Life in a Time of Pandemic (March 21-March 29)

In Florida, the temperatures have soared into the 80s. With my former fitness routines out the window, I take advantage of the cooler temperatures in the morning and evenings to walk around the neighborhood. I aim for 5000 steps per walk, tracking it on my phone, to reach the recommended allotment of ten-thousand steps daily. Who recommended that and when? I have no idea and lack the curiosity to look it up. It’s a round number, a goal, and is as good as any.

Others in my neighborhood clearly have established similar routines. I pass mothers with strollers, fathers and sons, couples. There are not many of us, so it is not crowded. We give each other a wide berth, wait at cross walks for others to pass, cross to the opposite side of the street if we find ourselves heading toward each other on the same sidewalk, smiling and waving to show that it’s not personal. There is a sense of solidarity in this.

But also, I realize, we are telling each other, with our smiles and waves, that it’s okay, we’re not a threat. Underlying the bucolic ambiance, the lush green, the Spanish Moss hanging from the trees, there is also a vigilance. I sense, through subtle, that the world’s hold on would-be predators is less than it was. The cats in the neighborhood have grown bolder. With car and foot traffic diminished, they sit in the middle of streets and watch the humans with brazen, even insolent expressions. One day a cat follows me for a block. The cars too, especially in the evenings, can also have a sense of prowling. They drive slowly down the block and the the drivers, often single men, don’t make it a point to smile and wave.

On Saturday evening, a car honks as it turns the corner near me. The man behind the wheel looks at me as he passes, at a moment when there are no other pedestrians around.

Later that same Saturday night a friend in LA posts on Facebook her story of walking alone, of a car with a group of men honking and whistling, of the car making a U-turn and heading back in her direction until a couple on foot turn a corner into view, scaring them away. The online conversation that follows explore the fears, not unique, but closer to the surface for women, of living in a world where men have no sports to watch, no bars to prowl, no gyms to work out their aggressions.

On my walk on Sunday morning, I pass a well-muscled man on a street spacious enough to go wide. Unsmiling, he maintains his course in the way of a man on a crowded sidewalk for whom asserting territory is unnecessary — he is merely occupying what is his. Probably he is immersed in whatever content is coming through his ear pods. Probably he is not even conscious of our passing, of my veering, as an interaction between us. But I am aware for both of us.

In addition to my Kindle edition of War and Peace, I’ve downloaded an audio version to listen to on my morning walks. On this morning, words fly by without me hearing them.

I’m distracted by fellow pedestrians, but also by my own ruminations. Though Paul and I know better than to read the news on our phones upon waking, we do, and in bed this morning Paul has shown me an article with graphs depicting, by state, at what point the health care system might or might not be overwhelmed depending on the amount of social distancing implemented.

In one scenario he shows me, the curve in Texas is hitting its peak the week we’re scheduled to leave. 
“Huh,” I say, “Do you think that means we should go earlier after all?”
Our conversation is mostly a rerun of a conversation we had just three days ago, with one new addition: “I just don’t want us to get stuck in Texas,” he says.
I’m confused. “Why would we get stuck in Texas? We’re in our car, we’ll just drive through it.” 
“What if they do terrible at containment and the other states decide they don’t want people coming in from Texas?” 
As soon as he says it, I can see the dystopian timeline where things get bad and states in disagreement about measures start closing their borders. 

So as I walk down our tree-lined street, my brain is continuing the conversation on its own: But we have California IDs, certainly they would let us in, right? 

Half a chapter of War and Peace has gone by without my noticing.

On Monday, March 22, more than 24,000 coronavirus cases have been reported in the U.S., with over 10,000 of those in New York state. Also on this day, Senator Rand Paul tests positive for the virus, and makes the news for using the gym and swimming pool while waiting for his test results. And Senate Democrats block a proposed 1.8 Trillion dollar relief bill, claiming that it is aimed more at helping corporations than people

On this same Monday, one student and one faculty member in our college are reported to have the virus, and Alachua County, where we live, mandates emergency “stay at home” orders effective at midnight. In accordance, UF reduces on-campus personnel to those identified as essential.

On Tuesday, March 24, in reaction to Wall Street executives warning of another Great Depression if America doesn’t get back to work soon, President Trump talks about “opening up the economy” by Easter, which is April 12. Elsewhere in the world, Prime Minister of India bans 1.3 billion people from leaving their homes, and, after some initial resistance from the organizers, the Summer Olympics in Japan are postponed for a year.

On Wednesday, March 25, the senate passes a 2 trillion dollar relief package. It’s announced that Prince Charles has Coronavirus.

On Thursday March 26, the U.S. takes the dubious honor of the lead in Coronavirus cases: 81,321 and over 10000 deaths. Three million people apply for unemployment benefits. Florida requires visitors from New York to quarantine for two weeks after arriving.

On Friday, March 27, Trump signs the $2 trillion economic relief plan. Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain tests positive for Coronavirus.

On Sunday March 29, Trump extends the federal governments social-distancing guidelines until the end of April. A plane from Shanghai touched down at Kennedy Airport carrying 130,000 N95 masks, 1.8 surgical masks and gowns, 10 million gloves and 70,000 thermometers touches down at Kennedy Airport. It is, we’re told, the first of 22 such shipments.

As of Sunday evening 141,096 people in the U.S have tested positive for the virus, and at least 2469 patients with the virus have died.

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.

The First Cloned Cat

A couple years back, I conceived of a series which involved a fair amount of research about clones. I still perk up my ears when I see articles about clone advancements. People have been cloning their pet dogs for several years, but now the the first cat has been cloned.

Of particular interest:

For their pet cloning services, Mi says Sinogene hopes to someday transfer the memories of the original animals to their clones using artificial intelligence or man-machine interface technology, according to the Global Times

Dancing at the End of Our Plans

January 15, 2019

(This is a post I started months ago and found in my drafts folder.)

I have a friend — an acquaintance who is the spouse of a friend — who has a particularly virulent form of cancer. Last night he wrote on Facebook about the impossibility, in his current situation, of planning for the future, and about trying to live in the reality of the moment and have fun.

I woke up this morning with the kernel of anxiety that is my almost constant companion and I thought about his post, and about that state of no longer planning for the future.

This one night when I was at Cancer Camp, we had a dance. We jumped around to pop music while wearing funny hats and vests and feathery boas from a trunk in the corner and it was a true celebration. It was also surreal, because as I danced, I looked around the room and knew that some of us might be dead soon and that part of “some of us” might be me.  But because we were all in the same boat, it seemed strangely okay. 

I think often about how much our (or my) ability to enjoy life is social. So much is context. Discontent — or maybe just anxiety – comes from having your expectations exist side by side with other people’s expectations. It’s easy to eat a vegetable plate if vegetables are all that’s at the table and everybody is happy with vegetables. It’s harder if you’re surrounded by people eating pizza – especially if they want you to partake, and your veggie plate is making them feel bad. When I lived in the Outback, I happily wore the same rotation of clothes for months, but when we visited the city and everybody had shiny shoes, suddenly everything I had felt faded and dusty.  Death seems like it should be bigger and more important than all of that stuff, but what I found was that it was pretty similar. It was easy to talk about dying with other people who were ill, and harder to talk about it around healthy people. Healthy people like to have conversations about their plans and their futures and things they hope to achieve. Today I am one of those healthy people. I talk about plans. I have career decisions to make, and many worries about the future. 

But that memory of the time that I stopped planning lives inside me. It was a very specific feeling. All my concerns about success or failure dropped away. One week I was furiously working toward a deadline for a grant for a little documentary, the next week it felt completely unimportant. It was sad at first, but it was freeing. These days, when projects hit obstacles, as they seem to constantly, I remember how easily it can all feel unimportant, and it’s oddly comforting.

I also think how lucky I was to have experienced that feeling of freedom with like-minded comrades who could appreciate it with me — to have felt the kinship of dancing into the night with others who were equally uncertain of what the next day might bring.

We Live, and Then We Die

I was lucky this summer to get to go home for almost two whole weeks. I’ve always been grateful to be able to go back home in a way that few of my friends can.  My mother still lives in my childhood home, and when I arrive, I carry my suitcase up the stairs and put it in my childhood bedroom, where the same bedroom furniture set remains.

When I have just a few days, it can be hard to mentally pull myself away from my big city life. But when I have a little longer, home is the place that grounds me, that provides distance from my day-to-day battles, and a vantage point from which to view my life.

This summer’s trip was more emotionally packed than usual. For one thing, I attended a high school reunion — which was predictably disorienting.  Some acquaintances looked so different from high school that I only recognized them because of their name tags. Others seemed to look exactly like they did in high school. We spent a lot of time exclaiming to each other how we looked just the same, but then someone played a slideshow of pictures and it became abundantly clear that no one looks like they did in high school, because we looked like children.

There was a table in the back dedicated to the pictures of fellow classmates who will never look as old as we do. Military service, suicide, cancer.

I also met people at the reunion for the first time. These weren’t spouses or partners, they were people who’d gone to my school for the same three years I did, and I had never met. What was I so involved with that I never once noticed this person? I wondered.

At the beginning of the first night, I felt distant and awkward. Conversations with my old classmates felt painfully  like conversations I have all the time with strangers.  By the end of the second night however, I was feeling nostalgic and close to my old friends and acquaintances. This person is so cool! I thought, as we had drunken conversations in the finished basement of a couple who married after high school and have a kid looking at colleges.  If I just led a different life, lived in a different city –we would still be friends who hang out all the time! 

But the reunion was just a start to my jaunt down memory lane. Because on the first night of the reunion, as I wandered around outside the American Legion hall  trying to move past the awkward phase, I checked my phone and found a message from an old boyfriend who I hadn’t heard from in years. He was writing because a mutual friend — someone we’d worked with — even shared a house with for a short while — had suffered a stroke. A day later the friend died. My old boyfriend sent me a photo of the three of us at some bar that neither of us could identify. In the photo we looked so fresh-faced and innocent, I wanted to reach out and pet us. But I couldn’t remember the evening at all, or even guess what we might have talked about that night.

A few days later,  a writing partner called to that a fellow writer — who had been a mentor and helper on our project– had also died of a sudden stroke.

On Sunday, I looked in the local paper and saw that there was memorial service for the former artistic director of the local theatre company where I’d interned the summers after my last year of high school and first year of college, so I went. I entered another room full of round tables and chairs occupied by people with faces and names I hadn’t seen for years. As with my first meeting of my high school friends, I felt happy to see them, and at the same time separated by glass.

To hammer home any themes that might be emerging, for the two weeks I was home, I stayed up late each night and binged episodes of Six Feet Under (which I recommend if, like me, you missed it when it aired). It’s about a family who runs a funeral home. Each episode begins with somebody dying, but for the most part, the people who die are not main characters so the show is not as depressing as it sounds. Although also, it is, because it is about people yearning for connection and never quite finding it. And then, before they have finished looking — they die.