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.

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.