Sunday, April 5, 2020

Plague Diaries, Week 3, Shelter in Place

Friday, March 27

In the alternate timeline to the one we are now living, my husband and I would be going to the car show downtown tonight. It's my annual Christmas present to him because he loves cars. I hate cars but the car show people do this silly scavenger hunt thing, and weirdly, I get into it. Anyway, the car show's cancelled.

I take the dog for multiple walks, crossing the street to keep my 6-feet of social distance from the hundreds of other people out walking in our neighborhood. Everything is closed except grocery stores and pharmacies but our governor tells us it's okay to go outside, so everyone and their mother is outside.

Speaking of my mother, I drive out to see her. We're doing a puzzle exchange and I've brought her some groceries, a few rolls of precious toilet paper. It's raining and she sits at her kitchen table and I talk to her from the doorway.

At night my husband and I order dinner from a nearby restaurant, a fried mushroom appetizer and fish tacos and wine. It almost feels like a normal Friday night.

Cases in the US: 69,120
1045 deaths
Cases in Ohio: 704
10 deaths

Saturday, March 28

I write two pages in my book and then go outside and move rocks around in the backyard. The big on-going project in our new-old house has been removing the koi pond. This seemed like an easier project in theory when I started on it last fall.

Step 1: Empty all rocks out of koi pond.
Step 2: Pull out liner.
Step 3: Push rocks back in.

But somehow we end up with more rocks than we started with?

Step 4: Put leftover rocks in driveway.

The virus is exploding in New York City. The governor of Florida is blaming New York for his state's cases. Meanwhile, he still won't close the beaches in Florida. Has this man not seen the movie Jaws? Meanwhile, trump is mad at the governor of Michigan because she won't be nice to him.

My husband and I have a virtual cocktail party with our friends in North Carolina. We sit out on the porch until it gets dark and talk about our far-flung kids, everyone safe and well for now.

Sunday, March 29

I paint the drawer handles on a dresser and think about designs for the herb garden I'm going to put where the koi pond was. Trump thinks we should open the country by Easter. The Lt. Governor of Texas says grandparents should sacrifice themselves for the good of the economy.

Here’s a funny thing going around online:

Thirty days hath September,
April, June, and November,
All the rest have thirty-one
Except March which has 8000

Cases in the US: 130,478
2314 deaths

Monday, March 30

I do a morning writers meditation with Laurie Calkhoven through the Highlights Foundation and feel amazing for about an hour. Trump says okay, maybe he won't open the country by Easter. He brags that there could have been a million deaths, but now there's only going to be one hundred or two hundred thousand.

I dig through my daughter's old beanie babies in the basement and find three bears to put in our window for the bored little kids in our neighborhood who are going on bear hunts.

Tuesday, March 31

I am addicted to watching Dr. Amy Acton, the Ohio Director of Health give her address each afternoon. She has such a calm, sweet voice even as she is giving us the bad news, that in two or three weeks, Ohio will reach our peak and 10,000 people each day will be diagnosed. She praises us for staying in and helping to push the peak out so we can get our hospitals ready for the influx. What you're doing is saving lives, she says.

I write 750 words and have another Zoom meeting with my writers group. I wear a mask and gloves to the grocery store and feel like I am living in a dystopian novel.

My husband said something to me about my anxiety as if it is strange. But how can you not be anxious right now? I ask him. People are dying alone in hospital hallways. At the same time, the mail gets delivered. We can order pizza online. I take walks in the neighborhood and people are working on their porches or riding bikes, doing lawn work. There’s always a line of cars at the Starbucks down the street. Sometimes I feel like I’m on the verge of tears.

Cases in the US: 164,435
3175 deaths
Ohio: 1933
39 deaths

Wednesday, April 1

A little girl from the class I taught at Thurber House a million years ago in February, emailed me a 50 page story she's been writing. I read it in the morning instead of reading the news and marvel at how good the writing is. Scene development, dialogue, a large cast of characters, an authorial voice. This kid is ten years old!

A writer I know who was sick in the hospital in NYC was released today. I get in a facebook argument online with a friend of a friend who insists this is just like the flu. While I'm having this argument, trump says in his daily address that he's number one on facebook.

The library where I work is closed until May 4. I have a panicky feeling thinking about growing up in a crazy household and how familiar this present anxiety feels—not knowing what’s going to happen next and feeling on guard and vigilant and just a steady level of stress with no control over anything going on. Over the past thirty years I worked to teach myself to be more trusting and feel safer. And now, here I am back to my original self, like everything in between wasn’t the real thing after all,

but This is.

Thursday, April 2

I refuse to read the news. 

I write all day. There's a scene in my book where everyone's gathered together at a restaurant and clearly not social distancing and the whole thing is making me nervous for them. 

Meanwhile in the backyard, now that the koi pond's filled in, I decide to tackle the overgrown chunk of out-of-control ornamental grass. A few weeks ago my husband sawed it down to the roots and we filled up 15 yard bags of grass. Today, I'm digging up the roots, which involves jumping up and down on a shovel. It's a good workout.

Kids in Ohio send videos of themselves dressed up like Dr. Amy Acton. A little girl builds a scene out of Legos of the daily Ohio press briefing.

My husband is growing a beard. 

My artist friend Jan Benham sends me a coloring page of a bouquet of flowers and I color it in. 

Cases in the US: 236,000
5600 deaths
Ohio: 2902
81 deaths

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?


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?


Are you going to vote in the primary?



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.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

On painting and powerpoints and psychopaths

The painting was of the master bedroom, a room I should have worked on first, because of how dark the paint was on the walls, a navy blue that might look okay in some rooms but only if there's a lot of light, and there isn't; never mind the peeling paint, the cracks.

I want something white, bright, pristine. Still, it takes a weekend just to gear myself up to start, move the furniture out, dust, vacuum. I have a million other things to do. Two school presentations to plan, five writing classes. My writing partner has a book due and she needs a last-minute proofread of her out-in-October novel Five Total Strangers, and that takes precedence over everything.

This book is good, like falling under a spell.

A page turner, but I try to read it slowly to catch mistakes. There aren't many, only a handful of typos, a dropped word here and there. The story, which I already know from numerous brainstorms and discussions, still surprises me and sucks me in. A teen girl is desperate to make it home to her mom, but a snowstorm grounds her plane. Her seatmate offers a ride and our MC pushes aside her doubts (she doesn't really know this girl; the weather is bad, there will be three others in the rental car--strangers-- and everyone is kind of weird... ) The trip goes downhill from there, everything that could ever go wrong on a car trip,

plus, a psychopathic stalker. I love books like this. Meanwhile my own book is stalling,

right on the verge of the climax. In a Rom Com, that's the break-up, and even though everything in this story has been leading to this point, now that I'm here, I'm hesitating, churning, rethinking the scene. These characters that I’ve grown to love over the past few months are about to turn on each other.

Suddenly, it all seems silly, what I’m doing, writing a book instead of painting my bedroom, instead of working on my school presentations, instead of marching in the streets. I don't know why we-- any of us-- do the things we do.

Because... it's what we do?

I send a corrected copy back to my friend, slap a second coat of paint on the bedroom walls, finish up a school presentation, take a moment to double check my voter registration, dive back into my book and watch the pretend people I love break each other's hearts.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Dark days in America and a pinprick of light

I don't want to write about the dark days, how even in this month of limited news and no social media, I know all of the details of the impeachment trial, how it's all been a foregone conclusion anyway--that some people get to do whatever they want in this country and get away with it.

Because this is too dark to contemplate. 

Instead, what I want to write about is the party I went to a few nights ago. It was a party thrown by strangers, at a place where I suspected I would know no one, except for the person who sent me the invitation (and she wasn't the host). I got lost on the way there. It was dark and the people throwing the party lived in a loopy-maze-like subdivision. Several times on the drive over, I considered going home,

because it was a week night and I'd worked all day, and I didn't know these people! Also, I forgot to mention that the party wasn't really a party party, but more of a Meet the New Candidate for District 16 in the Ohio Statehouse Senate Race kind of party. And that night, lost in the dark-loopy-maze, a party like that didn't sound like any party I wanted to attend.

Also, I had just realized that because of my recent move (a mere ten minutes away from my old house), I no longer live in District 16.

Still, I had rsvp-ed and there was the house, at last, the lights on, the people, through the windows, chattering away about a candidate that I would never be able to vote for.

I took a breath, decided I'd stay for a few minutes, write a small check, and creep back out of there and, hopefully, find my way home without getting lost again.

The first person I met in the doorway was the candidate herself. (I didn't know this and just chatted with her--she seemed nice!-- and then noticed her nametag.) I told her I wished I could vote for her and joked that I hoped I could still donate money. I could! she said. And then it was off to see if this shindig had any wine.

They did not. But they did have water in plastic cups and a nice spread of food and shuffling around the table, strangely enough, were quite a few familiar faces. The resistance in central Ohio tends to show up in the same places, I've noticed. But also, there were several regular patrons I know from my job at the library and we blinked at each other, awkwardly, in the same way my high school students and I used to when we bumped into each other at Kroger.

I ran into the woman who'd invited me and she introduced me to her friends, telling them (and reminding me) that the first time she and I met was in the office of our congressman when she cried to his aide about how her nephew was going to lose healthcare if our congressman voted against the Affordable Care Act, and the aide told us that the congressman believed that healthcare was not a right but a privilege.

What an asshole, I said, and the woman looked stricken and I realized I don't really know her so maybe I shouldn't be swearing in her face. 

Maybe this was my time to write my small check and get the hell out of here. But as I headed into the living room, I was trapped by the group of party-goers, now all settling in to listen to the candidate speak.

Her name is Crystal Lett, in case you happen to live in Ohio Statehouse Senate District 16, and she talked about how her first child was born with special needs and she had to quit her job to care for him, and part of caring for him was to spend time with insurance companies and it had worn her out but luckily there was the CHIP program (the Children's Health Insurance Program--part of Medicaid) but the president and his cronies had put it on the chopping block, so for months her child's fate and the fate of several hundred thousand other Ohio children was up in the air.

She had started speaking up about that and our Democratic senator Sherrod Brown invited her to speak in Washington and after a long battle, CHIP was restored. Crystal Lett said it was the most grueling and gratifying thing she had ever done in her life, so when Sherrod Brown asked her if she'd ever thought about running for office, she paused and then considered...

And here she was now, running in what is probably the only competitive district in the state of Ohio but energized and ready to fight for all people in our state. And then her campaign manager, who Crystal had mentioned was 23 years old, stood up and gave an impassioned speech too and by then I was sort of wishing I still lived in District 16 just so I could vote for Crystal Lett.

It occurred to me as I was writing my check in the kitchen and talking to the interns on Crystal's campaign staff that all of them were college age or just barely out and all of the people at this party were old (I count myself in the old category) but here we were all together-- the young people energized and excited to work on a campaign and the old people providing the water in plastic cups and the checks, our names on Crystal's email list and ready to be called for service in the fall, to knock on doors and write postcards and make calls.

On my way out the door I thanked Crystal for her inspiring speech and wished her luck, said goodbye to the interns and the library patrons and the new people I'd met and headed out into the dark night.

I put my home address into my gps and didn't get lost once.

Crystal Lett needs your vote in Senate District 16

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Updates from the Social Media Detox. Also a word about what's good.

Okay I cheated a few times, glancing at the news and then immediately wishing I hadn't, but no hops onto social media, except to look at an update from a group I belong to, when I noticed I had 68 notifications, which I am proud to say that I ignored.

I realized I spend a lot of time clicking on my phone out of habit, and if I'm not looking at social media, I'm looking at something else. The quality of sleep I had according to my Fitbit, or the status of my reserves on my library card, or the weather for the next five days.

To combat this ding-dong-y impulse-clicking, I've sprinkled books and magazines and reading glasses around the house (ie. the bathroom).

Which helped me read three books and listen to three more.

Also, I painted the master bedroom closet and it's so beautiful and pristine and fresh-smelling and orderly that all I want to do now is stand inside and admire it.

And I called a friend I hadn't talked to in three years and we talked for two hours and vowed never to go so long between catching up ever again.

And I organized the linen closet and binge-watched the show Fleabag, which is hilarious and brilliant and heartbreaking, and discovered a new restaurant with my husband and toured a place downtown called the Idea Foundry, where you can play around on 3-d printers and laser cutters, and I took my mother out to lunch and I wrote 8655 words on my book.

A few days ago, I did a presentation for my writing group on goals and inspiration and lost myself in the making of it-- tallying up all of the writing I'd done over the years and what did it all lead to and why have I chosen to spend my time mulling over ideas and writing draft after draft and submitting and collecting rejections and returning to my laptop to start all over again, story after story, which may or may not ever go out into the world...

After the presentation a man in the audience raised his hand and asked if I thought all of those books that never sold were any good. I think what he was implying was that if I thought the books were good, why didn't I just go ahead and publish them myself?

I stammered a little about how I'm more interested in traditional publishing than in self-publishing, but now I wished I'd tried to answer the actual question,

if I thought my books were good.

Putting aside the fact that the question is kind of snotty (I mean, yeah, I think my books are good. WTH?), it also assumes that the end result of a book, as a thing that can be sold and earn money for the author, a thing that can win awards and appear on a bestseller list--is why writers do what they do.

And maybe it IS why some writers do what they do.

It certainly is nice to have a book on a shelf, an award sticker, a royalty check, but in the end, if you're a writer, you're going to sit down again after your book is a finished thing and you're going to begin working on the next story and the next and the next.

So here's the real question:

Is this a good way to spend your time?

In this world of social media and never-ending news, a non-stop whirl of entertainment specifically designed to grab your attention and keep it, a halt in that whirl, a willful pause to sit for an hour in front of a keyboard is an act of defiance

and joy.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Snooping Tales

Two weeks-ish away from my phone, and I have found that I am listening more to the people I am with.

Also I am listening more to the people I am not with. Yes, I am talking about eavesdropping. This is an old habit of mine that I'd actually forgotten about, probably because I'd stopped doing it. Stuck in a grocery store line, during lulls in a conversation at a party, sitting alone at a restaurant-- these potential moments of boredom are when I will invariably pick up my phone.

But before I owned the dumb phone, it was prime eavesdropping time. My ears would perk up and I'd tilt my head toward whatever conversation had grabbed my interest, sometimes blatantly, apparently, because my kids used to get on me about it. It's nosy, they said. And rude.

I argued it was a good practice for being a writer-- observing human interactions, analyzing the flow of dialogue, making judgments about food selections in the grocery cart... Okay. Maybe I was being a little nosy.

And the information I gleaned didn't always lead anywhere interesting.

I couldn't help myself though. I used to write in cafes. Various Paneras. A Starbucks near the kids' school. One year I went there nearly every day right after I dropped the kids off and would park it in the same seat until it was time to pick them up.

I'd open my laptop and work on whatever I was working on. Whenever I hit a wall in my story, my mind would drift over to the political conversation the professors were having over in the comfy chair section. Or to the grandmother sitting very primly with her granddaughter, prodding the kid to do her homework and plying her with hot cocoa and cookies. The young woman curled up in the chair across from me, opening up creamer container after creamer container into her cup of ice.

I started to think of all these people as my characters. The professors were retired, I decided, and trying to remain relevant in the world, but how could they, sitting in a Starbucks all day? The grandmother was secretly annoyed at having to babysit for the granddaughter and why couldn't the kid figure out her damn homework on her own? The young woman with the creamers was beautiful and tragic-looking, always on the verge of tears. Possibly she was a college student, an artist, a bohemian type who got her inspiration from creating her own beverages.

It took me months of half watching her to realize that she was homeless and possibly mentally ill. Actually, I learned that from eavesdropping on the Starbucks clerks who were debating if it was okay for them to stop giving the woman free cups of ice into which she was emptying the (pilfered) creamer containers.

The answer, they ultimately decided, was yes. The woman ended up locking herself in the bathroom. There was a discussion about whether to call the police. The professors tsked tsked over the drama.  The prim grandmother ushered her granddaughter out quickly. I pretended to be writing, but really I was torn up.

Why couldn't they just let the woman sit around and drink her icy milk? And now that she was officially kicked out of the Starbucks, where would she go?

But over time I forgot about the woman. I forgot about my old eavesdropping habit.

Last week I went out to lunch with my husband and during a pause in our own conversation, when he picked up his phone, I started listening to the women at a nearby table. One of them was telling what sounded like a riveting story, as evidenced by her hushed tone and the other women leaning in closer to listen.

I leaned over closer to listen too. Something about a guy who'd gone to jail and who had been cheating on his wife. Money laundering was involved. Hardened criminals were coming after the guy and it was all going out of control. My husband put his phone down and tried to resume our conversation, but I shushed him. I was worried over how everything was going to turn out over at the other table.

The woman telling the story was winding down. It's crazy, she said. No kidding! I was thinking. And then one of the other women at the table said, So what channel is this show on?

Netflix, the woman said.

When my husband and I left the restaurant, I quickly caught him up on the story. What show was it? he asked me. It sounds good.

I don't know, I told him. I stopped listening.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Take my phone. Please.

The joke over the summer around my house was me misplacing my phone (a daily, sometimes, multiple-times-per-day occurrence). Whenever it happened, my daughter would sing the line from that glorious Lizzo song Where the hell's my phone?

Then we'd do the iPhone Find My iPhone search and a buzz would come from under the couch cushions or buried deep inside my purse and everyone would laugh and I'd say something like, too bad I can't glue my phone to the side of my head so I can keep track of it better, sort of like in the novel Feed, by M. T. Anderson, where people basically have their phones implanted in their brains.

(It's no joke, Mom, my son told me recently. That's totally the next step in phone technology.)

My son is also the one who told me that our dependence on our phones and on social media in general is similar to the addictive feeling we get from gambling.

I believe him. Each click on a website -- checking Likes on a post, searching for funny memes and videos -- gives us a little surge of endorphins, just enough to keep us clicking, and just enough of a charge to ignore the fact that most of what we're digesting is silly or stupid or in many cases toxic and evil. Side note: we are now, in this country, getting a real time civics lesson in how government propaganda works.

(Don't believe me? Reread the passage in 1984 where the main character is told that Qasem Soleimani has always been his country's number one enemy. Um, I mean the passage where he's told that his country has always been at war with Eastasia.)

I don't want my phone attached to my brain.

I don't want it in my hand all of the time either. How did something that didn't even exist for me ten years ago become such an addiction?

The answer goes back to the gambling thing and it's why I'm glad I don't live near a casino. But here's something funny: I do live near a casino. There's one in Columbus and I don't even know exactly where. I don't have to be a slave to my phone.

I don't have to continue to consume media passively and uncritically either.

Anyway, this month, as an experiment, I'm setting aside my phone-- for everything except it's original use: talking on it. (and okay, texting/messaging, because it is the only way my kids communicate with me). I'm also limiting my time on social media.

If you need me, call me. I promise I will answer the phone.

If I can find it.