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.

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.