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.

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?

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?

My Last Day in Paris

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Last October I achieved the unenviable milestone of passing a full year without spending time in Paris. By now, my withdrawal symptoms should be subsiding, but no, they surge uncontrollably at the slightest provocation. To soothe my malaise, I drop in for a perfectly brown and crusty croissant at the one downtown patisserie in our West Coast, USA, university town that is capable of producing a convincing facsimile. It’s a great croissant. I squint hard and sniff for a whiff of diesel to evoke an early morning café in the City of Lights, but I’m not there.

My table, Café du Centre

Honestly I prefer not to talk about it. To the random American, it sounds effete. The phenomenon of Francophilia is not particular to me. What can I say? “Paris feels like a second home?” This is ludicrous, like the faithful servant granted a night alone in the palace. Home? I wish. Or I pretend. Desperate to maintain the language, I peruse Le Monde, the French daily, for news of the latest strikes. I engage conversation and even hazard a recently acquired French idiom on a French-speaking guy on the bus. Pleased with the attention, he thinks, under his ironic grin, “Pathetic.”

No, at this stage of my displacement, I’m hooked on a more satisfactory accommodation: Oliver Gee’s “The Earful Tower” podcasts. An Aussie, in Paris for nearly five years, he engages savvy guests and compelling topics on all things French and Parisian: the Seine, the best fromagerie (cheese shop), the Mona Lisa, critical pronunciations, great walks, best streets. On those mornings I awake with my familiar yearning, I turn over in bed to indulge myself in Oliver’s most recent podcast. I’m immediately swept into his ardent enthusiasm for his subject matter. Is it difficult for him to sustain this pitch over time? Does he weary of cranking up for each episode? Does your love for a place intensify only when you know that one day you will lose it? Just so, Oliver often closes by asking his guest some version of “If it were your last day in Paris, how would you spend it? Where would you go, and what would you do?”

The question has inspired a new daily occupation. In quiet winter moments, on meditative walks or sitting by the fire, I’m dreaming up ways to spend my last day in Paris. If it has not occurred already, it has to come sometime, right? Best be ready.

How would I do this; that is, how would I say goodbye? Having lived in the 2e arrondissement (2nd district) as my home base for a period some years past, I imagine I herald my last day exiting through a large dark green door onto rue de Richelieu, for a short jaunt to Notre-Dame des Victoires (at Place des Petits Pères, in case you’re curious) for early mass in this parish that possesses an authentic, diverse, and devout congregation, unabashedly at prayer and meditation as a natural way to greet the day. Hence, in silence I gather my wits and brace myself for the hours that will tick away today’s time.

Looking out on the Palais du Fruit

Fortified, I jut across Place des Victoires to the best morning street I know—OK, thousands of people’s special place—rue Montorgueil. Having snagged a newspaper from a tabac down the street, I light on the terrace at Café du Centre, for my café crème and croissant. There, across from the colorful fruit market, I intermittently read the paper, watch the world go by, and plot my route for the better part of an hour.

What have I determined as my meandering begins? My goal is not to preoccupy myself with anything grand. I want to pass my time as flâneur (an idle wanderer—masculine), or as Lauren Elkin feminizes it: flâneuse. More aptly, I want to stroll in that dolce far niente, or sweetness of doing nothing, perfected around the Mediterranean basin.

I aim myself toward the smaller island in the Seine, Île Saint-Louis, walking along Quai de l’Hôtel de Ville up to Pont Sully, a bridge leading me to the peaceful little park at the island’s eastern tip. From there I turn onto the street straight down the middle of the island: rue Saint-Louis en Île. I take my time along the less populated park-end of the street, frequently criss-crossing the ten to fifteen paces from one side to the other among the more sober, less kitschy establishments. Halfway along, the lately traffic-restricted street is choked with tourists drawn by ice cream. Hypocritically, I, a tourist, have the urge to bolt past the crowds jamming these perpetually inventive shops but find it hard to cast a cold eye. When I succumb and press my way inside, I fall upon beguiling soaps, scarves, hats, and art prints. Yet I firmly weigh any purchase as to whether it will impede my freedom of movement as the day progresses. In the end, I buy nothing.

Square of Pope John XXIII

I’ve reached the cafés at the end of the little island only to confront my first important decision. Feeling peckish, should I stop for a bite? I could grab a Berthillon sorbet, or even a ham/gruyère baguette sandwich and Orangina to nosh in the garden of Pope John XXIII behind Notre-Dame, just a hop over the bridge to the larger island, Île de la Cité.

I had tucked in my bag a little edition of a Willa Cather novel, The Professor’s House. The main character, Godfrey St. Peter, reflects on his early days in Paris. I can rest, read, and summon perspective in the sunshine of a garden bench, before my next foray across the river to Place Maubert, on the Left Bank. I’m struck with the realization that this must be a Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday, so that I’m able to scope out the market! Yes, it’s Thursday. Yet I find today I’m not so much drawn to the linens,cutlery, and cheese. I pass through guiltless. I had put off lunch, after all. I figure from here, down rue des Écoles, past Montaigne’s statue, it’s only fifteen more minutes to a café that has previously proved its worth—Le Rostand, facing the Luxembourg gardens.

Café Le Rostand

Have ingrained images from my first meal there on a Sunday morning decades earlier distorted today’s reality? Young parents crossing the intersection and through the Luxembourg gates with children in tow. Dark red and green curved-back woven chairs. Blue and white Villeroy and Boch china. Soft, moist omelettes with herbs, served with a little crystal pitcher of fresh lemon juice and a tiny Dijon mustard pot. Along came a basket of sliced baguette, of course. I even recall salient details of the blue and white tiled toilettes.

Villeroy & Boch

It is now half past midi (noon). I can dine at leisure on the warm terrace. First, I thoughtfully scrutinize the menu, and after five studious minutes, order an omelette anyway. Since the day is bright and temperate, I add a request for their smallest carafe of white wine, a Chablis, well chilled. I note ruefully that the china has been replaced and there is no fresh lemon juice today. The service is more tepid than warm, but the omelette and other details are true to form. I have decided to text a friend to meet me here. She arrives expeditiously, and we remain for a couple of hours, extending our meal with another carafe and an espresso to fuel the remainder of the afternoon through the gardens.

Jardin de Luxembourg

The Luxembourg gardens! How many writers have depicted trysts, espionage, or breakdowns under the protection of those green borders and in the anonymity of its diverted crowds? There is no such thing as rushing through; one strolls at a full-leisured pace, looking outward at the park’s many enchantments, whether the Medici fountain, the marionnettes, a carousel, a game of chess, brilliant French and English garden beds, potted palms, or pond sailboats. One luxuriates in rotating observation.

Following a short ramble, we don sunglasses and pull two chairs close to the pond, propping our feet on its ledge, so to gaze hypnotically on the children’s slow drifting sailboats while we dissect the engrossing interpersonal interplay, expansive gestures, and understated French style on display. We converse as the spirit moves, although an amiable silence better befits the drowsy tenor of this moment.

Place Saint-Sulpice
Pont des Arts

On towards evening, it’s time to stretch our legs. We slip around the western edge of the park, past the fountain at Saint-Sulpice. Here, convinced we are French after all, we exchange the affectation of farewell bisous (little cheek kisses). When would we meet again? Probably pretty soon back home, truth be told. Shaking off the languorous afternoon, my pace quickens, as I am to meet my husband at Le Fumoir, one of our go-to restaurants, at the Place du Louvre, for happy hour and dinner.

As I cross back to the Right Bank over the Pont des Arts, I realize I’m quite late. There can be no dawdling, though on such a fine evening, la vie en rose is on full display. Sunset’s pink and coral cloud fingers reach across from left to right bank. The bridge is uncharacteristically empty. Its unsightly padlocks have been stripped away for an unimpeded view west to the Tour Eiffel.

Le Fumoir

I find my husband looking self-satisfied and comfortably settled at an outdoor table with a Heineken, soaking up the sunset, now punctuated by glowing lamplight. I order a cool rosé to match the evening sky. They bring us tiny trays of nuts and olives.

Dark descends quickly, but our table inside is ready, in the cozy library room at the rear. We saunter back past familiar servers. They greet us cordially, while we suppress the sense that they are “friends” only in this moment, there to earn a living.

Once settled in a quiet corner, a bottle of Burgundy uncorked, we trade stories of our respective last adventures. He has been to his favorite haunts as well—to a pub between Place Saint-Michel and the innumerable Gibert Joseph bookstores of the Latin Quarter, to the bouquinistes (book and tchotchke sellers along the Seine), to see once more Poussin’s paintings at the Louvre, exiting toward the Tuileries.

As M.F.K. Fisher has written, everyone has their own mental map, highlighting what matters in a place they love. My husband and I each have our very own map. I think: where is this more likely than in Paris? I think: I will draw my map; I will mount it in my kitchen back home and take it down for revisions, plotting my next adventure as memories surge and fade. But wait: this is my last day. Do I want to lock in my map of a fixed time, conceived in vibrancy, too soon a dingy scrap of what has forever passed? Not likely.

Avenue de l’Opéra

After small bowls of savory lentil soup, we order our entrées, cod and lamb, and lift our glasses, pretentiously I fear, to the inoubliables (unforgettable): the people, places, and moments secure within our selves. Two hours along, we’ve failed to finish the bottle, but we push off, arms linked, to traipse up rue de Rivoli to Avenue de l’Opéra to rue St. Anne and back to Richelieu. What a day this has been; what a rare mood we’re in.


Berthillon

Back in our apartment, I grab some water from the fridge, drop my bag, fall on the couch, and hit “replay.” The only images that surface reveal what I have omitted: rue du Bac, Bois de Boulogne, Montmartre, the Arts et Métiers and Saint-Paul quarters. What was I thinking? I really have not left the center. Why, after all, must I avoid the métro or my favorite bus route, line 68? My day has been unintentionally but decidedly touristy. Unimaginative. I’ve botched it. If I had been strategic, I would have scheduled this day in the off-season. Is there an off-season? I would have stretched myself further in each direction.

We fly out tomorrow at 10:25 a.m. Next stop, Dulles, then points west. Tomorrow evening, my real home will feel comforting and easy, so why not let go? I know of no optimistic tradition in Paris, like the Fountain of Trevi in Rome, where you can toss a coin over your shoulder and into a basin to guarantee your return. As the years roll by, we lose confidence in such assurances. Is to be in Paris a consequence of chance or determination? Is it wise to force oneself to return everlastingly? Onward we advance, whether across an ocean or into the breach. The only comfort we possess is that as we forge our lives, at home or away, we become a composite of who we are based on where we’ve been.