Friday, April 3, 2020

While America burns

After two weeks inside, my husband and my niece ventured out the the supermarket yesterday, wearing homemade face coverings and plastic gloves. This morning, my niece shared how you can make a no-sew face mask with a bandana and two hair ties. There is now some debate, however, about whether these homemade masks serve any purpose at all.

An ER nurse on my TV screen was telling a reporter that when family members or friends bring desperately ill loved ones to the hospital, knowing they won't be allowed past the door with the patient, there is a moment before they take their leave of each other when they exchange a particular look, wondering if they will ever see each other again. It is this look, the nurse said, that guts her.

In state after state, governors are seeing their orders for ventilators and other medical equipment evaporate as higher bidders swoop in. Often, that bidder is the federal government, which then warehouses the purloined supplies, never distributing them to states in desperate need. In fact, yesterday the president's son-in-law said that the federal medical stockpile isn't for our use. "The notion of the federal stockpile was it's supposed to be our stockpile,” he said. “It's not supposed to be states stockpile that they then use." Who, I wonder, is the "our" in this statement? Last night, the hashtag #KushnerIsAnIdiot was trending on Twitter.

Every evening at 7:30 in our city, you can hear the sounds of applause and cheers and air horns out the windows of apartment buildings, as quarantined people send their thanks to the first responders who are changing shifts. These heroes are risking their lives to save ours.

My friend’s housemate, an ER doctor at Weill Cornell, came down with symptoms. She moved into another friend’s empty Airbnb to wait out the illness. She told my friend that if she gets sick to go to her hospital, so she can possibly assist her care. She also told her that if she ends up at a different hospital, she’s not to let the hospital staff start an IV for fluids on her, as the medical staff at Weill Cornell has been finding it worsens the fluid in the lungs. She noted that their hospital has had one covid death while a hospital five blocks away has had 63. She was making the point that the day to day learning isn’t necessarily being communicated widely enough. I have no science to back up this IV fluids claim. I’m just sharing this here in case you ever need to ask the question.

It has been established however that ibuprofen (Advil) should not be taken with covid, as it appears to interact with ACE inhibitors in a way that worsens symptoms. To bring down fevers, take acetaminophen (Tylenol)  instead.

In truth, though I worry non-stop about my son, my little household is having a gentle quarantine experience compared to some. I'm grateful, and may it continue to be so. America seems to be having a worse time with the new corona virus than other hard hit countries, though, and this is completely the result of a staggering failure of leadership on the part of the federal government. Why hasn’t the president invoked the Defense Production Act in this crisis? He’s reportedly invoked it hundreds of times for capitalist pursuits so why not to save the lives of the American people?

Also, I finished a complete draft of my book yesterday, 92,730 words. Now I begin again with the editing. Meanwhile, my husband is making progress with his sailing ship. I love the red glitter hearts around his head in the picture. Which is to say, I love him.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

True work

We haven't seen our son, nor spoken to him much. He's emotionally hunkered down, the way he gets when things are hard, the way he was during the brutal boot camp that was the fire academy. He was less like that during paramedic school, although that was hard, too. But the learning excited him, felt intuitive and native to him.

Meanwhile, our daughter's four-person team at the non-profit has now raised almost three million dollars to feed the city's hungry. She works the phones from home every day, capturing donations from corporate givers. Then at night, she paints botanical watercolors, working out her technique. She says it calms her.

I once read that the activity that feels most deeply peaceful to you is your true play, and that which excites you, makes your heart leap with joy at the challenge it brings, is your true work. It would seem my son is where he is supposed to be in terms of work. Unfortunately, he can't get much of his true play right now, which appears to be rock climbing. He is such a tersely physical being, such a contrast to his sister, who can roam quite happily inside her own head.

Our son is picking up every overtime shift he can and doing what he can in this pandemic ravaged city. People who go into the kind of work he has chosen don't waste much energy on being afraid for themselves personally. They feel a mission to help the ones who are endangered, even at the expense of themselves. But it takes a toll. "How are you doing, son?" I texted him yesterday. "Fine, the usual," he texted back. Hunkered down.

Last night on the news, someone said that health care workers and first responders will be suffering from PTSD when this pandemic finally eases its stranglehold. In our city right now, they are fighting to save the sick and the dying in a war zone, bombs falling all around them, nothing hyperbolic about that.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Life is but a dream

The worst, the very worst and most terrifying aspect of Covid-19's grip on New York City, and the world, is that as hospitals get overrun—and they already are here, despite predictions that the peak of this pandemic is still two weeks away—people are dying alone in bleak rooms, without any loved one by their side, as no one is allowed to visit or be with the sick once they are admitted. How can this be? I remember when my husband was so ill two years ago now, there was no way he could have advocated for himself in a medical setting. He wasn't even conscious during the worst of it, but I was there, watching out for him, able to call the staff if anything seemed amiss, and that was at a time when the staff wasn't losing their minds with terror and overwork, running to keep up, doing their best, but really, so many things must be falling through the cracks in the current scenario, and there is no one there to make sure their loved ones aren't the ones falling. It is a waking nightmare the likes of which we could not have imagined in our so-called technologically superior first world.

I saw a picture last night of a plane load of doctors and medical personnel, flying from Atlanta to help us in New York. I looked at the picture for a long time and after a while I couldn't see it anymore through the tears. I wash my hands till my wrists bleed. I slather them with Neosporin antibacterial ointment or lotion, before washing them again. I wipe down everything obsessively, but the disinfectant wipes are running low, and there are no more to be had anywhere. Perhaps we'll buy white rum from the liquor store, pour it into a spray bottle, and douse everything with that. Turns out liquor stores are still open, considered essential businesses. I get that.

I've been keeping most of our windows closed out of concern that pollen from the budding trees will blow in and provoke scary allergic reactions, which we wont know at first to be merely that, and not the start of something more insidious. But this morning, I threw open the window in my bedroom, thinking one has to periodically allow in fresh air, and I realized how sound proof our apartment is because as soon as I opened the window, I heard sirens, one after the other, ambulances wailing by on the avenues, the sound continuous.

My niece had a stomach ache and nausea yesterday. She thought the second half of the Philly Cheese Steak sandwich she had for breakfast didn't agree with her. She lay in bed all day, distracting herself with binge watching Tiger King. Apparently, it's a thing. Everyone is talking about it. I kept checking on her. She was down all day, but no fever. The unspoken fearful thought: Is this how it begins? But she's feeling much better this morning. Back to normal, she says.

I'm having stress dreams, mostly about my son. I dreamed I was in a crowded place, like a train station, and my husband was on the other side of the cavernous hall, screaming our son's name and frantically beckoning me to come to him. I ran to him, pushing through the crowd, understanding that we had to go to our boy. But the car was on the other side of a cliff, and we had to navigate a narrow, crumbling path on the edge of it, the waters swirling and furious far below. I wanted to ask why we needed to get to our son so urgently, but I had to concentrate on placing my feet. We never did get to the car, or to our boy. I woke up, heart hammering. The blinds outlined by rainy early morning light slowly solidified. 

Just a dream. 

Stay well out there. 

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Turning 26 under quarantine

Yesterday was our daughter's birthday. She and her boyfriend came over and we celebrated here. After much discussion, we have decided that our two households will quarantine together, which means following the same social distancing, hand washing, and no face touching rules so that we all remain healthy and don't infect one another or anyone else. So far so good, everyone seems fine. My cold from last week is gone, and I wonder if it might have been allergies, as no one else seems to have come down with it. Also, my friend with a cold who I sat beside in choir three weeks ago has now tested negative for covid. I'm thankful for that.

My husband drove to get our girl and her guy and bring them to our house, and then he drove them home at close to midnight, so they wouldn't have to deal with subways, buses, or Uber cars. The birthday was challenging at first. My daughter's friend group since elementary school, the girls we still refer to as The Six, sent her a Milkbar cake for her birthday. They had asked for a no-contact delivery, but it never did show up at her apartment door or in her lobby, despite having been marked as delivered, so she had to spend some time on the phone working that out. Apparently some other lucky person found a Milkbar birthday cake at their apartment door yesterday—if they opened their door that is. That cake could sit there for days.

Then, when my daughter and her love tried to exit their gated community, the gate they usually use wouldn't work with their key fob, so they had to walk around to a different one. They are both able bodied and would have been able to climb over the gate if they'd had to. Still, for some of their other neighbors it would definitely have been a fire hazard. Later, we tried to order dinner in, reasoning that gig workers need to keep being paid, but after two separate tries on Seamless, our food never showed up, so my girl on her birthday spent yet more time on her phone, politely texting with the restaurant and with Seamless to secure refunds. She's good at this. Finally we decided on Philly Cheese Steaks from the 24-hour corner deli for dinner, and my girl and her guy went out to get them, waving to neighbors but keeping a good social distance from other people every step of the way. They did see a dog they periodically sit for, and Emma bounded over to them and into my daughter's arms. That was a highlight. As soon as they got back into the house, they washed hands and we wiped down items that had come from the outdoors—not perfect but we do what we can.

Despite the false starts, the afternoon into evening was easy and enjoyable with the five of us. My girl's boyfriend had made her a delicious Funfetti ice cream cake, with blueberry cheesecake ice cream layers, and an angel light whipped cream icing. It was so loving of him. The evening before, he'd seen my girl starting to spin out, trying to decide what kind of cake she wanted and he told her not to worry, he'd take care of it. It's so helpful when our partners know our quirks, and step in to calm them. I loved him for it. We (as in my niece) had also made a cake so it was a two-cake affair, and we sang the traditional happy birthday song as well as the African American version, the South African version my daughter's art teacher has been singing to her and her friends since they were four year old, and the Caribbean happy birthday song. I thought I'd taped the whole joyous rendition of it, but when I checked, I'd pressed the record button wrong. We watched lighthearted animated features chosen by my girl, Frozen II and Tangled, both featuring a more empowered generation of Disney princesses. Then we watched The Great British Baking Show before calling it a night. It all felt very peaceful.

My son didn't join us of course. As a firefighter and paramedic, he is on the front lines of this epidemic every day, and would not expose us. So far, he and his fiancee seem fine, and he is rather luckier than his dad in that he lives with a partner who loves to cook. My husband is at this moment sitting in a chair behind me doing his daily Spanish lessons on Duolingo. He attended church services on Zoom at our dining table this morning, while I lay in bed and watched the latest episode of the new season of Outlander. Meanwhile our daughter is at home making a watercolor painting with the art supplies we gave her for her birthday. She's sending us photos of every stage. We haven't shopped in over a week. We're all stocked up and, yesterday notwithstanding, using what's in the house. Only six people are allowed in the supermarket at once, and everyone else waits outside, six feet apart, for their turn. This is how the lucky are living now in the big urban metropolis. We keep on.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Some comfort

I spoke to my book subject's wonderful agent, who is based in LA. Of course, the talk began with covid, and I shared that tomorrow is my daughter's birthday, and that I was in agony trying to decide if we should get together. He said, "I'm going to send you something. It will help you decide." The Vimeo link he shared is my gift to everyone today, a calm, informative offering from a doctor at Cornell Weill Hospital in New York City, who is on the front lines of the covid pandemic. The tape was made from a Zoom call the doctor did to answer questions and concerns from his friends and family. I found his tone and knowledge, and his obvious emotion, so very comforting.

Then the agent and I turned to talking about the book. I confessed I was having trouble figuring out how to wrap up this narrative of a badass woman of the resistance, when her story is still actively unfolding. We can't end on a moment of public triumph, given what's still happening in the world, but perhaps we might find a pause in an intimate moment of hope? He suggested I write the last chapter as a placeholder, knowing we will have to come back to it. There may yet be a moment in the coming months, he said, that gives us the perfect coda. I really do love working with him. He is sensitive and kind and makes me feel so supported in this process, more than I ever have, really. A writer himself, and a man who is in the deepest sense of the word a survivor, he understands the vulnerability of writing, and makes you feel safe to explore. If only every endeavor to write could be blessed by such a thoughtful and generous listener. As for the journey on this book, I am now at the contracted 85K word count, with one chapter left to write. Then I can print out the entire thing and begin to edit. I'll finally be able to see what I have.

The photo is from an Instagram account called A Snip of Goodness. I just love the cheerful yellow and blue and spill of green in the picture.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Work stations

Thank you all for you kind words of concern. I feel enfolded in such a loving community here, as real as it gets. I am doing okay. The three of us in our little quarantine abode have not been outside since the weekend, not for groceries of anything else. The pollen count is high, spring blossoms are popping out along branches so recently bare, and the new corona virus continues its invasion of our city, our nation, our world.

Has there ever been a more startling demonstration of our interconnection? One scientist explained that difference between the transmission rate of Covid-19 and the more usual flu: With the flu, one person, through ten steps of transmission, may pass the virus on to a maximum of 14 people in the course of every day life, while with Covid-19, that same person doing all the same things will create a ten-step chain of transmission that reaches 59,000 people. I played the video again, to make sure I'd heard him right.

We in New York are on the leading edge in terms of numbers of cases in the U.S., possibly because we are have been testing more than anyone else, and because everyone lives shoulder to shoulder here. Fortunately, we have Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is intelligent, empathic, and proactive. He intends to abandon no one. As for me, I think I'm on the mend from whatever illness it was that claimed me. Unless of course the sniffles have simply moved down into my chest, which does feel somewhat true. Still, I'm no longer looking at the world through watery eyes and sniffling every moment, and that's a relief.

Yesterday I wrote 500 words before climbing into bed. It had taken everything to get those words down, and I didn't know how to go on. This morning, I got up and went straight to my lap top and wrote 1,100 words in the first hour, getting a difficult portion of the story securely behind me. Sometimes, when a thing feels hard, it really is best to walk away and come back to fight another day.

My husband, meanwhile, has reached the point in being housebound where he needs structure. He's dusted off his guitar and music workbooks. He's taken down from a high shelf a ship building kit he abandoned a decade ago. And he's brushing up on his Spanish and learning Portuguese on Duolingo, a language instruction site. These are his activities every morning now, after he checks in with his coworkers and fellow vestry members via email and Zoom. He reasons that his museum does a lot of work with Portuguese speaking people, so he's actually boosting his work skills, aka working from home.

Elsewhere in the house, my niece is diligently teleworking from her room, updating website images and putting up new blog posts and managing her bosses' demands. Come evening, we might put on a movie. Last night we watched the World War I movie 2017 together. The night before was the whodunit Knives Out. Sometimes, though not last evening, we open a bottle of wine. One meme going around is that at the end of this quarantine everyone will have become a superb chef or a raging alcoholic. And a mother now forced to home school her 6 and 8 year old children reports that "one child has been expelled, one suspended and the teacher has been fired for drinking on the job."

In any case, now we know who really keeps our country going—the janitors and sanitation workers, grocery store clerks, truckers, food preparers, police and firefighters, and most of all our health care workers. I hope we're all taking of note of who the "essential workers" are. What's happening in your interconnected corner of our world?

Also, my niece just started playing her cello in her room, and it's lovely.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Wish me

I appear to be sick with something. Perhaps it's just a cold. It's useless to say I never get colds, because I seem to be rather wracked with one now. People say if you have a runny nose, which I did have the first couple of days, it's not covid. But that might be a myth, according the research I was doing on Dr. Google at 4 a.m. last night when I couldn't sleep. My eyes hurt, but I don't have a fever, so that's a check for the plus column.

I'm not too sick to work, and so I am pressing on with the book. I have been making good progress, and am now at 82K words, just three thousand more to make word count. It's now apparent that I will blow right past word count, as I probably have more than 3K words of the story still to tell. I'm at the point of jettisoning all sorts of ideas and trying to figure out where to end what is essentially an ongoing story, one that changes not just daily, but hourly. Wish me inspiration, please.

How are you all doing out there? I won't even talk about the national nightmare that is the president. Every time he comes on our TV screen we change the channel. I just can't. I did read that a doctor in Italy said they were no longer treating people over 60 for covid. And the Lieutenant Governor of Texas seems to think that might not be such a bad idea.

Real talk? I'm scared. More than I have been able to admit until this moment, right here. I don't want to die before seeing my grandchildren. I don't want my husband to get sick. Or anyone I love. Or anyone. Wish me courage, wish me faith, please.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Shelter in place

We live perpetually on the knife edge of hope and dread. In New York City, the massive Jacob Javits Convention Center, home to the world motorcycle and boat shows, new age seminars and international furniture fairs, Comic Con festivals and worldwide Book Expos, is being converted into a field hospital. Hospital beds float on a lake of white marble, waiting for the crest of the curve of an illness that couldn't be flattened nearly enough.

From where I sit next to the window, the city is eerily still. Yet my niece just came back from a run in the park, and she said everyone else seemed to have the same idea. She ran fast, so as not to tarry in anyone's orbit, breathing the same air.

My son works alongside some of the most dyed-in-red conservatives in New York City. In his firehouse, Fox News blares from the TV all day. This is why he knows that a large swath of America thinks the pathological liar who is president is doing a good job. "And if he gives people Covid bailout money," he says, "I'm telling you now, it's a wrap."

I can't shake the sense that the earth is resetting itself, but maybe that's just a delusion. It's sunny outside. Spring is coming to our garden. The world looks no different really than it did two short weeks ago, before we truly understood the dangers. But it feels different, as if we've wondered into some dystopian science fiction movie in which the monster is unseen, diffuse, and no one knows the direction from which it will strike, nor how, nor if, we will vanquish it when it does.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Life under quarantine

My days of quarantine are not much different from my days before. I sit at my desk and write, as my deadline for this book has not shifted, in fact last week it was moved up by a month, as the editor wants to publish next spring. But these days, I have my husband home, the TV on giving updates on the Covid-19 pandemic, and my niece is in her bedroom, set up at her desk, video conferencing with the digital team at her job of two months. The way America works has changed overnight. We are among the fortunate, in that we are continuing to have work, and our paychecks continue to be deposited on schedule, at least for now. But gig workers, food prep workers, temp workers, so many people are in a world of hurt. And the grocery store owners, and those who stock the shelves, even though the coin is flowing in for them, still they have to be out among the masses, at risk every day. This is the case for my niece's father in Orlando. She worries for him, and also for her mother, who even though she can stay home, is very much among the vulnerable, having beaten back cancer just a year ago.

The shit show that is the president is now on blazing display, as he whines that governors need to do more, find their own ventilators, and all this for a crisis that two weeks ago he insisted was a hoax. Fuck him. The governors in this country are providing the real leadership now, and they're on their own. The no count president hasn't a clue what to do, that is if he cared to help at all, which he doesn't. A jewelry box maker in New Jersey was on the news this morning, saying his factory could easily be converted to making masks and other protective gear, he only needed the government to put in the order. Since last week, labs nationwide have stood ready to begin testing, if only the federal government would give them the go ahead. The corrupt president, who at first insisted it was all a hoax, declined the World Health Organization testing kits that would have allowed us to begin testing people in late January. Then he gave the contract to develop the test kits to his son-in-law's brother. The tests didn't work at first, and we lost even more time. Now we simply don’t have enough tests to determine the scale of the crisis. Only 13,000 people have been tested in the US since February began. They do that many tests in a day in South Korea.

Public schools in New York’s tri-state area are now closed for the foreseeable future, but meals are still being provided on a grab-and-go basis to kids whose only meals for the day were at school. Some have suggested that empty university dorms can be turned into makeshift hospitals should the need arise. One man wrote about his wife's symptoms, deep fatigue and tightness in the chest, shortness of breath, headache, occasional fever, coughing. They called 911 on the fourth day and the paramedics came at once. They didn't test his wife. They said she definitely had Covid-19, but they had stopped testing for it that morning because it was "so rife." So this woman, sick as she is, and her husband, who appears to now be getting ill as well, are not among the confirmed cases, which tells you that for every positively identified case, there are many uncounted more. As a doctor who is now sick himself said, "This thing has been spreading for a long time."

I feel symptoms myself now and then, a cough, a sneeze, a thickness in the heart and throat, shallow breath. They come when I'm in the throes of anxiety about my loved ones. And then it passes, and I feel fine, so I'm going to assume that in our little quarantined household, we are all okay, and may we all remain so. I do worry for my son, who as a firefighter and paramedic is on the front lines daily. "All is well," he just texted me in response to my texted query about whether he has protective gear. "I have gear. Worrying isn't going to change anything so don't bother with it." Easier said than done of course.

Meanwhile my daughter is working harder than ever from home, because she works for a non profit that feeds the hungry in New York, the number of whom has exponentially multiplied. She is the business partnerships manager, which means she encourages corporate concerns to make philanthropic donations to help the cause. "I'm so stressed," she told me on the phone just now. "Our sponsors want to help, but if we don't reach out and capture those donations, they'll go somewhere else." Yesterday, she raised $100,000 to feed those in need. One. Hundred. Thousand. "You are one of the lucky ones," I told her. "You have the privilege of contributing something of such immense value right now." Honestly? I'm in awe of both my children. May we all be saved.

Sunday, March 15, 2020


The streets of this teeming city have emptied. The photo was taken in Times Square yesterday. To see what this same scene usually looks like, even late into the night, compare with the second photo in this post, which I took at close to midnight one summer evening.

One of my friends sent this poem to a circle of us women who regularly gather. Or at least we used to. Who knows when next we will see each other in this quarantined city. My friend said the poem was sent to her by her 81-year-old yoga teacher. I'm sharing it here because it feels so deeply like a message we all need to hear.

by Lynn Ungar

What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Center down.

And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.

Promise this world you love--
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.

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