Day 28: Minivan

April 22, 2020

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

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

None of it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday interview: Laurie Jacoby

April 19, 2020

Laurie’s dog, Bear

Laurie Jacoby walked into a Venice loft seven years ago and knew she’d found her home. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is such a perfect space,’” she said.

Sunshine poured in from a skylight in the high ceiling that soared above a spacious living room and kitchen. Sure, it was only 1600 square feet total. And there were no doors save for the one bathroom, so whatever anybody said or listened to in the bedroom could be clearly heard at the other end of the home.

But what did she care? She was a divorced empty-nester, shedding a house in Westside Village where she’d raised her daughter and son. It was only going to be her there, and anyway, she’d be at work all week.

So she moved in, and it was everything she’d hoped and more. At times, with the beach and the bike path a stone’s throw away, it could feel like being on a permanent vacation.

Three years passed this way. Then life got even better. “I didn’t anticipate,” she said, “falling in love again.”

Fast-forward another four years, and Laurie and her boyfriend, Mark Schwarz live in the loft together. There’s family nearby and far away: her 91-year-old mother is in New Jersey, Mark has grown children in LA and Denver, Laurie’s 34-year-old daughter lives with her boyfriend a few blocks away, and her 29-year-old son lives with his girlfriend near Dodger Stadium.

I talked to Laurie last week about sheltering in a small space with the one you love.

How long have the two of you been quarantining?

I’ve been home five weeks yesterday. I went to work on a Thursday and I thought, “This doesn’t feel right.”  Mark has asthma. Because I represent journalists [she’s an agent], we have the TV on at work so we can watch our clients all day long. If something happens in the world, I will know about it. I can’t remember exactly what it was, but all of a sudden it felt like, “This isn’t going to get better.”

I ran to Trader Joe’s and ran home and said, “Okay, this is where we are. This is it.”

Did you think you’d still be here, locked down?

Ha! No, I thought it would be, like, a week or two. How long could it last?

This is so strange.

No doors. One bedroom. Two people. How’s that going, day after day after day?

If you are in one room, you can hear if someone scratches their nose in another room. We have two televisions, one in the bedroom and one in the living room, but there’s no way you can watch them at the same time.

You can’t go into the bedroom and close the door. And now I’m working at home which I’ve never really done before.

The way I decompress is I need quiet and I need alone time. I’m someone who likes to read with complete silence, so that’s been a challenge.

Does it stress Mark out too?

No, it doesn’t bother him in the same way. But really quickly, he got anxious about his health concerns. Three years ago he got the flu and his lung capacity was down to 10 percent.

As soon as I realized we’d be staying at home, I’m worried about food and stuff like that. I was like, “What series are we going to watch?” Meanwhile, he’s thinking about his asthma, reading about people having to go on ventilators. But now we’re here, we’re secure, we’re fine.

So I’m guessing you run all the errands?

Because I’m 63 and Mark is asthmatic and 67 and my kids absolutely adore him, they have been so protective of us. They’re making sure we’re not shopping. At first they were getting all our groceries. Now we’re all using Instacart and other delivery services.

It feels like I’m so young and vital and healthy. It makes this whole pandemic seems real, when they say “No, do Instacart, because this could be terribly serious for both of you.”

It’s a little like the tables are turned. They are taking care of us, and that’s sometimes difficult for Mark and me to accept.

 But we’re also so grateful. There’s this back and forth that’s happened sort of organically, people caring for each other in ways we didn’t know we would.

Okay, not only can’t you go to the office, you can’t even go to the store. What’s a release? How do you find some peace?

 We also have a 90 pound lab mix in this space of ours. His name is Bear, and we have to walk him. He’s a sweet, sweet dog. I’m outside right now, for instance, looking at the boats, and it’s lovely.

In the morning, I’ll get up before Mark does.  I take a novel, whatever book I’m reading, and I try to read while the sun starts coming up over the skylights. That’s my quiet time. That’s where I’m finding I do have some privacy. Once he gets up, I’ll have some breakfast, then I’ll head over to the counter or the big comfy chair in the bedroom to do some work.

I also had to spell out some rules. Like, I would say, “I’m going to take a bath,” and Mark would say, “I’m going to walk the dog.” It would be really nice in the bath, I’d light some candles, and then I come out and it’s like, oh, he’s back. He’s back already. No, I need more time.

So now I say, “No, here’s the deal. I’m going to take a bath and then, as I’m getting out of the bath, you’re going to walk the dog.”

We’re figuring out how to make the space work for us.

How about friends? Are you socializing on the phone? On video chat?

The thing that’s driving me the most nuts is that I’m not a friend of technology. All the Zoom calls, that much time on my screen. I don’t want it in my personal life. Usually I don’t look at my email all weekend. These days, I’m at my counter and drinking and talking to friends. That is driving me nuts. I’m making it lovely for myself, but everything is happening within my walls.

I know from Facebook that you had a birthday this week. How was it, celebrating a birthday in quarantine?

Mark sent me flowers. He made signs and put them up around the loft, saying things like “Happy birthday! No one is invited!”

On Sunday, my daughter brought by Wexler’s lox, everything bagels and cream cheese. Oh my god. I said to Mark, “This is the best lox, and the best bagel I’ve ever had.”

And the kids were really sweet. All four of them [her daughter and son and their partners] showed up in our parking lot, and they have a happy birthday song playing from the car. They’re dancing, because they know I like to dance. The six of us, we’re all dancing in the parking lot, with six feet between us, and it’s so sweet. My son made a sourdough bread for me. He dances into the middle of our circle, and puts it down. Then I dance into the middle and get it. People would walk by and one of them would call out, “It’s Laurie’s birthday!”

We also ordered in dinner. It was only the second time we’ve done that (since the lockdown started) because we were nervous about that at first. Mark ordered in Italian food, including pizza, because he knows it’s my favorite. I looked at him and said, “This is the best pizza I’ve ever had.”

It was the funniest kind of birthday. In a way, it was one of the best. The littlest things made me so happy.

Any other bright spots in this dark time?

I’m taking a bunch of dance classes – I’m a Lindy hopper!.      

Sometimes I take my music and class outside. There is an office building next-door and the front doors are all glass – acting as a mirror.  So I’m basically dancing on the sidewalk and no one seems to care!  THAT is freedom.  

Featured photo of Venice by Shanna Camilleri on Unsplash

Day 22: Letters of Transit

April 16, 2020

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

But I digress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 20: Ironic

April 14, 2020

Of course, this virus is insidious. And deadly. And causing terrible damage in many different ways.

But this afternoon, I sat on my neighbor’s driveway because no one’s driving anywhere. She stood, because she felt like it.

The sky was the kind of blue that a child snatches out of a crayon box when she wants to color in the sky.

The sun shone overhead, turning the greens emerald and the pinks rosy and the purples royal.

It wasn’t too hot, but also, not cold at all.

“It’s so beautiful out,” my neighbor said. “How can there be a pandemic?”

But of course there’s a pandemic. Otherwise, I could never have been so relaxed.

I shrugged, and leaned back, and smiled up at her.

Day 14: Jody

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

The pandemic lockdown has introduced me to a new breed of nightmare – one that thankfully, can never actually come to pass. It’s me, stuck by myself in the house for weeks, with my three young children, simultaneously their mother, their teacher and their primary source of entertainment.

These days, my kids pointedly do their own thing. As I write this in the dining room, for instance, my daughter is a pebble’s throw away in the living room, staring at her phone, silent.

But every time I log onto Facebook, there is Jody, enacting my alternate reality. Jody lives in New Jersey, and is married to Matt, one of my husband’s first cousins. They have two boys, Brennan, age 6, and Finn, age 4 (Jody has allowed me to use the family’s first names). Every weekday, Jody posts an update like this one, from March 30:

Kickin’ off week 3 and day 10 of COVID chronicles. MONYAY! MONSLAY! More like – MONCRAYCRAY! So, we started with yoga and some ‘dance and freeze’. Then moved onto schoolwork. A bestie had a birthday today so we made cards and delivered them. I still remember how to drive. #winning. After lunch we did arts and crafts , puzzles and attempted Mousetrap (I hate that game). Snacking. Lots of snacking. Then I decided it was time to add “The History of Micheal Jackson Music” to our curriculum. We ended the lesson with the FULL Thriller video. #covidchronicles#homeschool#socialdistancing#stayhome#washyourhands#doyourpart#dirtydiana

Just reading all that makes me sleepy. Then I scan through the pictures of the two adorable little boys stretching and earnestly filling in worksheets and coloring cards and making puzzles and playing board games and finally, a video of them jumping up and down to Michael Jackson, and I’m exhausted by proxy.

How does she do it, I wondered? How does she get up each day with a smile on her lips and the world outside her doors inaccessible, and, like so many parents across America these days, face her children — again?

So, I called her up and asked her. Here’s what she said, in an edited, condensed form.

There are two totally different kind of things that I feel I’m living through. I’m living through being the wife and mom stuck at home with her kids, and then I’m living through the pandemic.  Who ever thought, we’d be faced with the statement, “Get ready, in the next week, a lot of people are going to die.” You are almost like waiting to hear who you know, who you love, is going to be diagnosed with coronavirus.

The kids are getting sick of, “Okay, it’s time to sit down and do xeroxed copies.” I try to give teachers benefit of the doubt. No one knows what they are doing. It almost feels like the first time you become a parent, in a way. You’re out of control, you don’t feel prepared. I worry, Am I doing okay by them? Are they learning enough that they can substitute what they would be getting at school?

It’s hard to be in your house, with your four- and your six-year-old, all day, every day. Like, there are the screens. There are games that are appropriate for Brennan at six.  Where he can be online at the same time as friends and they can play together. And of course, all he wants to do is check if Luke is playing, or Brian is playing. So there’s always this begging, begging, begging to be on screens. That has to be controlled. I’m not the type of person that can say, okay, today’s a screen day, and let them be on screens for eight hours. I don’t judge anybody who does it. That’s not me. It’s just — that would really mess with my head.

We still follow my schedule. Brennan has it memorized. He gets up in the morning and he knows. He’s like, “Okay, we start Healthy Body and Soul right after breakfast.” He helps me stay on task. Now when I say it’s time for learning time, he may complain. He may ask for ten more minutes. But he expects the schedule. It’s the same thing at school, the same thing every day. That’s how they operate the best.

Still, when he says, “I can’t do another worksheet,” I say, “Okay, you’ve done enough for today.”

The hard part is never being able to be alone. That’s the hard part.  We have carefully worked out a deal with our regular babysitter who still comes a couple of afternoons and one evening a week so I can get work done. I struggle with this, bringing someone into the house right now, but I honestly can’t work without her and she is making safety her top priority. But, because I’m just upstairs, I can’t really completely disengage.  The boys are constantly running into my room, or I hear them fighting or misbehaving. 

Matt takes over on Wednesday mornings because he starts late in the office. He also helps when he gets home. But still, he gets to get up and go into the office all day when I rarely get a break. I find myself thinking, about him and his work, “Lucky, lucky you. Everybody else’s life has been turned on its head. How lucky are you?”

If we were in this quarantine when I was single with no kids, I would be like, this is awesome. But right now, there is nothing about this that is easy.