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.

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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.

Work, Play and the Gift of Love

Life in the Time of Coronavirus

“Do what you love, love what you do.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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.

Praying for Parking

Now that it’s late September, I drive to work in the pitch blackness of the pre-dawn morning. Soon, I’ll be driving home in the dark as well.

I’ve developed a routine. On the way home, it’s all about staying awake, particularly if I have been at work ten or eleven hours. That means only one thing: It’s karaoke time. I plug in my phone, blast my tunes and sing as loud as I can. Okay, I’m stretching the truth a bit here. I don’t believe that anyone in his or her right mind would characterize the caterwauling emanating from my mouth as singing. Is it possible to scream a song? Even a country song? I think it’s time for me to get into heavy metal in my old age.

My morning commute, however, is quite different. For one thing, I need to pray for a parking space. Dear Lord, lead me not into Natomas.

I work in Sacramento’s Twin Towers, where there is exactly one handicapped parking space for four thousand employees, never mind visitors. When I first obtained my blue handicapped parking permit years ago, I never imagined that I would have such a difficult time making use of it.

The surefire way of snagging my parking space is to arrive at work by 5:30 a.m. As sensible a solution as this may be, the problem is that I am a lazy ass who prefers to sleep an extra hour. Arriving at work at 6:30 or 6:45 a.m. is a dicey proposition indeed. It’s a big game of chicken. Sometimes my parking space will still be available. (Thank you, Lord!) More likely than not, however, I will round the corner from Q Street onto Eighth, only to find a giant SUV sitting in the handicapped spot, jeering at me. The early bird does indeed get this particular worm.

So what now? I’ve often wished there were valet parking at work. Instead, most employees who don’t use the bus or light rail end up paying hefty monthly fees to park in a garage or lot and then have the pleasure of walking blocks to work in the heat, the wind and the rain. If you can’t make that walk, you’re pretty much out of luck.

I knew I had to come up with a strategy, replete with alternatives. They are as follows:

1. Pray. Thank God for his many blessings and ask for one more, that I arrive at the handicapped space five minutes before someone else tries to slide into it.

2. Hope that one of the metered parking spaces that line the block across the street is available. With my handicapped permit, I can park there all day without the need to run out every hour to feed quarters into the meter. All I have to do is wait for traffic to clear, then roll my lunch bag across Eighth and grab a pole (or the hood of another car) to haul myself up onto the opposite sidewalk.

3. If both of the above fail, park behind the handicapped spot in a “loading zone only” space and wait. Keep an eye out for someone dashing across the street (or up the street from the gym) in preparation for pulling out of a metered space across the street. This requires patience and more than a little luck. Like a cat, I may need to stalk my prey for an hour or more. My official start time at work is 8:00, so I generally have enough leeway to pull this off. However, all I have to do is lose focus for a moment, and another car will come careening around the corner, turn signal on to let the world know that, by golly, he is claiming the about-to-be vacated space for himself. Also, it happens from time to time that a 60 or even 90 minute wait will not yield a vacancy across the street. That real estate between the little white lines is valuable.

4. Stay parked in the “loading zone only” space that I’ve staked out and pray that Parking Enforcement doesn’t come around before 9:00, at which time the space becomes legal. Run out of work before 4 pm, when the space turns into a pumpkin again.

5. Go to Natomas, the nuclear option. This involves driving 20 minutes to the northern suburbs of Sacramento, leaving the car in a supermarket or department store parking lot, and getting on the Uber app to call for a car to take me back downtown. I get to pay for this privilege again when I leave work in the evening. So far, I have managed to avoid the Natomas option but, prayers notwithstanding, it seems just a matter of time.

6. Call into work and go home. Now you’re talkin’.

The Commuter Life: Suddenly, it Dawned on Me

Gooooood morning, Sacramento! What time is it? Oh five hundred. What does the O stand for? Oh, my God, it’s early!

No matter how you cut it, 3:30 am comes early.

That’s the latest that I need to haul myself out of bed if I’m driving into the city for another day at the job. It gives me about 90 minutes to get ready and still make it out the door by 5 am. Any later and the likelihood of availability of the one and only handicapped parking space that allows all-day parking and is close to my office rapidly approaches zero, like the curvilinear graphs I remember from calculus class.

Looking on the bright side, I get to witness God’s handiwork every morning, as the sky is brushed with purple, pink and gold. It’s an inspiring start to my day.

My morning commute destination: My parking space, when I can snag it. At least it’s under a leafy tree, shading my car all day from the 100 degree plus afternoon temperatures that we’ve been experiencing lately.

I try to balance my need to awaken in the pre-dawn hours with my desire to spend time with my wife in the evenings. Eight hours of sleep would require me to be in bed by 7:30 pm, which (let’s face it) is not terribly conducive to a reasonably normal family life. My bedtime was later than that when I was eight years old.

An approach I have been taking involves splitting the difference by taking a nap as soon as I walk in the door and then getting up later to have dinner and family time. On one level this works well, as I am invariably exhausted when I get home. But the experts warn that splitting up sleep time like this deprives the brain of its vital REM cycles and the body of opportunities to replace its supply of melatonin. I tend to compensate by engaging in marathon sleep sessions on the weekends. On Friday evenings, I want to say “Don’t wake me up til Monday morning.”

I am extremely grateful to my wife, who drives me in to work and returns to pick me up twice a week. I look forward to those days, as I get to sleep until 5 am and then nap in the passenger seat during the commute. But it means that my wife must make two round-trips, leaving a severe dent in her schedule. And it costs us twice as much at the gas pump.

No one said living in the exurbs was going to be easy.

On average, my morning commute takes about 40 minutes and my return in the evening about ten minutes longer. My previous concern was that my evening commute time would double due to the need to take surface streets out of Sacramento to avoid the harrowing experience of entering the freeway at the metering lights downtown. True, at times the two-lane merge can be nerve-wracking, but I find that I am starting to get used to it. It seems to be just a matter of signaling, making eye contact, and then muscling your way into the flow of traffic as if it’s your God-given right. There may be some so-and-so who’s determined not to let you in, but you can’t let it faze you. The attitude has to be “here I come, so get out of the way. Oh, you’d prefer to rear-end or sideswipe me and raise your insurance rates? Make my day, pilgrim.”

No, the problem is not the loonies with whom you have to share the road. As has famously been said, “we have found the enemy, and the enemy is us.” My chief adversary out on the road is myself alone.

This is not to say that I won’t end up in a wreck eventually. If I do the commuting dance long enough, the odds are simply not in my favor (particularly in light of my already dented, scratched and crunched driving record). More than likely, however, the day of infamy will arrive when I fall asleep while tooling down Highway 99 at 70 miles per hour.

I’ve tried just about everything to stay awake on the drive home. I keep the windows open, blast the music, sing, slap my face. I drink coffee in the afternoon and sip a Pepsi on the road. Sooner or later, however, I catch myself nodding off. It’s been a long day and the road is monotonous. More than once already I’ve reached my exit with little memory of how I got there. I guess my horse knows the way home.

All I can do at this point is count the years remaining until retirement and hope that, in the meantime, I’m not awakened by an exploding air bag to the face.

And with that I shall say good night. 3:30 am comes early.

Regret

I am standing on a sidewalk in Albany, New York with my father.  It is the late 1970s and I am, loosely speaking, a college student (I spend more time working on the college newspaper than in going to class, reading, writing papers or any of that boring stuff).  My father visits me often, for which I am eternally grateful.  Not only does he remind me of that other world, outside of college, but he takes me out to dinner (Yes!  No dining hall goop for me tonight!  Red Lobster, here I come!), buys me milk and orange juice for my tiny refrigerator, and leaves me with a twenty to stuff into my perpetually empty wallet.

I do not drive.  Driving might be a useful skill to have at this point, considering that the dorms are stuffed full with tripled-up students and I am forced to live five miles from campus on the tenth floor of a downtown single room occupancy firetrap hotel.  This means that there is a particular ordeal involved in getting back and forth to campus or getting anywhere else I might want to go:  I ride the bus.

There are the long green college buses, which are free to use with a college ID card, although the drivers almost never ask for it.  However, if I wanted to go anywhere other than up Washington Avenue to campus or back down Western Avenue in the opposite direction, there was the Capital District Transportation Authority, which went by many names.  The CDTA, the city bus, the shame train.  Back then, the fare was forty cents for a ride.  Most of the time, I didn’t have the forty cents.  But when I did (such as right after one of my father’s visits), I knew that if I were standing on the street corner when it was, say, ten below zero with a stiff wind blowing, it was exactly 30 minutes before the start of my first class of the day, and there was no Green Machine in sight, a glimpse of the #12 chugging up State Street hill would be an answer to prayer.  I gained more than a passing familiarity with the city bus schedule.

A bus blows past us and, staring at its tail lights, I remark to my father that I don’t know which bus it is because it has no number displayed in its rear window.

“Why would you want to know that?  To know which bus you just missed?”  My father laughs.  His son is weird.

Well, yes, Dad.  Actually, knowing what bus you just missed is pretty important.  After all, you wouldn’t want to wait out in the cold for a bus that had already come and gone, thinking that it was running late today.  It was important to know that you missed the bus, dummy, now you’re going to miss your European politics class again.

Seeing that “12” in the rear window of the city bus when you’re still about half a block away would occasion nothing but regret.  Regret that I didn’t wake up earlier, regret that I wasn’t able to walk faster, regret that I was forced to live so far from campus, regret that I was even taking this dumb class.  On particularly bad days (sleet and freezing rain come to mind), I would regret attending college in a city with such ungodly weather or I would regret going to college at all.  I knew I would never survive another 2½ years of this (somehow, I did).

Regret is a tough road to go down.  The older you get, the more the regrets accumulate, piling up like snowflakes in an Albany winter.  To get from one day to the next, you lull yourself into complacency by saying that, all in all, you made the right decisions and that, given the chance, you’d do it all again.  You start singing Sinatra.  “Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention.”

But then it hits you over the head suddenly.  Or it comes stealing over you as a foreboding sense of dread in the middle of the night.  Those two words.  What if.

You never know what will be the trigger for these head games.  It could be a remark overheard from two cubicles down the hall at work.  It could be a story on the six o’clock news.  Or for one such as myself who daily gorges upon the smorgasbörd that is the internet, it could be lurking stealthily behind any URL or hyperlink.

This week, the regret monster hit me not once, but twice.

First, I read the story of fiftysomething Dan Lyons, who, after being laid off from his editorial job at Newsweek (just like me, when I was laid off from the state court system!), braved the culture shock of joining a startup firm full of 21 year olds with their bean bag chairs, foosball table, free beer and workspace décor “like a cross between a kindergarten and a frat house.”  Damn, I want to do that!  The place was presided over by a charismatic leader pushing platitudes that evoke both Orwell and Communist Russia.  I keep hearing that, in the tech sector at least, this is the face of corporate culture today.  It fascinates me, and I wish I were a part of it.  This is the reason that, for the last couple of years, I’ve had a vague fantasy love affair with the idea of working for Zappo’s in Las Vegas.  (I unsubscribed from their emails some time ago in order not to be repeatedly reminded of what I’m missing out on in my gray, government bureaucratic job.)

As if that weren’t bad enough, I then ran across an article about people who make a living (get this) writing dictionaries! Kory Stamper’s new book, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, tells the story of what it’s like to be a lexicographer with Merriam-Webster.  For one who is a word nerd and who has loved the intricacies of the English language since childhood, this seems like the ultimate dream job.  I recall reading Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything, about the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary, when it was published almost 15 years ago.  Not long after, at a job interview, I was asked what would be my ideal job if I could do anything in the world.  The interviewer told me his was “rock star.”  I didn’t hesitate when I told him that I wanted to be the editor of the OED.  Need I say that I didn’t get the job?

Alas, nothing is ever as good as it sounds.  Decades ago, I read (mostly while standing in the aisle of a bookstore in Paramus, New Jersey, as I couldn’t afford to actually buy the book) Scott Turow’s memoir of his first year at Harvard Law School.  One L mesmerized me and was certainly one of the factors that influenced me to eventually attend law school.  Yet as much as Turow waxed poetic over “learning to love the law,” I never managed to quite pull off that particular flavor of amour.  I wonder if I’d be similarly disappointed if I were, like Stamper, “falling in love with words.”  The irony that Merriam-Webster is located in Springfield, Massachusetts, the same fading industrial city in which I attended law school, is not lost on me.

Regret returns with a vengeance to bite me in the ass again!  As a third-rate student at a second-rate law school, I suppose that I shouldn’t have been surprised upon graduating from the big U to the little u (unemployment).  The only employer willing to hire me was Wendy’s (yes, that one, home of the Frosty), and even they were concerned about whether they could find a uniform large enough to fit me.  I ended up going back home to New York to work for a temp agency until I finally found a low-paying job as a typesetter with a weekly newspaper.  I would lay awake at night regretting having wasted three years and untold thousands of dollars, and thinking about burning my law diploma, or tearing it to bits and putting it out with the trash, or perhaps using it as toilet paper and flushing it down the loo (no telling what that would have done to the wonky septic system in my parents’ house).  And all of that when look what I could have done!  I could have just driven my aging Pontiac down to Federal Street and asked for an application to work as a lexicographer!  If only I had known.  How dumb was I not to know what was available right in the very city in which I lived?

I must confess:  After reading the review of Stamper’s book and staring a bit too wistfully at the MW dictionary with the red cover that I’ve owned since junior high and that now graces my desk at work, I couldn’t resist taking a peek at Merriam-Webster’s website to see if there were any jobs posted.  My labor was all in vain.  While the link to “Join MWU” was tantalizing, it was not about joining the staff but about paying $29.95 annually to join an email subscription to definitions to “over 250,000 words that aren’t in our free dictionary.”  There was a “contact” link on the website, but none of the categories on the drop-down menu had anything at all to do with career opportunities.

The fog soon cleared and it all started to make sense.  Stamper herself admits that when she first tells others that she works writing dictionaries, “one of the first things they ask is if we’re hiring.”  Well, it wasn’t long before I came across another article citing that, with the popularity of free dictionaries online, Merriam-Webster, which didn’t have a large staff to begin with, recently laid off seventy employees.

All of which teaches me that you can’t go home again.  Even Dan Lyons soon left the startup for greener pastures.  Scott Turow became a novelist.  And Kay Stamper, while still a lexicographer, no longer occupies an office in the brick building on Federal Street, but now telecommutes from her home near Philadelphia.

Life goes on, but I know that, sooner or later, I will read or hear or see something that will once again have me craning my neck to make out the number of the bus that has passed me by.  As my wife often reminds me, I need to learn to be content, to count my blessings.  To tell that bus “later, gator.”

And it’s true.  Life’s been good, so there’s no need to constantly ruminate about the road not taken.  Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention…