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….

Day 22: Letters of Transit

April 16, 2020

Last night, we sat down with our kids to see “Casablanca.” Not all three kids — the middle one took a pass. He often takes a pass. This is how he missed seeing “Come From Away” at the Ahmanson two Decembers ago, a theatrical experience the other four of us still gush about with wonder.

But I digress.

So there we were, me and the 16-year-old and the 21-year-old curled up on the couch, my possibly-COVID husband relegated to another option (he vacillated between the floor and an ottoman). And maybe it was because we kept pausing the movie to explain plot details to the 16-year-old (while her older brother rolled his eyes and threatened, “If she needs to stop one more time, I’m leaving” — but she did, and he didn’t). Or maybe I’ve finally seen this thing so many times that I can get beyond wondering what Ingrid Bergman would’ve looked like without soft focus, and sighing over the tragedy of thwarted love.

But for the first time, I understood in a visceral way the relief those characters must have felt to land in Casablanca, and yet, the burning desire, even need, they had to leave.

Until this virus landed in my community, I’d never been stalked by an enemy before. I thought my dreams of Nazis chasing me sort of counted. I thought the fear I felt the night of September 11, 2001, looking up into a Los Angeles sky brightened only by starlight, wondering if my city would be next — I thought that counted.

No, it didn’t. Not for me, anyway. But now I know what it’s like to find my society up against something implacable and potentially lethal. To make a rough correlation, the outside is Vichy France. My home is Casablanca. It’s safe — for now. I can afford to stay here — for now. There are adequate provisions — for now. But I want — we all want — to get to safety.

That war, when it caught you in its crosshairs, was so much deadlier than this virus. But it was ungainlier, couldn’t travel with the same smooth, voracious ease.

President Trump wants to open up the nation as soon as possible — May 1st, or even earlier for some locales, he reportedly told governors on a phone call today. I confess, I am usually knee-jerk negative on all things Trump. And of course, this nation remains woefully unprepared to confront this pandemic, short as we are on testing, and ventilators, and ICU beds, and ill-equipped as we are to do proper contact tracing.

But what is our alternative? Here in California, we are what’s considered a raging COVID success story. “State’s scariest virus scenarios finally yield to ray of optimism,” read the headline in this morning’s LA Times. “Coronavirus cases in California may be peaking, models show, provided we stick with social distancing.” (italics are mine)

That means everything — so many lives saved — and nothing. I don’t understand how we keep doing this. I see friends posting on Facebook that neither they nor their spouse have had any income for a month. Two, three, four months like this seems unsustainable.

In such moments, I turn to my younger brother, who loves numbers. When he was a kid, he’d grab the sports section each morning and lie on his stomach on the den carpet, the paper spread out before him to the stats section, chewing up the numbers in his head, breaking them down. Today, with business in the doldrums, he fills his time scouring the internet for COVID-19 spread data. Sometimes he sends me what he finds. (Sometimes he makes graphs of infection rates by region, country or state. I’m trying to get him to make a few that I can share here, but so far, he’s a no go.)

Yesterday, he sent me this link. As of today, the New York state infection rate is 11,530 per one million people. California’s is 704. Sure, we can re-open this state, but whether we inch forward, or throw ourselves a big “return to normalcy” party, we still must grapple with the intractable fact that most of us remain unexposed to the virus and don’t have immunity.

But are New Yorkers much better off? Definitely, there are a lot more people in the five boroughs that have survived COVID-19 than in Los Angeles. But we still don’t know what that hard-won exposure is worth in immunity. I came across a study in Science Magazine the other day that sent chills down my spine. The authors — Harvard University professors — explained that viral immunity could be anywhere from five years or more to a handful of months. We just don’t know. And, they added, what’s going on now may not be the worst we’re going to see. I’m just going to quote from their paper here, because they explain it better than me:

One-time social distancing efforts may push the SARS-CoV-2 epidemic peak into the autumn, potentially exacerbating the load on critical care resources if there is increased wintertime transmissibility. Intermittent social distancing might maintain critical care demand within current thresholds, but widespread surveillance will be required to time the distancing measures correctly and avoid overshooting critical care capacity. New therapeutics, vaccines, or other interventions such as aggressive contact tracing and quarantine – impractical now in many places but more practical once case numbers have been reduced and testing scaled up (43) – could alleviate the need for stringent social distancing to maintain control of the epidemic. In the absence of such interventions, surveillance and intermittent distancing (or sustained distancing if it is highly effective) may need to be maintained into 2022, which would present a substantial social and economic burden.

“Projecting the transmission dynamics of SARS-CoV-2 through the postpandemic period,” Science Magazine, April 14, 2020

In other words, if this doesn’t work out right, we could be asked to do this for two more years. But we can’t. Can we? People who had solid lives will lose their homes. People won’t have money for food. And will the food even be there? What of our vaunted supply chains, when the virus keeps striking and striking, and we keep shutting down in response?

Just like Victor Laszlo and his soft-focus Ilsa, we all just want safety. We sit here on uncomfortable bar stools in Casablanca, throwing back our cocktails, trying to figure out how to get letters of transit so we can leave this beautiful hellhole.

Remember, in “Casablanca,” security was only an illusion. It was a free French territory, but the Germans kept finding ways to convert life to death. And so we wait in our homes, while the economy crumbles, and we’re “safe” — maybe from the virus, probably not from the economic damage being wrought all around us.

We want safe passage. But maybe there’s no entirely safe passage through this thing.