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 were 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, seemed undesirable.

We tabled 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 scrambled 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 would stay.

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. 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 she was in Miami with family, where there are more cases than in Gainesville. With family member who were 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 had 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 do this. 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.

Life Hack for Colds

This cold has been going around, and I caught it. Lots of coughing and congestion, the miserable usual. Without getting too graphic, I’ll say that we got a multipack of tissue boxes at Costco not so long ago, and by day ten of this cold, I’d single-handedly used all but one box.

My nose and upper lip were red and chapped and I dreaded the touch of even the softest tissue. This is when our roommate mentioned her runny-nose life hack. “When I’m hiking in the mountains and it’s cold, my nose runs…” (The difference between us is that she’s a bad-ass who hikes in the mountains, I’m a fragile flower who types on my laptop in bed and accidentally holds my breath when I’m trying to think of the right word.) “… I’ve found it really helps if I put chapstick around my nose.”

I tried it, folks. She’s right! It works!

Least Favorite Night of the Year

My yearly scans: colonscopy, endoscopy, various ultrasounds and a trip to the dermatologist, are like my annual mini-gauntlet that must be run before the pleasant holidays.  The first on that list is, of course, the least favorite, due to the day of fasting, followed by the night-long uncomfortable evening of “prep.”

That evening was last night.  To make up for the lack of sleep, food, and physical comfort, I try to offer myself other pleasures in the form of reading or watching multiple episodes of a TV show (TV tends to work a better than movies because frequent bathroom breaks are somehow more conducive TV.

Last night I checked out Master of None, the Netflix series created by Aziz Ansari and loved it.

I spent some time trying to figure out the ongoing mystery why my friends keep liking our Lovers In Their Right Mind Facebook page but they don’t show up on our counter and we can’t seem to break the the 500 fans threshold. Although some Facebook support pages indicate that this is due to people’s privacy settings, this seems inaccurate in our case, and more and like a ploy to back us into a corner where we have to pay to “boost” our visibility, but before falling prey to my own cynicism I decided to call my brother and making him play with his privacy settings.  It made no difference, so my cynicism is intact, but we also got a chance to chat and I found out he also has a blog, related to learning science and his current job working with education and underprivileged youth. It’s pretty groovy.

Today the “procedure” went okay, but for the fact the surgeon had to remove some tissue and fasten the wound with clips. Not to worry, he says, I  just need to eat clear liquids for two days, after which I can have not-clear liquids for two more days.  By no means the worst outcome (as I know from having worse outcomes) but it definitely sucked some of my joy to look forward to eating something delicious this evening and then learn that I will be liquid-fasting for four more days.

But I can’t feel too sorry for myself because over the weekend I finished reading my friend Dan’s harrowing memoir Home is Burning, wherein his dad, increasingly paralyzed by ALS, goes on a feeding tube for the last months of his life — the end of solid food — and then dies.  So that’s some perspective, I guess.  As long as I can avoid getting hit by a truck in the next four days, non-liquid food is almost certainly in my future.

Three Years Ago Today

Facebook has this thing now where it randomly shows you a picture from your timeline on a random anniversary of when it first appeared. Last week it showed me this one:

DragonCon B

I’m standing outside the convention center at Dragon Con in Atlanta, checking out the line of people waiting to see the big-screen premiere of Paul’s movie Rock Jocks.

What’s less visible is that I’m also standing there with a new cancer diagnosis that I got about a week before we were due in Atlanta…

…Which was about two days before I got word that the studio where my script that was in development had accepted my draft…but wanted a new writer.

As you can imagine, I have mixed feelings when I look at this picture, taken at a moment when so many futures seemed possible.

Paul’s movie was finished. It had (kind of) famous people in it. Several people (including Paul) thought it might launch his career, get him representation and more opportunities.

My script was on the development slate at a studio.  If it got made, I could be able to pay off my school loans, get representation and other opportunities.

The cancer, according to the biopsy and my doctors, was an aggressive one. The surgeon I met with was committed to an equally aggressive procedure, worried that otherwise the future didn’t look bright.

In case you’re waiting in suspense, rest assured that three years later, neither the surgeon’s direst predictions, nor the promises and  predictions of execs and producers came to pass. Our lives are very similar to what they were three years ago.

However, things didn’t just “stay the same.”  There were ups and downs… it just happened to turn out that the end result was sameness.

For no good reason, I feel like that up-and-down journey should have taught me something.  I’m not sure it did, but I’m going to share some thoughts anyway, cuz this is my blog and I can do what I want.

Things I have come to believe since this picture was taken:

  1. It doesn’t help to buy into people’s drama.
  2. No matter what it looks like, nobody can predict the future.
  3. Even though no one–including you–can predict your future, you still have to take responsibility for it as much as you can.

Here’s some examples that I think support my beliefs:

On the health front, I didn’t panic when I got the cancer diagnosis—(there’s an ironic advantage to having cancer a second time) and I didn’t buy into the first surgeon’s drama. I found a different surgeon who was willing to listen to my wishes and consider my individual circumstances. The surgery we chose was less invasive, and less likely to impair my quality of life down the road. Today I enjoy good health, and while there was loss, I feel okay about it—I think because I took an active role in making the decision.

Professionally… neither Paul’s nor my projects met with their hoped-for success. That’s pretty common, but I believe I feel less good than I could about those experiences because in both cases, I think we didn’t take a much responsibility as we might have. We let ourselves be in awe of the hierarchy and put too much faith into people who had titles like “producer” and “executive, ” and who worked for companies with names.  It’s hard to know exactly what we should have done differently…or what we would do differently now. But maybe in the writing process I could have asserted my authority as a writer and better resisted bad ideas instead of trying to make them work. With Rock Jocks, when we saw there was no real marketing I wonder what would have happened if we took it on the road ourselves.

There were a lot of reasons we didn’t do those things. Lack of experience for one, and lack of resources for another–it would have been an almost impossible drain of money and time to arrange a tour, and travel and promotional materials all at the same time I was having cancer.  On top of that we didn’t want to overstep boundaries, not really understanding what those boundaries were. It was our first time out of the gate, so I’m not mad at us—but I associate our inability to take active roles at key moments to the twinge of disappointment I feel when I recall these two potential “big-break” opportunities than didn’t live up to their potential.

So…

Cancer and making movies – two very different experiences that actually have striking similarities:

  • Both intense when you are going through them.
  • Both will keep you up at night and haunt your dreams.
  • Both arrive on your doorstep with authorities (doctors, producers etc.) to give you guidance and talk about “being on your team.”
  • Both are highly emotional situations where it’s easy to confuse peoples’ relationship with your project (or illness) as being a relationship with you. (It’s not. Even when they have a great bedside manner. It’s not.)
  • Both are cases where the people around you are obligated to make choices that are “defendable.”  Sometimes those will be the perfect choices for you. Sometimes not so much.
  • Both are cases where the only person willing to question questionable choices is you.
  • Both great examples of how no one cares about your health as much as you. No one cares about your script as much as you. No one cares about your movie or your career as much as you.

I get that at a certain points you have to put yourself in the hands of other people. You can’t do surgery on yourself. You can’t single-handedly finance and make a movie. You can’t know everything and control everything.

Still…

Three years later, I feel like I’m again at a point of opportunity. My plan is to learn as much as I can; do as much work as I’d do if I were my own, even if it seems like I won’t be; really appreciate the help I am given–at the same time understanding it might be temporary.

Will any of that make things work out better than they did three years ago? Well, no one can predict the future…

but I hope I’ll feel better about it either way.