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: 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 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 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.

Sunday Interview: Liam

May 17, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 49: Bye-bye Camp

May 15, 2020

Gindling Hilltop Camp, Summer 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe, he says.

I don’t know, he says.

I’m going outside to practice, he says.

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

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

Day 48: AP Exams

May 14, 2020

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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