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.

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.

Social Distancing 101

Life in the Time of Coronavirus

I’m really bad at social distancing.

Okay, so I never even heard of the term “social distancing” until, well, a week ago maybe? I’m told it means staying at least six feet away from the nearest human being at all times. I hope this proscription does not extend to non-human life forms, considering the proclivity of my sister-in-law’s little Yorkie for jumping into my lap.

Let’s just say that I have violated the social distancing rule with impunity on at least two occasions over the last few days. I can’t quite determine whether this makes me a rebel or an idiot. Or perhaps someone just stuck in his ways.

I like to eat. A lot. And I don’t cook. Hence, the restaurants of Marysville and Yuba City are my hangouts. The problem is that “hanging out,” of the foodie variety or otherwise, is no longer acceptable. Millennials are being chastised for continuing to hang out in bars, thereby risking unknowingly spreading the coronavirus. Residents of the Bay Area, less than two hours west of here, have been ordered to shelter in place, with violators being handed misdemeanor tickets. It may be smart to pay that ticket by mail, as it could be a while before they’re able to actually schedule a hearing before a judge. The excuses they will offer in court should be interesting.

My gluttonous ways are made all the worse by a case of cabin fever. I’m used to driving to the office in Sacramento every day, and teleworking from my bedroom is getting old fast.

Over the weekend, I snuck out of the house and drove to a family restaurant where I treated myself to an enormous breakfast. Only four tables were occupied in the whole place. I could actually hear Melissa Etheridge and Neil Diamond singing on the recorded music loop.

Moments after I ordered, two women walked in and were seated at a booth directly behind me. One of them was celebrating her birthday. I thought nothing of it until I heard the birthday girl cough. It wasn’t a casual, “excuse me” type cough, either. It was a raspy cough, the kind that might come from someone with bronchitis. I began to get nervous. Had some droplets landed on me without my knowledge? Would I be getting just what I deserve for having the nerve to go out in public? Should I run home and take my temperature?

Finishing my meal, I felt a bit chastened. Still, the next day, feeling cooped up and hungry, I climbed into the car and drove into town. The restaurant that was my destination had quite a few vehicles in the parking lot, and I had to choose between walking in the rain and waiting in my car until a spot near the door opened up. That’s when I moved into position for a good view through the restaurant’s windows. The place was packed. I immediately got the jitters, turned the car around and slunk back home to cut up some fruit. Social distancing indeed.

The next day, my wife texted me at lunchtime from her own telecommuting perch around the corner in the living room. “Wanna go for a drive?” Heck, yes! Get me out of here!

We ran a few errands and ended up at a chain restaurant for lunch. There was a parking space right in front and zero wait for a table. Both of these are highly unusual at this location.

Only about half the tables were full. The server asked whether we wanted sweetener for our tea, as the holders full of little packets had been removed from the tables. We noticed that there were no salt and pepper shakers either. This was to avoid customers touching everything and passing around the coronavirus, the server explained. In fact, what type of tea would I like exactly? She could no longer bring me a sample of available teas from which to choose. That touching thing again.

After this little adventure, I concluded that I had experienced enough excitement and danger, and that henceforth I would just stay home as we are being exhorted to do from seemingly every corner. I am learning to put up with sandwiches, microwaved oatmeal, healthy raw veggies and fruit. There’s always stuff in the freezer that I can zap if I need a little variety.

But it’s my 86 year old parents about who I am truly concerned. They live in a rural area of the Central Valley, near Madera. It’s a nearly four hour drive south of here. Mom has heeded warnings for seniors to shelter in place, but Dad suffers from the same foodie wanderlust that I do. In his case, however, he craves all manner of shellfish, particularly shrimp. Mom keeps a kosher home and will not allow such religiously forbidden foods into the house. So Dad attempts to escape to the restaurants of Fresno as often as possible.

Mom is having a hard time keeping Dad at home when he is committed to getting his shrimp on. She is worried that he will end up contracting coronavirus and will bring it home to her. How would two old, sick people take care of each other with no one way out there in the country to help them?

Mom’s approach has been to spend all day, every day, prepping and cooking food to serve Dad gourmet meals, thereby keeping him at home. On the phone, she tells me thar she feels like a galley slave, like Scheherazade, forced to weave yet another culinary yarn each night just to save herself.

And then she excuses herself, saying she has to get off the line to scrape the carrots and start making the gravy. After all, it’s only five hours until dinnertime.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus (Part 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love in the Time of Coronavirus (Part 1)

With apologies to Gabriel García Márquez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a world we live in!

No Gifts, Please. (This Means You!)

Do not buy me a gift.  Ever.  Please.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why I Hate Thanksgiving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So sue me.

 

In Defense of Sentence Fragments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He went yesterday?!  What do you mean?

or

Yesterday?!  What?!

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

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

Tastes great, less filling.

 

Lowest prices.  Always. 

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

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

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

Sorry, Dad.

Flu Shot

My grandnephew is exactly one month old today.  He has resided in an incubator in the hospital since he was born.  Weight at birth:  About 1.7 pounds.  He has his own dedicated nurse attending to him, 24 hours a day.

Weylyn (I know… don’t ask) was two months premature and, to me at least, didn’t even look human.  The first time I saw him, the hospital had him swaddled to within an inch of his life.  I couldn’t even tell which end was the head and which the feet.

Today, he actually looks like a baby and won’t keep his arms tucked in because he likes to wave them around.  I hear he manages to dislodge the tubes they have connected to his little body.

I don’t even want to think about the hospital bills involved.  I’m guessing close to a million dollars at this point.

Meanwhile, my young nephew and his wife have taken to living in a trailer parked in the hospital lot, convenient to pumping and delivering breast milk every three or four hours.  About once a week, they go home for a proper shower and a nap in a decent bed.  Family visits them every day or two, bringing food or taking them out to eat.

The doctors say that Weylyn can go home when he weighs four pounds.  It shouldn’t be long, as he topped three pounds this week.  We suppose he’ll be over at our house a lot, particularly after his mother goes back to work.  My wife and her sister (who lives with us) have volunteered for day care duties.

Well, the hospital says that anyone who comes into contact with Weylyn needs to have a flu shot.  Gulp!

I am one of those needle phobic wimps and haven’t had a flu shot for almost twenty years (and even then only because my doctor collared me at an office visit and wouldn’t let me leave without one).

My 85 year old father got his annual flu shot last week, but Mom, who had surgery a month ago, decided to pass.  Not long ago, waiting for a blood draw in the Kaiser lab, I heard an old man complaining about how last year he got a flu shot and came down with the flu anyway.  Is this whole thing a fool’s errand?

Yeah, I know.  Weylyn.

I don’t trust flu shots.  I received one when I was in my 20s that left me sick in bed for days.  I’m told it all depends on the particular strain they use in the vaccine in a given year, whether it’s live or killed, and I don’t know how many other factors.

Oh, and I hear that if you’re over 55 years old, which my wife and I both are, they inject you with a super strong dose so that you don’t die when a sneaky flu bug gets into your body and causes your immune system to give up the ghost.

I like to think things have improved since the 1980s, but about ten years ago, many of my coworkers took advantage of a flu vaccine clinic at my job and proceeded to get sick.  So maybe things haven’t changed so much.

Except that they have.  On Saturday, I grabbed my cane and hobbled down what felt like a mile of corridors to the flu clinic at Kaiser Hospital.  My wife, who doesn’t do flu shots either, got one as well.  “I’m only doing this for Weylyn,” she told me.  Um, that’s for sure!  The things you’ll do for a little preemie baby.  Sheesh!

I pulled my left arm out of my shirt, felt the alcohol swab, and prepared for the pain of a long needle making its insidious way into my muscle.

But it never happened.  It took about two seconds and the Kaiser lady said “all done.”  I barely felt anything.  Modern times!

So, does this mean that I’m not going to be stuck in bed puking for the next three days?

A Tale of Two Hospitals (Mom’s Surgery – Part III)

Three weeks have come and gone since my parents left our home and returned to the Central Valley following Mom’s surgery.  Just when it all started to feel like a bad dream, Mom let me know that she may need to have a second surgery.

And finally, after avoiding the subject, in a phone conversation with her this week, we started to come to grips with the unholy trinity:  Surgery followed by radiation and chemotherapy.  This has turned into the dreaded nightmare from which you cannot wake up.

I’d rather not remember the details of Mom’s surgery.  My parents stayed with us a full week, Dad sleeping on a blow-up mattress in the living room, Mom sleeping on the couch before and after her hospital stay, everyone in the house stressed out to the max.  I had to stay out of work to play babysitter and chauffeur.  Attending services with my parents on the first night of Rosh Hashannah and leaving early because Mom didn’t feel well.  Ferrying them back and forth to Kaiser in Sacramento for testing, admission, post-operative doctor visits.  Mom crying on the phone to Kaiser because she’s being transferred from one office to the next, no one seeming to know what time she should report for surgery.  Meeting the surgeons after they put an IV into Mom.  Not knowing what to say to them.  Not knowing how to reassure Mom.  Not knowing freaking anything anymore.  Feeling dumb as a sack of beans.  Horrible pain for Mom, endless waiting for the rest of us.  Carrying around my laptop and trying to get some work done during the waiting.  Hobbling around the hospital with my cane.

Mom, pumped full of morphine and still in pain despite the drugs, begging the hospital staff to let her stay in post-op a little longer.  Request denied. Kaiser trying to send her home before she was ready, resulting in Mom crying and horribly abusing the nurses.  Mom being fitted with a catheter, but not before being shown a scary film about catheter care and the awful things that can happen if you mess up.  Mom yelling that the catheter felt like someone trying to forcibly have intercourse with her.  Going into the bathroom with Mom to assure her that she did not break the emptying valve.  First night back at our house, Mom waking me up by kicking my bedroom door at 2 in the morning, yelling that she was having an emergency and needed to go back to the hospital.  Carrying on about red streaks near her wound and how the literature given to her by the hospital said she should contact her doctor immediately if she experiences such symptoms.  Mom dropping her pants so I could see.  Um, a son isn’t supposed to do this, uh, right?  Me assuring her that it’s just normal bruising. Go back to bed, Mom.  Mom blurting out that my wife hates having her here and that she is going to divorce me.  No, Mom, she’s not going to divorce me.  Sigh.

A full week after their arrival, my parents finally headed home.  Thirty minutes after they left, my grandnephew was born at a different Kaiser hospital, two months premature.  He weighed just over a pound and a half and went straight to neonatal intensive care, where he remains.  My wife and her sister drive down there about four times a week to be supportive of my young nephew and his wife.  I go about once a week.  You know me:  Have cane, will hobble down hospital corridors.  Hit the sink and scrub up to my elbows so I can see the baby in his incubator.  Hobble back down the hall to sit with family.

I think there’s an ancient oriental curse:  May your life be filled with hospitals.

As for Mom, she is recovering nicely, feeling better with those heavy teratomas removed, but feeling too tired to do much.  It will take time, I’ve assured her.  At least it isn’t cancer.  A blood test before the surgery reassured us of this.

Then one of the surgeons called Mom last week.  Um, we looked at the contents of the teratomas under a microscope and squamous cancer cells were found.  We were shocked!  We’ve never seen this before.  We have to do a PET scan in November to see whether cancer has metastasized to other parts of your body.

I now call Mom three times per week.  She vents and I listen.  Listening is good, I tell myself.  All you can do is be there for her.  I can only hope that I am doing this right.  For after spending a life as a writer, a man of words, I find that they have disintegrated into a meaningless babble of syllables, vowels, consonants.  The words, my trusty tools, my stock in trade, have deserted me.  And I don’t know what to say.