Week 23: A Pause

September 1, 2020

Nearly six months ago, I started writing this blog. I had a house suddenly full of young people. The world outside was newly locked down. And I felt sick in a way I’d never experienced before. There was so much to think about, so many novel things to consider, so many worries to contend with that I’d never before imagined, that I thought my head would explode. Whenever I find myself in a situation like that, I always do the same thing: I write.

Usually, I write longhand in a journal. But this time felt different. I had an inkling that what I was experiencing, pretty much everyone else around me was too, in one form or another. I thought if I wrote publicly about what was going on here, in my suddenly-crowded house, it might strike a chord with others, going through similar things in their over-peopled homes, and their under-stimulated lives. That seemed to be a correct assumption. It was so gratifying to hear, over and over, “the exact same thing is happening to me,” or “thank you for putting that into words.”

You’re welcome. And thank you.

Now, almost half a year later, the pandemic has not let up, though I am grateful every day for the expanded possibilities afforded me by a simple piece of cloth or paper stretched over my mouth and nose.

Also, I’m finally well again — at least, from the illness-that-tested-negative-for-Covid. I continue to recover from Lyme, but happily for me, that’s a much less dramatic, lower-key affair.

But here’s the main thing: my boys are both back at school.

Liam has settled into his fraternity a few blocks south of U.C. Berkeley. School started on Zoom last Wednesday, and his computer science class, he reports, is even harder than he expected. Today, he used his student ID to score a coronavirus test, just for the heck of it, because Cal wants to test everyone who lives in a fraternity and sorority, repeatedly. There’s been no cases of the virus in his house, that they know of anyway, though young men have lived there without a break all year long. His latest campaign is to persuade me it’s safe for him to come home for Thanksgiving, move back in without quarantining, and head back up north to finish out the semester. All the other kids are doing it, he says. I’m a no for right now, but we’ll see how long my resolve holds out against the image of my son, eating turkey by himself in the gross frat house, because I’m too neurotic to let him in the door.

Eli, for his part, managed to fly into Detroit on a red-eye, catch an Uber Friday morning and land at the Toyota dealership in Ann Arbor, 30 minutes away. Ninety minutes of document signing later, and he is now the proud co-owner (with yours truly) of a 2017 Toyota Corolla. He and his buddy Juan have an apartment in East Lansing, a mile and a half away from the Michigan State campus, for which they’ve purchased, among other items, two bar stools, a Magic Bullet for making smoothies, and $24 worth of flatware. If anyone knows of a second-hand couch in good shape, for sale in Central Michigan, they’re in the market. Oh, yeah, and classes begin tomorrow.

That returns us to where we began, on March 15, with just the three of us: me, Sarah and Bill.

With a doctor for a husband, I never thought I’d have a spouse who worked from home. But thanks to technology and a pandemic, he’s now often home half the day, doing telemedicine from the desk in our family room. As for Sarah, she’s home all day, just like me. She’s back in school, and has taken over the desk in Liam’s room, with plans to move to the un-air-conditioned garage office (the one that used to belong to me) once we can be sure the summer heat has permanently subsided. So I’m still in the dining room, but I like it here, as it turns out. The light is good, it’s never too hot or too cold, and between the bustle in the house and the dog walkers and bike riding kids on the street behind me, I don’t miss a moment of the action.

So I think, finally, this family of mine is settling into a new normal. And that feels like a good moment to pause writing this blog. Of course, if anything dramatic happens, particularly anything coronavirus-related, I’ll post again. Or, if I just feel like I have something pressing to say.

But for now, I have articles to report. A novel to write. And a life to live in a world in which the coronavirus is no longer novel, but an everyday fact, distressing and annoying and confounding, but not going away any time soon.

I may be back again, or maybe I won’t. We’ll see. But in the meantime, I hope to stay well. I hope you stay well. Thank you so much for reading this blog. It’s been a joy to write it, for me and for you.

Week 22: Ready to Go

August 27, 2020

I think I can pretty much encapsulate my last two days in this one piece of news: the 2017 Corolla with 28K miles on it, that we were all set to buy on Tuesday? It was sold by Wednesday morning.

But they have set aside a car for us, a 2017 with 18K miles on it, zero bells and whistles, that was in an accident once but, in the immortal words of the car saleswoman, “I want to assure you that there is absolutely nothing mechanically or physically unsound” about it. Eli says he’s fine with it. Me? I’m totally, completely over this whole thing. If it moves and he’s happy, basta.

So what does tomorrow look like, you wonder? Picture this: Eli arrives in Detroit at 6:30 a.m., following a red eye from L.A. That is 3:30 a.m. our time. He collects his backpack, his two overstuffed suitcases and his trombone, then twiddles his thumbs in baggage claim for an hour or two. Finally, he hauls himself and his bags and his instrument over to wherever people pick up Ubers these days at the Detroit airport, and hires one to drive him to Ann Arbor, which should take about 30 minutes. Dunning Toyota, his destination, opens at 9 a.m. Ava, she of the assurances, will be waiting for him. He signs something there. I guess I sign something here. Probably I wire something as well. And then — I suppose? — he drives off the lot in a brand new used car, his bags stuffed in the trunk, his trombone slung across the rear seats.

He gets on the highway, in a car he’s never even seen in person until he purchased it, headed for an apartment he’s rented without laying eyes on the building. Around 1 p.m., having dropped his bags in his new pad, he’ll zip over to Bed Bath & Beyond to pick up, curbside, household items we selected online. Around 2 p.m., workers will deliver to the apartment a mattress that a (different) salesman assured us on the phone was both well-priced and comfy.

Then he’ll head to the market to do his first-ever grocery shopping trip for himself.

All this, in the middle of a pandemic.

It would just about slay me, if I had to juggle all of this. Luckily, he’s 19. I think that’s what youth is for, to navigate days like this upcoming one.

But for the moment, he’s outside shooting hoops with his dad. His bags are packed and standing on the floor of his bedroom. He’s got a marketing list on his phone that includes such essentials as frozen broccoli (because I insisted on a vegetable), ketchup and Cup O’ Noodles.

And the part that makes me cry, every time I walk past it — the trombone in its case, a strap attached for ease of travel, lying on the rug in the living room, where he can reach down and grab it in an hour and half when we leave to take him to the airport.

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

August 25, 2020

Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

I have not been this stressed in a while.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, after I get him renter’s insurance.

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

Week 21: Pandemic Road Trip

August 20, 2020

I-5 through the Central Valley, smoke from NoCal fires in the air

There have been times during this pandemic when life seems to inch along at a glacial pace, everything so slow and so much the same that you can’t even remember which month it is, let alone which day.

Today is not one of those times.

I left Los Angeles yesterday, the minivan packed full of Liam’s bags and his bike, my eldest son next to me in the passenger seat. At home, Eli was awaiting a call from his friend, Emma, who lives in Sacramento but whose dad just happened to be visiting relatives this week in Michigan. Eli and his buddies found out Tuesday afternoon that Michigan State University would not let them move into the dorms, and now they were frantically trying to find a house together off-campus. Emma’s dad said he would stop by the prospective rental houses and check them out for the kids.

The drive up I-5 was uneventful until we descended the Grapevine and landed in Central Valley farmland, where the air was white with …. something. Liam insisted it was smoke from the Northern California fires. I refused to believe it. All the way in southern Kern County? It must be fog, I said (rather absurd, since the Valley is far inland), or dust kicked up by all those tractors.

We had to stop at a gas station near Kettleman City, and when I got out of the car, the acrid smell of smoke settled the question. But that wasn’t the end of the adventure at the gas station. I went inside, to pay and use the restroom, only to find myself greeted by a mask-less clerk with a big, goofy grin. I turned heel, paid at the pump, and waited on a bathroom until we got to the rest stop at Coalinga.

By the time we got to Coalinga, the air had turned from white to brown, and it stayed that way all the way to Livermore, on the edge of the Bay Area, where blue skies appeared again. I found this mystifying, since we were actually closer there to the fires, but perhaps the smoke in that area is blowing out to sea, while the Valley traps it? Who knows.

Meanwhile, Eli called with updates. One of the two houses had already been rented by the time Emma’s dad got to the Lansing area, but he’d toured the other. It was down a dirt road, with a lake on the property, and everything inside was decent but on the edge of falling apart. It seemed like a heavy lift for a group of kids who up until the day before thought living on their own meant a dorm room and a meal plan. But! They had a lead on an apartment.

Where Eli goes to school, there is Lansing, the state capital, which has good neighborhoods and neighborhoods where you wouldn’t want to walk alone at night. And then there is East Lansing, a separate city, where Michigan State is located, and which is fairly prosperous. The falling-down house was in Okemos, a bedroom community of East Lansing. The apartment was in downtown Lansing, which Eli assured me was a safe neighborhood, but I wasn’t convinced he knew that for a fact. Anyway, wouldn’t they be at risk of getting kicked out once the neighbors tired of their practice schedules?

We hung up the phone as we arrived in Berkeley. Liam moved his things into his fraternity house and I slipped inside to take a look at his room, then raced back out again. I didn’t race out because I was worried about the virus. The boys who lived there this spring and summer got tested on campus all the time, and so far, no outbreaks. I raced out because the house is so so gross, and his room was littered with other people’s things. He has a job on his hands that I do not envy. I don’t understand how any of them can live that way.

But not my problem.

We decided to take a short stroll around Berkeley, and it was as dispiriting as I’d anticipated. Berkeley is a town where it’s usually impossible to find an apartment near campus for rent the week before school starts. And yet, nearly every building had a “For Rent” sign up, right in the center of town. We walked the campus. All the beautiful libraries were shut up tight. Sproul Plaza, always jammed with students and visitors and protesters and people trying to get you to vote for something or sign up for something — was empty. No one hawked cheap earrings from stands on Telegraph Avenue. Nobody sold falafel or ramen from trucks parked on the curb alongside the south end of campus.

Pro tip: don’t visit a town you love during the pandemic. If you want to travel, go somewhere new, or at least, a place where you lack a strong emotional attachment. Otherwise, the full force of the quarantine will hit you like it is March all over again, and you will remember that even though good things have come of this time, at the core of it is a loss and a sadness that is impossible to describe or quantify.

Onward. We drove east to Orinda, just over the mountains from Berkeley, where we spent a lovely, socially-distanced hour in the backyard of my college roommate, Deborah, and her husband, Dan. Liam and I were both excited about this visit, me for obvious reasons and Liam because her husband is an avid bicyclist. Liam and Dan now have plans to ride around the East Bay together. This was something I’m pretty sure neither Deborah nor I pictured when we shared a room with apple-green duvets in our sorority house (a building two streets and a world of cleanliness removed from Liam’s current place of residence).

Because of Air Bnb snafus, we ended up renting a house for the night in Concord, thirty minutes east of Berkeley. The place turned out to be lovely, and the carne asada I ordered from a local Mexican place was one of the best carne asadas I’ve ever had (in a Bay Area suburb half an hour east of Oakland? go figure).

At 10 p.m., Eli called. Nothing was working out. He was going to have to stay home for the semester. He said he was okay with that, but it sure didn’t sound like it.

I went to bed early because I wanted to be rested for my long, lonely drive home the next morning. But I woke up at 4:30 a.m. and couldn’t fall back asleep. Finally hit the road at 9 a.m., after picking up lunch for later at a Whole Foods, and dropping Liam at the frat, and hugging him twice because I don’t know how long it will be until I can hug him again.

The drive was as smoky as the day before. My throat still feels raw. Eli called when I was eating the sandwich at the Coalinga rest stop (no more Central Valley gas stations for me!). The music department at MSU was hoping to make practice rooms on campus available to them, which meant maybe they could take an apartment, and guess what? They’d found one three blocks from campus.

By the time I got home, around 3 p.m., Liam had learned that someone commandeered his old bed, but he’d managed to purchase a mattress from a newly-minted graduate (and frat brother) for $40, and he was at Bed Bath and Beyond buying sheets. Eli was signing a lease on the three-blocks-from-campus apartment, listing me as a guarantor.

The dog was frantically happy to see me. I figured she found my leaving stressful. But then I happened to walk by her water dish. Bone dry. I refilled it, and she drank and drank and drank.

Now Georgie is all hydrated and settled. I’m trying to get resettled too. It’s been a long week, and it’s still only Thursday.

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 20: Sad

August 11, 2020

My mother’s longtime partner, Richard, died this afternoon. We are all heartbroken, her especially. This is for my mom:

Wild Geese

By Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

RIP Bernard Richard Stevenson

February 7, 1939 — August 11, 2020

Week 19: Rising Junior

August 6, 2020

I’m watching my 16-year-old have a great day. She hung out with friends in person, and online. She’s outside right now, getting a great workout on her stationary bike with the Peloton app. She’s wearing the new workout clothes she got and she looks adorable.

So what’s the problem? The problem is the unopened, orange paperback book lying on her carpet, that just happens to be required reading for her upcoming junior year. The problem is she had a pre-term assignment for A.P. Spanish due on Saturday, and she hasn’t started it yet. The problem is a bunch of other work — the details of which I don’t even know because I’m a bad mom who’s lost her Schoology password — that she also hasn’t begun.

Unlike me at that age, Sarah is a straight-A student. Like me at 16, though, she’s a procrastinator. It is stressful to procrastinate. It is also stressful to watch someone procrastinate. To walk by her room and hear Taylor Swift playing or the burble of high-pitched giggles, when there should only be the silence that comes from deep concentration. Or — maybe worse — to hear nothing, only to peek in and realize she’s watching another Tik Tok video with headphones on.

There must be something I’m supposed to do. Right? Right? I am nagging. That, obviously, is going nowhere fast. I could start taking things away. But this coronavirus has taken away so much. She already had a teary bout today when her friends invited her to join them at the beach, but she couldn’t bear to hop into the car with them, none of them masked, and risk getting sick. Her older brother offered to drive her there and drop her off but she said it was no use, they wouldn’t social distance once they got there, either, and she’d be stressed about her exposure for days after.

If I take anything else away, I’m afraid she will crack.

I guess the only option I have is to let her bumble and stumble her way through the mess she’s creating with every hour, every day that ticks past without academic action. And while I’m doing so, train myself to look the other way.

Eleventh grade starts in 12 days. Wish us luck.


August 4, 2020

Our dog, Georgie, guarding some of my mask collection

I read that there are thousands (millions?) of people across this country who refuse to wear a mask. Over here, in my little corner of West LA, I’m doing my part to counteract that.

I own so many masks. I have a black mask, and a blue one, and an orangey-red one. I have one with cranberry flowered fabric and blue lace straps that slide over the neck and the back of the head. I have two or three tie-dyed ones with cotton straps that loop over the ears. I just opened a mail packet to find two masks inside, one white with embroidered flowers, the other one pink-checked. I have no idea when I ordered these things. I must have thought I lacked that pink gingham touch around my mouth?

Honestly, on any given day around here, you can open up an Amazon-delivered pouch to find new, random masks inside.

Mostly they’re for me. The boys seem to rotate between one or two cloth masks, even though I insist that’s not sanitary. Sarah has a cute collection of satiny white and black ones with swirly patterns, but half the time she uses disposables because she can’t find any of the others. And Bill always uses disposables. We keep a tray of them by the front door, for grab and go. I don’t think they’re eco-conscious, but I purchased the tray when the boxes of them kept appearing, and looked so unattractive on the entry way table. I guess that makes me an enabler.

I suppose I keep hoping that if my mask looks cheery, or at least attractive, it will sweeten the reason for wearing it. To me, those disposable masks look like defeat, like an ugly, paper, medicinal concession to the virus (I also think they have a chemical smell, and wonder what I’m doing to my body if I inhale that every day). I also hold out this hope that somewhere out there is the Perfect Mask — the one that won’t fog up glasses, or slide down until the tip of my nose is practically poking out, or make it prohibitive for me to breath and talk at the same time.

I’m still looking for the mask of my dreams, but if you’re curious, here are links to two of my favorites so far:

Tie-dye from Everlane, which also has plain ones (Liam says these are his favorites) — https://www.everlane.com/products/unisex-human-mask-5-tie-dye?collection=face-masks

Designer masks, from Michael Stars. On the pricey side, but boy, are they comfy, and do they fit well! — https://www.michaelstars.com/products/lightweight-shaped-mask-3-pack-msjmask3pk

Any masks you love? Leave a comment and tell me about it. I’m always happy to add to my collection!

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 18: Cancer in the time of COVID

July 28, 2020

Photo by Min An on Pexels.com

Richard’s in the hospital again this afternoon, and honestly, it’s hard to think about anything else.

Richard is my mom’s boyfriend of 15 years. They met in 2004, and shortly after became bridge partners. He was a retired school teacher, a widower with no children of his own. She was a retired real estate agent, with two grown children and four grandchildren (now five — hello, Elle!). She was also still married to my dad — but as I can attest, it wasn’t going very well. She left my dad in October, and six months later, started dating Richard.

Given the history here, I was predisposed not to like her new paramour. But he turned out to be so likable — kind and friendly, easy-going, and difficult to rattle. My mom can run high-strung and stressed out; in him she found a partner who not only refuses to rise her level of anxiety, but who actually calms her down. “Now, Kris,” he often says, “that’s not a big a deal.” And pretty much always, it turns out it’s not.

(No worries about my father. My mother formally moved out in the morning, and he went on his first J-Date that evening. Two dates a day on the weekdays and three dates a day on the weekend, for two months straight, until he met Joyce in December. This past February, they celebrated their 14th wedding anniversary.)

Richard turns out to have two obsessions: bridge and politics. I don’t know too much about his bridge side, though my mother tells me he’s a great player. But I’m well acquainted with his political fixation. At 81 years old, he’s an old-school Democrat (think Biden, pre-pandemic). A measure of his intensity is that I did not notice a particular uptick in his news diet when Trump got elected. The way we’ve all become attuned to every twist and turn of the D.C. drama? That’s how he was about the Iraq War when I met him, and it hasn’t waned since.

But I don’t know if he’s been tracking the details of the Republicans’ latest coronavirus relief bill, or that Trump just claimed that much of the country is “corona free.” He may be too busy fighting to breathe.

A few years ago, Richard did a preventative scan, and to everyone’s surprise, they found cancer in one kidney. So they went in and took out the kidney and honestly, I barely even noticed there’d been a surgery. He just went on as before, as though nothing much had happened. Two or three years passed, and cancer turned up again, in an adrenal gland. Another surgery, another excision, another shrug, and he was back to his life of politics tracking, bridge with my mom, travel with my mom (sometimes bridge and travel together, when they went on bridge cruises) and walking their rescue dog, Sadie.

Then, in January, his back hurt badly enough that he had my mom take him to the ER. I’m picturing excruciating pain, because nothing less seems to catch his attention. It turned out the kidney cancer had metastasized to his spine and his lungs. That was a bad day, and the days have not gotten appreciably better since then.

There’s been immunotherapy. There’s been the side effects of immunotherapy. There’ve been scans and blood work and more scans. Earlier this month, there was a week in the hospital, followed by about 10 days in rehab, where they tried to increase his weight and strength. Then this morning, he could hardly breath. My mom drove him back to UCLA, where’s he supposed to spend the night. When he comes home tomorrow, it will be with a tank of oxygen.

There’s the hope that the oxygen will make it easier for him to breathe, and give him back some ease in his days. There’s the hope that the treatment the oncologist plans to start on Friday will be the magic bullet we’ve been seeking for the last six months.

Hope feels narrower and more tenuous each day, but — maybe — there’s enough still to clutch onto and try to hold fast.

What’s certain is that this is hard to watch. It’s hard to watch Richard suffer. It’s also hard to watch my mom struggle with his illness. She doesn’t whine and she’s been remarkably composed through these last few months. But Richard has made her happier than I’ve ever seen her in my life, and so I’m not surprised that this has been a brutal journey for her, too.

I’m not sure how to end this post. Sunshine does break through cloudy skies, right? Well, we’re all waiting on the sun.