Life in a Time of Pandemic: Road Trip Edition (Day 1, Part 1)


Telling people you are planning to drive from one end of the country to the other in the midst of a pandemic gives rise to some questions. Do you think it’s safer to drive than fly? The answer is “maybe.” We have to make more stops, but we won’t have the hours of sharing air with strangers in a confined space. Also, we’ve brought our car to Florida and need to get it back to LA, along with all of our stuff, so it’s attractive to feel like driving is the safer option. Do you think an AirBnB would be cleaner than a hotel? Not really. I feel like the cleanliness of individually-owned properties is less predictable than a hotel that is part of a chain. In New Mexico, where we’ll spend our second night, the occupancy for hotels is capped at 25%, so it will be almost empty, and I figure I can wipe down surfaces and touch points in a single room with less error than in a house.

On the flip side, we’ve also made the decision to spend the first night with my uncle, who lives deep in the country heart of Texas. Because my uncle is not one for phones, emails, or plane trips, and because he is still recovering from a badly broken leg several months back, my family worries for him, and would like me visit. Paul is not a fan of this; he worries because he doesn’t want to be responsible for making him sick. I don’t either, but, I reason, we’ve been sequestered for several weeks, my uncle’s house is fairly large so we can spread out, and as an essential worker, he has been going to work, so he’s being exposed to some outside people already. Of course, the flip side of that is that we are also being exposed to him. Either way, though, we’ll need to do two week quarantine when we get back to Los Angeles. When I tell Paul my family is in favor of us going. He asks “are they okay if we go and then one of us gets sick and dies?” This is a fair question, so I call my mother and uncle and ask: They all say to go for it, and think it is weird that I should ask. Apparently, if something tragic happens, my husband may blame me, but my family will not.

April 24, Friday –Pre move plans always include going to bed early and getting up mega-early the day of the move… and never really work that way. Still, we are loaded and on the road by sometime between 8:30 and 9am. In addition to the bag of snacks we had on our way east, I’ve put together another bag, containing rubbing alcohol, a roll paper towels, a roll of toilet paper, and a container of Clorox wipes A small container of hand sanitizer sits in the center console, along with the cloth masks my mother has sent.

It should take about eleven hours to get to my uncle’s house. We have one “fun” item on the the itinerary, which is stopping at a Buc-ee’s filling station and purchasing brisket sandwiches for lunch after we cross into Alabama.

Our last planned stop in Gainesville is the Starbucks for Paul, but as we near it, we see the the drive-through line — the only line since there’s no in-store service — extends down the street. We keep driving, planning to find a sugary caffeine drink on down the road.

Two hours later, it’s time for our first bathroom break. Since restaurants are closed, the choices are gas stations and state rest areas and I think rest areas are the way to go. The bathrooms are spacious and, with few people traveling for leisure and mostly-male truckers, I’m guessing not crowded. When we arrive, I enact for the first time the routine I have planned: using a Clorox wipe to open every door handle, latch the stall door, and, after perching the wipe on the top of the door while I use the facilities, using it again to exit the stall, push on the faucet handles and activate the dryers. I wipe each touch point I pass as as a little act of service to whomever uses it next.
 
In Tallahassee, where we went to grad-school back in the day, our pre-pandemic plans had been to see friends, reach out to professors, revisit old haunts. Our new plan is to drive straight through. But outside of town we decide we can each text one friend, and offer to drive by and wave. Twenty minutes later we have a short ten-year reunion with our friend Susie, with us parked at the end of her driveway and she standing eight or ten feet away.  She tells us about her kids, the birds in the backyard, working from home and painting designs on furniture.

Social distance reunion

She is in the middle of her workday, and we are still ten hours from our destination, so after fifteen minutes we are on our way. We make another spontaneous detour to see the graduate student housing where we lived for three years, only to discover the university has razed most of the buildings, including the one where we lived.

The line for the Starbucks in Tallahassee is even longer that the one in Gainesville, so we continue to the highway.

Before leaving, I asked the Facebook what music we should listen to on our trip, and got a handful of responses that includes Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on A Gravel Road, Weezer’s Blue Album, and Step Inside this House by Lyle Lovett, so we’ve downloaded these, along with an album I’ve been hearing about all week, Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters. These all seem a little less “basic” than the music we listened to coming the other direction– Paul’s choices of Taylor Swift, Maroon 5 and the Hamilton soundtrack.

We play the Lucinda Williams, and I’m getting into it — I’ve always had an affinity for raspy female recording artists — but four songs in, Paul says “I don’t think I can do it.” He hits the control on the steering wheel that I’ve never gotten the hang of, and next thing I know, we’re listening to “Memories” by Maroon 5, which, I have to admit, is catchy. I’ve always had an affection for the earworm masterpiece that is Pachelbel’s Canon in D, and that affection transfers to this pop song that borrows heavily from it.

After a little while, Paul starts Weezer album, which I think I remember liking. Now, though, high-hat cymbal feels constant and grating and tinny — but I don’t say anything. It’s good to listen to an entire album and experience it as a whole, I tell myself.

At 2:15pm, Kelly Clarkson plays as we discuss the new Heidi Klum-Tim Gunn show Making the Cut, trying to break down precisely what it means to have a taste problem, what it means to feel more expensive, and how each of these might translate to both the entertainment industry and life. “I think maybe we’d be better off,” says Paul, “if I felt more expensive to people.”

By this time we are already passing billboards for the Buc-ee’s, even though we’re still 100 miles out. For those who don’t know, Buc-ee’s is a Texas-based gas-station chain. A Buc–ee’s generally has at least a couple dozen gas pumps (one location has 100), and a convenience stores the size of a small Costco. Each store has a deli, a fudgery, a meat carvery, a desert case, and lots of branded tchotchkes. Fans wax poetic about the signature chopped brisket sandwich which, in case you don’t get the chance — tastes like a heightened McRib’s with pickles on it.

As we cross into Alabama, we can see some congestion going the other direction, at a checkpoint going from Alabama into Florida. There’s no checkpoint in our direction. For us, the only slow-down is the line of cars entering the Buc-ee’s.

If you squint, you can read the Sweet Home Alabama sign.

I’m a bit ashamed of how much social environment affects my perspective. I’ve found myself wearing the mask outside when there’s no one within a hundred feet. Based on my reading and common sense, I know this is unnecessary, but everyone else is doing it, so I do, too. In Alabama, outside the Buc-ee’s, the opposite is true. People are hanging out by their vehicles, and those entering aren’t wearing masks. For a moment, this seems reasonable. The store is as big as a theme park– we’ll be able to social distance easily, right?

A Buc-ee’s picture I stole from the internet.

But as soon as we walk through the sliding glass doors we realize this is not right. The lines at the two checkout stands are spaced in six foot increments, but because of this the lines extend down main aisle of the store — the same aisle that every customer needs to traverse to get to the contents of the store. While customers have space from the person in front of them in line, they are also within two feet of every customer entering the store .. like us.

Paul and I look at each other and in unison don our masks.

All around us, people without masks dart away from each other, like bumper cars, or like people with no umbrellas trying to dodge the rain. “If we come home with the virus,” I joke to Paul, as we grab our foil wrapped sandwiches from the bustling carvery, “it’s probably because we had to gett sandwiches at Buc-ee’s.” It wasn’t that funny of a joke.

We eat our sandwiches in the car. We’ve reached what I’ll come the “depressing part of the day.” Which is that time you are thinking you should be almost done driving, but according to the GPS you have five or six more hours to go…


Last Day in Gainesville (Life in a Time of Pandemic, April 24, 2020)

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Woke anxious this morning, and it makes sense. Today is the day we need to clean our whole apartment and pack all our things. Packing always makes me edgy, and today we have a few added elements.

One is that, although my back is feeling largely better, the way we packed the car to come east didn’t allow for any adjustment of the seats, so we’re trying to change that situation by transferring the contents of two large bins to trash bags (my least preferred way to pack!), and then Tetris-ing those bags into the trunk to leave some room behind the passenger’s seat to recline if needed.

And of course, the need to recline the seat is related to the fact that our 40-hour drive will have few breaks due to the pandemic. With some trepidation, we’ve made arrangements to sleep in beds for two nights; but the days will be long: with dining areas of restaurants closed and the friends in isolation, there’s not anywhere to be but the car. We’re unsure whether there will be waits or issues at the reported checkpoints on the borders between states. Overall, it feels safest just to make good time and get home.

In a way, being in Florida has allowed us to compartmentalize the pandemic — to imagine that all the strangeness was just part of our trip, and that when we get home, things would be normal again, but of course that is not the case.

Life in a Time of Pandemic (April 16-17, 2020)

Thursday, April 16, 2020

I’ve turned a corner somehow, and lost my intrinsic motivation to take my morning walk — maybe because it was raining on a couple of days, maybe because I threw my back out a few days ago. Lately I wake and think, what if I just stay in bed? 

I’ve let nine days pass without updating my journal, and without even noticing. In the news as in life, the days are blending together — the number of COVID illnesses and deaths feature less as unemployment numbers, and and the political work of assigning blame for the pandemic take center stage. In neglecting to journal, I’ve also neglected to record the day-to-day events — but today’s news feels mostly like yesterday’s news: Retailer are facing catastrophe because no one is buying much. There still aren’t enough Covid 19 tests to give an accurate picture of the virus’s spread, and there is speculation that the virus was active in Europe and the US before anyone realized it. (Half a dozen people I know personally surmise they’ve “probably had it” because they had some kind of flu or malaise in the past few months.)

Those of us with direct deposit received stimulus checks arrived yesterday of $1200 each. Paper checks have been delayed by a couple days so President Trump could add his name on the checks. He couldn’t sign them, as he wished to, because by definition he is not the Department of the Treasury, but his name will appear on the left-hand side, below the memo line.

Because of my career aspirations and interests I am on numerous Facebook pages and email lists for various organizations which are offering free content for my consumption during this time. After working and teaching online, it’s hard to feel enthused about more hours in front of a computer . but I try to occasionally take advantage.

There’ll be more time for such entertainments after the next couple weeks. Tonight is my last Thursday class — my pitching class. In a burst of energy, I decided to invite outside guests to our final pitches on Zoom, and, as with life events IRL, I am living with the anxiety and partial regret phase of that decision now. Nervous about my ability to play MC and wrangle the Zoom settings and make people feel appreciated.

Saturday, April 17, 2020

Our little Zoom pitchfest went very well last night. All the students rose to the occasion! Their pitches came in right at ten minutes, which was the target — I could tell they had planned and practiced.  I think we’d all been working toward this and been distracted from the reality of it being the last class. At the end, we let our guests go had a pretty emotional farewell! 

And now I am feeling a little sad. I’ve been pushing through these last weeks of class. I’ve been extra glad to be working during the pandemic, but also feeling I’ll be relieved when the performance anxiety (because even though I feel I’m a good teacher, it is my nature to feel anxiety before every class) is over. But the flip side of having that small version of “stage fright” is that I also tend to feel what I’ve labeled over the years “post-show depression.” Plus I won’t see my students anymore…

But here’s a little inspirational side note. My friend Dmitry offered the students some advice that I could stand to follow myself: “Write first thing in the morning.” During my time here in Florida, I’ve been consumed with teaching, then pitching my TV show, and then, with the pandemic and the closure of my yoga studio, wanting to walk outside before the heat, I have given up my morning writing, and my writing has gone out the window…. I have often noted that whatever I do first thing in the morning is the only think I can guarantee will get done, because the day can go off the rails at any time.

This morning, for example, this journal entry is likely the only thing I’ll write today — especially, since I’ve now done something which will end my fragile writerly flow, which is look at my newsfeed:

A Wall Street Journal article notes that yesterday marked the record for number of US deaths from Covid19  in a 24 hour period. It was 4591– up from the prior record of 2569.  There were 31,451 reported new cases, bring the total to 671,000 reported Coronavirus cases, and 33,000 deaths in the US.  Confirmed cases worldwide is more that 2.15 million and the number of deaths top 144,000. 

Other news highlights:
5.2 million Americans sought unemployment benefits last week — the month total is 22 million.
Aid programs for small companies and individuals have reached their funding caps.
Shares of Gilead Science rose 15.1% after reports that one of their experimental drugs was performing well in trials with Covid 19 patients. 
The shipments of masks and test kits from China are being delayed because of quality control issues.
Some governors in contiguous states in the west and the midwest have formed coalitions to use collective bargaining power to get supplies

After some flurry about who would be in charge, President Trump has said that the governors of states will to set the timelines for their “re-opening.” 
The White House has issued some guidelines — saying that the states should phase in reopening once they’ve seen a downward trend of cases over a two-week period and outlining what those phases might look like:

Phase 1: Reopen movie theaters, restaurants, sports venues, places of worship, gyms and other venues with strict social distancing guidelines in place. Vulnerable people should still stay at home — and no visits to nursing homes and hospitals. Some people would return to work, though telework is still encouraged.
Phase 2: Non-essential travel could resume, and bars could open with some restrictions. Schools and youth activities could reopen.
Phase 3: No restrictions on workplaces, vulnerable people could resume social interactions, but seek to follow social distancing. Visits to hospitals and nursing homes could resume.

That Time I Went on The Swings (Life In The Time of Pandemic, March 30 -April 4)

Monday, March 30

I’ve become obsessed with swinging on the swing in the park not far from our house. For the past few weeks I have been walking and walking, until my I.T. bands are tight as braided steel. I yearn to feel other muscles work – my abs for instance, or my upper arms. I think of how it felt to move through the air on my neighbors’ swing-set as a kid, how the grass changed angles, the sky became closer, and my troubles on the ground — whatever kid troubles they were — felt farther away.

I know it’s against the rules, but like crossing an intersection against a red light when there are no cars on the road, who would it hurt if I occupy this unused equipment for ten minutes one morning ?  

I’m not someone who breaks rules easily – most often I am someone who waits for red lights even when there are no cars for miles. Thus, I have to make cognitive leaps as well a logistical and guilt-reducing preparations to conduct an illegal heist such as this. From what I’ve read, I know the chains of the swing set should be virus-free after hours in the sun, but even so, I pack Clorox wipes in a plastic baggie to wipe down the chains before and after. I put this in one pocket of my hoodie, while in the other pocket I carry a second layer of protection — to disinfect my hands after they have touched the wipe that touches the chains — in the form of a spray bottle of hand sanitizer. The sanitizer is something I discovered in my travel case one day, after all sanitizers had disappeared from the stores. A bauble I’d tossed into my luggage just because I’d come across it while packing, that has now become a rare treasure.

On the chosen day, I head out of the house early. My skin is too hilariously susceptible to burning to swing in direct sun, so even though I walk past the park both mornings and evenings, the swing heist must happen in the morning when the swings are still in partial shade.

But, as if the universe has read my mind, when I arrive at the park, a city security vehicle – never before seen by me – is suddenly resting at the edge of the park, and I must abandon my cause.

The next day the car is gone, someone is walking the grounds in a florescent vest. Do they work for the city, or are they just someone wearing a vest? I circle the park, unable to be sure and now already it has become too hot and sunny for my project.  I wrap my hoodie around my waist and proceed to jog the non-park portion of my circuit. When I arrive home I find I’ve lost my hand sanitizer and mourn it. For the next couple days I try to retrace my steps and keep an eye out for the bottle but don’t find it. Feeling somehow defeated, I let go of my plot to swing in the swing.

But this morning, as I reach the park, I find it empty, and not too sunny. I have my Clorox wipe in my pocket. In a burst of rebellion, I use my Clorox wipe on the metal of the swing, and take my seat.

It feels good to swing. It feels good to pump my arms, although the chains occasionally pinch the skin of my palms. It feels good lean back and lift my legs high, though I have lost the bravery I had as a kid willing to swing so high that there would be a moment of slack and a jolt as the swing considered continuing it’s arc clear around and then decided against it.

And it feels freeing to be in the air — kind of. I am conscious of people – not authorities, but dog-walkers and other pandemic pedestrians—watching me as they pass. They look, and I imagine they are judging, or feeling threatened by my cavalier behavior… they can’t know the Clorox consideration I plan to lavish on the chains when my moment of swinging is over. 

I’m reminded of a time when I was twenty and traveling in Greece. I removed my top at a sparsely populated beach, which I’d been told was both legal and so customary that it wouldn’t warrant a second glance. I wanted to feel the freedom of it, and for a few moments, maybe I did, but those moments were quickly overshadowed by the gaze of a weathered man who appeared on the rocky bluff above me. He did not look away when I glanced his direction and made it very clear he was not planning to look away. I tried defiance for five or ten minutes, going about my business, trying to recapture what I’d almost felt, but trying not to notice is noticing, so I replaced the top of my bathing suit, and my shirt over it, and left the beach soon after.

And on this day in the park, though eyes are on me, I keep swinging for a few more minutes, because I know I won’t have the heart to do it again.

On Tuesday, March 31, the news tells us that as many as 25% of people carrying the Covid 19 virus could be asymptomatic.

On Wednesday, April 1 there’s a prediction, that if we continue with the steps we have taken thus far, the U.S. might expect between 100,00 and 240,000 deaths.

On Thursday, April 2, the New York Times reports that Trump is expected to recommend that everyone – not just medical workers, should wear masks in public.

The actual announcement on Friday April 3, is mitigated – the actual recommendation comes from the C.D.C., and the president notes that it is only a recommendation and “I’m not going to do it.”

Still, overnight, here in Florida, there is a change. On Saturday April 4, I enter the Family Dollar, and find that two of the four customers inside are wearing masks. I’m not one of them – I’m buy rubber bands to use as elastic for the homemade masks we’ll soon be making.

That evening I walk into through our neighborhood, and, long after I’ve given up looking, find the broken carcass of my hand sanitizer.