Week 15: Social?

June 30, 2020

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Week 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 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 53: Driving

May 19, 2020

Photo by Taryn Elliott on Pexels.com

As I wrote yesterday, I’m finding this quarantine brutal, not only in the big ways I first imagined, but in the small ones that pile up like pebbles forming a hill.

Therefore, I’m trying to count my blessings.

Here’s one: I am no longer a chauffeur.

This was my secret joy when the world shut down in March, but as the weeks have gone by, I’ve dulled to it. It is no small matter, though. I am freed of the carpool. I am liberated from the slog of taking my daughter to dance; to her driving lessons; to her friend’s house all the way across town in Echo Park, because one of her dearest chums is, naturally, a kid who lives 60 traffic-choked minutes from our home.

There’s no more slicing up a Saturday night with a “quick ride” for Sarah to Sawtelle, which is not at all quick because so many other people are making the drive as well. She doesn’t go to Jewish teen events in Malibu, or Simi Valley, or at the Queen Mary in Long Beach, the driving back and forth of which can transform half of my day.

She doesn’t go anywhere.

I recognize this is sad for Sarah. It could even be called tragic.

But we’re not talking about Sarah here. We’re talking about me.

I now have time. I have time to write daily on a novel that for years has been more of a theoretical than an actual project. I can write this blog, which was never a goal of mine, but life surprised me.

I have time to have surprises in my life.

I’m watching a TV show here and there. TV and I have not had a viable relationship in years, but we’re inching our way back. I’m Zooming here, Zooming there, reaching out to old friends on the phone, walking (masked) with neighbors, banging pots and pans with others to celebrate birthdays on our street. I may not be able to hug anyone, but I’m keeping in touch.

There’s a lot of talk these days about the invisible labor of women — the feeding of babies, the corralling of toddlers, the supervising of children’s homeschooling. To this list, I would like to add the driving of the middle- and high-school set all over the bleeding town. I try to frame it for myself as quality time. Look, I’m talking to my daughter! When else would we get to have these intimate conversations?

But the truth is, I think we would have them, somehow or other. And when we did, I’d be a lot less harried, if for no other reason than my back wouldn’t ache so much from sitting in that car so much.

Sarah turned 16 in February, and would’ve had her license right now except she broke her big toe in January and had to take a break from lessons. She healed right about the time we went into lockdown. I’ve promised her that when she wraps up her school year, we’ll get back on the practicing.

I bet she’ll be there the minute the DMV reopens for driving tests. She can hardly wait.

Me too.

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.

Day 42: Horizon

May 8, 2020

Photo by Asad Photo Maldives on Pexels.com

I woke up this morning so scared.

Nothing has changed, at least not since yesterday, or the day before, or the day before that. Nothing has changed all that much since the middle of March, when the boys came home from college and Africa, and our daughter’s high school sent the kids home, and Los Angeles went into lockdown. Yes, we’ve had developments and events — a possible coronavirus sweep through our household, a birthday, an anniversary, a vet scare that will go down in family lore. But for nearly two months, our lives and those of many of our friends and family have run on the same, monotonous treadmill We don’t see new people. We don’t go new places. We don’t experience new things, at least, not outside the confines of our house and grocery stores and, for my husband, the clinic and the hospital.

Some mornings, like today, I wake up and that thought is terrifying. I can’t imagine doing this for two more months. I miss all of you so much. I miss the people I know, the bodies I can’t embrace, the smiles I can’t see in person. Even if we connect on Zoom, I miss something as primal as seeing your speech match the movement of your lips.

But I also miss those of you I don’t know, whom I might meet at a friend’s house, or wave to in the Trader Joe’s parking lot (“You go first,” “No, you”).

I miss — a lot — going into See’s Candies on Sepulveda at National, paying for one chocolate and getting two because everyone who walks in the door is offered a sample (and did you know, if you don’t want the sample they offer, you can ask for a different one?). Also, I miss the ladies who work there, forced to wear anachronistic white dresses with black trim that float me back to my childhood at these same stores in the Valley. Those ladies know all about my two-for-one tricks, but they never so much as lift an eyebrow, only ask me if I’d like a coupon for next month’s promotion with today’s purchase.

The store’s been closed since mid-March. I wonder, do they miss the ridiculous uniforms? The light scent of milk chocolate? Me?

I’m also scared to stop the quarantining. I’ve only done two big marketing trips since mid-March. A couple days after the first one, I got sick. Three days after the second one, I had a relapse. Probably, it was coincidence. But the fear grounds me in my house. I try to imagine doing something as ordinary as submitting to an afternoon at Third Street Promenade with my daughter. I used to think there were few things I enjoyed less than spending our hard-earned money and my precious time at Brandy Melville, Urban Outfitters, PacSun and the like. But now I know there is — being unable to even imagine going there again in the future.

That’s not all that scares me, though.

The boys are talking summer plans and I can’t stop remembering how radically different today’s plans are from those of February. Okay, I bargain with the universe, I dealt with a revised spring. I can handle an upside-down summer. But can you please give them back their fall?

No answer.

I see that it takes every bit of pluck my daughter can summon to stick to an academic schedule and prepare for A.P. exams, in this nether-zone of quarantine. I fear what it will require of her, and what it will take from her, if she must continue this way when 11th grade starts in August.

I’m scared that we can’t remain a stable society when a quarter of us are out of work.

I fear the salary cut that may be coming for my husband, because people are losing not just their jobs but their health insurance; at his clinic and at the hospital, aside from the COVID-19 patients, the rooms and hallways are emptier than usual.

And the fear that underlies it all: I lack faith in the President and his administration to do what is best for the nation. Even writing this makes me sad. I can hardly believe it’s true. But the image, coming into clearer focus every day, of a ship without a captain, banging recklessly about at sea, leaves me almost breathless with an existential terror.

Maybe that’s the problem. I’m trying to gaze through a telescope, when what I need to do is peer down a microscope: this house, these kids, that husband, our dog, these friends, and family, and neighbors. Only what’s right here, right now, no more and no less.

The trick to finding calm and sanity, the one that eluded me today, is to stay present. So present that literally, there’s hardly any future to behold.

Because the future — yikes.

Day 39: Normal

May 5, 2020

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 34: Housework

April 30, 2020

It’s that time of the week, closing in on Saturday, when I’m going to feel compelled to turn to my family and bring up the dreaded topic of …. housecleaning.

As much as certain members might prefer it, I cannot cheerily allow this abode to disintegrate under a film of grime. I’m also not willing to call my housekeepers back into action, for their health as well as ours.

So. How to divide up the duties?

Obviously, I come into this at a great disadvantage because we’re all spoiled. For years we’ve paid people to mop our floors and wipe down our counters. There were about seven months there, during the Great Recession, when we did it ourselves, and I’m still recovering from the trauma of strong-arming my three children into helping me clean the bathrooms.

Just kidding.

Sort of.

Now here I find myself again, much to my surprise. You really can never predict what life will have in store for you.

Granted, it’s much easier this time. I’m not running childcare as I’m sweeping. I’m not trying to make a game out of Windex and a mirror. And to a certain extent, I don’t mind the work. Unlike in 2010, when I had an 11-year-old, a 9-year-old and a 6-year-old, I’m not always on my feet. I now spend long stretches every day at my computer. I love that — but everything has its limits.

So Friday night, when I’m setting the dining room table for Shabbat dinner (we eat at the kitchen table the rest of the week), I clear away my office chair and my keyboard and mouse and laptop on a stand and the books underneath the laptop to prop the screen up to eye-level and the slanted footstool on the floor to promote good posture and all the cords that come with the apparatus — all of it moves to the side. That’s where it stays until Sunday morning.

In the Jewish tradition, the sabbath lasts from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, and during that time you’re not supposed to work. We almost always have a family dinner on Friday night, but that’s where our observance usually stops. However, these days — these long, faceless, blending-all-together quarantine days — I’ve felt a need to delineate. Work for me is sitting. So on Shabbat, instead, I move, a spray bottle in one hand, a rag in the other.

The only part that’s unpleasant is when I walk by my family members lounging, screen in hand, a smile on their lips, not even aware the hausfrau is passing by.

In case you were wondering — you probably were — my husband does his part on the cleaning front. But there are five of us living in this house, and watching others not participate burns a small, hot fire in the center of my chest.

I’ve gotten an offer this week from the trombone player, newly liberated from schoolwork, to do 30 minutes of housework every day. I just need to come up with a project and ask, and he will get it done on his schedule. That’s 3 1/2 hours a week, if he’s really game for it — nothing to sneeze at there!

The other two…. in all fairness, the oldest child does the bulk of our grocery shopping around here, and shops for my mother and her boyfriend as well, every other week. And the youngest is still deep in school work.

Still. Saturday, and the dirty house, looms. I’m going to try to cut a deal with them tonight. Wish me luck.

How do you handle the housework in your house? Chore charts? Yelling? Just give up and do it yourself? Please feel free to add a comment !