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?

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!

No Gifts, Please. (This Means You!)

Do not buy me a gift.  Ever.  Please.

 

I don’t do gifts well.  Perhaps this means that something deep in my psyche is irreparably warped.  But it is what it is.

Just the thought of receiving a gift gives me a headache.  I will either have to take care of it, pay taxes on it, or feel guilty –  first while it sits in a drawer, unused and collecting dust, and then later when I give it to Goodwill or toss it unceremoniously into the trash.

In other words, you’re wasting your money and my time.

Call me ungrateful or whatever the modern term for that sentiment might be.  But don’t waste your energy on one as unappreciative as I am.

Courtesy demands that I thank you profusely for your gift, even as I’m thinking about how to get rid of it.  I learned in childhood that polite society requires that we be good liars.

I am not a materialistic person.  I am not impressed by things.  If there is something that I want enough, I’ll go buy it.  Most of the time, I don’t bother.  Let’s face it, everything is junk these days, usually made in China.

Even your best intentions will blow up in my face.  So stay away with your boxes, bows, ribbons and gift cards.

As a case in point, consider the gifts that my parents bestowed upon me for Hanukkah and for my birthday.

Hanukkah:  My mother sent me a nice Hanukkah card with a $50 gift card to Barnes & Noble tucked inside.  This seems innocent enough, generous even, and certainly thoughtful of my bibliophile tendencies. Well… Let’s examine the effects of the law of unintended consequences, shall we?

First, both the envelope and the inside of the card was addressed to me only, not to my wife (who, I might add, enjoys books as well).  More than likely, Mom did this because my wife is not Jewish and does not  celebrate Hanukkah.  (Psst… I don’t celebrate any December holiday, Mom.) But did my mother send my wife a Christmas card?  Nope.  Has she ever said “merry Christmas” to my wife in our 21 years of marriage?  Nope.  It’s not like Mom has never sent Christmas cards to her Christian friends back east.  As for us, we don’t send any variety of holiday cards to anyone.  Perhaps we should try sending Mom a Hanukkah card and see if she sends anything back?  I don’t know.  Let’s just say that the whole thing justifiably pissed off my wife royally.  I deeply wish she hadn’t sent me any kind of gift.

Oh, wait, that’s not all.  When I finally got around to visiting a Barnes & Noble this month (we don’t have one in our immediate area and had to drive out of town), I found that the books that interest me most (economics and American history) cost twice what I could buy them for on Amazon!  I purchased one book and some desserts from the café, and the card is nearly depleted.  What a waste.

Please, Mom, no gifts.  Signed, your ungrateful brat of a son.

So, let’s talk about my birthday.  Mom bought me a shirt-and-tie pre-packaged combo at a big box store.  Wrong size!  “You can’t win for losing,” said Mom deflatedly when I broke the news to her.  Fine, no big deal.  We tried to exchange the shirt for something in the right size.

First, we learned that the store didn’t have any shirt in stock in my size.  No worries, we’ll just buy a new wallet and tie instead.  No dice!  The store will not accept any returns or exchanges without the original receipt.  And even if we had said receipt, a friendly employee informed us, they wouldn’t take the shirt back because Mom had removed the UPC from the packaging.  Now I have the unenviable task of asking Mom what she would like us to do with the shirt.  Should we give it back to her? Donate it?  Truly a lose-lose situation.

Is this a good time to mention an acquaintance’s restaurant gift card that has been gathering dust for months?  Or the cute game that I think is languishing in a drawer somewhere in this house?

Listen up, everyone.  No.  Gifts.  Please!  This means you, well-intentioned relatives and friends!

Save your money and save our time and energy.  Everyone wins!

The Certainty of Death and Christmas

An interesting article about death cafés, some of which host workshops at which participants write their own obituaries, recently appeared in The Washington Post. Now, I’ve heard of internet cafés and cat cafés, but this was the first I’d heard of a destination where one can get a steaming mug of java along with a side of pondering one’s own mortality.

I find the timing of the Post article rather appropriate.  While there is so much outward Christmas cheer to be had, with carols old and new playing everywhere I go, and my grandnieces and grandnephews declaring every piece of schlock touted on YouTube videos as their heart’s desire, it’s easy to ignore the sadness lurking just below the surface for many of us.  We hear annually of the spike in suicides during the holiday season.  The spirit of the season does not resonate for many of us who have suffered losses or who feel lonely, disenfranchised or marginalized.  The mental health challenges that are always with us seem to be accentuated in the month of December.  
In the hustle and bustle of work, family and holiday preparations, it can be easy to overlook our neighbors who are struggling.  Some of them may not make it to the new year.  For those of us who work in social services, it’s harder not to notice.  It’s in your face every day.  We know to expect an uptick in calls about child and elder abuse, an increase in applications for cash aid, and more stories of epic family squabbles than could fill a telenovela.
It’s a good thing that the media and charitable organizations make us more aware of the needy at this time of year.  We don’t want any child to be without gifts on Christmas morning, nor do we want to see impoverished families settling for cereal or soup for Christmas dinner.  So we try to do our part.  We give extra to the food bank; we haul a box of board games over to the toy drive.  And yet, it’s just so little.  We know it’s a drop in the bucket and we only hope that our tiny contribution makes a difference to someone.
But no one rings bells outside Wal-Mart or holds bake sales to benefit those whose suffering extends far beyond the financial.   There are too many whose pain is invisible, who drag themselves through the holiday season like zombies, who pray for January or maybe just to make it through another day.  I regret that the holidays are such a trigger for so many, in the midst of what is supposed to be a season of joy.  And I don’t know what we can do to be of much help.  Lend a listening ear?  Maybe.  Kindness, understanding?  Reaching out instead of pretending it’s not our problem?  I fear I am lapsing into serious cliché here, but that’s an occupational hazard of looking in the mirror, is it not?
I don’t think I’d do a very good job of writing my own obituary at a death café, no matter how strong the coffee.  But I do know that the one line I do not want in my obituary is “He could have done something, but he chose not to.”
Perhaps Dickens got it right when he had the Ghost of Christmas Future pass judgment on old Ebenezer and his self-imposed blindness to the suffering of others.
Carpe diem.

Why I Hate Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving remains an exciting holiday for me because it is the one and only time of year that I get four consecutive days off work without having to dip into my vacation time.  Other than that, I find Thanksgiving decidedly meh.

Okay, I hate Thanksgiving.  There, I said it.  I find Thanksgiving positively nauseating.  I know, I’ve turned into an old curmudgeon.  Bah, humbug!

Holiday time critics frequently decry Christmas as having long ago been sacrificed on the altar of consumerism.  Thanksgiving, of course, is no different.  We eat too much, watch football and then waste our money on Black Friday.  I see the list of deadly sins taking shape here:  Gluttony, sloth, avarice, envy.

But what about giving thanks?  At my age, I am thankful and grateful for every day that I am still alive.  I thank the Lord for His many blessings every day of the week.  I don’t need a special day just for that.

As a vegetarian, I am disgusted by the mass slaughter of birds.  A coworker recently mentioned the annual presidential pardon of a turkey.  Exactly what crime was that turkey guilty of that it needed a pardon, I asked.  Let’s just say this is not how to win friends and influence people.

As I’ve discussed in this space before, my aversion to Thanksgiving has much to do with family drama in years gone by.  To put it mildly, my memories of the holiday aren’t too sunny.  I used to say that I considered it a good Thanksgiving if no one threw a punch and no one called the cops.  I exaggerate, but not by much.  I considered it a good holiday if no one started yelling expletives and no one lobbed a projectile at anyone else.  By that standard, I don’t recall too many good Thanksgivings.

Today, I have aging parents with health problems.  My usual Hobson’s choice is to either drive four hours each way to spend Thanksgiving with them or to feel guilty about leaving them alone on the holiday.  Thankfully, I’m off the hook this year.  My sister and her son are driving to Mom and Dad’s and will cook Thanksgiving dinner for them.  Thanks, Sis!  I owe you.

As for me, I plan to have an excellent Thanksgiving this year.  I look forward to chowing down at the Sizzler salad bar, just my wife and myself.  On Black Friday, I look forward to catching up on my sleep.

And yes, I’ll have my laptop with me and will probably do some work over the holiday weekend.

So sue me.

 

In Defense of Sentence Fragments

Last weekend, my father responded to my email to him by reminding me not to use sentence fragments. 🤭

How embarrassing!  It was almost as if I had used a swear word.  (Dad uses a lot of those himself, but would be shocked to see me let one fly from my keyboard.  Actually, I’d be shocked, too.)

My 85 year old father has a master’s degree in English, recites Victorian poetry from memory, and expects me to uphold some standards of decency when I put words to paper (or screen).  Fortunately for me, he does not read this blog.  Well, at least I think he doesn’t.  Umm, hi, Dad?

I write for a living (if you consider drafting policy documents and training programs to be writing, and I will surely excuse you if you do not), so there are no excuses.  I have coached my staff over and over again about the importance of avoiding sentence fragments.  Hey, man, I wanna see a subject and a verb, you dig?

Some say that sentence fragments are just plain laziness, but the real reason that they are so enticing is that they mimic the way we speak.  And suffice it to say that most of us don’t exactly speak the Queen’s English.  When we have a conversation, we interrupt, we speak over and under one another, and we use coded references that my fellow lawyers refer to as a “course of dealing.”  In other words, you and I understand what we mean based on our ongoing relationship (or at least based on earlier parts of the  conversation), whereas others not privy to our relationship (or our conversation) might think a particular word or phrase means something altogether different or might not have any idea of its meaning at all.

For example, I might drop the subject from a sentence because we already know what/whom we’re talking about.  This allows me to skip the formalities and go directly to the depth and color of adjectives, prepositional phrases and even (what the heck, let’s go all the way) interjections.

In this respect, formal English takes on a decided egalitarian cast.  Faithful use of subject and verb ensures that a stranger walking in on the middle of a conversation can understand what is going on despite the lack of a course of dealing or other contextual clues.

The other reason we like to use sentence fragments is because, well, they’re sexy.  They spice up the narrative.  You tell me which of the following snippets of dialogue is bound to be more appealing to the average reader:

He went yesterday?!  What do you mean?

or

Yesterday?!  What?!

While both of the above convey a degree of shock and incredulity, the former contains boring old subjects (he and you) and verbs (went and mean), while the latter contains neither.  The first consists of two fully formed sentences, while the latter is composed of two sentence fragments.  It isn’t necessary to provide the linguistic guideposts of subject and verb because context has already been provided earlier in the conversation.  Arguably, the second choice more accurately conveys the speaker’s emotions and makes for more interesting reading.

This phenomenon is not limited to dialogue and fiction.  In fact, among the most prevalent and influential uses of sentence fragments is modern advertising.  If you don’t believe me, just take a look at two of today’s most recognizable product tag lines:

Tastes great, less filling.

 

Lowest prices.  Always. 

The first example contains a verb (tastes), but nary a subject is to be found.  After all, it isn’t needed (because the reader or listener already knows what is being discussed).  If brevity is the soul of wit, why muck it up with surplus verbiage?  A sentence fragment will serve the purpose nicely.

The second example contains two sentence fragments, the first with a subject (prices) but no verb, the second with neither subject nor verb (just a lonely old adverb).  And yet, as a result of context, the reader understands the intended meaning perfectly.  Indeed, even a reader with few or no contextual clues can arguably discern the promise of regular discounts.  Do we really need to say “this establishment features the lowest prices available in the area?”

Thus, I submit to you, dear reader, that despite the protestations of the grammatical purists out there, sentence fragments do have their place in the English language.  Even in the emails of a lifelong word wrangler.

Sorry, Dad.