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

August 25, 2020

Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

I have not been this stressed in a while.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, after I get him renter’s insurance.

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

Week 16: Super Teacher Mom?

July 16, 2020

‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’.

I’ve waited 16 years, and it might not ever have happened without the pandemic, but here it is, finally: my daughter and I are reading Pride and Prejudice together. That sentence above is Jane Austen’s iconic first line that perfectly sets up her novel, a wry take on the marriage market of Regency-era England. I have read this book so many times I couldn’t possibly begin to count. I adore the heroine, Elizabeth Bennett, who brooks no fools, and her sexy but infuriating love interest, Mr. Darcy, who — gasp — comes to admit his own mistakes. I love the balls and the gentry and the absurd formality of their lives. But most of all, I love how Austen addresses prejudice and inequity while still making me laugh aloud. Sure, it’s prejudice and inequity directed by one very rich class of white people against one not-so-rich class of white people. I will admit, it’s hardly the world’s biggest leap. But it’s startling, to see how even members of the same society and skin color can find ways to look down upon each other.

There’s also lots of big vocabulary words, which Sarah says will come in handy when she takes the SAT this fall.

When we first went into lockdown four (four!!) months ago this week, I did not exactly pull on my Super Teacher Mom cape. At first, it was like a tsunami hit: we were locked indoors, and then one son flew in prematurely from the Midwest and then another son flew in prematurely from Africa and what on earth was this new life, anyways? Where and how would I work, and how would I get groceries, and could I finally squeeze in daily time for fiction writing? And then I got sick, and was worried even more about me: how would I get better, and when would I get better, and what exactly was I getting better from, since I never got definitive word on what I had?

Meanwhile, Sarah’s high school went online and I thought, okay, that’s not great, but it’s also pretty straightforward. Same classes, same teachers, just on Zoom instead of in person. But as anyone knows who’s been raising a teenager through this shitshow we call quarantine, Zoom learning is anything but straightforward.

Some teachers didn’t show. Some teachers hardly showed. Some expected too much and some not much at all. Sarah stayed up to all hours chatting on Facetime, watching movies and TV shows with friends around the city, and I was just glad each night, as I drifted off to sleep, to hear her giggling down the hall.

Despite the giggles, this turned out to be anything but a happy time. The life of an A.P.-taking, ambitious high schooler in America in 2020 is already an existential question: why? Why must I learn subjects I will never use again? Why must I labor to build a “resume” that will become irrevelant the moment I set foot in my freshman dorm, and another, even more consequential race begins? Why, in fact, am I racing at all?

At this age, friends can be a delight and a torture.. But at least they are there, in the trenches with you. Unlike your teachers, your counselors and your parents, who want want want from you, like you’re a product with an expiration date quickly approaching.

During quarantine, though, even the mixed solace of peers has been tempered in a fundamental way. No hugs. No whispers in class. No trading bits of gossip in the halls or at lunch. No bonding at the mall, or the beach, or a party.

No matter, though: you must learn. Now. Tick-tock, time isn’t waiting on the coronavirus or you. Get going.

It was a lot to ask of anyone, much less a 16-year-old girl who delights in making her bullet journal, crushing on Harry Styles and sketching out dresses on scrap paper. I will not ask her to lift such a heavy burden again all by herself.

LA Unified just announced, as we expected, that school this fall will begin online. Sarah, who will be in 11th grade, is signed up for four A.P. classes — Spanish, calculus (the second half of freshman year college calc; she took the first half last year), English and something called A.P. Seminar, which is the first year of a two-year-long research project. Plus, of course, regular chemistry and U.S. history. It’s a very full load.

At the moment, following the excellent lead of my thoughtful friend Anne, I’m trying to gather a pod of about two or three kids who are also taking A.P. Calc B.C. and whose parents would like to split a tutor with me. Because one lesson we learned loud and clear last spring was that, as hard as calculus is in a classroom, it’s twice as hard over Zoom. It was a Herculean effort for Sarah to pass her A.P. calculus exam this spring, made even more trying by a College Board software glitch. I don’t want to subject her to the loneliness of that again.

I think I’d better find another tutor for Spanish, and make myself available for English, history and seminar help. Chemistry, her physician father can handle. She says she doesn’t need us for those subjects, but I’m coming to understand, it’s not strictly about ability, or capability. It’s about having a person, in the flesh, who is invested in your academic life on a daily basis. That used to be her teachers. For the foreseeable future, that will be me and her dad.

To be clear, this is not how I want to spend my time this fall, hovering over my 11th grader’s textbooks. If we could afford $40K a year for private school for her, maybe I wouldn’t have to. The private school teachers, even over Zoom, have more time for each student, and the private schools may have the space and money to pull off in-person learning. Our public schools have been underfunded to the point of breaking for years, and now the fissures are turning into cracks that no one can help but see.

That, though, is the subject of another post, for another day.

In the meantime, Sarah and I are reading a book together. A book that has unusual words like draught and solicitude, which will no doubt be of assistance when it comes time to take a standardized test. My daughter is learning that young women who lived on a different continent 200 years ago were not so different from herself and her friends, and that their problems could be entertaining without being ridiculous.

I’m remembering how much I love to see Sarah laugh.

And I’m coming to understand that, for now, education, in all its many forms, begins and ends within these four walls.

Week 15: College Choices

July 9, 2020

Sunrise over Agriculture Hall, Auditorium Road and Hannah Plaza, Michigan State Univerity

In less than six weeks, we’re going to have to start making some consequential decisions about schooling.

Our oldest, Liam, is supposed to start his senior year at U.C. Berkeley next month. He wants to drive up north, from our home in L.A., on August 19. He says I should unload him and his stuff on the sidewalk in front of his fraternity house, give him one last hug and speed away. All of his classes will be online, which will keep professors and staff safe. As for Liam, he’ll be living with 30 to 40 other guys, in a house that never seemed that clean to me to begin with.

Our middle son, Eli, is still waiting on a move-in date for his dorm at Michigan State, where he’ll be a sophomore. The school says it’s a go for a late August start, which in Eli’s case means living on campus, one history class online, and a slew of music classes that are listed as hybrid, or even in-person. The School of Music hasn’t released many details, so he and his friends have filled in the blanks, imagining music theory classes where you go once a week, on your assigned day, in person, and the rest of the time participate as best you can from your computer screen in your room. He’s a trombone player, and he’s hoping to do some of his playing in person. Can you imagine being a middle-aged professor in a room, no matter what the size, with eight or nine kids blowing through their horns, during this pandemic? No, I can’t either.

Eli’d like me to fly with him across the country, so I can help him retrieve his things from a friend’s basement, where they’ve been stored since he rushed home in March, and move them into his new room. But that seems like a lot of unnecessary exposure for me. He’ll have to go alone this time.

Meanwhile, LA Unified continues to try to plot out a path forward, but it’s looking narrower every day. I just don’t see, with the city’s numbers the way they are, how the district will bring kids back for in-person classes. This will be a hard pill for Sarah to swallow: after months of isolation, months more ahead. But I will know she’s safe. And maybe we can finally go somewhere. Bill has to reserve vacation time months in advance, and when everything was going haywire during the initial lockdown, we forgot to book days during the summer. We figure if classes are online, maybe she could do online from a rented condo in Palm Springs for a week in October or November. Something to look forward to, at least.

Meanwhile, I worry about my boys. I don’t see how either of them goes back to school and escapes exposure to the virus. And not just a little exposure, but high, repeated, viral loads worth of exposure. They’re 21 and 19, both in excellent health. They should be fine. But as we now know, this virus is capricious. I don’t want to keep them at home when they want to be there. I also don’t want to spend my fall worrying about them, plotting what I would do if they got hospitalized and I needed to go to them.

But that’s the crisis tomorrow. In the meantime, Bill’s on hospital service again this week. This never happens during the summer, but then again, COVID-19 never happened during the summer. He’s not on the COVID ward, but yesterday his duties involved a trip to the ER, which is pretty much COVID Central. So, not great. But he comes home each day in good health and he leaves each morning after running for miles and miles. We don’t exactly get used to it. But I, at least, have learned to live with his risk in the background of my days.

I suppose that’s my model for the fall, and my boys. Fret a lot and often at first. Then, loosen my grip, and allow it to slide it to the background, just one more noise in the low hum of threat all around.

Week 15: The Fonz

July 2, 2020

It’s late at night, and I’m thinking about an old friend.

I met Steve K. in third grade and saw him — for the last time I can remember, anyway — in sixth grade. That would be (gasp!) 40 years ago this month. It’s not much time to make an impression on someone, especially not after so much time has passed.

But four years when you’re twelve is one third of your life. And we were part of a group of 20-odd kids, at a public elementary school in the San Fernando Valley, who traveled as a unit through third, fourth, fifth and sixth grades. So I knew the guy. But more than that, he was part of the fabric of my childhood.

I had a pretty vibrant childhood. If I had spools of thread and got to weave said fabric myself, it would be a rainbow of colors. The red thread would be for Steve.

He was a short kid, with a shag of straight blond hair and a bridge of freckles across his nose. He had a smile like trouble coming and a twinkle in his eyes that promised it would be fun. The main thing I remember about him is that for the longest time, I thought he bugged the living daylights out of me.

This was the late ’70s. One of my biggest claims to fame at the time was I had an AYSO soccer coach who was also a well-known LA radio D.J., called Charlie Tuna (I kid you not). Charlie (I don’t remember his real name) was so well-connected that he had access to the ultimate VIP experience: a taping of the TV show “Happy Days,” and one day, at the end of the season, he took me and his daughter and the rest of the team to see the show filmed. I came this close to shaking Fonzie’s hand, but got overwhelmed at the last minute and ducked away.

All this to say, the Fonz was the very image of cool when I was in elementary school, and Steve used to try to fling around phrases with the same aplomb as Henry Winkler, who played the leather-jacketed dude on the small screen. He’d call after us girls, “Yowsah yowsah yowsah!” on the playground, and I thought this was a form of expression just short of caveman. For a while there, he claimed to have a crush on me. But honestly, I was never sure. Sometimes, I thought it just gave him another excuse to flip his would-be Fonz switch and yell “Yowsah yowsah yowsah!” over and over and over again.

Kind of harassment-y, yeah. But these were the 70s. We had dads who worked in aerospace and moms who stayed at home, unless our parents got divorced, which was its own kind of pandemic in those days, and then our moms scrambled for whatever jobs they could find, which sure as heck didn’t provide the same kind of paycheck as those Dad jobs in aerospace. And there was disco, and sometimes it seemed like sex was everywhere and nowhere at all, and abstinence was a word no one ever, ever mentioned.

We were so not-woke.

So, no, I didn’t love getting cat-called at four-square. But it was done with such a lack of guile, and with such genuine enthusiasm, that it was impossible to get mad at him. Eventually, by the time we got to sixth grade, two things happened simultaneously: Steve relinquished the Fonzie persona, and he got cute. I never developed a full-blown crush on him — too many “yowsahs,” still too fresh in my head — but I realized that somewhere along the way, I’d come to like him, and we’d become friends.

After we graduated elementary school, a lot of the kids went on together to the same junior high. But it was the busing era, money was draining out of the public schools like water from a burst pipe, and my (wealthy) parents were nervous. Consequently, I was ripped out of my beloved rainbow fabric and dropped into an elite private girls school, where I knew no one, and where I spent the next six years trying to decode behaviors and patterns that had little to nothing to do with the aerospace dads and single moms and four-square games and Fonzie imitations of my previous existence. The new world swallowed me whole, as new worlds did in those days before the internet and social media. I hardly saw any of my former classmates anymore, and when we did run into each other … well, we were 13, 14. It could get awkward fast.

But today, not only do we have the World Wide Web and Facebook. We also have Zoom, and a pandemic. Since I can’t meet anybody new anymore — can’t even easily engage in forgettable conversation in line at the grocery checkout — I’ve decided to go deep, instead. If I can’t fling myself forward, I’ll lean back. Plus I’m bored.

That same high school class, the once-new world now another sepia-toned memory, started having Zoom reunions and to my surprise, they’ve become a highlight of my quarantine. So I thought I’d try to organize a similar Zoom session for the elementary school crew. I began with a Facebook page, and added the half dozen or so people I’d already friended online. Then we began a search for the rest of us.

We’re at about 15 now. It’s looking like some we may never find, particularly women who changed their last names when they married, or men with common names who’ve avoided social media. But Steve’s last name isn’t a common last name. And he wasn’t hiding somewhere off line.

“Hi Connie,” my friend Sloane wrote me in an email, “I don’t like conveying terrible news but I noticed a while back, when I had checked onto fb, that someone posted that Steve K___ has died (back in 2017). So hard to believe.”

She sent me a link to his obituary in the L.A. Times. There was the same bright smile. He’d had a wife and two daughters. “Steve was a constant jokester and loved to be funny and loved to laugh,” read the obit. “He was the life of the party and made friends wherever he went. Steve loved all sports, reading the paper, and pop culture. He became a die-hard University of Alabama fan when his oldest daughter started college there and was so excited for his youngest daughter to join her sister in Alabama this fall. Steve was beyond proud of his girls.”

It’s been 40 years since I last saw Steve. Almost as many years since I last thought of him in any sustained way. But there I was, staring at the computer screen, thinking no no, please no, no, no…

I knew that the odds were high that not all of us would have survived these four decades.  I don’t know which of us I was prepared to lose. No one, I guess. Certainly not him.

It’s going to be a bit of a juggling act, organizing this reunion. Some of us refuse to have anything to do with Facebook, which of course complicates the matter. But we’ll get there, we’ll get there. And when we do, I’m sure it will be a mind-blowing experience, seeing people leapfrog from twelve to 52 years old right before my eyes. But it will be lacking something. That narrow, bright, red thread.

And, you know, damn. The Fonz is always cool. The Fonz is always young. The Fonz is not supposed to die.

We’ll miss you, Steve. Heck, we already do.

Week 13: Man-on-the-Street

June 18, 2020

Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

I am facing a quandary, one that comes up from time to time in my work as a journalist: how to find average people to interview, who will embody the issues in the story I’m writing?

Years ago, when I worked at local papers, the solution was straightforward, if occasionally excruciating. You’d just leave the office, notebook in hand, and go in search of a place where people were walking around. Then you’d accost complete strangers, introduce yourself and your publication, and pray they would stop walking and talk to you. If they did, I had this long pad of paper, with a spiral at the top, that fit neatly in my palm. As they talked, I scribbled and flipped over pages, scribbled and flipped over pages.

Today, I work from home as a freelance writer. And I mean literally from home. Even before the pandemic grounded me, I rarely did interviews in person anymore. Partly this was because I was talking to people all over the country for national publications. But I also wrote for USC, which often meant just schlepping across town to sit down with one or the other of their professors. If that sounds like a pleasant break from the same four walls, it was. USC has a pretty campus, and the people I interviewed there were even more interesting in person than they were on the phone. But it also meant that a 30 minute discussion could suck up hours of my time, between getting dressed in suitable business attire, driving down the 10 freeway, finding parking, walking back and forth to the office, driving home, getting resettled at the computer, etc. etc. So even in my USC work, whenever I could possibly do an interview by phone, I did.

The internet has made it astoundingly easy to find experts from the comfort of your home office. Seems like I remember. back in the Stone Ages, randomly calling major universities and asking the communications staff to recommend professors to talk to on particular subjects. I couldn’t know if they had done cutting-edge research on the topic, but I would hope that at the very least they would be familiar with the issues, and perhaps recommend other people to interview as well.

Now, like everyone else, I have Google, and Google Scholar, and a host of other services and directories.

But I do miss the days of standing in front of supermarkets, notebook in hand, calling out, “Excuse me? Excuse me?”

I recently got assigned an article about parents sending their kids to summer camps run by teens, because they (the parents) are scared of virus exposure at bigger, regular day camps — or the camps in their area are all closed. I did the usual routine: posted a request on my Facebook feed, as well as to a group for women freelance writers with kids. I got plenty of responses, more really than I need — all of them from upper-middle-class white women.

I made a vow on this blog, a few entries ago, that I would make a conscious effort to interview people who weren’t white, no matter what the topic of the story. For this particular story, the editor has even requested it. But I can’t find the women. I have sent emails to more than half a dozen mothers’ group for black and Latina moms, but only one responded, and that was to tell me they couldn’t help me. I intend to send inquiries to more tonight, tomorrow, and possibly — though I hope I’ve solved this problem by then — into the weekend.

This is a tiny problem, a minuscule problem, really, when black people are getting regularly gunned down by police, and African-American pregnancies are severely impacted by climate change, and it took a Supreme Court decision to ensure that a generation of Dreamers would not be shipped back to their countries of origin because Donald Trump wanted to fire up his base.

But it’s frustrating. And it’s embarrassing, because it points out how racially segregated my life is. I have some friends who are, to throw them all in a broad category, people of color. Some of my best friends, actually, fall in this category. But the majority of my friends are white, and the majority of those are Jewish. It’s comfortable. It’s easy. But it’s not right.

And it’s not at all helpful to me today.

Week 13: Path

June 16, 2020

Photo by Tobi on Pexels.com

I attended a freelance writing seminar this weekend (over Zoom, of course — don’t get too excited), which was mind-blowing in a lot of ways. We got to pitch a series of big-shot editors, including ones from the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Paris Review. About one third of our group of 20 was African-American, and I am still pondering the stories they told and alluded to about the way institutionalized racism impedes their careers.

As I wrote last week, I’m continuing to grapple with the idea of my unearned privilege, and what I can do to advance justice. This weekend gave me even more to consider. I’ve joined a group at my temple that is going to meet once a month, facilitated by a member who has vast, deep experience in social justice movements. I’m told we should be prepared to drag our own prejudices into the harsh light of day and examine how we can make a difference going forward. I’m sure I will have more to report on that in weeks to come.

In the meantime, I’m also thinking about writing for free.

The guy who runs these freelancing workshops is David Hochman, a journalist who writes regularly for major publications and, even more impressively, manages to raise a family in West L.A. on his freelance writing checks. This is the third time I’ve taken one of his UPOD workshops (don’t ask me why the name), and at each one he repeats the same mantra: you should never write for free.

David, actually, has a number of mantras, and mostly I agree with them. For the longest time, I agreed with this one, at least as far as non-fiction went (if you say you will not write fiction until someone pays you for it, then you will never write fiction). I agreed with David up to and including the moment I first sat down to write this blog, almost three months ago. Until March, my work life was bifurcated by the dollar: on one side, the fiction writing that I did for free, out of a compulsion born of misery when I tried to stop; and on the other side, any other writing that I did, for as much money as I could possibly earn while still respecting myself in the morning (to clarify, the respect part isn’t about the money, but about the nature of the work that earns that money).

I started this blog because I was locked up at home and ill with mysterious symptoms and bubbling over with more thoughts on all of it than I could jam into assignments on, say, precautions nursing homes should take during a pandemic, or whether the coronavirus will lead to more cashless payments (both articles I wrote in March). I didn’t think writing the blog was a great way to spend my time, because it wasn’t advancing my novel, and I wasn’t getting paid. But it felt so good, and when my body felt so crappy, that seemed like reason enough.

In some far corner of my mind, I figured that one of two things would happen. I’d either write a few entries, get bored, and move on. Or I’d tap into a vein of hitherto-undiscovered genius, and pen the precise words that would make this pandemic come into focus, and I’d be “discovered.”

Nearly three months out, neither one of these scenarios has come to pass. Some days — many days — I’m sure I have nothing left to say, until I sit down and start typing. I have more followers than when I started (79 as of this count) but nothing like the kind of numbers that translate into book deals.

And still, I keep going, because this blog is the gift that keeps on giving. Since I started writing this blog, I’ve done more work on my novel. I’ve worked better and faster on my articles. I’ve started again keeping an actual journal, by my actual bedside, paper, pen and all. And I even signed up to take this weekend’s pitching seminar, because if I can write into the void twice a week and strike a chord with many of my friends, than maybe, just maybe, I have something worthy to say.

So, yeah, don’t write for free. Don’t do any work for free. Unless it’s art. Or, unless you see a path ahead of you, and it makes no sense to head that way, but something in you urges anyway, go, go, go. You can always turn around and head back. Then again, you never know what you might find.

Week 11: Quandary for our times

June 2, 2020

I’ve been thinking about rage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 31: Crystal ball

April 26, 2020

Photo by Mathilda Khoo on Unsplash

Some of my friends have regular family movie nights with their kids. In this house, we’re lucky if we get in one 22- minute episode a week of “Schitt’s Creek,” and even then, our oldest boycotts it, for reasons only known to himself.

But if you can’t have family movie nights during a lockdown, when all five of you are living under the same roof again like some kind of frigging miracle, then you are truly a lost cause. So we watched “Casablanca” together last week (my choice). This week, our oldest — yes, the “Schitt’s Creek” boycotter — wanted his turn. He picked the 2017 film, “Call Me By Your Name.”

It’s a film about a 17-year-old boy who falls into a love affair with the 24-year-old male student who has come study with his father for the summer. The story is set in northern Italy in 1983. The countryside is green and lush. The home where the family gracefully resides has a spareness and classicism that feels almost pre-industrial; in one scene, just before there’s a blackout, the father and the son are listening to the mother read a book aloud.

In short, there is a romance to the entire movie that makes it feel as though it’s been pulled out of time, and hovers in the ether of eternity.

Except, there’s that date — the summer of 1983.

It meant nothing to our children, but to my husband and myself, it was unmistakable. It was the last moment of innocence for gay men. After a long history of repression, open love seemed like a possibility, for some if not for all. But in a blink, the AIDS epidemic would descend, blanketing them in a terror they could not, in the summer of 1983, even begin to imagine.

Spoiler alert: this next part discusses the last scene of the movie. If you haven’t seen it and you want to, you might want to stop here (though personally I think the magic of the movie lies not so much in the destination as in the journey).

It’s wintertime; the family, who is Jewish, lights Hanukkah candles as snow falls softly outside. Inside, the 17-year-old, Elio, sits in front of a fire, tears rolling in slow succession down his cheeks. He’s just learned that his older lover is engaged to marry a woman, but the man has told him to feel fortunate, because Elio’s parents welcomed and validated the summer love affair between the boy and the young man. As he looks into the fireplace, I imagined that he was thinking about the future, and what it might hold for him.

The viewer stares and stares at this hopeful face, as the credits begin to roll on by. All I could think was that the future would come bearing horrors that seemed impossible in this cozy, gauzy moment.

Who knows what I would have thought in those moments, had I seen the film six months ago? Even three months ago? The AIDS crisis felt more relevant that evening than it had in decades. I remembered that, by the time I arrived at college, in the fall of 1986, I was terrified of catching the virus from casual sex — and I was a straight girl. I recalled 1994, when my then-fiancee worked as a resident at the LA County General Hospital, and how the wards were filled with dying AIDS patients. Then, about a year later, the first protease inhibitors came on the market, and everything changed.

Everything changed — after ten years.

I looked at that boy, gazing into the fire, a dreamy smile on his lips despite the wet gloss on his cheeks, and I thought of myself on New Year’s Day. We had our annual NYD potluck that morning. The house was filled to the brim with friends and family. Everyone brought something from home and casually lay it on the dining room table — that is, when they could find a bit of space. We all ate my homemade chili from the same crockpot in the kitchen.

We couldn’t imagine it any other way. But here we are, and we all want to know so badly how much longer — how much longer! — this will go on.

The gay men of the 1980s, when they understood the relentless nature of the plague boring down on their community, had no idea when it would end. A decade or more would have seemed unbearable.

And it was, but there was no choice.

We’re all trying so hard to end this thing, so we can get back to our lives. But as the movie reminded me, they couldn’t tell the future. And neither can we.

Sunday interview: Ashley

April 26, 2020

Photo by Natalia Sobolivska on Unsplash

Note: This is a true story, but names have been changed to preserve the subjects’ privacy

Ten months ago, a cancer diagnosis transformed the lives of Ashley and her family. They learned that Karenna, then 11 years old and the youngest of their four girls, had an advanced case of bone cancer.

Since then, Ashley and her daughter have driven 30 miles, from their home in the western suburbs of Los Angeles, to UCLA every other week for five straight days of chemo treatment, followed by nine days of recovery. Long before the coronavirus drove America out of the workplace, Ashley put her career as a landscape designer on hold to tend to her daughter, whose condition requires round-the-clock care. The two of them have also been basically on lockdown, since Karenna’s immune system is so fragile.

Then, in March, the pandemic hit. Soon, the rest of the world – plus the rest of their family – joined them in unexpected quarantine.

Ashley:  Cancer comes with many questions. Now you have COVID, which is very similar, in terms of how do you get it? Could be this way, could be that way. How long does it last? How does it manifest in each person? Cancer is the same way. How long is treatment? When will this be over? When will we know that it’s not going to come back? So it was like, is there yet another thing now that we have to worry about? 

In the very beginning, I was in a state of complete – I mean, you go from this busy life, lots of distractions, very busy work, everyone’s got their full schedule, and then you find out one day your kid has cancer.

Since I’ve now surrendered to cancer, it was easier for me to surrender to COVID. I wasn’t working any more. I had no social life that wasn’t phone calls or walks.

Her doctor at UCLA told us, “I really doubt Karenna’s going to get this (based the way scientists believe the virus interacts with the body, and evidence from Italy and New York City).” He’s more worried about me getting it, or (her husband) Charles getting it. Karenna can’t bear the thought of me getting sick.

For instance, if I was to have a fever, she would have to get chemo alone. Now, anyone 13 or older is getting chemo alone. The kids are sitting there bawling behind other curtains in the chemo clinic. One parent is allowed, but if that one parent is sick, the kid has to get it alone, which is super-traumatic.

Also, Karenna had planned this big trip post-chemo, which was supposed to be in June – she wanted to go to Italy. Now we can’t go anywhere for God knows how long.

But you know what? As awful as it has been, there has been so much beauty. The amount of support! There was this woman who organized 75 people in our neighborhood to bring Karenna a gift every single day. Every single morning there’s a beautiful wrapped gift outside our door. And we don’t even know these people. It’s all anonymous. 

There’s something really beautiful about community and the simplicity of our family now.  I never played Monopoly with the girls their entire childhoods, and we played Monopoly. Before, we were always going in different directions. It was kind of a big deal after we played, because I thought, Wow, we never do anything like that.  The amount of family dinners we’ve had, cooking meals, sitting outside by the pool. We never cleared our schedules in 20 years. Now it’s like, what are we doing for breakfast? What are we doing for lunch? Elizabeth (the oldest girl) gets up and makes coffee for everyone. She takes orders. Anything that you would have gotten at any matcha bar. She’s trying to find boba. That’s all we don’t have.

I’ve always believed in God, but there’s something really different now. I’ve had to accept that I’m not really 100 percent in control. Things are going to happen and I’m going to have to roll with it.

I used to sit down every night and make my list and it was like, Okay, I’m going to get through this list tomorrow. Everything will be done on this list. There is no list anymore. And I don’t even care. I’m telling you I care about nothing anymore but health and family.

Now, with this pandemic, the entire world is worried about health. Every single person knows that health is at risk. There’s a unity.

This is a long-term quarantine, which is very much parallel to what we’ve experienced. It feels like saying, “Do you get what we’ve been going through?” and everyone in the world is like, “Yes!”

Day 30: Nancy

April 24, 2020

Me at Whole Foods without Nancy

Tomorrow is Saturday, my day of rest from this blog. Back on Sunday. Be well and be safe!

I met Nancy because I get too many migraines.

A few years ago, she set up a massage chair at my local Whole Foods. I would walk by and see her sitting on a stool, reading a romance novel, her blue leather chair at her side, and I would wonder: should I treat myself to a massage?

It seemed so decadent and bizarre at the same time. Massages are supposed to be something you gift yourself on a big birthday, not a treat you indulge in next to the olive bar at the market.

But I get these migraines that start in my neck, the muscles tensing and tensing, until they shoot up past my hairline, around my ears and my temples, to the back of my eyes, at which point I’m pretty much toast. Medication helps (yes I have a prescription — remember, I’m married to a doctor), but it has side effects and anyway, if you take it too often, there’s a rebound thing that happens.

However — if someone can massage my neck and back just as it’s starting, sometimes the migraine scuttles away.

Obviously, it was only going to be a matter of time before I sat down in that chair.

I’ve had so many massages from Nancy in the years since that they all kind of merge together. Did I mention that I can walk to that Whole Foods in 15 minutes, drive there in five? She’s a magician. Her fingers know exactly where the pain lives and, like a weed, where it’s driven its roots. She extracts them one by one. When I leave her chair, after 15 or 20 minutes, the migraine may still be with me. Within an hour, though, it fades away. I have no idea how she does this.

But that’s not the best part of Nancy. The best part of Nancy is… well… Nancy. It turns out massaging is her day job. She’s an actress who approaches her roles with the rigor and fierce intellect you’d expect of a graduate of Smith College. She’s a tireless fundraiser for Alzheimer’s research, having lost multiple members of her family, including her mother, to the devastating disease. She’s an active member of her Episcopalian church, drawing on her deep faith to pull her through life’s challenges. And most importantly, she’s a good, good friend.

Nancy cheers me on. She cheers on my children and my husband. She’s the bright spark waving when you walk into the market, smiling at you when you walk out. Talking to her is to be showered in compliments you don’t deserve.

I’m sure you can guess where this is going. Nancy isn’t at Whole Foods anymore because she can’t be there. No touching allowed in a pandemic. We’ve sent a few texts back and forth, but it’s not the same.

This pandemic hasn’t been all bad. Because everything has stopped, my life is calmer. My anxiety, which can sometimes fly off the charts, is way, way down. It turns out what stresses me isn’t so much the events in my life as the pace at which I’m trying to process those events.

But this virus has taken, too. It’s torn away joys big and small. Sometimes, I don’t even see the hole in my life until I’m tripping right through it.

Like today, when I went to Whole Foods and the only person that greeted me was a security guard in a mask and gloves, ticking me off on his counter. I was simply one more person allowed to enter the store.

I miss my massages. But I miss Nancy more.