Week 21: Cancelled

August 18, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Week 18: Will College be a Super-Spreader Event?

July 30, 2020

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Four days ago, a mom named Sonia posted this to the Michigan State Spartan Parents Group on Facebook: “Please tell me are you nervous about Covid-19?”

Two hundred people have answered — so far — and here’s the breakdown:

  • Yes — 80
  • Believe it’s manageable with precautions — 29
  • No — 91

I’m not going to bore you with the “yes”es and their reasons. The manageable-with-precautions group seems to rest its faith in the ubiquity of hand sanitizer, the efficacy of cloth masks, and the maturity of college students. I think I begin to teeter after the hand sanitizer and fall off completely after the cloth masks.

Finally, here are a few of the “no” answers.

“Hell no!” responded Alisa.

“Nope … not at all,” wrote Monica. “Why are you asking the question?”

“Nope,” said Becky. “Have other things more pressing.”

“NO, not in the least,” wrote Julie. “My Dr told me my kids have a much higher chance of dying from a lightening strike. And a car accident is more likely, too. This is in God’s hands like everything else.”

And the kicker, for me anyway, from a dude named Dennis: “Nope. It’ll be over November 5th.”

(“Nope,” btw, is a real favorite of the “what-me-worry?” crowd. There’s an absoluteness about it, I guess, that a simple “no” presumably fails to convey.)

I was struck by many things as I scrolled down the interminable list of replies, but one in particular that stood out, from people on both sides of the question, was the assumption that the worry was individual and particular. They were, or they weren’t, worried about whether their own child would get the coronavirus at school.

This occurs to me because I’m working on that exact article, about parental anxiety surrounding kids going back to college. But the more I report it out, the more convinced I become that it’s not our college-age sons and daughters we should be worried about, when we talk about a return to campus. It’s everyone else. What we are doing this fall, as a nation, is highly risky.

There’s been lots of talk about which colleges are holding in-person classes and which are going completely online. The New York Times even has a database, where you can type in the name of a college and learn about its plan for the upcoming semester. But we forget — this isn’t elementary school. It’s not even community college. Just because you lock up the classrooms doesn’t mean the kids stay at home.

At Cal, where my older son goes, only freshmen live in the dorms, and not even all of them, because demand outstrips supply. Nearly every sophomore, junior, senior and graduate student lives in off-campus housing, whether that’s an apartment, a co-op, a rented house with friends, or a fraternity or sorority. Berkeley has gone 100 percent virtual for the fall. But that’s education-only. Dorms are open and, more importantly, the kids are heading back to town.

Just think, how many thousands of people will be on the move in August and September, criss-crossing county lines and state boundaries and the nation itself. And many of these people, if they catch the virus, will have a mild or even asymptomatic case. Plus they are young, with a high tolerance for risk. I don’t see how this is going to work out well, or even manageably, given the current state of things.

I just got off the phone with an infectious disease doctor at the University of Michigan. The danger, she said, really isn’t to the students. It’s exceedingly rare for young people without pre-existing conditions to end up hospitalized with COVID, she said. At most, they tend to have a fever for three or four days, then they bounce back up and go about their business.

The trouble, she said, is for the rest of the community. The virus may begin on a residence hall, or in a fraternity house (already, in California alone, there have been such cases at U.C. Berkeley and USC), but if the university doesn’t have robust contact tracing and quarantining practices in place — or if it does, but they get overwhelmed — then that’s not where it ends.

Sorry. I know this is scary stuff. But after reading article after article, and preparing to write one myself on this subject, I feel like we’re failing to see the elephant in this room. It’s not just about keeping the students safe, or the faculty, or how many people can share a classroom. It’s about what happens in every college town in every city in the country this fall, and how safe those people, newly arrived from literally all over, can keep the rest of us.

Week 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.