Friday, March 27, 2020

Impossible decisions in times of plague

A million years ago we were on a sixteen-hour car trip and our son was playing the video game Oregon Trail in the backseat on an old laptop.

I didn't know what the game was. It was something his second grade class had been playing. He was quiet back there, but every once in a while he'd ask my husband and me a question. Should I ford the river or should we go around it? How many supplies should we buy? At one point he told us he had bought a 25 pound bag of cinnamon and my husband and I cracked up.

That’s enough cinnamon to last you for the rest your life, we said. A little while later my son piped up that my husband and I had both died of dysentery.

Twenty years later my son is hunkered down outside San Francisco with his girlfriend in an apartment that’s smaller than our living room. Our 22-year-old daughter, in London working on a masters degree, called us the other day in a panic. The UK, which is roughly a week behind where we are in Ohio, as far as taking Covid 19 seriously, had just announced that the country was about to lock down.

Should she come home? Or should she stay?

My husband and I brainstorm the options with her. And none of them seem good. Stay in London, a city of 9 million people on the verge of an exploding pandemic that will rival New York’s?

OR

Try to leave now, possibly get stranded in a foreign airport, contract the illness? (This is assuming we can find a flight, and understanding that when she gets here, my husband and I won’t be able to hug her while she self-isolates in her bedroom for two weeks.)

Our indecision does not make our daughter feel better. We're supposed to have the right answers, but what IS the right answer?

We call our son. Maybe he can talk to her? He’s more logical than we are. Would he stay or go?

What are her supplies? he asks. We joke about 25 pound bags of cinnamon. But the truth is, she has supplies. For some reason she has a dog-food size bag of oatmeal. She has plenty of toilet paper.

I don’t know if she should get on a plane, my son says. He jokes about being stressed out going to Trader Joe's...

We all waffle back and forth for another day, realizing even as we waffle that we may be running out of time to make this decision.

Meanwhile I have visions of London as a dystopian hellscape, my daughter in her apartment sick with fever. I see a mass of bodies at an airport crammed together trying to get through customs.

I wake up in the middle of the night with a moment of clarity. She is not sick. She’s in an apartment, with her boyfriend. They are smart, cautious people. They have enough oatmeal to last many many weeks.

We talk to her the next day, running through every permutation of options again, and in the end, she decides to stay where she is.

These are the things I know for sure: There is a wave coming at us. It will get worse, before it gets better, but I have to believe that it will get better.

So here we are now. Our son in San Francisco. Our daughter in London. My husband and I in Ohio, all of us hunkering down. This is not a game, but like a game, we have to play it, remembering why we are playing.

Make it to the other side. Stay safe. Stay well.



Thursday, March 19, 2020

Pandemic Diaries, Week One, Social D i s t a n c i n g


Friday, March 13, 2020

Today the library will close, just a precaution for the next three weeks. My afternoon shift is like the panic shopping at the supermarket yesterday with everyone clearing out the toilet paper, except this time with books and dvds. It's gratifying, and yet, worrisome, seeing the shelves emptying out.

I stand at the check-out desk with my hands up, continually hand sanitized, like a surgeon, and chat with the patrons. What will the kids do without school for three weeks? Will they call in the National Guard? This is a stupid overreaction. Can you recommend a good mystery series? 

During a lull, I run around and check out books for myself. Gardening books mostly. And this weird-looking paperback romance that's been sitting on the new book shelf, untouched, for the last month.

I don't understand this cover!
Why is the dog looking at Abraham like that?
What kind of romance IS this? 

My daughter messages me that she's a little panicky alone in London now that her grad program is going on-line. Her boyfriend, who's telecommuting to work in Bonn Germany, is trying to catch a train to see her.

Broadway shows and museums are cancelled in NYC. But my friend in North Carolina, who is a school vice principal, says it's business as usual in her town. Another friend goes on a cruise with her family because the prices are good right now.

New cases in the US today: 277. Cases in Ohio 5

Saturday, March 14

It snowed today. My husband and I think about going to Lowes to buy yardwork stuff but decide not to. Why leave the house?

A ton of Americans in Europe, freaked out by the president's directive to cancel all flights, descended on airports, trying to get back into the country. Side note: he misspoke. He didn't mean Americans couldn't get back into the country. I am glad my daughter's safe in London.

Her boyfriend made it there and she informs me that she heavily sanitized him. Assume you're both infected, I tell her, and stay away from other people!

They closed schools in North Carolina. My husband bakes a loaf of bread and we eat the entire thing.

New Cases in the US: 414

Sunday, March 15

Snow has melted and we work in the yard. My husband takes down the weirdo shed the previous owners built and I cut down all of the bamboo. (BAMBOO!! WHY DID THEY PLANT BAMBOO?!)

Weirdo shed. Bamboo patch to the left
My husband bakes another loaf of bread.

We eat it.

Our daughter sends us daily dance videos of her and her boyfriend self-isolating. It's them, jumping up and down and saying what day it is of Self-Isolation. The Ohio governor closes all restaurants and bars in the state. People in Florida are snapping pictures of a crowded Disney World, the last night before it closes.

Monday, March 16 

Two more cases in Ohio, both in Columbus. My husband is working from home and in tele-meetings all day. I am writing. Goal: finish the scene I've been fiddling around with for the past week.

Goal in the backyard: Move rocks out of the old koi pond. Talked to the guy next door over the fence. He is taking things in stride, going out (where? Everything is closed except for grocery stores). He fought in the Israeli army in the 1970s, he tells me. This pandemic is nothing.

The governor is talking about cancelling the primary tomorrow. My son and his girlfriend are locked down in the San Francisco area. How's that going? I ask him.

Meh, he says. Not too different. (He works from home anyway.)

Tuesday, March 17

I am writing 750 words today if it takes me all day damnit. The primary was cancelled and then it was back on and then it was cancelled again. I print out absentee ballot applications. Gyms and movie theaters are closed. Skype with our daughter and her boyfriend where they attempt to teach us a card game called Corona.

I make macaroni and cheese and move rocks around in the backyard. My son sends me an article about how one of the reasons this situation is so stressful is because we have no narrative structure for it. It's all still unfolding in real time and we can't make sense of it yet.

Ventured out to the grocery store and felt like I was in a Walking Dead episode. No music playing and eerily quiet. People shuffling along not talking to each other. A little girl coughing in aisle 12. What the hell? My husband whispers to me. Who brings a sick kid to the grocery store at a time like this? No toilet paper. No hand sanitizer. No pre-made-spaghetti sauce.

But you can buy wine.

Tele-meet with my writers' group and drink half a bottle of wine.

Ohio writers on-line and drinking wine


New cases in the US: 1900

Wednesday, March 18 

Move rocks in the backyard. Cut stray bamboo. Take a walk around the block with the dog and note the line of cars in the drive thru at the Wendy's and Starbucks down the street.

Write 750 more words on my book and realize what a glorious gift it is to be able to disappear into another world for a few hours each day.

Son sends me a photo of his girlfriend working in their home office in couples graduate housing at Stanford.

It's the bathroom.

Daughter sends me a dance video.


Thursday, March 19 

Cases in the US: 7038
Deaths: 97
Cases in Ohio: 88

Friday, March 13, 2020

Pandemic shopping at the grocery store

The parking lot was full, and a woman walking out to her car with a cart told me I might want to take hers. There are no empty carts inside, she said, adding, Don't worry, it's freshly hand-sanitized!

I wiped down the handle anyway on my way in, noting what looked like over-abundant displays of chips and salsa in the entryway. I skipped those. I was hoping to find toilet paper. The night before, during what was the most idiotic presidential speech I have ever heard in my lifetime, my husband, who was on the phone with his office trying to figure out how to reroute all trade goods from Europe, was also online trying to find toilet paper on Amazon.

(Update: the president misspoke? misread his teleprompter? is a complete and total rambling lunatic? and didn't mean to say that all cargo would be halted from Europe. One crisis averted. But, there was still no toilet paper to be found on Amazon.)

The grocery store was bedlam. A combination of an old-style Soviet country during a food shortage and shopping for New Year's Eve, with check-out lines snaking into the aisles.

A few hours earlier the Ohio governor had closed all schools in the state for the next three weeks. We only have five confirmed cases of COVID 19 here, but we also have not been testing people until a few days ago.

But we are all apparently hunkering down for the long haul. Here, at the grocery store, onions and potatoes are mostly gone, but you can still buy pre-cut veggies and chicken taco kits. The jelly and peanut butter are picked over. Ditto bread and jars of spaghetti sauce. I took the last bag of long grain rice off the shelf. Gave up hope on there being any toilet paper, but came to the end of an aisle and saw a woman with packages in her cart.

They have toilet paper?

They do. Limit 3, she told me. But you better hurry!

I booked it across the store and scored my three packages, then headed over to the cleaning supplies and the pharmacy for cold and flu meds, just in case, then joined one of the long lines snaking into the aisles. The man next to me had boxes of wine in his cart and I thought about leaving the line to grab some of that myself, but stayed put. This is like 9/11, someone said.

And I remembered those panicky days, people running out to fill their cars up with gas, how empty and quiet the skies were without any planes flying. There was an anthrax scare for a few months and my son's school banned envelopes. If you wanted to send in the Scholastic book order money, you needed to seal it in a plastic sandwich baggie. I did that for years, long after we were allowed to use envelopes again.

It's easy to panic. Easy to think a plastic baggie or toilet paper will keep you safe.

Yesterday afternoon at the library, it was quiet, except for one woman coughing at a computer. The toys and blocks have been removed from the kids' play area. But you can still check out books and movies. I wiped a sanitizing wipe along my desktop and rearranged the new books in the new books section.

A family burst through the doors. You're still open? the mom said breathlessly.

For now, I said.





Sunday, March 8, 2020

Nobody's home

It was a weird sunny warm day and I was walking up and down the street ringing doorbells and carrying my clipboard. Canvassing has gotten more high tech since the last time I did it. Instead of a paper map, we get an app on our phone. Swipe when the voter isn't home. Check a box if he doesn't support your candidate. Make a note if he has a sign: NO SOLICITING!

My candidate was Elizabeth Warren and this was last Sunday, a few days before she dropped out of the race, and I was trying to feel optimistic. Reading the news and ranting to friends wasn't working for me. I needed to be out there. DOING something--

but I was dragging my feet up and down the street, not sure if I wanted people to be home or not. No one likes opening their doors to strangers and I don't blame them.

Please vote for Elizabeth Warren I wanted to beg people. But on the off chance that someone opened the door, all I could manage was a shy smile.

Have you made up your mind yet?

No.

Are you going to vote in the primary?

Yes.

Great!

Then I'd go on to the next house, dutifully checking off names on my list. Noting the Bernie sign in someone's yard. Shuffling around awkwardly whenever I saw that I was being recorded by one of those camera doorbells. Laughing at the no soliciting sign on someone's door:

Absolutely no soliciting. That means no knocking. I mean it. Just don't. It will be weird for both of us. 

I had a momentary desire to knock anyway, just so I could tell the woman I liked her sign. (I knew it was a woman because my phone app told me. Also, I knew her name and age. I know I know. Should I know this about a stranger?)

Something I know about Elizabeth Warren was how she had plans for everything. How she took the time to talk to people, one on one, and take smile-y photos with them. She grew up poor and married and had children young and was a teacher of students with disabilities before going to law school. She was a law professor and is an expert in economics and finance and bankruptcy regulation and consumer protection.

People tried to make her seem like a leftist extremist, but interestingly enough, she had been a registered Republican for years because she believed they were the party who supported the free market. And then she could see that their policies were actually putting the finger on the market to benefit wealthy people only and so she switched parties.

Her mission after that was supporting consumers and protecting the environment and standing up for women, fighting for public education and advocating for healthcare for all.

She has more stamina than me.

I know this because when I was finished with the street, the app asked me if I wanted to load another list and I said no. 

I drove back to the campaign headquarters (someone's small house) and returned my clipboard.

Driving home I felt like I was stepping out of a bubble. Leaving behind the type of person who walks up and down streets knocking on strangers' doors,

and returning to the person who walks up and down the same streets with my dog, the type of person who hesitates to open the door when a stranger rings the bell.

thank-you post-its around Elizabeth Warren's photo at Harvard






Saturday, February 29, 2020

A day with writers

starts first in a quiet house,

just me and my laptop, a cup of coffee, the dog snoozing beside me, the scene rolling out in front of me on my screen -- or who are we kidding here? -- it's all stops and starts, deleting the paragraphs I labored over yesterday (I don't really need them! Just cut to the chase!) a couple of new sparkly sentences, 

and then it's time to go. Today, it's a morning at the Thurber House,

where I'm teaching a writing workshop to 4th and 5th graders. The last several weeks we've worked on our characters and story arcs and how to build scenes. Now it's time to focus on sensory language. How do we make our stories come alive for our readers? 

Close your eyes, I tell them. Put your heads on your desk and listen.

I read Owl Moon by Jane Yolen, and even though I've read this book many times, many years ago to my own children, the world of the cold snowy forest comes alive again

the little girl and her father, bundled up and silent, crunching through snow under the dark trees, the bright moon, the sad train whistle, the long hoot of the owl before it lifts off from a branch and flies away.

The students open their eyes and we talk about what they heard and then they work on their own scenes. I pass out Hershey's kisses because it's a well known fact that a little bit of chocolate tastes best after a morning's writing. 

In the afternoon I head to the main library downtown for a writers' workshop. It's full swing when I get there-- a literary agent and two authors speaking to aspiring adult writers. How to write a book, how to sell it.

I'm no longer running this group and it's fun to sit back and listen. Take notes. Eat a sandwich that I didn't have to worry about ordering. Sample a cookie from one of the trays of cookies I didn't have to cart inside.

The authors talk about plot and I take notes on my phone. I am itching to get back to work on my book. The room is bright, the windows looking out into the sunny cold. Patrons drift by, library books under the arms.

A homeless man wanders into the room and asks what this thing is about. Writers, I tell him. Where? he says. I point to the front of the room. Them? he says. I wonder what he expected.

He asks if he can have a cookie. Sure, I tell him. I give him a sandwich too. Thanks, he says and he he wanders back out of the room, smiling. 




Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Dog Days

She starts crying and shaking the minute I get her into the car. She knows what’s coming. Or she thinks she does.

The entire fifteen minute drive over and the shrieks only get louder. She does this for a normal vet visit and this one will be more than that. A couple of large skin tags under her forearms that keep snagging on her harness have to be removed today.

She shakes when we get into the exam room. When the vet and attendant come in, she pants and drools and backs up, her tail between her legs, until she's sitting on my feet. They’ll need to offer her a shot to make her woozy before they can do the procedure. Not anesthesia, they assure me. I freak out a little thinking about that. Two people I know lost dogs under general anesthesia and both for what was supposed to be a routine procedure. Teeth cleaning. Some kind of grooming.

I'm the one who has to put the muzzle on her. The attendant can’t find a vein in her leg so after much prodding and poking, she tries the other leg. Don't worry, they tell me. She’ll be sleepy right away. But she isn’t. She paces around the small room still panting. Her legs slide apart, but she rights herself. How will she ever forgive me for putting her through this?

Only a few weeks ago I held my dying cat in my arms while they injected her, her body slumping against me, and then going slack the moment the life went out of her.

Finally the dog stops panting and teeters over onto her side. The attendants carry her off and I wait alone in the small room, picking dog hair off my sweatshirt. I have been anxious all day. A dread that started when I read the headlines this morning about the growing fear of a pandemic, the stock market plummeting.

At my weekly grocery store visit I filled my cart with canned goods like people do when a storm’s coming. I am reading a book about a pandemic that kills most of the people in the world. Why would I read a book like this right now?

When my husband and I came home after putting our cat to sleep, the dog greeted us how she always does. Hops and licks and a wet touch of her nose against the back of our hands. If she was wondering where the cat was, she didn’t let on.

This morning when I unpacked the groceries, there wasn't enough room in the cabinets for all of the canned goods. The attendants carry the dog back to me. Groggy. Tongue lolling out of her mouth. She's okay, they tell me. Just sleepy.

Want to go home? I whisper, and her head jerks up. Even as out of it as she is, my voice is a voice she remembers and home is a word she knows. I carry her inside and help her onto the couch and then we both rest for a while.




Thursday, February 20, 2020

Mid February and birds sing in the trees


I walk my dog in a loop around my neighborhood, pass the flowers coming up, the houses still decorated with Christmas tree lights. One day it is fifty degrees. The next it’s twenty. The news switches back and forth between viruses and criminals.

I decide to stop reading it again.

Instead, I listen to podcasts. How Facebook spreads disinformation. Why it's okay to be addicted to caffeine. An interview with a teacher eager to take part in the Iowa caucus so she can show her students democracy in action. Now, a few weeks after that caucus fell apart, I can still hear her excited voice.

I read gardening books. I have dinner with friends. I paint the trim in my bedroom. I write the break-up scene in my rom com and wallow for a while in my characters' misery. It's okay, I want to tell them. You're going to get back together soon.

The other day a regular patron came into my library and offered the staff slices of caramel-drizzled chocolate cake. In the afternoon we had our monthly Reading with Rover program and the dogs (darling, kid-friendly, trained-as-emotional-support dogs) trotted down to the story room, pausing to let patrons pet them along the way.

It occurs to me that over the past several years I have lost faith in every institution. Government, the Church, the Media, the Law, the Police, Education, the Military. Okay, I take that back. I do still have faith in a few.

Science, Medicine and Libraries.

I can't speak for the scientists and doctors, but let me tell you some of what I did at work today:

--recommended a graphic novel for a reluctant teen reader
--helped a young couple operate the scanner so they could scan documents to apply for citizenship
--showed a man how to use his phone to download audio books
--signed up a child for her first library card
--looked up the phone number for a hospital for a patron who didn't know how to use a computer.

Oh, and here is something wonderful: Ohio is starting an Imagination Library! It's modeled after Dolly Parton's program in Tennessee, where every child from birth to five years receives a free book each month. Our library is helping get the word out, so see here to sign your child up:.



In other news, our system now offers video games for checkout and vinyl records. We're teaming up with other libraries in Central Ohio to bring Margaret Atwood to speak in the fall. We will happily print off any tax form you need.

Also, we will not turn down free chocolate cake.