pennsylvania for Thanksgiving?”

She meant in 2018. We go every two years (excluding pandemics). Yes, I said, and I went on a walk in the woods, with the same cousin. But it was bitterly cold, 15 degrees at the warmest, and I was wrapped from head to toe. There was no way, I said, that I could’ve gotten a tick bite.

Nevertheless, she ordered a Lyme test. This time, my number was 186. Bingo — a diagnosis. Only it was one that didn’t make any sense, at least at first. I didn’t have the joint pain typical of Lyme patients. No fever. No flu-like symptoms. And I’d been sick — well, let’s just say, chronically under the weather — for more than six years, on and off.

Then I thought back to 2012, how the bible college grounds were damp and fragrant, how the leaves mushed under our feet and the twigs crackled as we stomped on them. I remembered the days that followed, the symptoms that looked like chronic fatigue and a nervous breakdown all rolled into one. After six months, a Chinese herbalist got me back on my feet. But it was always a shaky recovery, prone to unpredictable and novel relapse.

It turns out that fatigue and panic attacks are common symptoms of tick borne illnesses. It also turns out that Lyme, like COVID-19, is not an equal-opportunity attacker. I’ve read about people who never get off that couch, who find themselves disabled by Lyme as well as co-infections, which many ticks carry as well. I’m a pretty lucky Lyme patient, in that I’ve tested negative for almost all co-infections, and I’m able to cope without too many interventions. I’m even lucky that I tested positive in the first place. Many people with symptoms more classic than mine test negative over and over again, a situation that must be crazy-making in and of itself (and which I’ve had a taste of with this COVID stuff).

The third time I got tested for Lyme was last month. I’m often running some weird symptom or other — unusually tired, or too many headaches, or odd aches and pains — and so my MD did the usual blood counts and liver panel and thyroid check, plus she tossed in a COVID antibody test and, just for kicks, another Lyme test, to see if anything had changed. As usual, all my blood work came back perfect. Well, except the Lyme, which came back better than before: my number had gone down, to 150.

My doctor thought it was a great sign, as did my husband, Bill. It’s so confusing, though, because back when I tested 186, physicians said the score could only tell me that I’d had Lyme once. It could not tell me whether I had an active infection. In 2019, they tried giving me the traditional antibiotic course, but I had an allergic-type reaction after five days and we had to stop. After that, Western medicine was out of tools and ideas.

My primary Lyme symptom seems to be a revving up of my nervous system. I’ve always had anxious tendencies, but since 2012, anxiety has become a beast I’ve had to wrestle to the mat. So what brought my number down, and restored me to a level of health I hadn’t seen in years, was hypnotherapy. I’ve had to duck around my conscious mind to soothe and calm my frantic brain. If you come to my house any day around 3 p.m., you’ll find me lying on my bed, shades drawn, listening to a recording of my hypnotherapist’s voice reminding me I can relax, that I have nothing to do, nowhere I need to be. I don’t know why, but it works.

This coronavirus illness, then, has been scary, because whatever I had in the spring slammed me back on that couch, a place I don’t want to be again. Plus, I spent six years, between my probable tick bite and my positive Lyme test, struggling with an illness that had no name and made no sense. Been there, done that.

I just saw an herbalist today who sent me home with a Lyme formulation. I had a functional medicine doctor last year who wanted to try something like this on me, but I’m so reactive, she didn’t dare. Instead, she sent me to the hypnotherapist, which wasn’t a bad idea at all.

Time, though, has passed. The doctors who said last year that my Lyme score couldn’t tell them how sick I was now say the lower number means I’m getting better. I’d roll my eyes, but I am doing better. I’m too tired, but I’m not exhausted. My stomach still hurts after meals, but less often and less so. And it’s harder and harder to freak me out.

So I’ll try the Lyme formulation. And we’ll see.

It’s a little scary — it’s a lot scary, actually — to go after the Lyme directly. I know that sometimes symptoms flare up in reaction to treatments that ultimately work. But after seven and a half years, the thought of life without Lyme, as mild as this case of mine is, is too tantalizing to resist.

I imagine testing next year, and getting a score of 115 again. Or maybe no score at all. And that idea makes me smile.

Week 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 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.