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.

Duke’s Library

Life in the Time of Coronavirus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, I can dream, right?

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

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

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

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

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

Empty Shelves

Life in the Time of Coronavirus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salad, anyone?

Love in the Time of Coronavirus (Part 6)

Working from home, oh no!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t laugh.

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

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

Love in the Time of Coronavirus (Part 4)

ON THE GRAPEVINE, KERN COUNTY, CALIFORNIA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love in the Time of Coronavirus (Part 3)

SAN BERNARDINO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now go wash your hands.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus (Part 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love in the Time of Coronavirus (Part 1)

With apologies to Gabriel García Márquez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a world we live in!

Escape from California

BLYTHE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Desert Dreams

INDIO

Residents of the San Francisco Bay area often describe their location as “northern California,” thus distinguishing themselves from the Los Angeles area residents of “southern California.”  Nevertheless, I would suggest that the real “northern California” consists of the forgotten one-third of the state stretching from Sacramento to the Oregon border.  For those of us who call home somewhere between the redwood coast and the Sierra Nevadas, southern California doesn’t seem quite real, particularly during our cold, rainy, snowy, decidedly un-Californialike winters.  The drive from the piney north to the Inland Empire and the Sonoran Desert beyond seems like a journey across multiple nations to a distant part of the continent.  The map’s insistence that I have not left my home state is incredible, some sort of tall tale that necessarily involves the suspension of disbelief.

I once lived here, in the bleak emptiness beyond the enormous windmills of the Cabazon Pass that invoke images of Cervantes by day and blink their red lights in unison, like so many Christmas tree toppers, to warn off low-flying planes by night.  A quick gust of wind blows sand across the freeway, while out of the corner of an eye, I barely detect a jackrabbit scurrying out of sight.  As Michigan did to Simon and Garfunkle, the desert seems like a dream to me now.

I awake from the dream in a Motel 6 in Indio.  Being away from home in a strange bed often leaves me sleepless, but after a twelve hour drive, sleep quickly overtakes me until I open my eyes with a jolt at three in the morning.  Having slept deeply, I don’t need a psychoanalyst to tell me that the dream I remember hails from somewhere deep in my subconscious.
Back in 1970, we lacked even an inkling of the technology we take for granted today.  Still, I dream that, back in elementary school, I text my teacher what I am too embarrassed to tell her in person, that I am ashamed that I have no clothes that fit me properly.

I have been obese since early childhood, a situation that proved far more challenging decades ago than it does now.  Then, we didn’t have a Wal-Mart in every town where you can purchase size 4X and 5X shirts right off the rack.  If you needed huge pants to accommodate tree trunk legs, your only hope was the local Army-Navy store, and even then, you might be out of luck.  For fat kids like myself, everything you wore was always too tight.  Boys with incipient man-boobs well-outlined by too small shirts would be taunted as really being girls.  Sooner or later, you knew you’d bust a seam and your pants would split at school.

I dream I am reading our hometown newspaper in my parents’ living room, where I learn that the township has allocated funds to purchase tent material and tentmaking supplies to provide poor families with rough-hewn clothes large enough to properly cover their fat children.

No doubt this improbable dream is based on the fact that my father, taking me clothes shopping and coming up empty-handed, would often laughingly  tell the salesperson that he would need to visit Ahmed the tent-maker to order custom garments large enough to fit me.

I begin to see a theme coming together here.  Despite ordering clothes online and having them altered, even today most if what I wear fits poorly.  And so, as I head east on I-10 into Arizona today, if from somewhere across the sand beyond the roadside saguaros I spy Ahmed approaching on camelback, I will surely stop and submit myself to his measuring tape.

Keep an eye out for me, Ahmed.  I’ll be in the red Kia Soul.  

Just tell me you take Visa.