Sunday Interview: Liam

May 17, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 49: Bye-bye Camp

May 15, 2020

Gindling Hilltop Camp, Summer 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe, he says.

I don’t know, he says.

I’m going outside to practice, he says.

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

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

Day 48: AP Exams

May 14, 2020

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 47: The Bowl

May 13, 2020

Of course the Hollywood Bowl will be closed this summer.

Think about it: you sit in traffic on Highland Boulevard, glancing from the car’s dashboard clock to your phone’s screen to your watch if you’re wearing one, just in case one of them affords you an extra minute or two, because it’s always more jammed and moving more slowly than you expected.

If you’re like me, a very occasional Bowl attendee, you don’t have a designated parking spot, nor any particular allegiance to a lot. You just want to get as close as you can for as reasonable a price as you can. You always end up spending a little more than you want, but eventually, there’s a lot you pick, and you pull in and the cars are too close and you swear you’ll never get out until the last guy leaves, but whatever, you’re stuck, plus you’ve already handed over the cash.

So you gather the food you brought, and the blankets and sweatshirts you hopefully remembered (because there’s already a bite to the air, and it’s just getting chillier as the sun wraps up its daily arc), and you scurry out into the crowd, which swallows you up.

You’re swallowed up, like Jonah in the whale, only this whale is the swarm of people, walking and shuffling and skedaddling up the sidewalk. You walk one block, two, three, four (the Bowl is always further away than you anticipate), and with each block, the whale grows. By the time you pass through the Bowl’s front gate, if you don’t keep your companions in sight, you’ll lose them in the surge of bodies.

Finally, you land at the escalators, and now you’re going up, all of you, a throng elbow to elbow, practically toe to toe, with one common purpose — to get there. Because even though you’re on the Bowl property, you haven’t arrived. Not quite yet.

Here’s when you arrive: when you get to the entry that corresponds to your seat, and the whale of people spits you out into the amphitheater — the wide, open amphitheater, where there’s a seat for everyone, where your ceiling is the sky, and where the crowd is no longer a swarm or a throng or a whale. It’s no longer any kind of impediment at all. It’s necessary. It’s the hum of the evening, the thrumming energy powering the stage. And you melt into it, becoming both you, and not you, listening, maybe cheering, maybe singing, maybe turning to the person next to you, who you’ve never met before in your life and you’ll never see again, and saying, “Isn’t this amazing?”

You may have tears in your eyes. They may have tears in theirs. And they’ll nod, because you’re all in the thing together for some more minutes, maybe a few more, hopefully a lot.

And behind the stage there’s the mountains. Above it, eventually, there are stars and a moon. And you think, this is the best of L.A.

See, there’s just no way. This isn’t a time of shuffling whales or melting consciousnesses or turning sideways to chat with strangers.

Talk about a super-spreader event.

I’m embarrassed to admit that many summers I haven’t made it to the Bowl at all. I have my excuses, none of them good enough. Not when you can buy nosebleed seats to some performances for less than $20 a ticket. But I always knew it was there. I always sat with the purple brochure that landed in my mailbox each spring and thought, “How about this one? And this one? And this one? Definitely, at the very least, the Sound of Music sing-along.”

Now, I can’t even do that.

It’s been a startling spring. An alarming, head-spinning, heart-palpitating spring. But I fear it will be a dull summer. The sun will be out and the colors will pop, but our lives may feel muted. So much that makes summer thrilling, from venues like the Bowl to sunbathing on the beach to road trips and jet planes and staying somewhere that isn’t our homes, simply won’t happen.

Shoot.

The Bowl is furloughing a quarter of its staff and all of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. It’s also laying off all seasonal employees. If you love the Bowl, please consider donating what you can.

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 45: Butterscotch Lollipops

May 11, 2020

A few minutes ago, I was scrolling through my emails, thinking I’d forgotten about something today, when my eye alighted on the clock in the bottom right corner, and it hit me — I hadn’t written this blog.

Not only hadn’t I written it. I hadn’t even thought about it, all day long.

I’d felt adrift this afternoon. Maybe this was the reason why. Or maybe that’s the kind of times these are. Times when the minutes float into hours, and the hours melt into entire afternoons, and we fail to notice, because we’re drifting along in this fuzzy quarantine dream.

My calendar is full these days. A Zoom call tonight, a Zoom writing seminar tomorrow, another Zoom call on Thursday. And yet, it feels as empty as Venice Boulevard on lockdown. I don’t know why this is. Not only am I seeing the same people as usual. I’m actually seeing more of people I don’t usually see that often. But virtual meet-ups… well, they make me think of those Dum-Dums lollipops that used to fill my treat bag on Halloween. Sure, the cherry ones taste good. So do the grape. Butterscotch was always my favorite.

But after awhile, you want a real cherry. An actual grape. A butterscotch sauce or pudding that doesn’t sport a chemical aftertaste.

So, yeah, that’s my social life these days — a Dum-Dum lollipop. Butterscotch flavor. But still.

There’s many moments when the world itself feels virtual. I see so little of it these days. I must trust that it’s still there. I have to believe that there’s more to life than my house, its inhabitants and the coronavirus. But forgive me if I wonder: do I still have to worry about climate change? Peace in the Middle East? Whether Meghan and Harry can make it on their own without the Royal Family? (Of course I know I have to worry about Trump — he is The Inescapable Man.)

I wonder if I’ll look back on this with nostalgia one day. “Imagine– we didn’t go anywhere or do anything,” I’ll tell my grandchildren, and I’ll sigh. “It was so simple then.”

I hope I’ll remember that simple can be boring. And perplexing. And so fuzzy around the edges that sometimes, in the slow tick of the minutes, entire days slip through your fingers.

Day 42: Horizon

May 8, 2020

Photo by Asad Photo Maldives on Pexels.com

I woke up this morning so scared.

Nothing has changed, at least not since yesterday, or the day before, or the day before that. Nothing has changed all that much since the middle of March, when the boys came home from college and Africa, and our daughter’s high school sent the kids home, and Los Angeles went into lockdown. Yes, we’ve had developments and events — a possible coronavirus sweep through our household, a birthday, an anniversary, a vet scare that will go down in family lore. But for nearly two months, our lives and those of many of our friends and family have run on the same, monotonous treadmill We don’t see new people. We don’t go new places. We don’t experience new things, at least, not outside the confines of our house and grocery stores and, for my husband, the clinic and the hospital.

Some mornings, like today, I wake up and that thought is terrifying. I can’t imagine doing this for two more months. I miss all of you so much. I miss the people I know, the bodies I can’t embrace, the smiles I can’t see in person. Even if we connect on Zoom, I miss something as primal as seeing your speech match the movement of your lips.

But I also miss those of you I don’t know, whom I might meet at a friend’s house, or wave to in the Trader Joe’s parking lot (“You go first,” “No, you”).

I miss — a lot — going into See’s Candies on Sepulveda at National, paying for one chocolate and getting two because everyone who walks in the door is offered a sample (and did you know, if you don’t want the sample they offer, you can ask for a different one?). Also, I miss the ladies who work there, forced to wear anachronistic white dresses with black trim that float me back to my childhood at these same stores in the Valley. Those ladies know all about my two-for-one tricks, but they never so much as lift an eyebrow, only ask me if I’d like a coupon for next month’s promotion with today’s purchase.

The store’s been closed since mid-March. I wonder, do they miss the ridiculous uniforms? The light scent of milk chocolate? Me?

I’m also scared to stop the quarantining. I’ve only done two big marketing trips since mid-March. A couple days after the first one, I got sick. Three days after the second one, I had a relapse. Probably, it was coincidence. But the fear grounds me in my house. I try to imagine doing something as ordinary as submitting to an afternoon at Third Street Promenade with my daughter. I used to think there were few things I enjoyed less than spending our hard-earned money and my precious time at Brandy Melville, Urban Outfitters, PacSun and the like. But now I know there is — being unable to even imagine going there again in the future.

That’s not all that scares me, though.

The boys are talking summer plans and I can’t stop remembering how radically different today’s plans are from those of February. Okay, I bargain with the universe, I dealt with a revised spring. I can handle an upside-down summer. But can you please give them back their fall?

No answer.

I see that it takes every bit of pluck my daughter can summon to stick to an academic schedule and prepare for A.P. exams, in this nether-zone of quarantine. I fear what it will require of her, and what it will take from her, if she must continue this way when 11th grade starts in August.

I’m scared that we can’t remain a stable society when a quarter of us are out of work.

I fear the salary cut that may be coming for my husband, because people are losing not just their jobs but their health insurance; at his clinic and at the hospital, aside from the COVID-19 patients, the rooms and hallways are emptier than usual.

And the fear that underlies it all: I lack faith in the President and his administration to do what is best for the nation. Even writing this makes me sad. I can hardly believe it’s true. But the image, coming into clearer focus every day, of a ship without a captain, banging recklessly about at sea, leaves me almost breathless with an existential terror.

Maybe that’s the problem. I’m trying to gaze through a telescope, when what I need to do is peer down a microscope: this house, these kids, that husband, our dog, these friends, and family, and neighbors. Only what’s right here, right now, no more and no less.

The trick to finding calm and sanity, the one that eluded me today, is to stay present. So present that literally, there’s hardly any future to behold.

Because the future — yikes.

Day 41: Astonished

May 7, 2020

I really hate this damn virus. But it gave us the best anniversary we’ve ever had.

I’d been mourning the romantic trip we’d planned to take at the end of last month, when our daughter was supposed to be away at Calculus Camp and our boys would be, as we thought they would be for the foreseeable future, off at college.

Of course, that didn’t happen.

What happened instead was even better: we had all three kids home with us for our 25th wedding anniversary.

I don’t know about you, but when I had kids, this was the dream — to create a new family that I actually enjoyed spending time with. That’s not how it always went for many years. Individually, each child has been a joy, but together they would wear me down to a nub. This one needed this and this one needed that. Someone hit someone. Someone broke something. Someone COULD NOT COPE.

Sometimes I’d pass a mirror, see my reflection, and startle. I was still there. I’d almost forgotten about my own existence.

Other times I’d crumple in despair, wondering who I’d become and what, if anything, would emerge when this never-ending storm finally passed through my life.

Being married in those days was like reaching out in the dark, feeling for his hand, getting maybe his elbow or his shoulder, and thinking, “Right, okay, thank God you’re still there.” Or it was fighting about who should do what and whose days were worse and who was more tired and who was more worn out — then taking a deep breath, and remembering we were both trying our best, in our different ways.

This quarantine has not been easy on our kids. Each one has struggled in his or her own way. But the kids have been easy on us. Not just easy. They have been a joy, individually and collectively. (I know this isn’t the case for many people. All I can say is — I feel you. Also — it’s not your fault.)

So that is the very best, completely unexpected part of our anniversary. They are home, and we love having them here.

And that would have been more than enough. But there was more.

No, the kids did not make us dinner. Did you think I raised saints?

I made dinner — grilled pork tenderloin, roasted rosemary potatoes and sauteed kale with lemon juice and olive oil. I was all ready to serve it, too, at 6:55 p.m., but my husband was out on one of his walks (he’s mostly in motion), so I lay down on the living room couch and started scrolling through Facebook while I waited for him to get back.

Our friend Glen had sent us a Flintstones video of Fred and friends singing Wilma “Happy Anniversary,” so I was watching that, remembering how much I loved The Flintstones, when I started to hear all this noise on the street outside. There were people yelling and horns honking. I was annoyed, because whoever was doing what, it was interfering with my Flintstones song. Then my daughter, standing at the front door, said, “Mom? Do you want to come here?”

I walked out the front door and there was my husband coming up the driveway and there were some of our best friends on the street, some on foot, some in cars, yelling “Happy Anniversary!” They were the ones honking horns and banging pans, and they were doing it for us.

I asked Bill twice if he organized it, because I couldn’t imagine how else it occurred, but he kept saying no. There were friends from our neighborhood and friends from our temple, and one or two friends who didn’t fit either description. It was astonishing. It took me five full minutes just to process what I was seeing.

It turned out it was the work of my dear friend Orley, whom I met back in 1989 when I spent a semester studying abroad in England. Orley really deserves a blog post of her own sometime, so let me just say for now that I defy anyone to find a better friend than her. My life would not be as good without her in it.

Also. There was Melissa poking through her minivan’s sunroof with a Happy Anniversary sign. There was Paul with his little white dog. There was Melanie with a silver pom-pom and her husband Peter with his camera, recording it all. There was Danielle driving by. There was Karen and Eric, both recovered from the virus, with their dog and their son Adam, sporting a big bright yellow sign, cheering at the foot of our driveway. And Risa and Steve tossing us a silver envelope and Luz leaving us a bouquet of flowers and Damien pumping his fist across the street and Carin and Greg driving by with another homemade sign and Michele and Jeremy waving from the far sidewalk and Karen and Matt and their boys waving multiple signs and yelling and honking as they went past and Jami and her daughter banging pans on our lawn wearing some of the puffiest masks I’ve seen and Anne and her kids smiling and waving from the street and our rabbi and her husband laughing and calling as they joined the moving car parade.

Like I said, astonishing. Thanks to all, including Michelle who helped Orley and Melanie organize, but couldn’t be there because her son was out with the car.

Then we ran inside, gobbled down dinner, and ran back out again to join what our neighbor Patti calls our “viral orchestra.” That means a bunch of our neighbors, gathered in front of someone’s house, banging pots and pans and singing “Happy Birthday” (it started with our middle son’s birthday on April 4, and has continued apace since then. Two birthdays in a row next week!) Last night the birthday boy was our neighbor Ken. When we finished serenading him, the group decided it was our turn.

“What shall we sing?” Anne asked.

“The viral orchestra only knows one song,” Patti replied. And so they sang us “Happy Anniversary” to the tune of “Happy Birthday.”

And still, the day wasn’t over. When we got inside, we hauled out the wedding photos that usually languish in the garage, and marveled over how different everyone looked back then. Then my husband presented a power point he’d made about our lives together (25 years in five slides). By the end, he had me laughing so hard I was crying.

Of course, me being me, all that emotion erupted in a migraine this morning. But that’s why they invented medication.

The medication is pretty strong, and so I’m a bit loopy this afternoon, and not sure if what I wrote above makes much sense. And I don’t have the brain power to go back and edit it into shape.

But — wow. What a day. Brought to us by the coronavirus. Okay, no, not by the coronavirus, which has no upside at all, but by the quarantine. Which can be awful, and wonderful and even, occasionally, astonishing.

Sort of like raising children.

Day 39: Normal

May 5, 2020

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels.com

I’m writing today, as I have every day lately, from my dining room table. Behind me is a window twice my size, that looks out onto a world I more observe than inhabit.

But the opening is coming! So I read in the papers. So I see in the news. We’ll get back to business, our President promises. “Normal” will return again.

“Normal,” hand in hand with the coronavirus. Whatever that looks like.

I have no idea what the right path forward is. California’s governor is inching us into more economic activity, and that may be a good thing. As I wrote yesterday, I don’t know that we can live like this forever.

But here’s the conversation so many of us aren’t having: what are we willing to accept in exchange for a paycheck? In a swap for profits?

I just read an op-ed in the New York Times that wonders if our response to the continuing pandemic will come to resemble our reaction to gun violence fatalities.

“The coronavirus scenario I can’t stop thinking about,” wrote Charlie Warzel in the Times, “is the one where we simply get used to all the dying.”

It’s not such a fantastical scenario. The Times reported today that the Trump administration is discussing winding down the White House Coronavirus Task Force; as Trump himself toured a mask manufacturing plant in Phoenix, wearing safety goggles but no mask (like his VP, when he toured the Mayo clinic last week); and where he responded to a reporter’s question about the task force’s possible demise by saying, “”I think we are looking at Phase 2, and we are looking at other phases” of the pandemic.

Of course, Trump is only leading the way. From Florida to Georgia to Iowa, states are lifting quarantine orders. There’s also a cresting frustration in conservative swaths of this state. On Friday, a 24-hour fitness studio called the Gym, in Victorville, Calif., opened for business in defiance of the state’s mandate, with an 8-foot by 10-foot printout of the Constitution posted by the front door.

“This virus is political,” the Gym’s owner, Jacob D. Lewis, told the Los Angeles Times. “It comes down to our civil rights. There’s one thing that people in power forget, one thing that makes us all the same, and that’s the Constitution.

“They can’t force us to shut our doors,” he continued. “We did it voluntarily in the beginning because they hyped it so much, but guess what? They lied to us.”

Meanwhile, the number of COVID-19 cases nationwide continued to climb. And Riverside County, which contains Victorville, has the second-highest caseload in the state. At 4,354, it’s a fraction of the 28,000-plus cases in Los Angeles County, but more than double the 1,760 cases in San Francisco.

I can imagine an alternative path, one in which we continue to expand testing and demand people wear masks in public while staying home, in private spaces, as much as they can. Meanwhile, we ramp up our contact tracing abilities and invest in a great antibody test, like the one produced by Roche. Once our case numbers come down to a level officials deem acceptable, then we open up, slowly, testing for antibodies so we know who is safe to wander about, while continuing to test for new infections, and then tracing down and quarantining those who came in contact with the ill person.

It’s not a perfect solution, not by a long shot. Even if we have the best antibody test possible, we still don’t know what those antibodies mean. Do they confer immunity? If so, for how long? Also, we’ve burnt up so much precious time this winter and spring not investing in testing, not producing enough masks or hand sanitizer or PPE or any of the other items we need to prevent virus transmission, that we arrived in May hobbled by an economic crisis unlike any I’ve seen before in my lifetime, while here in LA and around most of the nation, more and more people are falling ill. I don’t fault our mayor or our governor, who did the best they could with the tools they had. But it’s also true that the people have been patient, and thanks to bungling at the highest levels, we don’t have enough progress to show for our sacrifices.

I realize I may be ruffling feathers here, and I’m sorry for anyone I’ve upset. But my husband is a doctor, and if we as a nation decide we’re not going to worry about the coronavirus, well, he won’t have that luxury. It’ll be in his exam room and in the ER and in the hospital. He will be exposed to it again and again and again, in a way he’s so far avoided thanks to the quick and decisive actions of our state and local leaders.

And anyway, I don’t know if any of us have that luxury. I just read today about a Ralph’s supermarket in Hollywood where 21 of the 158 employees have tested positive for the virus. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t be in much of a hurry to shop there now. If we loose our controls, if we turn our backs on this virus, return to life as we used to live it, the virus won’t just creep away. It will creep inside us. That’s what viruses do. And then where will we be? And how will we function?

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.