Air is all you need

September 18, 2020
Today would have marked eleven days of hazardous air. On Friday, day four, our son in Chicago texted around 8 a.m. to ask how we were doing. I remember saying something like “I wonder what happens when there’s no oxygen left.” To me it didn’t sound too dramatic, but he called within a few minutes. He’d found some empty flights from our Pacific Northwest home to Chicago. We could leave tomorrow, stay with his family for a week, and return when this was all over. We love Chicago and long to see our family there. But, we thought: COVID. Airports. Undependable fellow travelers. Car rental hubbub at O’Hare. We could be exposed, asymptomatic, inadvertently importing the virus to them. So we stayed put amidst the toxins. After eleven days, today it rained. Sir John Lennon, you may prescribe love, but all you really need is air.

That Monday before, Labor Day, September 7th, our day at the coast was so glorious we hesitated to leave. We took off around 5 p.m., when light glinted and sparked from horizon to lacy shoreline, but we cast a cold eye onward.

By the time our car had climbed up the first mountain pass back to the valley, my cell phone began to blare: LEVEL 1 ALERT! Wildfires! Within seconds the car tipped to the downward side where smoke crawled over the landscape below.

We soon learned that Level 1 meant “get ready” Level 2, by the time we were home, was “get set,” and Level 3, a few hours later “go now!”

As it turned out, we were not and would not be in any evacuation area, but we discovered the next day that as we were driving, twenty-foot flames had been leaping and careening around our friends’ homes up river. Before the GO Now! alert sounded, they were out, heading to their kids’ home in town, not knowing whether they would see their own again. They were among the fortunate.

We valley-dwellers were thrust into the nebula of wildfire-land. Tuesday first light was at 8 a.m., a bright marigold. The hazy sun soon faded to a dull yam shade. We read the news and checked the Air Quality Index (AQI). Hazardous.

The AQI scores grade air quality from 0 to 500. 0 to 50 is green, or good. One point over 50 and you’re no longer good, you’re moderate. Politically speaking, moderate, to me at least, is good, but moderate in air quality and you’re on your way to unhealthy. You can be unhealthy for sensitive groups before you’re just plain unhealthy. Before you get to hazardous, you’re very unhealthy and experiencing “health effects” like headache, cough, damaged lungs, and even cardiac issues. Hazardous, beginning at 300, is beyond that. Our air quality as of Tuesday night was in the 400s. When I went to bed Thursday night, we were at 525, even though the AQI doesn’t go up to 525. A friend’s post on Facebook said she glanced at the AQI around midnight Thursday night; it was 758. True, officially 758 doesn’t exist. We had reached air quality Never-Neverland.

We already had done the obvious. We closed the windows first thing. We have an air conditioner that brings in outside air. Not going there. We began running it on recycled air. But we were two humans in shared space taking in used air. We know trees give off oxygen, but our windows were closed to the 40 trees on our property. These were my thoughts when I wondered to my son what happens when you run out of oxygen. I started drinking water by the gallon, a cup an hour, figuring the O in H2O provides some form of new oxygen. Showers, steaming pots on the stove—we kept breathing.

By day five I grew testy with the expert warnings and cavalier advice flowing full force from local and national media. Masks don’t work. The fine particulate matter that ruins your lungs slips through a COVID face covering. Scarves and bandanas, even wet, are useless. Get an N95 respirator. Make sure you find someone who has been trained to help you select the right size, test the seal, and teach you how to use it. If you can do that, it “may offer some protection if used correctly.” Don’t use up all the N95 masks, because front line health care workers need those masks to care for victims of the pandemic concurrent with your puny wildfire.

About your air conditioner, it had better have a high efficiency particulate (HEPA) air filter or better yet, an electro-static precipitator (ESP). I went for the filter. I needed a MERV13 grade air filter and found one—the wrong size, not suitable for the air conditioner, but all that was left. We bungee-corded it to a box fan. If all else fails, they told us, seek shelter elsewhere. Thanks for that. There was nowhere within the 100,00 square miles of our state we could go. The fire and smoke ensnared all means of escape from us outward.

We were daily reminded that when smoke is heavy over a prolonged period of time, fine particles build up indoors even though we cannot see them. Turning on bathroom fans and stove venting systems will suck in more of the toxic air outside. Forget using anything that burns, such as wood fireplaces, gas logs, gas stoves, and candles. Don’t vacuum because that agitates the particles already inside.

As the week wore on, news seeped in, as did the stray particles that stirred each time you cracked open a door. Bad air, they said, increases your anxiety level. That seemed consistent with my state of mind. What can you do for it? You can’t exercise because that consumes what little oxygen you have. Yoga, meditation: these are your best bet. Not my forté. You can drink. And eat. Although it sounds grim, we found solace in organizing our vital records.

Another Monday arrived, a full one week into suffocating windless conditions. The fire nearest us remained zero percent contained. Meteorologists now were firmly predicting three days of solid rain, arriving Wednesday. By Tuesday they were back-pedaling. Maybe by the end of the week . . . .

We noticed that the coast was experiencing some air breaks. We had a place to stay. A little over an hour’s drive, and we could be taking deep breaths, maybe even picking up some clam chowder take-out. We made a break for it.

Checking the AQI on our arrival, we found we were now at only very unhealthy. Whoopee, but no deep breathing. A window had been left open a sliver during the fires, so our respite kicked off with masks on (we had graduated to KN95 masks) for a thorough cleaning of ash from every ash-coated surface. Fortunately we had brought along our bungee-corded box fan with it’s MERV13 filter. We could still smell smoke, but after vacuuming furniture (hang the prohibition—the vacuum cleaner there had a HEPA filter), we felt we could sit down inside with a glass of wine and leftover chili, catching a faded facsimile of a sunset over the eerily glassy sea.

The next morning our AQI numbers had flipped. The valley was now just under unhealthy whereas we had tipped beyond hazardous. More holing in. We’d stick it out. Rain would doubtless come first to the coast. And it did that evening with a two-minute shower at dusk. Thursday it returned with a vengeance. Our toxic air quality plunged to an innocuous moderate. I donned my rubber boots, stepped outside with an umbrella, and trudged down to the beach, where raindrops steadily plopped and pattered into rivulets along the shore.

Register-Guard

Back in the valley it rained and rained that day. The rain would drop relief onto our local fire, our twenty-something state fires. Our firefighters, those from here and those from everywhere else—Utah, Colorado, the National Guard, farmers with ‘dozers, volunteers with shovels—would pause for a moment and take a pure breath. And they would forge on.

September 26, 2020
Now, nearly three weeks after the fire jolted our world, its 173,000+ of the million acres statewide, are just 45% contained. An inch of rain has helped to quell further spread beyond its perimeter. Firefighters “mop up,” subduing hot spots. Displaced homeowners are able to consult maps to determine the status of their homes. More than 60% (that is more than 700) of the structures hit are a total loss. There are gradations of shaken; I realize I have not encountered the half of it. Still we all are breathing plentiful fresh air this fair afternoon while bright cumulus banks blow across a cerulean backdrop.

A Defense of U.S. COVID Status

As I explained to my cousin when I disputed his take on recent coronavirus numbers: I’ve become a COVID stats junkie over the past five months. It started to snowball when I read in the Wall Street Journal about a kid, Avi Schiffmann, a high school student on Mercer Island, in Washington State. He was named “2020 Webby Person of the Year,” presumably for his Coronavirus Dashboard, a coronavirus tracking website. Some people follow the NY Times updates, some Johns Hopkins, some the CDC or Worldometer. But me, I stick with Avi.

Avi Schiffmann Linked In heading

Avi has the data I seek: a saved feature for the spots I want to watch closely (mostly where my family members—and we— live), a world panel to reveal who is better or worse off than you, and separate tables for the USA, Canada, Australia, Europe, Asia, South America, and so on.

This is how I came to take issue with my cousin’s Facebook post, which cited how Japan, Australia, France, and China recorded far fewer deaths than the US on a particular date. Following Avi’s dashboard, I saw that Japan rarely updated its stats. Many of the columns are marked unknown. The fact is we really did not know how Japan is doing. Likewise for China. By now we see that China’s reported data are ludicrous: a population of 1.4 billion has cases on a par with the state of Indiana, population 6.7 million? I don’t believe it. Deaths from COVID in China are pretty even with the state of Connecticut, population 3.6 million? Another suspicious factor: China never updates its number of tests. It’s been stuck at 90 million for months. Avi’s dashboard is a lesson in comparative transparency among the countries of planet Earth.

Why China’s statistics are not credible. Large blue-gray figure represents proportional size of China to the US

Naturally, comparing deaths for any single day is problematic. While France, for instance, may have had fewer deaths on a given day, their deaths per confirmed cases are about 11%, Belgium 12%, and Italy 13.6%. Considering this morbidity rate, even bad-boy Florida comes out relatively golden with a 1.7% deaths to cases ratio.

Comparative size of Australia and US, though Alaska and Hawaii are here omitted.

As for Australia—whose population amounts to 7.8% of the US population (that is 300 million-plus more people live in the US)—Australia is slightly smaller in geographic area. As a result, population density in Australia runs about 7 people per square mile, compared to 93 people per square mile in the US. Thus, a US-Australia comparison is tricky. How much viral spread can you expect if people are not in proximity with one another? In all, we can compare and contrast our numbers with others, but any conclusions depend on contextualizing cases and deaths over time according to population and population density.

The US has endured a global smack-down on its coronavirus status based on piece-meal analyses that shortchange the US health care establishment. Our trusty Avi has recently added columns showing cases per million and deaths per million globally, that is, per capita measures of coronavirus. Now we realize that the US deaths per million is 546, or 0.000546 deaths per US population. Who might have higher deaths per million? The state of New York for one, at 1,695. Mayor Bill DeBlasio of NYC and NY Governor Cuomo have some ‘splainin’ to do. New York and New Jersey are driving the US per capita death rate. Truth be told, the eastern US performs dismally in this statistical column, with New Jersey at rock bottom, meaning with the highest count of deaths per million, reflecting again the impact of population density. Yet looking at rates outside the US, we find higher deaths per million in Belgium, Peru, Chile, the UK, Spain, Italy, and Sweden, with France not far behind. So much for the US as global pariah.

Much has been made of the US lagging far behind in testing for coronavirus, with blame laid squarely at the feet of the sitting President of the United States. I’m no apologist for President Trump, but at this juncture the US must deserve some credit for its testing. Our health care community has gone all in, with drive-in clinics, rapid-test clinics, pharmacies, and free clinics (at our local fairgrounds for one), providing mass testing for anyone and everyone who wants to be tested. A nearby community went door to door to ramp up its testing.

The single country performing the most tests appears to be China, though we already have questioned the currency and veracity of their numbers. Even if China has tested 90 million people, as Avi shows in his dashboard, the US is close on China’s heels, at this writing with 77 million tests among a population smaller than one-fourth of China’s. I must note that China’s cases increase by several a day, but the testing number never changes—which makes one wonder how they can confirm new cases without having added tests.

Pandemic life in Sweden

As I say, the US is roundly shamed for being out of control regarding COVID19. Some say that people in France or New Zealand or Hong Kong admirably obey directions, compared to US free-wheelers. They lock down, wear masks, and dependably socially distance. (I also hear that the French would carry a baguette around when they went for walks in the lockdown phase. The gendarmes wouldn’t question your purpose or fine you if you were out with a baguette. After all, you needed bread.) So why is Sweden not shamed? Sweden, with higher deaths per million. Is it because they admittedly opted not to lockdown to minimize the spread of coronavirus? Sweden aimed for herd immunity, hang the costs in cases and lives. Do we know at this time whether more cases will result in herd immunity? Recent reports cite some experts claiming mission accomplished in Sweden.

So back to the US, which is far above any other single country in sheer numbers of tests and cases. Should a country be faulted for large numbers of cases? If we test more, we find more. Is the converse then true: If a country fails to meet a substantial testing threshold per population (Avi now provides populations), should they take pride in keeping their case number low? In some French départements (regions), they tout low cases per 100,000. The same pride surfaces in US counties, where they list cases per 100,000. Happily, in our Paciific Northwest, more confirmed cases have not translated into high death rates. For that matter, is low case count a good thing? Do we really believe that not exposing cases means the virus is not active? The virus will go where it will, right?

If we test, we know more about the movement of coronavirus in our area. Denmark has tested a remarkable 39% of its population. Singapore 29%. The US has tested 23%. New Zealand has tested 14%, Sweden and Hong Kong 10%, France 9%, Brazil 6%, and surprisingly COVID poster-child South Korea fewer than 4%. Globally the testing rate is 0.5% of population. Whether or not the US has an extraordinarily high number of cases, we know this because of the rigor of its testing. Truth be told, the numbers drive me crazy. But I don’t think the US status constitutes the worst coronavirus profile.

In the final analysis, I don’t want to be defensive about my country. I don’t want to suggest we’re far better or worse than anyone else. I remember a Brazilian saying when U.S. numbers went up that he was glad he lived in Brazil where such a thing wouldn’t happen. Now that man knows otherwise. We look at Brazil today differently than we did then. Still, they’re hanging in there with a deaths per million rate about equal to that of the US, doing a decent job with the curve they’ve been thrown.

COVID in India, from The Guardian

In March Italy locked down—too late some said—and now their children are back in school and they have moved way lower (in severity) on Avi’s dashboard. Last month France and Spain were down in numbers; today they’re surging again. The US had a super-surge through July, but in August it’s subsided. India, with 1.3 billion people, is seeing very high case numbers. They may need the help of all of us in the long run, but so far, they are doing an amazing job at keeping deaths at bay. Yes, in the end I don’t want to be a statistics junkie. I want to feel safe, neither shamed nor proud. I want to understand the reality and meaning of the coronavirus in our lives. All of our coronavirus data, after all, come with a caveat: so far, or at this point in time.

Avi Schiffmann’s site has a link you can click to buy him a cup of coffee. $3 donation. I bought him a coffee. By now he must have his college education paid for. I’m glad for him. I want us all to do well and to come out on the other side of this with some semblance of life as we knew it. That is to say God bless us everyone.

A shtickle of hydroxychloroquine anyone?

Sly Stone

Hot fun in the summertime. Sly and the Family Stone, 1969. Rolling Stone said of this rock group’s ethic, “If there was anything to be happy about, then everybody’d be happy about it. If there were a lot of songs to sing, then everybody got to sing. If we have something to suffer or a cross to bear–we bear it together.” Sly and his family rocked and we along with them, “Them summer days. Those summer days. That’s when I had most of my fun back.” Eh, this year, not so much.

Didier Raoult

Take yesterday as a case in point. A newly formed group in white coats calling themselves “America’s Frontline Doctors” want to wrest us from the perilizing fears that have infiltrated our COVID summer. Thus they stood before the Supreme Court to re-introduce and advocate the use of the controversial drug hydroxychloroquine (HDQ) touted by French physician and epidemiologist Didier Raoult, to stop coronavirus in its tracks.

I watched the Frontline Doctors video embedded in a friend’s post on Facebook. The video was housed on the right-of-center Breitbart News, which is likely why it’s reputation got off to a rocky start with the left. Me? I found the video compelling. By evening I noticed that a young pediatrician friend and a professor friend had each debunked the video along with a chorus of followers: the doctors were not real doctors because they weren’t wearing masks (They were out of doors, socially distanced, but no matter), and they were not in fact affiliated with any medical establishments. They had no credentials. No evidence. To be fair, the doctors were presenting the evidence of their results with HDQ in their own practices. Yet their practices were dismissed as anecdotal, insignificant, and quasi-medical.

Social media critics were questioning the doctors’ credibility without offering any sources or evidence themselves. Maybe no one cares that people dismiss doctors’ claims about coronavirus based on their experience in treating it. Maybe that sounds unreasonable. “No one had ever heard of [these doctors].” OK, but now you have; who are they? Do doctors have a right and responsibility to report their experience with a virus they have faced daily over several months? Let’s find out. While the doctors claimed that HDQ could cure COVID in its early stages, the critics said “There is no known cure for COVID.” In the world of debate we call this an appeal to ignorance: As the fallacy goes, because we don’t know something to be true, it cannot be true. We have no evidence that HDQ works, even while doctors are presenting their evidence.

At my first Facebook login of the day today, I learn that Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram wasted no time in censoring the Frontline Doctors’ video. So, the doctors came back for a second round on their Supreme Court platform. They tell us that their website, too, has been taken down by its host, SquareSpace. End of controversy? Not exactly. In their second go, the doctors begin by stating credentials up front. They hail from a slew of states, hospital emergency rooms, pediatrics and family practices, all board certified. Their message: hydroxychloroquine works. It’s a form of quinine, used in this country at least since the time of George Washington.

One of the Frontline doctors, Dr. Stella Immanuel, is a Black woman from Cameroon. According her own words in the Frontline press conference, she went to medical school in Nigeria and experienced in Africa the effectiveness of HDQ and other quinine derivatives for treating illnesses. She emigrated to the United States and certified in pediatrics in Texas. She more than all the Frontline group has been ridiculed on social media and in the press. The fact that she happened also to be Christian, a minister in a church, and experienced in demonology didn’t help her cause. Madonna was quick to claim Dr. Immanuel as her new hero. (It was Madonna’s Insta account that was messed with.)

Dr. Stella Immanuel
Madonna

The Guardian labeled the Frontline Doctors’ position a coronavirus conspiracy theory. The Washington Post’s Politifact pronounced it simply false. CNN addresses the Frontliners’ claims as both false and dubious because “The claims run contrary to multiple studies on the anti-malarial drug and advice from public health officials to prevent spread of the virus.” The BBC asks why the Frontline video has been repudiated. They conclude “The debate has been increasingly dividing Americans along political lines, with proponents of hydroxychloroquine pointing to President Trump’s support of it while accusing critics of covering up its potential effectiveness.” That’s pretty close to the heart of the matter.

I hear that in France now there are Raoult hospitals and non-Raoult hospitals, reflecting the political hot potato of a potential (or faux, depending on your persuasion) coronavirus cure. So much for all for one and one for all in France or the US or perhaps around the globe. Why is that? Is science fixed, immutable? Do political affiliations certify a medical treatment’s validity or riskiness? We continue to mask, distance, and sanitize. No fun in the summertime.

Hey, Mom, we got married!

Today we’re forty-niners. No golden anniversary yet, happily. Rather stodgy and ceremonious that, and we’re not much for ceremony. I guess we’ve rolled with our hunches—and with the punches, haha.

George Harrison

It began sans lightning bolt. The guy reminded me of my true love, George Harrison. Tall and skinny (but decidedly stronger than George), wearing a pea coat, black turtleneck, Bob Dylan cap, and army boots. Kind of a mash-up of 70s chic. I liked that when we first talked, he spoke affectionately of his mother, referring to her as “me mum.” She wrote long letters from England that were “all one sentence,” he said with a smile. Our main common ground was an English class (modern British literature), having attended the same Rolling Stones concert, and a mutual friend who was a stunning guitarist.

So, you could say, there was the lure of the animal at work, but also compatibility. We made a major decision together: moving into a commune with a group of university town hippies. As it turned out, we’d escape furtively to the Italian Patio on brown rice and seaweed nights at the commune. To add insult to our communal ethic, we’d order veal parmesan.

English Building on campus

In time we moved out. We set a date, a Friday, to tie the knot. I had an oil painting class that summer morning, and he would be coming from his class (Latin?). I’d stop back at the apartment to change and pick him up at noon en route to the county courthouse—to elope! We could get our license and marriage certificate in one fell swoop. I wore a pale green dress my little sister had made for me a few months earlier, and he wore jeans, a white shirt, and a pinstripe jacket. No witnesses necessary. The judge took a picture of us together, then we each snapped a photo of the other holding the marriage certificate.

That’s us, way back when.

We asked a couple of good friends, Jeff and Vicky, to come to Howard Johnson’s with us for our wedding reception. We ordered burgers, of course. Afterwards, Jeff took our picture next to the car. Vicky said “If it doesn’t work out, you can always get divorced.” Then my new husband had to go to work. After nine, we all met up at our apartment. We lacked champagne, so Jeff invited us to go to his parents house with him. Apparently they kept champagne. When we got there, his dad, true to his rep, dipped down to the basement and came up with a couple of bottles of bubbly. Jeff and Vicky, his parents, and their friends all toasted us.

The next day we drove to Milwaukee for our honeymoon, crashing in on my older sister and brother-in-law, who’d married two years earlier. They weren’t thrilled but were good sports and took us to Kohl’s to pick out a wedding present, our first, a big brown bowl for baking bread (used most recently this past week).

On Sunday we headed back home, stopping at my parents’ house, that is, my childhood home. As we pulled into the driveway, my next younger sister sauntered up to the car window and looked at me with intuited meaning. My mom was tending the garden when I called to her, “Hey Mom, we got married!” I revealed the slim 18-karat white gold band on my left hand. She said “I’m glad you still believe in marriage.” My dad was out on a bike ride; as he returned, I repeated our announcement, and he remarked, “I need a drink,” and fixed a round for everyone, now gathered on the big screened porch. I told my Nana, “I know we’ll never be rich, but we know how to work. We’ll have enough.” And so we did.

Today we celebrate in a pandemic. We’ve never done that before. We came over to a little place on the Pacific coast, 90 minutes from our house. We awoke to an overcast sky, and drank coffee from the window that looks onto the ocean. A happy anniversary message was already on my phone when I booted it up—from my little sis!—and within the hour we had a FaceTime call from Kid #4 and two grandkids gallivanting in a local meadow.

CCC shelter

Since sunshine is forecast for this afternoon, we decided to drive to our favorite lookout at the top of the cape just south of here. From there we can walk on a woodsy path overlooking the blue expanse of the Pacific to a little shelter constructed in 1934-35 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a little historical deep diving for the occasion.

We’re arranging take-out from the excellent little Italian resto a few doors down. There’s a bottle of decent, not expensive, bubbly in the fridge, which we’ll drink on our balcony as the sun descends. We can check through the binoculars to see how many boats are still out, their little sparks of light dotting the horizon. It’s still enough.

What is in a Home?

This week a dear high school friend messaged me to say she had driven past the home of my childhood, down the street from her lifelong home. The new owner (only the second owner) was putting the finishing touches on a Little Free Library in the lot’s corner. The library matched our mid-century modern house architecturally: pristine white trim on redwood, echoes of Frank Lloyd Wright‘s prairie style. We were pleased in 2015 that this second owner was from Oak Park (Illinois—Wright’s suburban Chicagoland home) and even had volunteered with Wright’s foundation in Madison, Wisconsin. It appeared she along with her husband and elderly mother, did not scoop up the home in order to make it over, but to appreciate it’s light, space, and warm earthy materials and design.

The house was built in 1953 by my Uncle Bill, an accomplished architect, after my paternal grandfather had died. My dad and he had put their heads together to find a suitable lot for a spacious home where our family of five (later six) could live with our grandmother, only 55 at the time.

Nana with her boys; my dad on the right, next to Uncle Bill
4th of July with Nana (wearing the string or pearls), aunts, and cousins, Dad outside the porch behind

The result was an L-shaped two-story, three bedroom home for us attached to a single story, one bedroom home for Nana, with it’s own kitchen, bathroom, dining and living areas. (Nana liked to entertain her friends for lunch and bridge.) We had a roomy screened porch, where we mostly lived in the summer; Nana had her own patio alongside the roses, under a dark green awning. We shared dual laundry areas in the full basement, a two car garage, a wrap-around perennial garden, and the shade of seven enormous elm trees lining the intersection. The back garden separated us from a pair of neighbors who built after us but remained in place for 60+ of the years we occupied “303,” as our home affectionately came to be known.

Almost all of our family lived within 50 miles, most within ten. The house was well filled for holidays, summer reunions, cousin sleepovers, for scout meetings, and for relatives and friends who would “call.” My mother came to say in her later years what she missed most about the past was people calling on one another, meaning they would stop by on a Sunday afternoon, stop over for cocktails early Saturday evening, neighbors popping onto the porch anytime to visit, never mind phoning ahead. We loved the evening barbecues especially, when parents and grandparents played bridge on the porch while we ran around in the dark like “wild Indians” (a regrettable expression) playing “Yoller-yoller, hear I come so holler!”—our version of hide and seek—and catching lightning bugs in jars.

We lived a half mile from our grade school, a little over a mile from the junior high, and a mile from the high school. We walked back and forth to school through most weather. When the thermometer dipped below ten degrees Fahrenheit, my mom consented to drive us and pick us up. No arguments about that. If we wanted a ride, my mom would say, “Check the thermometer.” Throughout our studies at the university “downstate,” we’d be back for Thanksgivings, Memorial Days, semester breaks, any time we didn’t have class, picking up waitress hours at the local BigBoy restaurant.

My sisters and I all moved out of the area after college and eventually started families in other cities, other homes. Interestingly we have all been in our current homes for decades, though they all resettled within a 3-hour drive of 303. We stayed out west, a place where they call my homeland “back east.” As Mom and Dad aged, they remained at home. Caregivers came in, my sisters rotated weekends there, while my flights and longer stays became more and more frequent. As our parents became more incapacitated and we installed accessibility equipment, the house gave up some of its sleekness, but it retained its nurturing magic.

Dad passed away (after Mom) six years ago this month, suddenly, but not so suddenly, at the age of 91. We flew back over the 4th of July and in August, when we had a musical hoohah with my brother-in-law (who plays like George Harrison on acoustic), my son, and oldest grandson on guitars. We came back again in October and again at Christmas, sleeping there the weekend of my older sister and brother-in-law’s annual Christmas party a few miles north. We made breakfast for the family at 303 the next day. The house was at its best, looking chic with its large rooms, classic fixtures, and now-trendy mid-century modern furnishings. By June it was stripped back nearly to its native state, as Mom and Dad had entered it in 1953, and by September, our new owners had made their offer.

The little library woman told my friend I could come by and walk through the house when I’m back; she’d love to visit. I suspect she’s a woman after my mom’s heart, salt of the earth. I had heard she welcomed all the neighbors for a housewarming the Spring after they took possession. A new neighborhood has been established. It warms me, but with a pang. Today when my daughter called to FaceTime with our new granddaughter, I choked up telling her all of this.

It has always struck me how the French have no word for the English home. They can say chez moi or à la maison, but not our home, with its connotations of coziness, of “where I belong,” a place of the heart. No. They name their out-in-the-country family homes Le Moulin and such. Maybe that does the trick. Or maybe what makes a house a home is when you choke up realizing you could lose or have lost it. When you think about it, is your home where you live?

What have we learned; what have we forgotten?

Like you, in my home, we’ve watched a lot of movies over the past three months of pandemic. In selecting what to watch after the dismal news of the day, my suggestions most often are met with the observation that “we’ve already seen it.” Impossible. I have no recollection. And yet halfway into the film, so it is—a family rerun. Why did I not remember?

I have the same issue with books I’ve read: I have imbibed them, even with relish, but I haven’t digested them. The past few days I’ve been re-reading the third volume of Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. I had recalled the first reading as a tedious and tawdry account of Elena’s affair with Nino Sarratore. In this second reading, I’m halfway through what now appears a paean to her friendship with Lila; Nino is nowhere to be seen. How can my experiences be so divergent?

Plato in The School of Athens—Raphael

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates warns that the act of writing undermines memory. With a written record, we have no need to remember. Our memory is vested in an externalized account. That said, the internet age must not undermine but demolish human memory. I did have an internalized memory of Elena’s story. It just happened to be at odds with the actual book.

Faulty memory leads to mistakes, from incorrect “external” information to stereotyping to inappropriate behaviors. This weekend of protests against racism across the United States, I walked on the beach, where someone had sculpted a dozen faux graves, a memorial to recent deaths by racism. Is racism a problem of faulty memory—as from habitual faulty associations or from failing to learn what prior experience has revealed?

We surely remember that slavery did not work out well for the United States. It set the country against itself by contradicting its ideals: All men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights—except for black people who are only 3/5 equal.

Slavery: the saddest story in United States history. Launched in the 17th century, and outlawed in the 19th. Yet, as the 19th flowed into the 20th century, the subjugation of black people mutated into the Jim Crow era of different rules for black and white people. It seeped into the 21st century with unequal enforcement of law and inequitable exercise of justice. Ongoing racial degradation has brought us in 2020 the knee-jerk killing of Ahmed Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia, the mistaken identity and slaughter of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, and the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, his windpipe crushed under a policeman’s knee. Persistent erroneous associations pigeonhole black as different, unequal, and dangerous. What have we learned, and what have we forgotten?

At one of our kids’ college graduations in Chicago, the university president opened the ceremonies by memorializing a black woman graduate, killed the day before she was able to don her cap and gown. She was driving from downtown back to campus and was pulled over by police. She stopped and raised both hands in the air. Her cell phone was in her right hand. The officer thought it was a weapon and shot her.

Condoleeza Rice, 66th U.S. Secretary of State

We might say that to racially profile is to willfully forget. By 2020, white people across the United States cannot have escaped close encounters and intimate connections with black people. Consider your fellow students, your colleagues, your teammates, your parents’ caregivers. Before and during this century, US society has come to elevate black people to positions of prominence and power—from jazz singers to opera singers, from sports icons to Supreme Court justices, from mayors to Secretaries of State, from four-star generals to Attorney General, from Governor to President of the United States. Haven’t we transcended issues with black equality, humanity, worthiness, acceptance, intelligence, goodness, and competence?

I was lucky, I think, to have experienced a glimpse at racism at the age of four. Candy, my contemporary neighbor, told me one morning when we were playing on the sidewalk in front of our houses that her family had a colored lady working at their house. I was captivated by the mental image: a lady of many colors! I said I wanted to see her. We tip-toed down her basement stairs and peeked into her laundry room, where a gentle-faced woman was folding laundry. I asked where the colored lady was, but Candy pointed only to the lady doing laundry. I saw no colored lady and continued to look back and forth, perplexed by Candy’s mischievous expression. I gave up trying to figure it out, and we went back upstairs. The interchange left me uneasy. Was Candy telling me a joke I didn’t get? There might be something odd about her family, I felt inwardly. We remained sidewalk friends but not for long because my family moved to a different house, and Candy’s family moved to Minneapolis.

Last month a beautiful friend of mine passed away. She was a woman of warmth and smiles, and she was colorful: well traveled, a quilt maker, tastefully dressed, a mother of five, irrepressibly energetic. She was several years older than I, but we found commonality in hailing from different parts of Chicago and transplanting to the Pacific Northwest. We discovered that we had each at one time worked in the same school district, she as a principal, I as a student teacher. In our eventual west coast locale, we taught at the same college before she retired. The last times we saw each other were at a UPS outpost and at a piano recital this past March, just before the coronavirus lockdown. She and her husband were there for their grandson’s recital. I was there for my husband’s, as he had taken up piano over the past few years.

They say my friend died on Saturday of a cerebral hemorrhage the day before. She went, as they say, very quickly, before we knew she had been hospitalized. Some people wondered: was it COVID19 related? They didn’t treat it as such at the time, but having learned since then the relationship between coronavirus and blood clotting, could it be? We know that black people for whatever reasons—personal history? genetic predisposition? environmental chance?—are disproportionately stricken. In any case, my friend died. She happened to be a black woman, though I saw no black in her.

COVID19 Priorities: Making do versus ordering online

People are talking about reopening US society. Truth be told, they’re waging political warfare over whether or not to lighten up. Straddling the difference between liberationists and lockdowners, my husband and I are facing off against immediate exigencies of life while tentatively looking ahead. To be specific, we’re replacing a defunct internet system, enhancing outdoor spaces for fresh air living, and keeping up the family love.

It all started when we had a router go kaput. It had long since been time to replace our internet provider, but this meltdown sent us scrambling to compare megabytes per second and cumbersome wiring options for a plan. It came as news to us that helpful computer service is a no-show in the coronavirus era. Who knew that no one answers a business telephone during a pandemic, that mobile and internet services now offer virtual assistants as opposed to actual online chats staffed by people? I’ve learned that whether or not you choose one of their pre-selected questions, you will never find an answer to your unimagined question.

On day five of our attempt to set up service, Brent the technician arrived to link our new modem to an outdoor connection that turned out not to exist. Brent needed to enter our home. No problem, we said, flinging open the door, come on in! Hang social distancing; we need service. “I cannot come in,” he countered The company had ordained that no technician can enter a home over the next thirty days. WiFi meets pandemic catch-22. Time to make do with—and to be thankful for— our cell phones for the month ahead. Our humbly dated and cracked iPhones provide spotty coverage, but what’s 30 days in a daily shortening lifespan? We warily commit to pulling back from life online, that is, life without an escape hatch.

We had wandered into covid-land around the Ides of March, which meant that by mid-April, the winds had tempered, and the sun glinted across our property, welcoming deep breaths and broad social distancing. We could nimbly escape into the great outdoors simply by fluffing up our furnishings. We had acquired four lightweight woven deck chairs last Spring. We pulled them out of the shed, hosed them down, and plopped them on the deck. We can handily drag them onto the lawn, alternately following shady and sunny patches through the day. Yet, as you can see from this photo of a Summer ’19 baby birthday party, we had great chairs, but lacked a place to set a drink. To secure our escape, we were driven back into the morass of failed WiFi to search for outdoor accent furniture, that is to say cheap side tables.

The most accommodating resource legible by phone turned out to be the Home Depot website, where I spotted a stone-like cast-cement table. Alas, each one weighed 25 pounds, we’d have to move and store these over the winter months, and how could we drag them onto the lawn? Scrolling onto to page 2, I glimpsed an alternative stool/table, though on closer examination, the ivory color clashed with our chairs’ pristine white, and the little stool was made of iron, translating into soon-rusted. Several pages further, I fell upon a more promising model: white, lightweight, cheap, functional. The discovery felt like a triumph of survival in a mostly offline existence.

The online phone search is headachey, bleary-eyed drudgery. For my next quest, birth and birthday gifts for special little people in our lives, I vowed to omit the internet search altogether. Our going-on-seven grandson’s wise parents are not keen on toys or electronics. So books? Yes. An avid reader, the kid is recently hooked on TinTin. I recall that we have some vintage hardbound versions upstairs that fall into the making-do with a flair category.

Yet wouldn’t he also love a little “Milou” (Snowy)? I resort to Google after all and find a TinTin boutique. I can order a stuffed Snowy, though prices are listed in euros. Hmmm. As I add in my shipping information, the price converts to dollars, and I find I’m paying $42.50 for a 15-inch (albeit cute) stuffed dog. I check on the vintage TinTin upstairs. Oops, they’re in French, from the older French grandkids; our 7-year-old, clever though he is, does English. So much for TinTin. I order on Amazon a couple of National Geographic sea creature books, a young kid’s ball and bat set, and stick a check toward his 529 account into his card.

Attempt #2 of offline gift seeking, for a dear niece’s new baby boy arriving at the end of May. They have escaped the growing horror of virus-besieged Brooklyn and have quarantined close to their Midwest families. She (eight months along) and her husband are dropping her Brooklyn OB and resetting their life for “Baby Jolly’s” birth and the next two months. I’ve checked out their online baby registry—pretty dry. I’ll figure out something else.

We drive to the coast for some restorative beach walking the next day. I’m driving and as I drive, I plot how I might find a suitable gift. Once we arrive, I wander through the little coastal village, angling toward the beach. The tiny Peruvian alpaca shop is shuttered for the lockdown. I remember their baby sweaters, fluffy-soft but non-irritating to tender baby skin. Dang. The place is firmly closed.

I wonder—might I be able to reach someone from the store …? I call a phone number from their Facebook page and reach a gem of a man, the owner. He will meet me—gladly. He lives three blocks from the shop. He’ll send photos of the baby-size hooded sweaters. I can pick a color, give him a card number, and he’ll have it for me within the hour. Back from the beach, I stop by and knock on the window before noticing a tidy paper bag set on a display table just inside. I peek in and catch his broad smile, a responsible 6 feet away. Lifting the bag with gloved hand, I feel heroic, though of course he’s the hero. It’s a few hours later, back home, when I finally open the tissue-wrapped sweater, appliquéd with a smiling sun, seagulls, birds, and flowers. Impeccable.

I’ll wrap and post it immediately. Confounded once more, I have only scraps of wrapping paper and ribbon remnants. Fabric scraps? I’ve used or given them away. I rummage through my multicolored dish towels and find an old classic pattern in ochre, from Avignon, France, purchased during an extended stay in Provence more than a decade ago. The tea towel is still lovely, the colors vibrant, even though I detect a couple of tiny stains and a quarter-inch hole near one edge. I shrug and fold under the flaws. Tied with some raffia and a sweet card, it will work.

We’re perpetually bouncing between worlds these days. Negative and positive, the news alternately terrifies and encourages us. Inertia followed by brisk exercise becomes the daily rhythm. Online meetings, scoured data tables, and coronavirus dashboards yield to walking, gardening, and biking. We order out, but we are baking so much bread that our stores are out of yeast. We’re balancing the efficient with the gratifying. One of my sons sent a photo of a luscious multi-layered chocolate cake he baked for a friend’s birthday; we admired the texted picture, but we couldn’t taste the cake. We can Zoom but not touch. We can shop but not hand off a gift with a warm embrace. We can accomplish a task with a few clicks that neither require nor evoke a sense of pleasure. Imagination, warmth, birdsong, the scent of fresh baked bread, the tactile: all come back to us from things past, a flood of sensory memory. They bring the flow and fullness of real life.

The bold extension of self through the internet can never reach the infinitely subtle and sensitive microbits of human existence. The scale of satisfaction in our daily pursuits is being recalibrated. No doubt you can surmise which has been the most fulfilling of my recent pursuits. Which are yours? What altered colors and textures will our emergent rediscovered life hold post pandemic?

The Not-So-Guilty Pleasures of COVID19

From the numbers, it looks as though most citizens of the world are beginning to understand what they can do to face off against the power of a coronavirus cell. They can stay home, wash hands, exercise—and connect with others.

As cases mount, I have repeatedly reassured myself that the vast majority of people are well. Yet my reassurance quickly turns to horror. It reveals a callous nature, schadenfreude, that uniquely useful German word signifying pleasure in another’s misfortune. If it’s all about me and mine, I’m suddenly on the opposing side from one friend’s winsome daughter just home from college and another’s cherubic, curly-headed five-year-old grandson, both caught in the viral web. The guilty satisfactions of poring over statistics and reading New York Times headlines turn out to be not so pleasurable. In fact, they are terrifying.

So it is that in our newly quieted lives, we are discovering a host of not-so-guilty pleasures—the implicitly positive. The Italians set us aright by singing in the streets of Siena. We recalled in the grips of terror what it is to be human. Let it be remembered that in March, 2020, we segued from the confusion of separation into the stabilizing comfort of global unity. We’ve shared our nature walks. We discovered online Happy Hours. Last weekend, I was checking in on a couple of friends, who happened to be out hiking when I called. I said we’d catch up later, but Larry suggested we meet that evening online. We’d each bring our wine and a tray to nibble from, and we’d catch up. And so we spent two hours on our desktop FaceTiime, sipping, chewing ciabatta and olives, over the gamut of current issues and nonsensical observations. We signed off high on the simple joys of life.

Listening to my favorite podcasts over the past week, I hear podcaster Oliver Gee and his wife on The Earful Tower, who, strictly confined to their 300-square-foot apartment in Paris’s Montmartre quarter, are setting up new podcast-the-pandemic interviews (Oliver) and painting daily watercolors (Lina). The finished paintings on Instagram (@parisianpostcards) are exquisite.

In my own corner of the world, Dorothy, too, is expanding her watercolor repertoire. Mary is embroidering a clever cat motif for her soon-to-arrive baby’s room. Luellen is steeped in weeding and nurturing her garden while Jennifer is starting tomato plants. Ron is practicing simplified piano versions from the great American songbook. He has Fats Waller’s Ain’t Misbehavin’ down and has moved on to Scott Joplin. On the advice of novelist Ann Patchett on the PBS News Hour, we started reading aloud Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield during apéro.

Life in isolation is inexplicably full. For a positive outlook, I depend on a routine of leaping out of bed when light hits the blinds, heading straight to the shower, fluffing the bedhead and restoring simple make-up. Indomitably dressing for the day, I feel like an Army sergeant, boots on and ready for inspection. The day falls into place with news and conversation over coffee, confronting domestic needs, whether laundry, cleaning, or the wary grocery expedition. My cooking focus has reached a new level of intensity, as we exchange recipes and mouth-watering photos with the kids in Chicago.

Glimpses of nature and absorption into intricate details of this springtime rebirth must be profound consolation around the globe, if one is so fortunate as to get out into it. My walking grounds circle wetlands two blocks from my house. The string of three large bodies of water is full of waterfowl: Canadian geese, ducks, egrets, and blue heron. Emerging wildflowers trim the paths. One glimpses an occasional bald eagle in the treetops and catches repeatedly the song of the red-winged blackbird.

But best for last: Surely the most satisfying of pleasures is being able to provide positive good for others whose lives are made decidedly more difficult by the illness that knows no bounds. Inspiration comes from ingenious brewing companies now bottling hand sanitizer. Home-bound crafters striving to design and produce up-to-code health-care face masks. A former postal worker who drives around town with bags of food, looking to hand them off to the homeless.

This morning in a call with a friend, I learned that her son, Sean, a consultant in Seattle, has come to the realization that in this crisis, no one needs a consultant. By chance, Sean had recently acquired a pizza franchise on the side. He didn’t have a lot of business there either. He figured he must reinvent himself. What about making pizzas for nurses and doctors at one of the nearby hospitals? He called another friend, John, to join him. John said he’d donate $1000 toward the hospital pizzas. Sean delivered that first load of pizzas to the hospital, to the exuberant delight among staff. Now Sean finds there are lots of people in Seattle who’d like to donate $1000 toward pizzas for the medical community. Thus, pressing on, Sean’s job has become finding places that can use a good round of pizzas.

In music, in art, in nature, in love for our fellow humans we find pleasures that know no guilt.

Covid19, Part 2

Was it really only two weeks ago that the frightening inklings of a pandemic began to invade our consciousness? Since then grocery shelves have been stripped of disinfectant wipes, and we have studied video lessons on how to wash our hands: lather up, then 20-40 seconds (singing whatever 40-second ditty gets you through), turning palms up and down, scrubbing thumbs, and roughing up the nails.

The week before we had enjoyed a Sunday dinner with friends from Denver, friends who travel frequently to Beijing, who had been looking forward to a couple of months there this Spring. We had bantered about the Wujan virus, but now they soberly announced they had canceled, probably in an excess of caution, they shrugged. The following weekend we met up for lunch and a walk on the beach with old friends. The next day, we attended a late-afternoon piano recital and swung by Marché, our favorite local bistro, for little pizzas and wine. We arrived home buzzing and content with our lot.

Then came the fatal marker two weeks ago. We were trying to settle on mid-April flights back to Newark. When we consulted our kids there, they urged us not to travel; the virus could get out of hand. Their doctor had advised that grandchildren not see their grandparents, a heresy if I’d ever heard one. Facebook posts told people fifty and older to stay home and inside. To us it was all ridiculous and insulting. Were we not free beings in an open and independent society, with vigor, intelligence, and agency? Well, that was then and this is now. The trip was off, an Easter visit from our daughter in Chicago evaporated, a weekend at the coast with a son and his family canceled. It was like being stranded at Denver International in the midst of a bomb-cyclone blizzard, the road into the city unnavigable, visibility ten yards.

Now it’s been ten days since I bought groceries. People over 60 (that includes us) are asked to self-isolate at home. We hear horror stories about mobs rushing the single flat of toilet paper prominently displayed front and center as you enter. I called three grocery stores to see when their slow time is. There was no slow time. “Will you open an hour for people over 60?” We heard this was a thing at some stores. Could we get it? “We don’t have a protocol for that.”

I don’t blame them. Schools closed, and their children are at home. They themselves may be contracting the virus from anyone unloading a cart before them. They are exhausted. We see hiring announcements posted on their doors and on Facebook. Grocery stores have become one of the few essential services, and these faithful workers are required to serve. To serve us. “Let’s remember this next time we debate whether $15 an hour should be the minimum wage,” chides a friend on social media.

In the meantime, while cities close bars, cancel public events, and lock down, many young adults cavort in the parks, on streets, at the beach, and in homes. Today I read that as it turns out young adults are beginning to make up 29-30% of the viral-infected. Their illnesses are not typically critical, but they are occupying hospital beds that might go to the critically ill, like the 42-year-old breast-cancer survivor, mother of six, who just yesterday succumbed to the virus. Some clever youth, I’m told, have nick-named coronavirus “boomer remover.” Surprise: it’s not only boomers.

I have been waking up checking the daily stats on new cases, the number of deaths, and the recovery rates, a pretty grim way to embark on a new day. Today sunshine poured in our windows early. What a brilliant day, I thought, before I could grab my phone—that is, before I could ruin another 24 hours. No, starting now I will begin with thoughts of those I love—and with prayers. During coffee time, I merely glimpsed at the newspaper, mostly conversing with my husband. By 9:00, I had initiated a conference call with a group of women friends I meet once a week, but not this week and not for many weeks to come. Refreshingly we spent the next hour together.

I’ve been slow in arriving at a couple of realizations about the 2020 Plague. First, it’s no joke. We must take it seriously and do what we’re told as an act of charity to the humanity around us. Second, there are things doctors and government can do that we cannot; let them do it. Third, we can be patient and adaptable. We must hustle when needed, help when needed, and be still when needed. We are being reborn. The world will change and so will we. We will be different people at the other end of Covid19. There’s a chance we will be better people as well.

A Failure to Communicate

One of our most quoted American film lines came from Paul Newman’s classic, Cool Hand Luke: “What we have here is a failure to communicate,” spoken by fellow prisoner, George Kennedy, to Newman’s Luke. The circumstances of the line in the film are irrelevant here, but the fact of communication failures in the sudden emergence of the coronavirus, arriving on the scene as a 21st-century black plague, is monumental.

On the cusp of Spring, as crocuses emerge along our front walk, we scour the online news daily to discover how many new cases have been uncovered: Korea, Iran, Italy, Australia. Horrifying to perennially optimistic Americans, we now have California, Washington state, New York . . . . We wonder how many miles is it yet from my home? When will my family and I succumb?

Oddly, people buy out mountains of toilet paper from Costco. This week I went to our nearby Rite-Aid to purchase 91% rubbing alcohol, aloe vera gel, and essential oils to concoct our own homemade hand and surface disinfectant, stashed in little travel bottles in my car, bathroom, kitchen, and my already overburdened handbag. I didn’t stop there; I created little packets of wipes for attacking germ-laden surfaces wherever I should alight in and around town.

We’re not buying the mysterious coronavirus toilet paper but boxes of Emergen-C to boost our immune systems. My husband brings home crates of oranges and ritualistically squeezes us little glasses of fresh juice daily. We had been shopping for fresh fruit and veggies and supplementing every meal with a big salad when a friend grown killjoy asked how we can be sure that fresh produce is free of the virus. Alas, at this moment, what I need in my heart of hearts are real-life stories. I’ve just read that more than 50,000 Chinese from Wuhan province and more than half of those struck worldwide have survived the virus and moved on. So why cannot a journalist pick up a phone, give a survivor a call, and find out what they had for lunch today? Can they eat lunch yet?

My dream interview with a coronavirus survivor would tell this story. When you first noticed you didn’t feel well, where were you? where had you been? what had you eaten? Did it start with a sore throat? runny nose? fever? general malaise? How high did your fever go the first day, second day . . . . Did you go to bed? take lots of liquids, tea with honey and lemon, or chicken soup? What were the changes each day, or parts of the day? How did you sleep? Did you notify a doctor or health facility? go to the hospital? did you protect yourself or others when you went? Did you get medicine? which medicine? how long did it take for it to have a beneficial effect? did it have an effect? When did you start to feel better, what got better first? Do you feel normal yet? How do you continue to monitor and care for yourself?

In short, I want the stuff of human communication, how we’d analyze potential scenarios over coffee and a scone. Statistics are for the CDC, the WHO, my PCP. I want the wholly human story so that I can respond to the big scare like a person with a life, home, family, and friends. Otherwise I am frozen in uncertainty while bits of T.S. Eliot’s Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock echo in my brain:

. . . there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”

. . . time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?

. . . When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin. . .
               And how should I presume?