Counting

Life in the Time of Coronavirus

Number of days since I’ve been to the office: 23

Number of days since I’ve eaten a meal in a restaurant: 20

Number of days since I’ve stepped out of my house: 7

It can be hard to avoid the temptation to count things. Just ask the little guy with the cape and the Transylvanian accent from Sesame Street.

After all, counting is part of how our brain makes sense of the world around us. Counting is an abstract process that is one of the things differentiating our behavior from that of other species. It’s part of the human condition.

When it comes to the social distancing and sheltering in place we now engage in as a hope against hope of keeping coronavirus at bay, we count the days while looking over our shoulders. Children count the number of days until Christmas, and as adults, we may count the number of days we have left to complete a particular task. Coronavirus, however, has robbed us of (among many other things) the ability to look forward to anything. Instead, we can only look back.

Sure, we can look forward to the day when we have flattened the curve sufficiently to declare the pandemic at an end. But that’s a nebulous concept. It could be a month down the road, or six months, or maybe a year or two. There is no countdown.

So how can our big brains index our progress toward the light at the end of the tunnel without a measuring stick? It seems that our best defense against being lost without a compass is to turn around and count the one thing that is quantifiable: The amount of time that has passed since we last experienced anything approaching normalcy. This can help us mourn what we have lost.

And then we must execute an about face and once against march forward into our new normal, whatever that may turn out to be.

Work, Play and the Gift of Love

Life in the Time of Coronavirus

“Do what you love, love what you do.”

Conventional wisdom has it that if you merge your avocation and your vocation, then “you’ll never work a day in your life.” In other words, it’s all about passion, following one’s dreams.

I say it’s a neat trick if you can pull it off. Sure, it works great for, say, Tiger Woods or Billy Joel, people who found stratospheric success and lucre doing the only thing they ever wanted to do. Once you move past the rarified worlds of sports and music, however, the ability to make a living from your heart’s desire drops off precipitously.

It’s been said that most of us “lead lives of quiet desperation.” We do what we have to do to pay the bills. Some of us hate our jobs, and more of us treat what we do for eight hours each workday with a sort of studied ambivalence. We’re checked out. We go through the motions. We see lots of glassy-eyed stares from clerks and servers who seemingly would rather be anywhere else. We wish we could be at home playing with the kids, or playing games on our phones, or playing our favorite music and sipping a beer. We use the word “playing” as opposed to the word “working” to distinguish what we want to do from what we have to do. Meanwhile, working is respectable while playing is despicable. Only a child has the right to play. The Protestant work ethic teaches that only diligence can keep us from indigence. In the post-industrial era, too many of us have found that staying on the right side of this equation is insufficient to keep us from falling through the holes in the safety net. And then coronavirus comes along and all bets are off.

Many of us never quite figure out what we want to be when we grow up. “Establish the work of our hands,” we pray in Psalm 90. None of us want to be left floundering around all our lives.

In centuries past, this malaise was quashed by learning a trade early. Following in parental footsteps was an expectation. Today, by contrast, we take a decidedly different tack with our youth. After all, we live a land where any child can grow up to be president. (Well, any male child, apparently.)

What we aim for these days is raising well-rounded children who are jacks of all trades and masters of none. We are all of us artists and musicians. As adolescents, we are taught to dabble in as many different aspects of human endeavor as possible, to feast at the smorgasbord of American possibility. We never really outgrow this mindset, changing college majors and careers as often as we change our underwear. What to do when none of the outfits we try on is quite right? The merger of avocation and vocation remains elusive. What we truly enjoy doing either cannot be offered for sale, or yields a paycheck only at the highest levels, leaving amateurs in the dust.

One can argue that this is starting to change. As a case in point, we now have professional video game players. You have a burning passion to be a mime, a ventriloquist, a magician, a country singer? TV talent shows can be your ticket to the Pantages, Radio City Music Hall or Caesar’s in Las Vegas. We have teenagers pursuing their dreams on American Idol, The Voice and AGT. And anyone can be a star on YouTube or maybe even hit it big as an entrepreneur.

When I was a kid, adults regularly played a cruel joke on us by inquiring as to whether we wanted to be a policeman, a fireman or an Indian chief. (No one was familiar with the term “Native American” or realized how racist they were being.) This seemed to apply to boys only. Girls got married and had babies in their split-level ranches. Who had ever heard of a policewoman, a firewoman, or a woman who was chief anything.

Growing up in suburbia, we knew that the real choices were doctor, lawyer or accountant. Sadly, for girls the choices still seemed to consist of nurse, teacher or secretary. The very idea of women working outside the home was just beginning to take hold.

If this were a standardized test, I knew I would use my No. 2 pencil to fill in the bubble under “none of the above.” What I really wanted to be was a poet. By the time I completed elementary school, I had become mesmerized by the ways in which one could manipulate words. I would twirl them around like so many spaghetti noodles around my fork, finding both equally delicious. But everything that I read and the advice that my parents provided led to the same inescapable conclusion: Robert Frost and Ogden Nash notwithstanding, no one really liked poetry, certainly no one was willing to spend his or her hard-earned money on it, and there was no way to make a living as a poet. I could still write poetry as a nice little hobby, my mother reassured me. A nights and weekends kind of thing.

And so I learned early that work is a miserable grind, engaged in for purposes of keeping the lights on, and that joy was to be had elsewhere, on your own time, thank you very much.
Over time, I came to recognize that there is a push and a pull involved between vocation and avocation. It wasn’t necessary to be the Tennessee Williams martyr who is fired for writing a poem on a shoe box. For poetry, like God, can be found everywhere and in everything. And most employers in any field find it useful to have someone around who can write, whether it be a letter to the Health Department, a blurb for the local newspaper, an email to Corporate, or an instruction manual for new hires.

I started thinking about this recently while working from home, and then again after reading about how neighbors are coming together to combat isolation and loneliness in the time of coronavirus.

Unless you want to be on the phone all day, working from home when you’re used to being in the office means that everything has to be in writing, even little text messages on Skype. But what if my passion were music rather than poetry? I once had a boss who reminded me that the singers among us should be tapped to entertain us during our meetings and events. It us important to recognize the value of the whole person, he used to remind me.

Then suddenly, we’re faced with a public health crisis of epic proportions, and we have the boy performing a Friday night violin concert on the sidewalk and the old lady performing a cello concert on her front porch and the bakers leaving tins of cookies at the doors of senior citizens and even the artists among us providing us with colorful chalk renderings on the sidewalk. What was once seen as a hobby, something to be engaged in somewhat furtively, something failing to contribute to gross national product and therefore indulgent, something frivolous, is now being used as the glue that keeps us together as a society, and is now being recognized for what it is: the gift of ourselves, the gift of love.

Duke’s Library

Life in the Time of Coronavirus

I realized it was time to sit down for a serious talk with my wife. All this conversation about coronavirus and social distancing and death rates is causing me to contemplate things that I usually try to avoid.

“I can’t think of anyone to leave my book collection to,” I began. Most people just expect to pass down their prized possessions to their children. When you don’t have children, however, is when things get interesting. I’m talking about the lifelong bachelor or spinster who leaves vast sums to the ASPCA in the name of his or her cat. “We do not have a single niece or nephew who would appreciate my books,” I whined. My patient wife nodded. “Maybe I could leave them to a school or the public library.”

I have visions of my precious volumes being strewn about an outdoor book sale table beneath a handwritten “50 cents” sign. Sigh. And then there’s the unfortunate fact that our little town doesn’t even have a public library. If you drive across the Feather River, there’s a library in Marysville. I’ve been there exactly once.

Maybe I could get Duke’s Diner to take my books. They could set them on little bookshelves lining the walls around the restaurant. I guess I’d have to leave them some money to buy the shelving, too.

I love Duke’s. It’s just a little hometown breakfast and lunch joint, open 5 am to 2 pm, seven days a week. Most of the employees are extended family of the late founder and chili master, Duke Griego. They know who you’re related to and what you like to drink. The place has been around since 1962 and it’s an absolute institution in town. Not to mention that they make the best home fries in the state of California. I’m talking peppers, onions, salsa. I’d eat that every day if I could. I am also more than a little attached to their blueberry pancakes.

Alas, the front and rear dining rooms at Duke’s are now empty, all of California’s restaurants having been closed by order of the governor as a coronavirus prevention measure. I noticed on their web page that they are still cooking, take-out orders only. So Sunday morning (ok, so it was afternoon already) I called in my breakfast order and my wife and I drove over there to pick it up.

Duke’s is only about a five-minute drive from here, across the railroad tracks and past the Headstart and the elementary school. It’s near the center of town, with a Mexican carniceria and a convenience store across the street. The place where I fill my gas tank and the medical clinic are on the next block. Cue Montgomery Gentry’s “My Town.”

The décor inside Duke’s is so cornpone that you just have to love it. There is a gigantic fork and spoon mounted on the wall. There are signs featuring sayings about family and blessings and coffee. There are photos of Duke Griego himself with awards that he has won for his chili.

I ask myself whether mounting shelves on the wall and filling them with my library would kill the hometown countrified mood. Perhaps so. Somehow Mailer and Nabokov and Shields and even Steinbeck may feel out of place. Would a shelf filled with my American history books be seen as patriotic, or just as hopelessly egghead? Now, if I were to donate a photo of an egg, and maybe a chicken crossing the road, the history shelf might work.

Okay, so maybe Duke’s is not the right venue for my books. Perhaps my little library could be the start of a community public library here in town? Add a few computers with internet access and my fellow townsfolk would no longer need to sit in traffic on the bridge to Marysville. If we could get someone to donate a house near Duke’s, kids on bikes could pedal over and our many carless neighbors could conveniently visit on foot.

Well, I can dream, right?

As we approached Duke’s on Sunday, I noticed that they had pushed a small table and a chair out onto the sidewalk. Two menus were on the table. The sandwich board near the door advertised the day’s special, pineapple upside down pancakes — takeout only.

When I walked in the door, I found it jarring that every seat was empty, including the stools at the counter, on a normally crowded Sunday. My order was ready to pick up and pay for. Did I want salsa? Sour cream? More syrup?

On the other side of the pass-through window, the cook was still working away even though it was almost closing time. Two more people came in to pick up their orders as I signed the credit card slip.

“Are you guys doing okay?” I asked the server. “Are you hanging in there?”

She smiled and nodded. “We’re doing fine,” she told me as she disappeared into the kitchen to pick up another order.

Empty Shelves

Life in the Time of Coronavirus

Most of my colleagues have been staying home and teleworking, just as I have been for the past week. It’s been a strange undertaking for all of us. “I’m right here,” I attempted to reassure one of my team members over the phone. “I’m just at the other end of the keyboard.”

We keep in touch by text message, by email, over Skype and on the phone. And then there are the endless conference calls, some of which have lasted into the evening. I’m fairly sure that I have been on more conference calls in the past week than in all the years of my professional life combined.

“No one is allowed to get sick,” I tell my team. “I need each and every one of you. Go wash your hands. Do it now!” In my mind, I see hot water faucets being turned on and hand soap being lathered. I can only hope that my imagination squares up with reality.

One of my coworkers ventured out to the supermarket a few nights ago. Next day, I asked her how it went. There was no chicken, no ground beef, no milk, no toilet paper, she reported. “How about canned goods?” I asked. Not much, she told me. The shelves were picked bare.

“What are things going to look like in two weeks?” I asked my wife. I could almost hear the infrastructure disassembling. Does it take a virulent microorganism to prove to the world that the foundation of our society is not love or faith or duty, but supermarkets and toilet paper? And does this mean that we need to start a new religion where all of us pray to Sam Walton?

I try to remember to check in with my elderly parents regularly. Mom is hunkered down for the duration and is dead set on preventing Dad from wandering farther than the mailbox across the road. On the phone with Mom, she admits that her pantry is starting to look rather bare, although they still have plenty in the refrigerator. She estimates that they have enough food left for ten days.

Holy mackerel, do you know what that sounds like, Mom? Like you’re marooned on a desert island or lost in the Antarctic. Better ration your comestibles now, or in ten days you’ll become polar bear food.

Sigh. I tell Mom that I’ll try to have some food delivered to her house, but that I don’t know whether anyone will deliver way out there on the wild prairie, or even if there’s any food to be had anymore. Amazon is taking orders to be delivered 30 days from now, Mom tells me. Oh, yeah? And what are people supposed to eat in the meantime? She asks for bananas.

In my dreams, I am speeding 200 miles down the freeway to rescue my starving parents, when I am pulled over by the cops for violating the “shelter in place” order. They drag me out of my vehicle, haul me off to jail and impound my vehicle.

I start perusing websites and making phone calls, looking for a grocery store willing to deliver out to the sticks. I quickly become frustrated. One supermarket tells me I have to contact DoorDash. When I ask for their phone number, I am placed on hold and listen to the same tune over and over until I am finally disconnected.

I go back to work and my wife takes over our mission of mercy. Instacart to the rescue! After several false starts, she finds that we can order groceries for delivery from Save Mart.

We start to make a list of items we think my parents would like. Bananas, cottage cheese, sour cream, French bread. White tuna in water? Sold out. Canned salmon? Only one can left. How about the packets? Not sure if they’ll eat that. Stuff for salad? Lettuce, yes. Beefsteak tomatoes? All out. How about Romas? Cucumbers? How about the little English ones? Marie’s bleu cheese dressing. Dad’s favorite Honey Bunches of Oats.

We close out the order: $160. The price of some items have mysteriously doubled.

Not long after, the store emails us. Bad news on the fruit. I call Mom again and sing a painfully off-tune rendition of “Yes, We Have No Bananas.”

We order a box of Entenmann’s chocolate donuts for my parents. Okay to substitute the variety pack if necessary? Sure. They end up delivering a bag of donut holes.

At least the delivery occurs. We breathe a sigh of relief as Dad reads off a list of the contents of the boxes. He is particularly thrilled with the bleu cheese dressing.

1,224 people have tested positive for coronavirus here in California. Far less than, say, New York, but still a lot. Will this number triple or quadruple in the next few weeks? Will the supermarket employees and delivery people start to get sick and disappear from the scene? What if the truck drivers can’t deliver food to the supermarkets? Thinking about these things makes my head hurt.

My wife and her sister head out in search of groceries. They hit up one supermarket after another, finding many bare shelves and picking up what’s still available. They hope to score lettuce and tomatoes to make sandwiches, but no luck.

After coming up empty-handed at five supermarkets, my sister-in-law was sauntering down an aisle when she spied both lettuce and tomatoes in a shopping cart. She looked around, didn’t see anyone, and transferred both items into her own cart.

Salad, anyone?

Social Distancing 101

Life in the Time of Coronavirus

I’m really bad at social distancing.

Okay, so I never even heard of the term “social distancing” until, well, a week ago maybe? I’m told it means staying at least six feet away from the nearest human being at all times. I hope this proscription does not extend to non-human life forms, considering the proclivity of my sister-in-law’s little Yorkie for jumping into my lap.

Let’s just say that I have violated the social distancing rule with impunity on at least two occasions over the last few days. I can’t quite determine whether this makes me a rebel or an idiot. Or perhaps someone just stuck in his ways.

I like to eat. A lot. And I don’t cook. Hence, the restaurants of Marysville and Yuba City are my hangouts. The problem is that “hanging out,” of the foodie variety or otherwise, is no longer acceptable. Millennials are being chastised for continuing to hang out in bars, thereby risking unknowingly spreading the coronavirus. Residents of the Bay Area, less than two hours west of here, have been ordered to shelter in place, with violators being handed misdemeanor tickets. It may be smart to pay that ticket by mail, as it could be a while before they’re able to actually schedule a hearing before a judge. The excuses they will offer in court should be interesting.

My gluttonous ways are made all the worse by a case of cabin fever. I’m used to driving to the office in Sacramento every day, and teleworking from my bedroom is getting old fast.

Over the weekend, I snuck out of the house and drove to a family restaurant where I treated myself to an enormous breakfast. Only four tables were occupied in the whole place. I could actually hear Melissa Etheridge and Neil Diamond singing on the recorded music loop.

Moments after I ordered, two women walked in and were seated at a booth directly behind me. One of them was celebrating her birthday. I thought nothing of it until I heard the birthday girl cough. It wasn’t a casual, “excuse me” type cough, either. It was a raspy cough, the kind that might come from someone with bronchitis. I began to get nervous. Had some droplets landed on me without my knowledge? Would I be getting just what I deserve for having the nerve to go out in public? Should I run home and take my temperature?

Finishing my meal, I felt a bit chastened. Still, the next day, feeling cooped up and hungry, I climbed into the car and drove into town. The restaurant that was my destination had quite a few vehicles in the parking lot, and I had to choose between walking in the rain and waiting in my car until a spot near the door opened up. That’s when I moved into position for a good view through the restaurant’s windows. The place was packed. I immediately got the jitters, turned the car around and slunk back home to cut up some fruit. Social distancing indeed.

The next day, my wife texted me at lunchtime from her own telecommuting perch around the corner in the living room. “Wanna go for a drive?” Heck, yes! Get me out of here!

We ran a few errands and ended up at a chain restaurant for lunch. There was a parking space right in front and zero wait for a table. Both of these are highly unusual at this location.

Only about half the tables were full. The server asked whether we wanted sweetener for our tea, as the holders full of little packets had been removed from the tables. We noticed that there were no salt and pepper shakers either. This was to avoid customers touching everything and passing around the coronavirus, the server explained. In fact, what type of tea would I like exactly? She could no longer bring me a sample of available teas from which to choose. That touching thing again.

After this little adventure, I concluded that I had experienced enough excitement and danger, and that henceforth I would just stay home as we are being exhorted to do from seemingly every corner. I am learning to put up with sandwiches, microwaved oatmeal, healthy raw veggies and fruit. There’s always stuff in the freezer that I can zap if I need a little variety.

But it’s my 86 year old parents about who I am truly concerned. They live in a rural area of the Central Valley, near Madera. It’s a nearly four hour drive south of here. Mom has heeded warnings for seniors to shelter in place, but Dad suffers from the same foodie wanderlust that I do. In his case, however, he craves all manner of shellfish, particularly shrimp. Mom keeps a kosher home and will not allow such religiously forbidden foods into the house. So Dad attempts to escape to the restaurants of Fresno as often as possible.

Mom is having a hard time keeping Dad at home when he is committed to getting his shrimp on. She is worried that he will end up contracting coronavirus and will bring it home to her. How would two old, sick people take care of each other with no one way out there in the country to help them?

Mom’s approach has been to spend all day, every day, prepping and cooking food to serve Dad gourmet meals, thereby keeping him at home. On the phone, she tells me thar she feels like a galley slave, like Scheherazade, forced to weave yet another culinary yarn each night just to save herself.

And then she excuses herself, saying she has to get off the line to scrape the carrots and start making the gravy. After all, it’s only five hours until dinnertime.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus (Part 6)

Working from home, oh no!

So, it’s finally happened.  The road warrior’s wings have been clipped and all our training sessions around the state have been canceled.  As part of an effort to stem the spread of coronavirus, I will be working from home this week.  

I can see the glass as half full, as in I will not have to make the long trip into Sacramento and back every day. Or, I can be honest about how I really feel, which would be dread at the thought of sitting in my chair in my bedroom with my laptop (and it’s teeny-tiny keys) perched on a tray table before me. Just the thought of it gives me cabin fever.

I suppose that, should I start to go stir crazy, I can unplug and move to the couch in the living room, where I will find:

  • My wife, who will be sitting in front of her own laptop perched on a tray table, working hard at her own telecommuting job
  • The large screen TV blaring (“for background noise,” says my wife, although she wears headphones) Dr. Phil or Live PD or 90-Day Fiancé or… well, you get the picture
  • One or two grandnieces or grandnephews who, now that their schools are closed, only want to spend time at our house.

Another alternative would be to set up on the back patio, which might actually be pleasant if only it would stop raining. Last month, for the first time in at least 100 years, we had not a single drop of rain here. Not one. The bone dry conditions caused folks to start panicking about another drought and the potential for a hellish California wildfire season. And then the calendar flipped over to March and the heavens opened. So I had the pleasure of sitting in a cubicle under fluorescent lights during the beautiful weather and, now that I am free to work outdoors, this place is a soggy mess.

Look on the bright side: At least I don’t have to navigate the freeways in the rain.

My team members know that they are required to keep in touch with me daily, either by phone, text, email or Skype. Still, it’s not the same as the face-to-face human contact that I have always counted on as an integral part of my work life.

Okay, time to put on my big boy pants and quit whining. If I can edit a document across a table from my peeps, surely I can do it over the phone. After all, it’s just for a week, right?

Don’t laugh.

So what if I’m stuck in the house for the next month or two? It surely is better than being homeless out in the rain. And just think of all the money I’ll save on petrol.

Don’t worry, little brown Kia. I’ll still visit you in the garage during my 15-minute break from the bedroom chair. I’ll dust you off, and maybe I’ll sing you a song. Or we can just spend time reminiscing about the good old days of flying down Highway 99.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus (Part 5)

“It’s just the sniffles,” one of my coworkers opined as her assessment of the corporeal manifestations of coronavirus.

I begged to differ, citing the many descriptions of victims forced onto respirators (of which we likely don’t have nearly enough available) when they are no longer able to breathe on their own, the virus attacking their immune systems and shutting down their organs. I cited the long, deep mass burial trenches in Iran, so vast that they are visible from space. He dismissed my remarks as irrelevant to most of us. Only old people get sick and die of this virus, he insisted.

Oh, well, that makes me feel a lot better. I’m old! It almost feels as if no one cares whether older Americans live or die. The thinning of the herd. The ultimate in being put out to pasture. I mean, I already know that people of my generation are routinely marginalized (unless your name happens to be Trump, Sanders or Biden). But this is beyond the beyonds.

I am also concerned about our caregivers. Should they become ill, who will tend to the needs of those with chronic conditions? So many are able to stay in their homes due because they are tended to by family members, nurses, home health aides. Without this critical assistance, will those unable to care for themselves be thrust into already overcrowded hospitals and nursing homes?

We don’t know how the coming weeks and months will play out. But is encouraging to see that our leaders are beginning to step up and make some hard decisions about the current public health situation. It is further encouraging to see that at least some of the doubters are getting with the program.

I believe in our resilience and I believe that we will persevere and overcome. But this will not happen by trivializing what this virus has the potential to do to us.