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 14: Caseload

June 25, 2020

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

Do you ever start to type “2020,” as I just did, find you’ve written “2002” instead, and wish that it wasn’t a typo?

I can’t believe I keep waking up to this year.

I can’t believe we are running from a plague we cannot corral, under the stewardship of a President who would rather rant than lead.

I can’t believe that I spent half of 2008 sending $5 and $10 donations to Barack Obama’s campaign, bopping along to newscasters declaring a “postracial nation,” floating straight through New Year’s on the high of electing the nation’s first black president, only find myself living in a society as racist as any I’ve read about in the history books.

I can’t believe that after the shitshow that was the fall of 2008 and the entire year of 2009, we have allowed so many of our fellow citizens to remain on such a precarious financial edge that this shutdown has instantly thrown them into financial desperation.

I can’t believe that, thanks to this virus, so many people have so little money dropping into their bank accounts, and the federal government is not riding out on a white horse to save them.

And of course, I can’t believe the numbers. The caseloads. The hospitals that are filling up, not in New York this time, but in Texas, Arizona and Florida. Bill tells me the numbers are up at his hospital, too, here in L.A. Can you get your head around this? I know I can’t. Are we supposed to stay in our homes for the foreseeable future? What if I do, and you don’t? What if I’m home and bored, and you’re out and having fun, and I get sick again, and you don’t?

Or what if I can’t stand it anymore either, and go making merry with my friends, and I get sick again and they do, too?

I got tested for antibodies a couple of weeks ago, and it came back negative. That should settle the question, that I didn’t have the virus. But I’m on a FB group for virus lingerers, and just about everyone on there who had a mild case has tested negative for antibodies. I’m pretty slammed with work right now, but one day when I can emerge from all these deadlines, I would love to pitch a story about whether mild COVID cases fly under the antibody radar.

That, though, is in the future. At the moment, I feel pretty decent, as long as I limit my exercise to walking. I’ve also got these pink blotches on my shins that look like someone beat my legs up. Just on the inside. Just up to the knee. The doctors can’t tell me what they are, and since they don’t hurt or itch, I try not to worry about them. They did get darker right before my last relapse, a couple of weeks ago. Right now, they’re pale, so that’s good. Still, don’t expect to see me in shorts any time soon.

But the thought I can’t escape is that I don’t have any detectable antibodies to the coronavirus, so I could get it again. Or, if I’m wrong about all this, for the first time.

Another thing I can’t believe, in a long, long list of them.

Day 52: Health

May 18, 2020

Photo by Josh Hild on Pexels.com

I’ve decided to try to write about good things and gratitude this week, because frankly, the pall over this time is real, and living in shadows is a tough existence.

So. A bit of sunshine.

Today, I’m grateful for health. I’m grateful that my health is getting better. A nap a day seems to keep the fatigue at bay.

But more than that, I’m grateful that my husband is healthy, because back in March, when this whole thing started, I was so scared he wouldn’t be. Bill is an internist who mostly sees patients in clinic, but sometimes does weeks in the hospital. Today, actually, is his last day of seven in a row on hospital service. In these last couple of months, he’s treated patients who he feared had the coronavirus — and thankfully, they didn’t. He’s also worn a surgical mask (instead of an N-95) to treat a non-COVID patient who later turned out to have the disease. It’s been such a roller coaster.

I was also worried I would give him the virus. But, nothing.

About once a year, Bill gets the flu, and it can be a pretty violent affair — for 24 hours, he retreats to bed and can barely move. Then he’s up, and it’s over, and he returns to work. This year, that happened in January. I don’t think it was the coronavirus because I got that bug after him (as I’ve mentioned before, I get everything), and it did not feel anything like what felled me in March. It felt, basically, like the flu.

I worried that, for Bill, COVID-19 would be the flu on steroids. But so far, it’s been more like one of the colds that whip through our house from time to time: knocking me sideways, inconveniencing a kid or two, slipping right past my husband without so much as a sniffle.

I’m also grateful for the health of my parents and their partners. It’s not clear at this point if my father’s stroke last month was caused by a heart arrhythmia or by the coronavirus. He’s tested negative for the virus and the antibody test failed to come up with anything, but his constellation of symptoms was so strange that even his doctor has floated the possibility. In any case, he’s well again, as is his wife, Joyce, and for that I’m thankful.

My mother’s boyfriend, Richard, continues to recover, which in itself feels like a miracle, because he’s spent the entirety of 2020 so far quite ill from metastatic kidney cancer. But every time we see him these days, he stands a little straighter and his color’s a little brighter. My mom has stayed healthy, though the effort of nearly cutting herself off from the world leaves her quite bored.

My in-laws in upstate New York are healthy. My brother, and my husband’s brother, and their families are healthy. So are my kids. So is my extended family. So are my friends. At least, as far as I know.

I’ve never thought so much about illness at a time when I’m surrounded by such an abundance of good, even robust health.

The virus has, for the most part, treated my world gently. I pray it continues that way, for me and for you.

Day 46: Georgia

May 12, 2020

Photo by Lum3n on Pexels.com

There’s this lady I interview frequently about debt and personal finance. She’s smart and articulate, plus she gives great quotes. I always enjoy talking to her.

We never talked about where we lived. Until today, comparing notes on our coronavirus experience. Turns out she lives in Georgia. And that, it seems, means we live in two different universes.

Here in L.A., the trails and beaches are opening, and I can do a drive-by skirt purchase, for whatever that’s worth. Otherwise, we’ll almost certainly be staying at home until mid-August. Many of the college students will be home even longer. The Cal State system just announced it’s cancelling most in-person classes and going online in the fall.

Meanwhile, in a suburb of Atlanta, the personal finance expert is weighing whether and how to venture out. This week she went to Target (an adventure also available to me). Next week, she’s getting a pedicure. What she’d really love to do is sit down at the salon and get her hair cut and colored — if that isn’t too risky.

“Things are opening up around here,” she said. “We’re all wearing masks and being careful.”

Of course, she added, you have to be more careful if you live somewhere like me. Somewhere like Los Angeles, where the number of cases keeps going up, and up. “I’m in an area where it’s not too active,” she said of the virus.

But is that true? And should it even matter to me, what she and her fellow Georgians get right or wrong?

On the one hand, no. I’m going to continue to stay at home, no matter what she does or doesn’t do. And she lives thousands of miles away. Airplanes are practically grounded. No one’s doing road trips. It won’t be easy for her germs to get to my city.

On the other hand, almost no one alive today has lived through a pandemic before. And humanity has never faced a pandemic with this level of information at our fingertips. We have no idea what will happen when we decide to quarantine indefinitely.

So is the Georgia way better? Is it even comparable, or is she right — she’s safer there than I am here?

There’s no straight answer to that question. There’s this:

Georgia has had a relatively consistent number of daily new cases since April 24. In this period, the seven-day average of the number of new cases per day has only been as low as 628 and as high 769, and the overall trend remains relatively steady.

From the CNN website today

But the state also has a new COVID-19 hot spot, among the Latino community in a town called Gainesville. The disease has been hitting black and brown communities in Georgia especially hard — 80 percent of all coronavirus hospitalizations in Atlanta are African-American.

Also, a new study out of Georgia Tech predicts a second rise in the state’s coronavirus cases, sometime between early June and August, if residents don’t continue to practice social distancing. “I hope that many people in Georgia, wherever they are, continue the social distancing, the physical distancing to the extent it’s possible,” a Georgia Tech researcher told Fox 5 news in Atlanta.

Basically, our governor has told us what to do. Theirs is leaving the decision up to each individual. It’s so hard, though, to figure it out for yourself. My Georgia source figures if she goes to a nail salon and just has them work on her feet — only a pedi, no mani — she should be okay. But this article I read last night would argue otherwise. It’s not just about the person who’s painting her toenails. It’s about sitting for a half hour or more in one room filled with many other workers and patrons, any one of whom could have the virus. Think about it: when you go to the market, you’re in a large space through which you’re moving pretty much constantly. In a nail salon, the room is much smaller, and you’re exposed to the same group of people for longer periods of time.

Still, I get her logic — and her fear. “Just because things are open, doesn’t mean I’m going there,” she said. “I really need a haircut — but I’m holding out. A little while longer.”

I wish that were all it would take. Another week or two, and “normal” will return. Maybe the virus truly does spread more slowly in her suburb, where she says the houses are spread out and neighbors were distanced before social distancing ever became a thing. Maybe it doesn’t, but it doesn’t matter, because they’ve decided what reality is, and it doesn’t look like ours out here.

I don’t understand how we can both be living in the same country. And that does matter. It feels lately like it’s starting to matter more and more.

Day 38: Stuck

May 4, 2020

Photo by Wendy Wei on Pexels.com

I feel like I should be celebrating. Our governor, Gavin Newsom, just announced the easing of some stay-at-home rules, starting as early as the end of the week.

We’ll be able to buy clothes and flowers and basketballs from actual stores. Okay, they’ll have to bring purchases to the curb (I think that’s what he’s saying). But it’s a start. It’s like cracking the window and letting in the spring air after a long, hard winter.

But I’ve spent today intent on the virus. Not in the general sense, either; in the specific. In the way it refuses to leave my body.

I’ve tried so hard to be patient and thoughtful, to treat my health with the careful, ginger touch befitting an antique China doll.

But still, the virus comes back.

If I walk up Mar Vista hill, it comes back.

If I do a 15 minute exercise video, and then two days later do a 20 minute exercise video, it comes back.

If something stressful happens, it comes back.

If I eat food that aggravates my delicate stomach, it comes back.

If the plants bloom in the garden outside my bedroom, and my allergies flare, it comes back.

I don’t mean to say I’m lying around all the time, curled up on the couch, shivering and aching from head to toe, like when this first started. I’ve never popped a fever. I’ve never been short of breath.

But I still get some body aches and some headaches and some fatigue and some chest pain. Sometimes I wake up at 3 a.m. and my stomach hurts and I want to throw up and I’m wondering if I should head to the bathroom, only I’m so dizzy I end up lying there, debating which is more likely, vomiting or tripping. Sometimes — well, this morning — I finally got out of bed and stuck my finger into a pulse oximeter because my chest felt like someone slid a corset around it and pulled and the little device said 93 — which is just a touch too low.

But then I had some tea and puttered about the kitchen, and about three quarters of an hour later, I tried the device again and it now showed a perfect pulse ox of 99. The nausea drifted away, coaxing the dizziness along with it. The chest and body and head aches diminished, until they were mere whispers of their former selves, just a tension I only noticed if I stopped to inquire of myself.

It turns out I’m not alone in this. The prevailing wisdom is a mild case of the coronavirus should span no more than two weeks, before disappearing into the ether, like any other cold or flu. But like so much else with this virus, the prevailing wisdom is a pastiche of observation and wishful thinking. It may also be more appropriate for men than for women.

The South Korean government has been tracking relapse cases of COVID-19. Out of the 163 people they are following, 109 (or two-thirds) are women.

Another risk factor for relapse may be a pre-existing condition. I’ve had Lyme disease in the past, which may or may not be active these days (my understanding is it’s impossible to tell, because my positive Western Blot test only confirms that I was exposed, not that I’m still fighting the infection). But the one gift the Lyme seems to have left behind was a case of IBS that can flare to truly epic proportions. I’m working with physicians and therapists and herbalists on changing things, but at the moment, a dinner with onions and garlic will keep me up with stomach pain half the night.

A woman who struggled to recover from the coronavirus created a Slack group for others like her; when she surveyed her members, two-thirds reported having a pre-existing condition, such as seasonal allergies or asthma.

I joined this Slack group today, as well as a similar group on Reddit. While it is alarming to see channels like #60plus-days, there’s comfort in seeing I’m not alone, and, as appalling as it sounds, in reading about people who are worse off than I am. Day 40 of a fever, anyone?

To get this sickness is to tumble into a world of conjecture, where prayer feels nearly as potent as medicine.

I keep thinking about this woman, Laurie Garrett, whom Frank Bruni interviewed for his column in yesterday’s New York Times. She’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who’s been predicting a pandemic like this for years now. She pictures the pandemic coming in waves, hitting Houston this time, Boston the next, going and going and going on.

“I’ve been telling everybody that my event horizon is about 36 months, and that’s my best-case scenario,” she told Bruni.

What we don’t know about this virus could fill Donald Trump’s White House and spill out onto the South Lawn. Whatever we do, however we go forward from here, we need to remember that. Surprises lie ahead. Danger lies ahead. But it seems like we have to try. Doesn’t it?

On a side note, I’m not sure how often I will continue to write this blog once the world starts to open up again. I think I will keep it going, at least for awhile, but possibly not every day. Like with everything else, we’ll just have to see how it goes.

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.

Day 29: Jabberwocky

April 23, 2020

Lewis Carroll

These days!

When have we ever seen anything like these days?

When I dare to look up from my daily grind, I wonder if I’m living a nonsense version of my life.

Like, take my iPhone calendar. It keeps issuing reminders of phantom events. “The Antipodes MT,” it announces. “April 25, 2020 at 2:30 p.m.”

Also, “Calculus Camp, Today.”

These two events actually were not supposed to co-exist. Our 16-year-old goes to a public school that takes Advanced Placement exams very seriously — a little too seriously, I tend to think. But one silver lining to this obsession is that the teachers actually drive all calculus students up to the San Bernardino Mountains, east of the city, for a four-day calculus extravaganza every April. In between lessons, the kids get to hang out in nature and with each other, plus they snag Calculus Camp sweatshirts to wear proudly back at school. Plus they tend to pass the exam.

Since our two boys were supposed to be away, one at college in Michigan and one studying abroad in Ghana, that meant my husband and I would have three nights to ourselves. It’s our 25th wedding anniversary on May 6th, and we’d talked about going away somewhere this weekend, even just overnight. I had dreams of Terranea.

That, of course, conflicted with “The Antipodes.” We have season tickets, with our neighbors Dave and Cheryl, to the Mark Taper Forum. For years, Cheryl and I would walk our dogs and talk about all the great cultural events we would attend if not for the soccer games at the park, or the child who needed a ride to a birthday party. Finally, last year, I called her up and said the time had come. We’ve seen more than half a dozen plays since then, most of them dramas on their national tour after a stint on Broadway. My husband’s been saying he wants tickets to musicals or the Philharmonic next year. Enough with all this Sturm und Drang. But for me, it’s been a dream.

See, this is the kind of problem I used to deal with: remembering to call the Taper and exchange our Antipodes tickets for a different weekend.

Today, the Terranea’s website says the resort, out of the typical “abundance of caution,” is closed. So is the Taper.

I have no idea what “The Antipodes” is about but I would give my eye teeth to go downtown this weekend and see it performed. Every time the reminder comes up on my phone, I salivate.

I used to jot down every appointment on my virtual calendar, because if I didn’t, I’d forget. I even had color codes — yellow for family, blue for me, red for work appointments and deadlines. I still punch in things now and then, but it’s more out of habit than anything else. There isn’t that much going on in my life. I tend to remember what’s coming.

But the calendar was about more than just ensuring I didn’t miss an engagement. I mean, I thought that was the purpose. Now I understand — it was also a way of marking the future. Like a dog lifting its leg to pee on a tree, I was claiming the next day, week, month as mine, and knowable.

I don’t know anything anymore. Our governor says we’re not close to meeting criteria for reopening the state, so he can’t give us a date. But c’mon. Are we looking at weeks? Months?

This is absurd. It’s like living in a Samuel Beckett play, issuing pronouncements that don’t make sense in the real world, waiting on something that’s in no rush to come, if it comes at all.

Because — well, I don’t mean to rain on anybody’s parade here folks, but if it’s occurred to me, it must have occurred to you: what if normal never returns? What if this starts a cascade of events that changes our lives forever?

See, here I go again, trying to know the future by imagining the worst. But the worst I can imagine is rarely what comes to pass. Instead, it’s something else.

There’s this poem I used to love as a kid, called “Jabberwocky,” by Lewis Carroll (he of Alice in Wonderland fame). It’s a poem that almost makes sense, but not quite. You feel like if you squint and look at it just so, its odd pieces will fall into place. Only you can never get the angle of the squint quite right.

These days, I think, are Jabberwocky days. That’s the only way they make any kind of sense at all.

In case you don’t remember it, or if hasn’t yet graced your life, I’m going to let Lewis Carroll and his nonsense poem take us out today:

Jabberwocky

BY LEWIS CARROLL

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
      And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
      The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
      The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand;
      Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree
      And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
      The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
      And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
      The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
      He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
      Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
      He chortled in his joy.

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
      And the mome raths outgrabe.

Day 28: Minivan

April 22, 2020

I woke up this morning and I didn’t want to do any of this anymore.

Not the Zooming. Not my new daily routine (morning, fiction writing and dog walk; early afternoon, work; late afternoon, blog). Not the checking on my kids, to make sure they’re not cracking under the stress. Not the worrying about what my husband may be encountering at work. Not the masks. Not the rainbows in the windows or the whimsical chalk drawings on the sidewalk.

None of it.

All I wanted was to get in my car and drive to an event with lots of other people, and celebrate something. Anything.

I can move to South Carolina, I guess. Or like the rest of us, I can wait.

Today — as you probably have not been able to avoid knowing — is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. How ironic, then, how deeply I long for my car and the freedom it affords. All day I’ve been fantasizing about vacations I want to take, and lollygagging in memories of places I’ve visited in the past.

If we’re going to save this planet, we’re going to have to move around it a whole lot less. I’m no exception, I realize. But this staying in one place is hard. I’m used to the variety afforded me by my seven-year-old Toyota minivan. I’ve spent so much time over the years complaining about the traffic here in L.A., I never stopped to consider how amazing it is that, even with cars bumper-to-bumper on the 10, I can get from my house in Mar Vista to downtown in no more than an hour (20 minutes if the lanes were clear, in case you were wondering).

Is it only me, or does it feel like this is a necessary harbinger of things to come? I don’t see how we can save the planet and drive and jet around it at the same time. Even with renewable fuels. Even with offsets. Every car we manufacture, every plane that comes off the assembly line, takes so much from our earth that we can’t replace.

This virus has radically changed my life in the course of a few weeks. There’s so much of it I’m eager to shake off. But for the sake of our beautiful Earth, I think some of these changes — some of this slowing down, this moving around less — we’re going to need to keep.

I don’t know how we’re going to do that, though. And as much as I claim to be green, I don’t know that I will like it.

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.