Playing Keep-Away: A Tragicomedy in Three Acts

Life in the Time of Coronavirus

What goes around comes around

A couple of decades ago, when my wife and I were first married, she owned a little purple car emblazoned with a bumper sticker announcing that “what goes around comes around.”

I’ve long thought of this phrase as a cautionary tale, designed to take the more hifalutin’ among us down a peg. Don’t think the rules don’t apply to you. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that fate will grant you an exception. There is no beating the odds. Just wait, you’ll get yours, buddy.

It seems like a karmic argument for the Golden Rule.

So when it comes to coronavirus, I have my ear to the ground, listening carefully. I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Now, with Passover so recently behind us, as I hope against hope that the horror will pass over our home, I’m thinking of a prayer that we recite on another Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). This part of the liturgy, a somber reflection on the fate that awaits us, begins with “who shall live and who shall die.” The reference is to God’s judgment upon the worthiness of our deeds and the punishment to be meted out upon the sinners among us (umm, that would be all of us).

There is no escape. Just when I start thinking that I may be rewarded for staying holed up in my house for weeks, on the phone my mother reminds me of the number of New York residents who have already perished of coronavirus. As transplanted New Yorkers, we find the very thought sobering. What will become of my 93 year old uncle, back in my old hometown? And what of my cousins, my uncle’s son and grandchildren?

Even here in California, where we haven’t been hit nearly as hard as New York and New Jersey have, we are holding our collective breath. At Kaiser Hospital in Fresno, ten nurses have come down with coronavirus. One of them is fighting for her life on a ventilator, while her fully masked fellow nurses protest on the street and cars passing by beep their horns in support. Is there no hope for the bravest among us, our modern-day martyr Nightingales?

Some say that infection and death haven’t hit peak levels here yet. We’re getting ready for the worst. A few days ago, our governor visited the big, empty arena where the Sacramento Kings used to play; it has now been converted into a hospital ward. He estimated that 56% of Californians will be sickened by coronavirus, then worked with the federal government to send enormous hospital ships to dock on the shores of our state.

So who in my little circle of family and friends will be stricken by this plague? Whom will it open its ugly maw to consume? Will it be someone from work? Will it be one of my nephews or nieces? Or someone in my own house? Will it be me?

Will it be one of my elderly parents? Will my wife and I need to don masks and head to the airport for an unscheduled flight to the epicenter, a graveside service at our family plot in Queens? Or will my parents be bereaved in their old age as they witness me being lowered into the ground near Sacramento?

These are the thoughts that wake me in the night and overwhelm me with a feeling of helplessness.

Seder for One

It’s been about three weeks since my last foray into a supermarket. I was on a mission to obtain five pounds of matzo to FedEx to my parents. I never would have imagined that such a mundane task as going to the store would turn into a surreal experience. From applying an alcohol wipe to the cart handle to surveying the aisles empty of people to doing our social distancing duty by standing six feet apart in the checkout line, the post-apocalyptic vibe made me start to understand the many online “Twilight Zone” references.

Perhaps the one point in my matzo expedition that felt full-on Cormac McCarthy was turning the cart into an aisle and finding another shopper already there, both of us registering a double-take.

I scooted by the poor woman sheepishly, hugging the edge of the aisle, somehow without knocking any cans, jars or boxes off the shelves.

The “kosher food” nook was a tiny corner all the way at the back of the store. I snagged my parents’ matzos as well as two bottles of Kedem grape juice. I had initially planned on sending the juice to my parents along with the matzos, but ended up keeping it for my own little Seder (after discovering that sending glass bottles from point A to point B is not the simplest or cheapest undertaking one may choose to pursue).

My parents received the matzos, and held a little Seder all by themselves on each of the first two nights of Passover. I did the same, from the easy chair in my bedroom that, these days, serves as my teleworking workspace. I set up everything on the little side table next to my chair. And as I read the Haggadah, I fondly remembered the large family Seders of years gone by. Traditionally, the youngest at table asks the “Four Questions,” but when it’s just yourself, you do both the asking and the answering. And all the singing.

In recent years, I have typically attended a Seder at an area synagogue. I no longer join my parents at their home for Seder, due both to the distance and logistics, as well as other family factors that are probably best left unenumerated here. But this year, there were no community Seders at synagogues due to the coronavirus lockdown. While some attended virtual Seders on Zoom, the Orthodox Jewish community (which does not use technology on the Sabbath or holidays) was pretty much left to its own devices. You either celebrated with immediate family or you had a Seder for one. (Disclosure: I am not Orthodox, not even close, but am affiliated with an area Chabad House, which is.)

About a week before Passover, the rabbi phoned to tell me that shmura matzos would be delivered to each congregant’s home. The Yiddish word shmura is derived from the Hebrew shomer, to watch. The creation of these matzos is closely guarded, from the time of wheat growing in the field until they are boxed up for sale, to ensure that no hametz (leaven) touches them. These traditionally round matzos are baked, typically in Brooklyn, for just a few minutes. They come out of the oven super crispy, and typically burned on one side. Some of them are individually sealed in plastic and shipped all over the world. Shmura matzos are traditionally used for the “afikomen,” the last matzo eaten at the Seder table following the festive meal, “after which no dessert ought to be set on the table,” according to the Haggadah.

I live about 30 minutes from the synagogue, so I did not really expect shmura matzos to be transported all the way out here. But they were. And when I confessed to the rabbi that I had no maror, the traditional bitter herb (grated horseradish root), he brought me a little bag of it along with the matzos. In true social distancing spirit, he arranged to leave it on my doorstep.

The Haggadah (“retelling”) is a paper bound booklet, typically sponsored by Maxwell House coffee, that recites the story of our exodus from Egypt. It begins “Slaves were we to the Pharaohs in Egypt” and describes the harshness of our bondage, Moses beseeching the Pharaoh to “let my people go,” and then the ten plagues that the Lord brought upon the Egyptians. Among those plagues were a number of bodily afflictions, bringing to mind our current plague. My favorite of the plagues, however, has always been the second one, frogs. Reading the book of Exodus, or its excerpts in the Haggadah, I am entranced by the vivid imagery of frogs jumping into the mixing bowl and occupying the king’s bedchamber and having to be chased out of his bed. I wonder why the Egyptians didn’t catch and kill those frogs and roast them for dinner. Instead, their amphibian corpses were wasted, as they were shoveled into heaps, “and the land stank.”

Finally, we painted the blood of a lamb on our doorposts so the angel knew to “pass over” our homes while slaying the firstborn of every household. This was too much even for the Pharaoh, who thrust us out of Egypt without notice. It was early in the morning, before the dough for our daily bread, left on the hot rocks to bake, had time to rise. And so we left Egypt with flat crackers to eat, the matzo that we eat for the eight days of Passover each year.

I made a point of leaning in my easy chair, a traditional symbol that, as slaves no more, we now have leisure to relax. I quietly sang Dayenu, the song that lists the many gifts bestowed upon us by God, starting with the splitting of the Red Sea that allowed our escape from Egypt. And after I had tasted the matzo and the bitter herb, I went to the kitchen and microwaved a bowl of vegetarian matzo ball soup for my dinner. Then I returned to my chair to munch on the shmura matzo and drink the final two cups of grape juice, while I finished the Haggadah with its tuneful songs of praise to God.

I am thankful to have found a way to conduct a solo Passover Seder in the time of coronavirus. And the pragmatist in me could not avoid the thought that, for some of us, this year’s Seder might be our last, should this plague fail to pass over our houses.

The Sound of One Hand Clapping

It was about 35 years ago when I first visited California. I took a vacation from my job in the office of a giant drug manufacturer’s print shop when my recently married sister offered a spare bedroom. I was treated to some of the sights of San Francisco from the back seat of their tiny car, zipping up and down the hills. This is the famous Hyde Street, my brother-in-law announced. “And this is the corner of Run and Hyde.” I rolled my eyes at the corny joke, but today, I realize that all of us have now arrived at that famous intersection. We wear masks, wash our hands dozens of times each day, and hide indoors as we bob and weave, hoping to dodge the deadly bullet known as COVID-19. We are running scared.

I find it difficult to avoid anger when some of us fight against our current quarantine, wishing only to “return to normal,” no matter the cost. Be strong, state governors, and hold the line lest this deadly virus flare up and consume thousands more of us. I’d rather stay home than die.

I ask you to stop for a minute to think about how easing restrictions on social distancing dishonors the efforts of our health care heroes, the doctors, nurses, lab techs and hospital staff who are placing their lives on the line every minute of every day to save as many of us as they can. Gathering in public further dishonors the efforts of our essential workers, the grocers, long-haul truckers, delivery people, cooks, repair people, utility workers, firefighters, police and National Guard, and others working long shifts, disregarding the risks of becoming desperately ill themselves.

The online newspapers are full of articles about communities that stand on porches and hang out windows at 7:00 each evening to clap, hoot and holler, to cheer on those brave souls putting their lives on the line for the rest of us. I smile broadly. Indeed, it is the small expressions of gratitude that are the finest things in life. And though the naysayers point out that the clappers do nothing to flatten the curve, I beg to differ. For we are doomed without the efforts of our doctors, nurses and essential workers. Clapping as our way of saying “thanks for a job well done” is the least we can do. And who knows? It might be just the bit of encouragement that some of them need to go on. They are human, too.

I have not gone farther than our patio in 21 days. Staying home seems a small price to pay, far less than those toiling on the front lines.

My wife texts our neighbors to make sure they’re okay. She monitors our neighborhood site on Facebook. We do our best to find connection in this time of disconnectedness.

I decide that it’s time to see whether there is any clapping going on in our neighborhood, any cheering for our heroes. I want to participate.

So, a few minutes before seven in the evening, as the sun waxes low and the shadows begin to lengthen, I step out our front door and take in the scene. I look up and down the street. The quiet is jarring. Two teenage boys with skateboards saunter down the sidewalk across the street. Once they are out of sight, no one.

I realize that this suburban street is not a clapping kind of neighborhood. Everyone more or less keeps to themselves. Public displays of appreciation are unknown here. Under my breath, I begin singing.

Cheer for our doctors, cheer for our nurses,
hospital staff and essential workers,

Firefighters, police, delivery drivers

I make up more words to the chant as I go along, whispering in the silence. I think: If I raise my voice to audible levels or begin clapping, someone will probably call the cops. And, COVID-19 notwithstanding, they will come.

A dog on the next street barks once. And then the stillness returns. This does not portend ingratitude, I think, even if it betrays a paucity of community spirit. It is the sound of one hand clapping.

Silence, but for the frogs croaking in the background, oblivious of that long ago Egyptian plague, engaged in their spring mating ritual in the ponds and streams, along the banks of the Feather and Yuba Rivers, and along the shores of Reeds Creek.

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 4)

ON THE GRAPEVINE, KERN COUNTY, CALIFORNIA

Among the joys of traveling is the opportunity to try the wonderful local cuisine spend copious amounts of money for the pleasure of eating the worst road food imaginable and getting sick to your stomach as a reward. Case in point: Tuesday evening, my wife and I had a feast from a local restaurant delivered to our hotel room. Between us, there was a calzone, a sandwich, potato wedges, fried mushrooms, and a dessert. Following a few tentative bites, almost everything ended up in the trash. The dessert should have gone there as well, but no, that I had to eat. The far-too-sweet, far-too-fried dessert laid on my stomach like a brick all night and through the next morning’s training session.

“Are you going to eat breakfast?” asked my work partner as I walked right past the complimentary buffet. “No, thanks,” I mumbled. I conveniently omitted “Not unless you want me to barf all over you.”

“How can you travel at a time like this?” everyone wants to know. Yes, I know I’m older and therefore at risk for contracting coronavirus. No, I do not have a death wish, nor am I looking forward to rotting away in a hospital bed, hooked up to an I.V. But when you work for a living, duty calls. Also, there’s that little detail about paying the bills.

I know that my sister (the one who lives just across the bay from San Francisco) feels the same way. She works in a hospital, where someone is always on hand to take the temperature of staff reporting for duty at the start of their shifts.

My other sister, who lives nearly three thousand miles away in the suburbs of Boston, is being forced into a somewhat different mode of work. She teaches in a private school, and the coronavirus is about to shut it down. All teachers were recently required to participate in a training session to learn how to use technology to keep conducting their classes remotely while everyone stays home.

Nearer to home here in the Sacramento area, the Elk Grove school district has closed up shop. Kids seem mostly immune to coronavirus, I have read, but the teachers and staff don’t enjoy that benefit, and no one wants to see it passed around.

Other school districts have been forced to do some soul searching, torn between “everything seems okay for now” and “what if we wait too long to act, and then it’s too late?”

Workplaces are facing the same challenges. I still haven’t figured out how the coronavirus pandemic is going to affect my employment as a California state government employee. Will we be offered the opportunity to work from home if we so choose? Will we shut down tighter than a drum while thousands of us revert to mandatory remote work status? Or will we continue business as usual and hope for the best? It’s hard to say at this point, but the situation seems to be developing from one day to the next.

I already work from home on occasion, and of course my laptop keeps me working while on the road. So remote work will not be too much of a stretch for me. My wife and her sister (who lives with us) already have 100% telecommuting jobs. So the house is already fully wired with routers and computers and peripherals. The cords in our bedroom alone are bound to cause me to go sprawling onto my face one of these fine days.

My dirty little secret is that I don’t like working from home. My fat fingers don’t do particularly well on my little laptop keyboard, and I miss the two giant monitors that sit on my desk in the office, silently awaiting my return. I do Skype, but only for instant messaging purposes. I have never gotten the hang of the online meeting thing, despite the various types of collaboration software on my laptop. Conference calls, yes. When working from my bedroom, I’m on the phone a lot.

However, the big thing for me is the human contact. I like sitting across the table from one of my subordinates while we strategize how to attack a thorny problem. I like crossing words out in pen, writing in the margins and drawing out ideas on paper as my people brainstorm them. And yes, I like listening to them chat about their home renovations, their vacation plans and their spouses and kids.

Granted, it’s not like any of these things can’t be done remotely. Maybe I’m just old, and have to get with the program, but to me the remote and the virtual just isn’t the same as in-person human contact. But I’m more than willing to learn new ways of working if it will prevent myself and others from getting sick.

Time to take a little nap in the car at a truck stop on the I-5 Grapevine. I’m on the way home from San Bernardino to Yuba County and, thanks to Daylight Savings Time, the sun has yet to rise even though it’s past 6 AM.

Outside my window, two men exiting the truck stop are deep in conversation. As they go by, I hear one of them remark that coronavirus is President Trump’s way of killing off the elderly to reduce the costs of Social Security.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus (Part 3)

SAN BERNARDINO

In the course of a busy day (nine hour drive to southern California, for example), I find myself occupied with thoughts of things other than coronavirus. Inevitably, though, something happens and I suddenly remember.

Today it hit me when I was sitting on the toilet in a Starbucks rest room in suburban San Bernardino County. Now, the rest room has always seemed to me a brief respite from the madding crowd, a few minutes when I can catch my breath and tune out the world. That illusion was shattered from the get-go this time around, thanks to a child having a total meltdown just the other side of the door, screaming and crying about how his Dad is so mean. Thank God I skipped the parenthood thing. It would surely drive me straight into an insane asylum.

Public rest rooms are not the cleanest of places to begin with, of course, but as I sat there, the thought popped into my mind: “Better not touch that grab bar.” And then, “oh my gossshhhh, I touched that filthy door handle!” This must be how people pick up the coronavirus.” And then, “uh-oh… this toilet seat? Ummm…”

Surely you can’t contract coronavirus from a toilet seat, right? My thoughts reverted to junior high, when my classmates jokingly asked (not so jokingly, really) whether you could get pregnant from a toilet seat, whether you could get V.D. from a toilet seat. Now I am truly dating myself. Does anyone even say “V.D.” anymore?

I bet there are some who walk around with their packet of disinfectant wipes and swab the toilet seat before sitting down. That would not be me.

So now I’m supposed to touch that filthy flush handle? Maybe with a wad of toilet paper. I couldn’t wait to apply a double dose of antibacterial soap and wash my hands for twice as long as usual.

The bottom line for we road warriors is that when you gotta go, you gotta go. You say a little prayer and make the best of it.

Speaking of saying a prayer, the Jewish festival of Purim was this week, and I intended to attend synagogue to listen to the reading of the Book of Esther. It tells the story of how, in ancient times, the Jewish people were spared from annihilation at the hands of the evil prime minister Haman. The kids dress up in costumes and everyone makes a ruckus with noisemakers called groggers every time Haman’s name is mentioned in the narrative. Afterwards, we all eat jelly-filled pastries called hamantashen, Yiddish for “Haman’s hats,” named for the triangular shape of both the goodies and the villain’s headgear.

This year, however, work sent me on a last-minute mission to the southland, so no groggers or hamantashen for me. I did, however, find in my email a Vimeo link to a video message to the congregation from my rabbi. (Who knew he was so social media savvy?). If you’re not sick, he said, don’t let worrying about coronavirus keep you away from Purim services.

I am impressed by the rabbi’s confidence that God will protect us. This actually made me feel pretty good about things, for half a minute anyway. If we were spared from annihilation by an evil Persian bigot, surely the Almighty will spare us from the ravages of coronavirus as well?

Then I read about the containment order in effect in New Rochelle, New York, not far from my old stomping grounds. The National Guard has been called out to deliver food to quarantined residents and to clean gathering places, such as schools and mass transit. As it turns out, a local synagogue has been identified as “ground zero” for coronavirus infections in the area. It could just as well have been any large gathering, I realize, but still, the spook factor persists. Not that I consider myself lucky that I was forced to miss services. After all, I’m in an arguably even worse situation in that I’ve spent the past two days assisting conference rooms full of people with their account issues.

An old lady, grateful for my help, touched my hand; I didn’t have the heart to tell her not to do that. People just aren’t used to the current state of affairs. We all want to believe that everything is going to be alright. And no one wants to change their daily routines. Not only is doing so a royal inconvenience, but it would only confirm that something is terribly wrong.

What seems to be getting through to the public is a mixed message. No need to panic, kiddos! We’ll all get through this just fine. Just stay holed up in your house or apartment, work remotely, stay out of the supermarkets and the big box stores, and whatever you do, don’t go near another human being. You don’t want to get sick and die, do you? Watch a movie on Netflix. Read a book on your Kindle or Nook. Play a video game. Talk to someone on Facetime. Make Instacart and Amazon richer than they already are. Enjoy this time of license to cherish your own company.

Now go wash your hands.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus (Part 2)

Saturday afternoon. Mom calls, and she’s agonizing over whether to concede to Kaiser’s wishes to conduct more radioactive scans to determine whether the cancerous cells from the dermoids they recently removed could have relocated to some other area of her body. The last couple of scans were clean. She already fended off their efforts to start her on chemotherapy “just in case.” To kill all those remaining cancer cells that they haven’t been able to find.

Mom says the radiation can itself cause cancer. Her doctor tried to allay her fears by assuring her that any such cancer wouldn’t show up for ten years. So she should end up with cancer when she’s 96 years old? Neither of us see the point.

“Another thing to consider,” I tell her, “is the coronavirus epidemic. Now is not the time to compromise your immune system.” Mom agrees, telling me that she heard that the average age of death from coronavirus is 81.

Then Mom asks me how to pronounce “coronavirus.” Is it corolla? No, Mom, that’s a Toyota. “Oh, so like Queens,” she tells me. Yes, Mom, like Queens. Also like the town here in California. Also like the halo around the sun. Also like the beer.

Sunday evening. My sister is just getting off her shift at the hospital when I text to ask her perspective on the coronavirus epidemic. She texts me back a photo of herself wearing blue sterile gloves and a blue face mask. It’s not one of those N95 masks that everyone is running to buy, she explains. It’s a droplet mask, designed to protect her should a patient cough or sneeze on her.

I tell Sis that I feel like a sitting duck. Here I am, working at close quarters with four thousand people, at least a few of whom have recently had the “flu.” If that’s not enough, I run all over the state to conduct training with members of the public. Surely some of them will cough or sneeze on me. I need more Clorox wipes. (Good luck in finding any on the bare supermarket shelves.)

Sis tells me that I have the wrong attitude. Yes, 70% of humanity will be infected by coronavirus. But only 3% are expected to die from it, which she tells me is probably more like 1% in real terms. Most people won’t even get sick or will have only mild symptoms, she tells me. Still, she’s staying away from malls, movie theaters and other crowded places. And she wishes she could convince her tenant to stop visiting the public swimming pool every day.

I’m picking up decidedly mixed messages. I’m still a couple of decades away from the age of 81 cited by Mom, but I’m no spring chicken either. Even if I myself stay away from crowds, I’ll surely be in close contact with a family member or coworker who has been to Wal-Mart or Costco to stock up on toilet paper or bottled water (if they have any left).

So, what does this all mean? Should I hunker down and shelter in place to save myself? Should I become a hermit?

Somehow I’m not ready to go to such extremes. I have work to do, and I intend to do it. And in my line of work, that means meeting people. So yes, I am taking a chance. But I refuse to capitulate to the panic mongerers. In the immortal words of FDR, we have nothing to fear but fear itself.

For now, however, please excuse me. I have to go wash my hands. Including the spaces between my fingers and underneath my fingernails. Back in 20 seconds!

Love in the Time of Coronavirus (Part 1)

With apologies to Gabriel García Márquez

My parents have lived in California’s verdant Central Valley for nearly a quarter of a century, since they retired from careers in education, sold their house in the New York City suburbs and pointed their Cutlass Supreme westward.

Their home is a three to four hour drive south of us, depending on the traffic on Highway 99 through Stockton, Modesto and Merced. Their subdivision was built right on the edge of the “rangeland,” where herds of cattle chow down on the tall grass that sprouts up when it rains and the brown stubble that remains when it doesn’t. Driving through the middle of it on Highway 145 looks every bit like Kansas or South Dakota.

Now that my parents are 86 years old, I worry about them living out on the wild prair-ee. Mom recently made it through surgery and a cancer scare, while Dad hobbles around, bent over but still managing to mow the lawn and drive into Fresno every Monday for all-you-can-eat shrimp at Red Lobster. He had a doctor appointment this week after his foot turned red and swelled up so much that he could no longer wear his usual tennis shoes and had to resort to a pair of open-toed sandals. Kaiser adhered to form. Yeah, you have gout and arthritis, so what else is new? Stick out your arm for a shingles shot and get thee gone, old man.

Don’t try to tell Dad about the connection between gout and excessive consumption of shellfish. You’d be wasting your time.

Mom had to come north to Sacramento (40 miles south of here) for her surgery and now for periodic follow-ups with an oncologist. During one such trip last week, my parents stayed overnight at a Sacramento hotel and we drove down to take them to dinner at Sizzler. Salad bar for three of us and (of course) shrimp for Dad.

Mom’s birthday is coming up on Saturday, and we hoped my parents would meet us halfway for dinner. Unfortunately, Dad and his hurting foot aren’t up to the drive. I’ll be down south in San Bernardino for work this week, and we’ll likely stop by to see them on the way home.

Just the other day, Mom heard Dad singing in the bathroom. She walked over to investigate and found him merrily crooning a tuneful rendition of “Happy Birthday to You.”

“It’s not my birthday yet,” objected Mom. Cuz, y’know, the big day is not for another whole week. No sense in rushing things.

Dad explained that he wasn’t singing to her; he was merely washing his hands. Two verses of the birthday song guarantees you the 20 seconds of ablution necessary to keep the coronavirus away, he reminded her.

What a world we live in!

Escape from California

BLYTHE

The city limit sign lists the population of Blythe as over 21,000.  My wife finds this hard to believe, and I remind her that the count includes the inmates of Ironwood and Chuckawalla Valley state prisons, some 20 miles outside town in the desert sands, amidst the rattlesnakes and scorpions.

When we pass the “do not pick up hitchhikers” sign, a plea to avoid inadvertently abetting prison escapees, my wife confesses that she always wanted to stop and take a photo of me sticking out my thumb in front of the sign.

The weird feeling in the pit of my stomach when we exit Interstate 10 at Lovekin Boulevard betrays my discomfort at even being here.  I don’t belong here anymore.  I’m not sure whether this is more return of the prodigal or return to the scene of the crime.

For three years and three months, I lived and worked in this remote outpost on the Colorado River, managing a branch of the county court located 90 miles across the desert from anything approaching civilization.  We stuck it out by spending weekends in Phoenix or in the Coachella Valley or in Nevada.  Those years were particularly hard on my wife, who wasn’t working and was a twelve hour drive away from her family.  Even though we were in the middle of nowhere, at least I was employed and was able to pay the bills.  Until suddenly I wasn’t, caught in a spate of layoffs resulting from the court’s budget shortfall.

There was one restaurant in town that we particularly enjoyed back then, and we stopped to have lunch and reminisce.

“How long have we been gone?” asked my wife as we munched on chips and salsa.

I had to go back and count.  “It was six years at the end of September,” I finally announced.

We saw no one we knew in the restaurant, but the waitress said she remembered us.  Indeed, nothing had changed.  Same line of customers waiting for tables at lunchtime, same amazing food, same servers.

Blythe is one of those places where time stands still.  When we arrived in 2010, the movie theater was still open.  My wife attended a matinee the first month we lived in town.  And then the theater promptly went out of business.  Ten years later, the movie theater sign still stands, advertising the arcade and ice cream parlor that once were inside this air conditioned oasis in the desert.  On the marquis by the road, instead of announcing the movie currently being shown, the sign still reads “theater available.”  After a decade, the space remains empty and unused.

Blythe is such a sad little town.  The Foster Freeze is boarded up; more storefronts are now vacant.  The cool 60 degree temperature in January hides what residents know all too well, that 100 to 120 degrees is the norm every day for seven months out of the year.

We get back on the freeway and head east over the Colorado River and into Arizona.  We take Exit 1 in Ehrenberg, just one mile from Blythe, but in another state where the gasoline at the Flying J truck stop is a dollar a gallon cheaper than it is just across the bridge.

The clocks on our phones jump ahead an hour.  We are on Mountain Time now, having finally escaped California.