Life in the Time of Pandemic (March 13-20, 2020)

By Friday, March 13, all students had been advised to leave campus until March 31st — if possible. The end date feels arbitrary, will they all fly home and return two weeks later? I guess the truth is that nobody knows. The faculty receives a query from our department chair asking us to report if our classes were on track to move online by Monday. The university seems to mobilize faster than I would have guessed. They’re negotiating with the software companies to expand licenses directly to students. The dozen emails I send to university tech support got quick responses.

From California, friends are sharing pictures of bare shelves at the stores where toilet paper and household cleansers would be stocked. One sends a picture of a truck with toilet paper being guarded by police, but at our Family Dollar, there are still paper goods — though fewer cleansers — no more Clorox wipes. Though we’ve been encouraged not to have large gatherings, no one has yet said anything about small gatherings. We’re reading the first articles about social distancing, and navigating what this means. Our yoga studio is still open, sending us messages to say they’ve decreased the number of students per class, and are ramping up their cleaning and sanitizing. If we don’t use equipment, we figure, we’ll only be touching our own mats. Our county still has no documented cases of community spread, so on Saturday we go to class.

We also have plans, in place for over a month, to have dinner with another couple and their son. The fact that we don’t know them well makes it seem ruder to cancel. I check to see if they still want us, and our hostess seems not to have even considered otherwise. Their house is beautiful and large; it’s not hard to keep some distance for most of the pleasant evening. When it ends, our hostess hugs me, which feels strange after a week of bumping elbows. “Oh, we’re still hugging!” I blurt in surprise.

“Yes, of course,” she answered.

The need to make things smooth overtakes our group. Paul hugs our hostess two, and I hug her husband. No one is scared. Everything’s all right.

The following day (Sunday, March 15), I’ve made a “study date” with another teacher, to figure out how to make online quizzes for our students. “Should we go?” Paul and I deliberate, and decided we will. I bring my Clorox wipes, which are already something of a joke between us.

I’d assumed their family would be doing some form of distancing, but when we arrive, their youngest is having a play date with two other little girls.  They run around the house as normal.. The older son, newly driving, came and went, picking up food for us. “Wash your hands!” his mom reminds him as he begins to unpack the food.

Coming home Paul and I feel we have felt for the boundaries of our comfort level, and found those boundaries. We agree we’ve made the last of our home visits, and that for us, social distancing, like online classes, will begin in earnest the next day, Monday the 16th.

Sunday night the democratic debate features Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders hooking elbows instead of shaking hands, and standing at podiums placed six feet apart. The news that night announces that both Los Angeles and New York are tamping down on bars and restaurants, limiting them to food delivery only. In California Gavin Newsom asks everyone over the age of 65 to sequester themselves. One journalist notes that the democratic debate, between two candidates in their late 70s, would be in defiance of that request if the debate were to take place in California.

On Monday, the stock market drops by 8% and trading is temporarily halted for the second or third time–I’ve lost track. l realize that while we have food, paper products, and cleansers, in our temporary rental we have none of the over-the-counter medications that accrue over years, so I walk again to the Family Dollar and purchase a motley collection of cold medications and acetaminophen.

On Tuesday the 17th, UF announces that, instead of possibly resuming March 31st, classes will remain online for the remainder of the semester, and into the summer. There will be no commencement ceremonies in the spring. 

“I guess if everything is online, nothing’s really keeping us here,” says Paul.
“Should we just go early?” I respond.

We discuss the pros and cons. It could save us a month of paying rent in two places, which is appealing. At the same time, the situation in California looks crazier than Gainesville. There are also complicated logistics – how and when to make a forty-hour drive across internet-less terrain when we’re teaching a combined fifteen hours a week online, plus grading and correspondence? With the car packed to the gills, where should we sleep? Our presence might endanger the friends along our route, and hotels, if open, seem undesirable.

We table the discussion as I’m still organizing my first Zoom class for that afternoon, as well as an online pitch and an online midterm using an online proctoring service for Wednesday. On Wednesday, as I scramble up various technological learning curves, the news cycles around me: the stock market tanks again, the president proposes a billion dollar economic stimulus package of which $250 million directly to taxpayers, the rest to corporations, and West Virginia reports it first case of Covid 19, meaning the virus is now in all 50 states. There are now 5800 recorded cases and 107 deaths nationwide. New York is considering instituting a “shelter in place” edict. When our temporary landlord emails to let us know that our place was now available through April, we tell him we’ll stay through April 24, the day after our classes end.

On Thursday, Italy is front and center in the news. Their death toll has passed 3000. In California, Governor Newsom orders people not to go out. A friend of Paul’s to combat his own anxiety, invites people to read War and Peace with him — aiming for 50 pages a day. I order it for my Kindle.

On Friday we embark on what feels, in this new world, like an exciting outing: A trip to the GNC to buy zinc lozenges, to a sporting goods store to buy small hand weights (since our gym and yoga studio are both now closed) and to the grocery store. In the strip mall that houses the GNC there’s a line outside the Trader Joe’s – it’s our first sighting of a store admitting only a limited number of shoppers at one time.

The GNC is sold out of zinc, so we make a call and visit the location that still has two boxes – the one in the indoor mall. At the GNC we stand at a distance from the cashier, then exit through the mall, walking past dozens of closed and empty stores. We don’t stop to window shop at the few that are open, and are careful not to touch anything. At one of the small tables in the center of the mall, two women, leaned their arms on the table’s surface as they talked to each other– their faces a mere foot or two apart. They appear relaxed, feeling none of our trepidation.

A few more calls locates a sporting goods stores that is still open. We find a bottle of Purell at the entrance with a sign asking us to sanitize our hands on the way in. Inside, the middle of the store is empty. The clerk tells us most of the weights and home gym equipment have been sold.

At our final stop, Publix, a friendly worker wipes down and sanitizes the carts as they’re returned. Inside, someone is mopping the floor. There’s music playing. Feel It Still by Portugal. The Man — Ooh woo, I’m a rebel just for kicks now… For a moment I suddenly felt buoyant. It feels good to be out, to be pushing a cart and skipping with the music in the wide, clean aisle between freezer cases full of options.

And then the feeling and our trip is over. We’re home, with no other excursions to look forward to. One of my students has written to say that where she is, with her family in Miami, there are more cases than in Gainesville. With family member who are immunocompromised, much of the shopping falls to her, and if would help if she were able to predict her classwork. This hits me deeply, knowing that there have been some unannounced assignments in her class. I spend the rest of Friday and most Saturday – which is today – editing and publishing assignments for the rest of the semester. It doesn’t feel heroic, but I guess that my part in this, as a teacher, is to offer what stability and support I can… to do my job. And I want to. As someone familiar with being underemployed, I keenly feel my good fortune at having a job I can still do during this time.

Two Weeks Outside the Epicenter of America’s Coronavirus Crisis.

Inspired by the New Yorker article, “A Week in Seattle, The Epicenter of America’s Coronavirus Crisis.”

I’m writing this on March 13, and already I’m forgetting the dates, having to reconstruct them: It was the second to last day of February, (Friday, Feb 28, 2020) when Paul and I flew from the airport in Jacksonville, Florida to our home city of Los Angeles. Heading from the east coast to the west coast, I felt what one of my film professors used to call the point of attack: describing it as “not the storm that hits the village, but the sound of thunder in distance.”

The thunder in the distance was 50 or so sick people in Seattle, the first cases of “community spread” of Covid 19 in the United States. While two-thousand people had died in far away lands, no one had died in the U.S. From our temporary home in Gainesville, Florida, Seattle felt far away, barely real. Was I over-reacting? I wondered as I directed Paul to pick up some TSA approved sized containers of hand sanitizer. But arriving at the airport early enough to spend several hours in the company of travelers, I wondered if I had reacted enough. In the waiting area an man was repeatedly coughing. We were about twelve feet away. I felt the urge to move farther, until Paul spotted some medical equipment and pegged his malady as something non-virus-related, like emphysema, or possible lung cancer… and I felt an ignoble sense of relief about the fact that this man likely had something chronic and serious, instead of contagious.

On the plane, the woman in front of us wore gloves and a mask by the window. Looked with trepidation as two Chinese men took the seats beside her. For the duration of the flight, the two Chinese men never coughed, but as on every flight I’ve taken ever, it seems, there were coughs throughout the cabin. In truth, all coughs on planes make me flinch; I have too many memories of catching colds on planes and having to deal with illness while juggling whatever itinerary prompted my travels. This week I had a series of meetings planned and didn’t want any crimps in my plans, be they Corona or common cold. I took the scarf I wore around my neck, and wrapped it instead over my face, feeling it must offer some protection against any stray droplets floating through the cabin. 

We arrived in Los Angeles late, slept, and woke the next morning — Saturday the 29th — to read on our phones that the first virus-related death had occurred in the U.S., in Seattle. 

On Monday, I had my first meeting. The exec was mildly apologetic when opted to bump elbows instead of shaking hands. At Tuesday’s meeting with another exec, we forgot and hugged. On Wednesday, a TSA worker at LAX reported he had come down with the virus.

For the rest of the week the people I met with were becoming more vigilant. The execs offered elbow bumps. An assistant and and intern still offered their hands to shake, Instinctively I took their hands – then sanitized afterward. I declined all offers of water, opting to stick to my own bottle.

At L.A. restaurants, I gingerly opened the plastic menus, thinking how many had touched them before me. On our last evening in town, Saturday, March 7, we visited our favorite restaurant in Thai Town and found it at half capacity. That day, in the first cases of Coronavirus in Florida, who’d been announced earlier in the week, died, and two new cases were diagnosed. These cases were in counties far from our temporary home, but I knew that the campus we were returning to campus would be the convergence point for thousands of students who had just traveled over their spring break, across the state, the country and the world.

By the time we boarded our return flight on Sunday March 8, Italy and Iran had become hotspots and cases in the U.S. had climbed from 50 to 500.

Our route back to Florida took us through two international airports. Dallas, where we changed planes, and Nashville, where stopped to take on new passengers. I watched as the new people entered. A woman attempted to put her large bag in an overhead bins but it was too heavy for her. A man helped, grabbing the hard surfaces of her luggage with his hands. Soon after, a flight attendant came through, closing every bin with flat hands. The bin with the large case wouldn’t close; she pulled the same suitcase out again, rotating it all around until it fit. Nothing out of the ordinary for a week before, but now I could only count: touch, touch, touch. With the luggage arranged, the flight attendant she laid her palms flat to the bin to slam it closed, touch, then approached our row, taking the laminated safety card from the seat pocket of nearby passenger and using it to demonstrate safety protocols before replacing it the card. Touch.

Back in Florida, Paul joined others on the parking lot shuttle to pick up the car while I waited in the crowd for my bag at the carousel. Though it was 2am when we reached our Gainesville home, I wasn’t too tired to shower.  

The next morning (Monday, March 9), while Paul went to school. I walked to the Family Dollar and purchased a three-pack of Clorox wipes. There were still plenty of options on the shelves, and I again wondered if I was planning for something that wouldn’t be an issue where we were.

That day the stock market plunged, and that evening, we received an email from Public Affairs at our university saying the provost was advising us to move our classes online where possible, but that nothing was mandatory. A fellow teacher texted immediately, opting out of in-person teaching, because she was caring for an older, immune-compromised relative.  Another fellow teacher, who taught mostly hands-on production classes said she wouldn’t be teaching online. She said nothing, but I detected in her manner the slightest judgement about our fellow teachers decision to opt out.

All my life I have dreaded being thought of a malingerer, have built an identity around being a “hard worker.” Partly due to a reluctance to be perceived otherwise, and partly because it felt too late to figure out how to teach online in half a day, I wrote to my Tuesday (March 10) class – comprised of 19 students who met in a classroom with seating for about 40 – and said that we’d be meeting in person. I explained that I’d be putting a canister of Clorox wipes by the door, that they should grab a Clorox wipe on the way in, space themselves a chair apart, and wipe down their desk area before sitting. This felt like an abundance of caution as I reminded each student who entered. They laughed as they complied. I was being safer than most, I thought, we could continue this way for the semester.

Yet one student said that my class was her only class that wasn’t online, and that otherwise, she would be flying home. Home was New York.

“You’re more likely to get it on the plane to than here,” said one of her classmates.

“I don’t care, because then when I get it, I’ll be home with my family, not alone in my dorm room,” she retorted.

That night I sent the same Clorox / spacing announcement to my Wednesday class , adding that if that if any student had extenuating circumstances they should let me know. One student wrote to say had traveled internationally over break break. Another had a cold she thought was just a cold, but didn’t want to miss class or make her classmates uncomfortable.  By now I’d had time to watch a tutorial on how to create a Zoom meeting. I decided to make the switch and teach the class online. On Thursday the edict came down, that starting this coming week (beginning Monday, March 16) online classes will be mandatory.

A Belated Brett Kavanaugh Post

This past weekend a couple of things happened. The first is that The New York Times published an article based on a new book called The Education of Brett Kavanaugh: An InvestigationThe second is that, in a too-rare attempt to clean  documents from my computer’s desktop, I came across a post that I began about a year ago having to do with Brett Kavanaugh.

I didn’t publish it at the time. It was in need of a time-consuming edit, and also I think I felt that there were so many opinion and think pieces happening at the time that mine didn’t add much to the conversation.  Across the country, women and  men who had experienced abusive actions, were speaking out, (#metoo). This prompted a backlash of mothers and others worried about false accusations and how it could affect men’s lives (#himtoo). In the midst of this, what business did I have adding to the noise? A year later though, I’m looking at what I wrote with gentler eyes and figure it can live here on my little piece of the internet:

October 11, 2018.

The other day our roommate told me a story: In between her various work gigs, she’d gone to the movie theatre where she bought candy from the concession stand. As she walked away, she realized she didn’t have her credit card. She returned to the concession stand and told the worker that she hadn’t gotten it back. He told her he didn’t have it.

They had a discussion which culminated in my friend looking the counter-guy in the eye and saying, “Look, I don’t know your life, you don’t know mine. I can skip this movie and walk to the bank to de-activate this card, and it’s going to be a big inconvenience for me, and not helpful for anyone else. Or I can walk across the lobby, and then come back and find my credit card sitting right here on the counter.”

She walked across the lobby, and when she returned, her credit card was there.

She told me, “He’d taken it. I knew he’d taken it.”

I thought my friend was pretty badass. I am the sort who too often questions my own perception of reality. In her place, I almost certainly would have questioned myself, wondering: Did I drop it? Did someone already pick it up? Did I aim for a pocket and miss? Will I find the card in a hole in the lining of my purse a month from now?”

I asked her, “How did you know?”

She responded, “Because if you tell someone—just any normal person–that you’ve lost something, their first reaction is some kind of compassion. Like, ‘Oh, that sucks. I’ve had that happen.’ And then a normal person would say, ‘Let me look around here,’ even if they know they gave it back, because, why not? But there was none of that. This guy wasn’t normal. He immediately jumped to the defensive and got mad at me for “accusing” him, which, at that point, I hadn’t done. All I said was I didn’t get my card back.”

I  thought about her take on this as I listened to coverage of the recent confirmation hearing for Brett Kavanaugh to become a supreme court judge.

The hearings were contentious because a professor, Christine Blasey Ford, claimed that Kavanaugh assaulted her at a house party back when they were both teenagers. He denied these claims and his responses to questions regarding this entire part of his life at the hearing were very impassioned.

People have been talking about how Kavanaugh “lost control” of his emotions as he responded. I actually wonder if Kavanaugh was advised to be emotional, i.e. ANGRY. Righteous anger I’ve found, is a good way to hi-jack whatever topic another person wants to discuss. Also, the wrath of a man, especially a white man, commands something from us. I get it. I grew up with it.

And we tend to look with suspicion at people who are too calm and rational. I know this too, from being this person — I am the calm  person  who questions every assumption — and thus would be unable to confidently accuse the candy-seller of taking my credit card.

As this person, I can’t jump on board with the impassioned posts on my Facebook wall with the brightly-colored backgrounds that call Kavanaugh “a rapist.”

He is, at most, an “alleged attempted rapist,” which, even believing all of Blasey’s testimony, could be downgraded to a “drunk-to-the-point-of-stupid-violence, assault-est.” She said she was “afraid he would accidentally kill” her, which sounds truly terrifying, but also uses the word “accidentally.”  In a generous mood, recollecting drunken teenaged pile-ons I witnessed in my own youth, I would have to admit to the possibility that he had no intentions at all to harm or rape. I would have to concede to the possibility that he was just stupid drunk at a stupid age where people do stupid things that they walk away from and forget —  if they are lucky enough and usually privileged enough in terms of race and gender and economics to be able to do so.

I am a person who believes in the possibility that some asshole jocks from high school and asshole frat-boys from college do grow and evolve as they grow older, that those underdeveloped parts of their brains develop and they become better people. After all, (yes, I’m going to cite Star Trek: Next Generation) even Captain Picard had a brash and unthinking past, and he became a thoughtful leader. But Captain Picard also reflected on his past decisions – how they hurt him and others. He felt regret, even as he came to acknowledge that his mistakes helped him grow into who he became.

Kavanaugh’s testimony, by contrast, was chillingly devoid of such self-reflection or compassion for anyone other than himself. Like the guy at the movie counter, he bypassed that moment where “a normal person” might say, “Oh, did you lose your innocence, your confidence, your ability to feel safe in the world? That must suck,” and jumped immediately to the defensive . He looks back on his youth with glasses tinted rose and shouts “betrayal” at anyone who might look through a different lens.

If  you are ever brought before a judge, what traits do you hope that judge will possess? For my part, I would want intellectual acuity and legal expertise. But even more, I would ask for empathy, for the imagination to step out of ones own shoes and into the shoes of others – others who might be different in their race, gender, political beliefs, educational background and a thousand other ways. Does Brett Kavanaugh, as he steps into a lifetime position of power, have this ability?

I have not seen it so far.

And that, to me, is chilling.

When All That’s Left Is Love

February 10, 2019

A few days ago I went to a  memorial / celebration of life service for the husband of a friend who suffered an illness this year and died too soon. It was a beautiful service for a man who was a beautiful soul, and this is a poem that was read at his request.

I had  never heard it before and have been thinking about it, so I thought I’d share it here.

When All That’s Left Is Love

When I die
If you need to weep
Cry for someone
Walking the street beside you.
You can love me most by letting
Hands touch hands, and
Souls touch souls.
You can love me most by
Sharing your Simchas (goodness) and
Multiplying your Mitzvot (acts of kindness).
You can love me most by
Letting me live in your eyes
And not on your mind.
And when you say
Kaddish for me
Remember what our
Torah teaches,
Love doesn’t die
People do.
So when all that’s left of me is love
Give me away.

by Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Writing on the Other Side of the World

My first writing group — back at the very start of my transition to being a writer — was in Alice Springs, Australia.  Such groups come and go — when they survive for long periods, it is often on the wings of one energetic person.  The person you depend on to show up with the keys to the building,  who always shows up with enthusiasm and new pages. The person who accepts you and welcomes you when you are new, and whose history is long enough that when someone else new comes to the table, you learn it is actually someone returning.

For our group, Meg Williams was that person, and more.  She was a note-taker, and idea-maker. She was an ex-teacher working on a trilogy of middle-grade books. She was lovely, and though we hadn’t corresponded for a decade, when I learned she passed away last week, it pierced my heart.

12471565_10205697082363456_1456100165687981728_o