Smile Therapy

😊 I have long been a bottom-line kind of guy, a value instilled in me early and often by my mother. Among her favorite aphorisms was “the operation was a success but the patient died.” I interpreted this to mean “don’t sugarcoat your failures.” You either reach your goals or you don’t, and you’re fooling yourself if you think there’s any in between. This is the way the world works, and the seriousness of the situation warrants treatment of the pretty scenery along the way as a dangerous and unwelcome distraction that may lead to never reaching your destination.

😊 In my school days, this meant ignoring my friends (“They’re not your friends, they’re your playmates!”) and their fads and fashions, and going my own way. Who cares if they fail, my only concern should be my own success.

😊 This type of goal-oriented worldview makes it difficult to focus on the present. From what I’ve read, “living in the moment” is essential for good mental health even in the best of circumstances. As hard as this has always been for me, a cancer diagnosis has made it nigh well impossible.

😊 I seem to be confused as to which stage of grief I should be in. My natural tendencies are to skip over all the denial and bargaining malarkey in favor of going straight to acceptance. I am always saying “it is what it is.” Facts are good.

😊 Except that the experts say this cannot be done. You have to do the steps. I may be engaging in an effort as futile as riding a self-actualization catapult to the apex of Maslow’s pyramid while perishing of hunger and thirst.

😊 This in no way inhibits my “acceptance” stage pull toward making arrangements. My wife and I recently made wills. I found the cemetery where I wish to be buried and talked with them about a traditional burial and the costs involved. I just want to go down there, sign the contract and hand over the money. I want it done.

😊 My wife accuses me of having given up, and I see her point. While that is not my intent, I don’t want any truck with dishonesty games either. The problem is that not all the facts are in yet. I am still undergoing tests. I plan to do whatever treatment is recommended. And the thought of being a cancer survivor brings a smile to my face. Indeed, the very act of smiling has begun to take on meaning of its own for me. This is no small thing, as my natural disposition might best be described as “grumpy.” Insert ghosts of Lemmon and Matthau here.

😊 So, at least at this point, I cannot agree with my wife’s assessment that I have given up. I pray daily and have others pray for me. And I practice what I have dubbed “smile therapy.” Eye roll, I know. I smile at myself in the mirror every day, just to remind myself that I still can. That anything is possible. Smiling as an act of defiance.

😊 Smile therapy has become particularly important to me in light of my twin bogeymen, pain and the narcotic medication being used to relieve it. My continued ability to work from home has been essential as well. As I explained to my boss the other day, work takes my mind off things.

😊 I thank God for small blessings. And I try not to fixate on those aspects of self-care that I could recently handle and that have become extremely difficult for me in a matter of just a few weeks. I refer to basic tasks such as lifting my right leg to climb into the car or into bed. Some days I can do it, but on others, my muscles go on strike and adamantly refuse. I would be totally out of luck if not for the assistance of my patient and long-suffering wife.

😊 I am tired all the time. Granted, I was never a high-energy person, even in my younger days. Now, however, I am learning to accept a new normal in which taking a shower uses up about every ounce of energy I possess. We ordered a shower chair, and I eagerly anticipate its arrival. I am able to work a full eight-hour day at my computer while seated in my armchair, getting up only to use the rest room. When 5:00 rolls around, I have just enough left in the tank to undress, get in bed, and be out like a light.

😊 Most of the layers of my onion have been peeled away. It makes for a much smaller world. I can only imagine that this will be exacerbated once I begin chemotherapy. I’ll just have to laugh while singing the “It’s a Small World” song from Disneyland (perhaps vomiting in between the repetitive verses).

😊 I do not believe that acceptance of all I have described means that I have “given up.” As I recently explained in decidedly terse terms, “it sucks, but it is what it is.” Denial would be pointless, and I certainly don’t have the energy to bargain as if this were some type of contract negotiation. No rageatar, por favor. For me, acceptance is where it’s at.

😊 But you know me. I need to have a goal. And I do. I want that Cancer Survivor shirt, size 4XL.

😊 Until I get it, I’ll keep right on smiling in the mirror.

😊 Just don’t tell anyone, please. I wouldn’t want to ruin my reputation.

Telework Dreams and Babies

Life in the Time of Coronavirus

I live inside a dream, a dream from which I cannot wake, but one I can look out of, through shimmering gossamer curtains, into a distorted image of what used to be my life. I want to go out there again, but the membrane is impermeable. There is no passage, just a fogged-up window. I am stuck here inside a cocoon quarantine of my own making, from which no governor’s order can ever release me.

4:30 AM. I wake early, despite my comfy mattress, courtesy of the back pain that has dogged me since I took a fall in my own bedroom three months ago. I think of my grandmother, healthy at the age of 97, until she fell off her stationary bicycle, broke her hip, and quickly declined and died. I am too young for this.

I futz around reading quarantine journals on my phone until my back hammers at me sufficiently that I have to get up. Untangle myself from the electric blanket’s cord. Grab on to the soft leather armchair next to the bed and pull myself up. I’d better haul myself to the bathroom before my wife wakes up and has to use it.

We have a second bathroom in this house, but it is up front, where my sister-in-law and her boyfriend live. Knowing my proclivity for wandering about in varying stages of undress, I am under strict orders from my wife not to leave our bedroom without pants on. I need dibs on that toilet.

I sit on the pot for a few minutes, wallowing in self-pity, knowing it will hurt when I stand up. Not my back. I seem to have developed other problems, and I’m hoping it won’t be long until the doctor figures out what they are. Gall bladder? Cracked rib? Spleen? Hernia? Who the heck knows. It hurts when I cough. Also when I move. Also when I don’t move.

My doctor has ordered an ultrasound. They can get me in Sunday afternoon, which means I get to fast all day. Unless I want to wait another two weeks until they can schedule me in the morning. Okay, Sunday it is. I will grab my cane and venture into the bowels of Kaiser Hospital, the basement where they do all the imaging.

“Are you gonna be in there?” I hear my wife grumble, still half asleep. “I’m almost done,” I call out in response. Clean myself up, leave the light on for her, go wash my hands under the warm tap. I pump the soap dispenser filled with something called Japanese Cherry Blossom, lather up and count out 25 seconds as I scrub up. One Mississippi, two Mississippi. I always figure that a few extra seconds can’t hurt, particularly if my count is a little off.

I hear my wife’s rhythmic breathing and I know she has fallen back to sleep. It seems the two of us are always falling somewhere these days. Asleep, away, apart, on the floor, on our faces, into outer space. We live in Pandemic Land, transported there like stowaways, without a ticket or passport, as if beamed aboard by Scotty. I turn out the light and let her sleep.

Back in bed, now well after 5 AM, I hear my sister-in-law rattling around in the kitchen, see the light shine in beneath my bedroom door. I hear the metallic percussion of a pot, the clank of coffee cups. She must be emptying the dishwasher. Then the rumble, rumble of the ice maker as she prepares her first cold drink of the day. My nephew is about to arrive with his eight month old son and my sister-in-law has to clock in electronically to her VPN by 6 AM. She works from home, as does my wife. As do I, thanks to COVID-19, for twelve weeks now. Coronavirus has sent most of us home, where I supervise my team remotely, courtesy of email, text message, Skype, and endless conference calls. I avoid Zoom like the . . . well, you know.

My wife and her sister are doing double duty, not only working but also providing day care for Weylyn. I am of no help at all. And at the moment, Weylyn’s a-wailin’. He has not been a very happy baby of late. He wants to be in his own, familiar home. He wants his Mom. He wants his Dad. But they’re both working out there in the real world, at risk of infection at every turn. Our house is a perpetual wreck, strewn with toys, playpen, rocker seat, infant formula, every detritus of babyhood. Baby on board and this boat is rockin’. My wife hurries into the shower so she can relieve her sister as soon as possible.

My wife is a contractor with flexible hours, so she gets to tend to Weylyn during the day, then, exhausted, take a short nap (if she’s lucky) before plunging into her work in the evening. Some days, Weylyn is disconsolate, yells his head off, and my sister-in-law runs in from her home office, picks him up, walks with him, heats a bottle, feeds him, changes him, leaves him with my wife and runs back to her her computer, one ear perpetually cocked for the start of the next round. I don’t know how those two do it. They do it all for love. I am in awe of their dedication. They are saints.

My own office is my leather armchair, two steps from my bed. It has been wonderful not having to get up at four in the morning to snag a parking space in front of my government office in downtown Sacramento. I save so much money on gas. And I don’t miss the traffic or the driving round and round in circles in a vain attempt to find a legal place to leave my car for the next ten or twelve hours. Working from home has been a stress reducer for sure. At least this is the narrative that I let myself believe.

I never saw the downside of telework until it hauled off and bit me in the butt when I was not paying attention. I have been morbidly obese since childhood, and I never realized that my health was hanging on by a thread, that thread being the little bit of walking necessary to do my job. The 348 steps from my car to my cubicle. The 125 steps of a round-trip to the rest room. The seemingly epic trek across the indoor bridge to the building next door for meetings. At least I can still do it, I remember thinking, even if I have to stop halfway and sit down for a few minutes.

Now, after twelve weeks at home, I don’t think I can do it anymore. Use it or lose it. I know I’ve lost it. The next stop is a wheelchair, if the hospital and cemetery don’t get me first.

I can barely get my pants on and off anymore. I have been retaining water in my legs for a long time, and Doc says there’s not much she can do if I don’t lose weight. She tried water pills with me, but I cramped up so bad that I had to stop taking them. Cramps in my feet, my calves, my hands, my neck. Waking up at night with spasms, pacing back and forth to walk them off. Then came the night when both legs cramped up simultaneously, and I howled in pain as I was barely able to drag myself out of bed.

I try performing leg and foot exercises in bed. Just getting into bed is an ordeal, as I am barely able to lift my heavy, heavy legs high enough. It takes me several tries. I have developed alternate techniques, the most reliable of which tends to hurt my back.

I am gaining weight. Being at home, the refrigerator and pantry are always here, and the temptation to eat is forever with me. My only saving grace is that eating would require that I get out of my chair, and the thought of the pain of unfolding myself and standing up is a definite deterrent.

It’s not that I didn’t bring plenty of food with me to work, in the blue rolling bag that I would pull behind me, the handle doubling as a stabilizer as I made the long walk from car to desk. Meals on wheels, one of my coworkers called it. But it was limited. When it was gone, it was gone. The vegan-but-high-calorie potato chips and Oreos in the vending machines rarely tempted me due to the walking that would be required to get down to the lobby and back.

I was at my highest weight about eight years ago, before I lost my job and went vegan. For the first time ever, we had to go on Food Stamps, for which we were approved only after months of wrangling with the county and standing in food distribution lines for boxes of canned goods, rotting produce, and stale baked goods donated by supermarkets when the expiration date had passed. I lost a fair amount of weight after that, but now it’s creeping back up and I’m in shouting distance of my max, only about 25 pounds off. Scale don’t lie. I should make an effort to walk more, but it hurts too much. There are so-called “chair exercises.” I feel I am doomed.

Weylyn is crying uncontrollably in the next room, unresponsive to my wife’s herculean efforts to comfort him. I want to join him in his histrionics. I understand his feeling of frustration.

Like so many others, I want to return to what was. I want to draw the Chance card that reads “go back 3 spaces.” Only I want it to say “go back 3 months.”

I want to get a full night of sleep instead of waking up after three hours with my back on fire. I don’t want to have to think about how many hours ago I last ate and can I take an over-the-counter pain reliever now without ending up with stomach cramps.

I want to jump in the shower without grimacing in pain when I bend over to clean myself. I want to get dressed in a white shirt and tie, toss whatever I can find in the refrigerator into my rolling bag, hit the garage door opener and then the freeway, singing along with my iPod all the way to downtown Sacramento. I want to boil water for my morning tea in my little pot, then hide it under a blanket because we’re not supposed to have those (fire code, you know). I want staff to stop by and ask for advice, managers to stop by and ask me to do things. I miss my big double monitors and my shelf of reference books.

I want to take weeklong trips to southern Cali to lecture before classrooms filled with county workers, to show PowerPoint slides, to provide thoughtful answers to intriguing questions. I want to stay in mediocre hotels and eat lousy road food. I want to sit at a long table at the back of the room with my laptop and wireless mouse instead of sitting with my laptop on a folding tray in my bedroom. I want to greet the line of people coming in, look up the cases of the old lady with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles mask and the man in the wheelchair with his bottle of Purell. I want to help them cut through the red tape and get what they need to keep living at home and not end up in a coronavirus death trap of a nursing home.

But you can’t go home again.

I remind myself of the exhaustion of commuting and traveling, how I’d barely be able to stay awake while driving home. Drive, work, drive, sleep. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

I have been guilty of the sin of envy. I envied the techies and engineers with their headphones and laptops at Starbucks. I wished I could work from home. I calculated the number of years before I could retire and never have to drive to Sacramento again unless I was hankering for a really good plate of pad se ew. Final answer: Never. This house will not be paid off in my lifetime.

Be careful what you wish for. The grass is not necessarily any greener over here. Count your blessings.

It’s almost midnight and I gingerly pull up out of bed and go sit in my leather armchair. I am grateful it’s a rocker. I rock back and forth, hoping to work out the kinks in my back, delaying the pain of standing up a while longer. I listen to my wife snore across the room, play Scrabble on my phone, read the latest news of the riots and the virus. I realize that I have every risk factor for succumbing the moment the virus touches me. I am a dead man walking.

I’d better try to get a few more hours of sleep. Weylyn will be dropped off here at 5:30 AM, and my wife and her sister will have another exhausting day of trying to keep him calm, fed and distracted. For a while, they only had him on Mondays. But this week they had him Tuesday also, and then Wednesday, and now it’s going to be Thursday. My niece has been working more steadily as the weather improves.

At some point during the day, I know I will hear my sister-in-law coo “Did you make a poo-poo?” as she changes Wey’s diaper. Hopefully, it will not be during my Skype meeting. I have my weekly team huddle, during which I talk for about an hour and cannot stay on mute.

It’s not just me. Today, I was conducting a one-on-one with one of my people, when I could hear her 2 year old begin crying for his mom. Dad had to drag him away from the attic room where Mom works.

My team is used to it by now. They know that, at some point during the call, Weylyn will probably start screaming his head off in the background.

That’s what the word family means, I tell them. And right now, that’s all we’ve got.

When Pigs Die

Life in the Time of Coronavirus

Trigger warning: I get a bit graphic this week. If you don’t believe that meat is murder, or you’d rather not think about how that bacon arrived in your pan, you may want to navigate off this page now.

Today, I’d like to take some time to talk about pigs. Yes, pigs. Not those of our fellows who may be a bit slobby or coarse, but actual porcine, squealing oinkers. Hogs.

This is not a pleasant topic, as anyone who has had a whiff of a pig barn or a feed lot without a gas mask can attest. Economics comes into the mix, yet another topic that makes many of us ill. To top it off, any discussion of pigs is emotionally loaded from the get-go. We love our bacon and our barbecue. But we’d really prefer not to think about how these tasty morsels arrived on our plates. And while our only connection with pork may be picking a shrink wrapped package out of the meat case and plunking down a credit card or EBT at the supermarket check stand, lately even that transaction has fallen apart as we find the shelves bare in the age of coronavirus.

There are those of us of the Jewish and Muslim faiths who don’t eat pork for religious reasons, and tend to find even the thought of pigs a bit disgusting. Vegetarians such as myself have even further objections, so I will be the first to admit to the difficulties of discussing this topic in a dispassionate and neutral manner. I can’t. But neither am I willing to turn my head away and think pretty thoughts.

Recently, I began to hear of a disappearance of pork and other types of meat from supermarket shelves as a result of the closure of big processing plants in the Midwest, including giants Smithfield and Tyson. (Some have since reopened under executive orders.). These facilities had become hotbeds of coronavirus infection among employees working in an occupation that decidedly does not lend itself to social distancing. When I started to see articles and recipes touting meatless meals pop up in mainstream media, that’s when I decided it was time to try to find out more about what’s going on here.

I remember how, back in elementary school, I first discovered the poetry of Carl Sandburg, who famously described Chicago as “hog butcher for the world.” So what better place to start, I thought, than the Windy City.

It did not take me long to locate an article on the disconnect between the surfeit of pigs on Midwestern farms and the paucity of pork on store shelves. To my surprise, however, the piece in the Chicago Tribune was not locally written, but carried from The New York Times.

Heartland states such as Iowa and Minnesota are the epicenter of the crisis of too many pigs and nowhere to sell them. The fallout of the coronavirus pandemic has caused hog farmers to run out of barn space and, in desperation, to resort to killing their pigs and either burying the carcasses or putting them through the wood chipper. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are lost as unsold pigs are turned into compost. As Steinbeck wrote in The Grapes of Wrath more than 80 years ago: “Slaughter the pigs and bury them, and let the putrescence drip down into the earth.”

This state of affairs has been hard on pig farmers, not only due to the financial devastation it has wrought, but also due to the emotional devastation of farmers compelled to kill the animals they worked so hard to raise. Farmers are used to shipping off their bounty to the big meat packing plants for slaughter, not to having to kill the beasts themselves.

I found it fascinating to learn the methods of murder used. One farmer sealed the cracks in his barn and piped in carbon dioxide gas through the vents. Another loaded up his gun with ammo and methodically shot each of his pigs in the head. The Times reports that it took him all day to do the job.

This is known as “wanton waste,” usually illegal when it comes to hunters shooting a deer and leaving it to rot in the woods, but perfectly lawful when it comes to farmers killing off animals they own and treating the dead flesh as trash. The difference, of course, is that a state’s deer population is viewed as a common resource. Waste is therefore a crime against the community and the state. When it comes to wasting animals that a farmer raised or paid for, however, well, possession is nine-tenths of the law, don’t you know.

It is difficult to imagine the task of disposing of hundreds of 300 pound plus dead pigs to clear out the barn for the next generation of recently born piglets that will likely meet the same fate. So how can these farmers prevent the same situation from recurring in a few months, should the pandemic continue unabated? Short of closing up shop and filing for bankruptcy, not much in the way of prevention is in the offing. The best that farmers can hope for is some measure of mitigation. “Managers supervising the sows have killed about 125 baby pigs a week, or 5 percent of newborns,” reports The Times.

And it’s not just pigs. After all, the big meat packing plants process poultry, too. On the east coast, in Delaware and Maryland, about two million chickens were killed and their bodies “disposed of” last month. It is easy to forget that these were living, breathing, clucking birds that, up until a few weeks ago, spent their days scratching and foraging for juicy bugs and worms in the field (or, sadly, debeaked and packed into stinking cages). I know, they’re just chickens, who cares? I’ll take a leg and a thigh, please.

So where does this leave us from an economic perspective? It’s a matter of making ends meet, of bringing together supply and demand. While industry does its best to create demand, lest the fickle winds of consumer taste abruptly shift direction, this is not a case of the public suddenly losing interest in eating meat. Far from it. It’s the supply side that’s the issue. Supermarkets have resorted to putting up signs announcing limits on the number of packages of meat each shopper is permitted to buy. In much of the country, Wendy’s has none of its famous square hamburgers for sale, having run out of meat.

The meat supply is slowly increasing as some of the packing plants reopen. Now it’s a matter of whether sufficient PPE and social distancing measures will be employed to prevent employees from getting sick. Meanwhile, Congress is considering increased aid to farmers and the federal government has agreed to purchase some of the surplus meat. But first there has to be meat. In other words, first it is necessary to turn those pigs into bacon, ham and sausages instead of into compost.

As The Times reports, the problem is that, outside of the meat packing giants, there is not much demand for live pigs. Everyone wants bacon, but no one knows how to butcher a hog.

This disconnect between the beast and the pan has developed over a hundred years or more in the United States, prior to which families routinely raised their own animals, then killed, butchered and ate them. You knew exactly where your meal came from. Back in the nineteenth century, Dickens pointed out that a man toasting sausages in his fireplace could not but help think fondly of the pig that, but a few days earlier, was still squealing out behind the house.

Today, by contrast, eating meat has become an antiseptic process, totally divorced from its origins. When we put food into our bodies, we no more want to know where it came from than we want to know where what comes out of our bodies goes once we flush the toilet.

There are still deer hunters out there who butcher their own venison for the freezer, and a few have taken a live pig off the hands of a desperate farmer. The Times article even points out that some have purchased live animals from hog farmers and have paid to have them butchered before donating them to charitable organizations. And some farmers have even tried to sell pigs to individuals on Facebook and Craigslist.

I say it’s time for more of the meat eaters among us to step up and put their money where their mouths are. Where are those who mock the animal ethics movement by referring to PETA as People Eating Tasty Animals? Your pork fix awaits you on the hoof in Iowa and Minnesota.

Mask pulled up over my nose, I enter Wal-Mart only to pass by a guy in a T-shirt that reads “All God’s creatures have a place in this world, right next to the mashed potatoes and gravy.” Why isn’t this wiseass buying some of these surplus pigs to eat with his spuds?

Beyond the horror of the hundreds of deaths among our loved ones that we are experiencing daily, the coronavirus has also served to point out the folly of our ways and to rub our noses in it. It’s time for those who talk the talk to start walking the walk.

Updates:

“Is Pork Essential?” Los Angeles Times, May 29, 2020.

The Middle

Life in the Time of Coronavirus

My next door neighbor is a medical assistant, a health care professional, a front-line warrior and a modern day hero.

She is an essential worker. Most of us are not.

Once we go beyond the realm of health care, however, I am increasingly discovering that what constitutes “essential” is largely a matter of opinion.

Retail employees? If you stock shelves or work the register or mop the floors in a store that sells food or medicine, you’re essential. Otherwise, probably not.

If you deliver goods or the mail to homes, are a repair person, haul away the trash, fight fires, keep the peace or keep electricity running through our outlets and water running through our pipes, you are essential. Otherwise, probably not.

Here in California, if you work at a marijuana dispensary, you are an essential worker. After all, folks are relying on you to alleviate some of the severest types of pain (even if it’s just the pain of lockdown loneliness and boredom).

So what’s with all this labeling? Who cares whether our labors are deemed “essential” or not? Well, for one thing, it determines whether your employers can legally keep their businesses open or not. In other words, it determines whether you’ve been laid off, and maybe whether you can pay your bills. It also determines whether you’re exempt from the lockdown so that you can go to work and potentially expose yourself to illness and death.

And then there’s the non-health care professionals, the accountants, teachers, attorneys and state and federal staff workers. Most of us can work from home, thanks to computers and the internet. In many states, we are lumped into the “essential” category, too, even though many of us can hide from the coronavirus on our living room couches, dining room tables, or, in my case, in a chair in my bedroom. Some say we have the best of both worlds: All of the income, none of the risk. We are neither laid off nor on the front lines. We are the people in the middle.

While we admire (from six feet away, of course) those risking life and limb on a daily basis, many of us middle people are finding it difficult to relate to the Netflix and chill set. While we don’t envy being on unemployment benefits (or worse), we’re tired of hearing how bored everyone is. Some of us hiding at home are working our butts off.

I found the whininess of a recent Washington Post article about lockdown to be particular annoying. I guess I should register for that class in empathy skills.

The article recommended that we keep a lockdown journal so we can remember what it was like. Because we want to forget how it was, and soon will.

The author encourages us to remember when:

It was strange that we wore sweatpants every day (and every night). Or worse, I suppose, considering that guy who did a talk on TV with no pants on, not realizing that the camera ratted him out by showing the tops of his bare-skinned legs. I have a hard time relating. I get fully dressed before starting work at my laptop each morning. I don’t wear a tie as I do when I go to the office, but I do wear pants. Not sweatpants.

We never took a shower. Umm, that’s disgusting. I shower daily, lockdown or no.

We stared over and over at the same 12 things in the refrigerator. That’s just sad. Between grocery delivery and periodic face-masked trips to the supermarket, our two refrigerators and our freezers are all alarmingly full.

Zoom was a novelty. Nope. Probably because I’ve never used Zoom. Which may have something to do with my employer’s warning that it’s been hacked and that we’d better stay away from it lest we fall victim to its security breaches. Skype has always worked just fine for us, so I see no reason to jump on the latest faddish bandwagon.

Sleeping until 11 seemed like a luxury. I can’t relate. I get up at 6:45 so I can be working at my laptop at my regular 8:00 start time.

You first couldn’t remember if it was Tuesday or Wednesday. Unless I want to miss an important conference call, I don’t have that luxury. There’s this little thing called a calendar, you know. I don’t even have to don a face mask and go out to a store to buy one from an essential worker. It’s right there on Outlook and on our phones and on our watches.

So I’m sorry you’re all bored and everything, but I just can’t relate. And I really don’t want to hear about your Netflix binges and your Candy Crush addiction and your Zoom games.

I’m too busy working to care.

I’ll sign up for that empathy class now.

Survey Silliness

I am getting tired of writing about the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic (tip of the hat to Governor Newsom for wisely closing the beaches and parks – thank you!), so today I am capitulating to a mindless distraction by responding to a survey. Never fear, I’ll get back to more pandemic stuff next time.

I saw this survey on The Thirsty Oriental’s blog, Rhapsody in Yellow, over on Prosebox. Thank you, sir! (I hope I don’t get drummed out of the WordPress corps for mentioning a competing platform.)

How many pairs of Converse shoes do you own?
Zero. I only wear tough black work shoes. I’m thinking this survey may be geared to a younger person.

Any other names your parents planned to give you?
I think I was supposed to be Abraham. There’s a family story about running around to various cemeteries during my mother’s pregnancy to determine Dad’s correct Hebrew middle name, which thankfully turned out to be Avram, thereby saving me from a lifetime of being Abe.

Are you hot?
Heavens, no. I’m always freezing my butt off.

Where is the most beautiful place you know?
Malibu, California.

Who do you work with?
Fellow managers and my wonderful team of program analysts. You folks rock!

Five essential items you never leave the house without?

  1. Keys
  2. Wallet
  3. Folded handkerchief
  4. Pens
  5. Eyeglass cleaner wipes

Have you ever hit an animal with your car?
A dog, once (decades ago). I felt really bad about it.

Favorite ride in an amusement park?
You’re kidding, right? I hate rides. I don’t even like amusement parks. I can amuse myself just fine, thank you (and without vomiting).

Favorite beauty essential in your bathroom cabinet?
Huh? Whazzat?

Do you have many followers on your Tumblr?
I don’t even know what that is. (I told you this survey was intended for a younger person.). I don’t do Instagram or Facebook or any of that static. But I have over 3,000 followers of this blog, and I appreciate each and every one of you for putting up with me!

Do you tan easily?
Can you say “third degree burn?”

Are you expecting something in the mail?
Maybe my paycheck stub? Teleworking, yay!

Do you inspire others?
Nope. I’m too boring.

Favorite dessert?
Oh, man, now you’re talkin’! Definitely my mother-in-law’s fruitcake. I heard that snide remark! Don’t laugh, it’s heaven on a plate. What else? My mother-in-law’s lemon meringue pie (I’m sensing a theme here). Homemade cannoli from Martio’s Pizza in New York. Black forest cake (with a cappuccino). Really good rice pudding with half-‘n-half and whipped cream (here’s looking at you, Greek diners of New Jersey). Banana split. Strawberry Fribble from Friendly’s Ice Cream in Massachusetts. Maine blueberry pie. Or, if we’re talking about something that I can actually find around here and also eat without getting sick, a gluten-free, nondairy whoopie pie (sounds disgusting, tastes delicious) from Sugar Plum Bakery in East Sac (with a large coffee liberally doused with almond milk). I’ll be having one if those in a little while. Yum!

What do you collect?
Memories, mostly.

Do you like cats?
Yes! I know, some folks think they’re evil. But I grew up with cats. Dogs, however, I don’t care for. Well, except for my sister-in-law’s little Yorkie, who has lately become my patio buddy. Also, my easy chair buddy. Arrrrgggghh! Did I really just say that? [face palm]

Are you healthy?
I’m old. Does that count?

Have you ever been out of state?
I have visited all 48 continental United States. I just need to wrap it up with Alaska and Hawaii. I have also visited two Canadian provinces (the other 8 and the 3 territories are on my bucket list).

Can you always blame your acts on that you were just too drunk?
Hahaha! I don’t drink. Well, except for seltzer, coffee and my wife’s wonderful iced tea. I guess I have to come up with another excuse for the stupid stuff I’ve done.

Three things you try to avoid as much as possible?
The gastroenterologist, the lab where they draw my blood, and the ultrasound machine down in the bowels of Kaiser Hospital. Ouchie!

How many times have you been overseas?
Twice. Once to Europe, once to the Caribbean.

Do you have someone in mind when shopping for underwear?
My wife takes care of that stuff. Don’t ask me.

Number of jeans in your closet?
Zero. My legs are big as tree trunks. I can’t even get pants that fit me properly. Jeans? You’ve got to be kidding.

What accent do you have?
My favorite is the circûmflêx. Um, we don’t have accents in California. But if I’m tired or stressed, I start to sound like Bernie Sanders. Once a New Yawka, always a New Yawka.

Where would you like to live?
No comment.

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.

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.

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!