More on the Great Shift (Plague, Day 77, May 21, 2020)

A couple of weeks ago, I started reading about the unusual way that COVID was affecting kids. Spots on the hands and feet. Blisters on the mouth and tongue. Decreased blood pressure. Fever. Today’s NYT’s Daily podcast discusses this topic.

In the beginning of March, Ian had spots on his hands and feet. The blisters on his mouth and throat that were so severe that he was hospitalized for three days. He was diagnosed with a mild form of Stevens-Johnson syndrome, a rare reaction to epilepsy medicine.

We stopped the medicine. He recovered.

But then the news about the COVID presentations in children made me wonder. Maybe he had COVID in the beginning of March. It was certainly spreading in our community at that time. So, I called the doctor, and she had him tested for antibodies.

He came back negative. No COVID antibodies. So, the epilepsy medicine was definitely the cause of his problems in early March.

Now, you would think this was good news, but it isn’t, really. It would be better for him to have COVID than to have an extreme and rare sensitivity to epilepsy medicine, which he’ll need to take for the rest of his life. Also, it means that probably none of us in the family had the disease yet.

Steve, who traveled into Manhattan on packed commuter trains every day, didn’t get it back then. Jonah, who was living in the toxic waste dump that was his off-campus college housing, didn’t have it. Ian and I, who spent are entire days in one of the nation’s hotspots for the virus, didn’t have it. Hell, we were all in the emergency room of a hospital without any PPE just a week before everything exploded in our area. None of us had it.

I suspect that outside of New York City very few people have actually been exposed and developed an immune system to combat this virus. Social distancing worked. But now that we’re lowering our guards and heading out into the world, we’re going to see some really bad shit soon.

Knowing this, my family is still lowering our guard. My college kid has to get out of the house and get a job. We have to rent a vacation house by the beach soon. Without school or college, family sanity demands some outlets.

I mean, we’re not going to start going mask-less and waving “Freedom” banners outside state capitals. Steve will be working from home until at least next January. I don’t expect that there will be any camps for Ian. But we’re making changes.

Which means that everybody is going to get really sick in September. Are we prepared for that?

And the Pendulum Swings to Open Now (Plague, Day 75, May 19, 2020)

This morning, I flipped on CNN before heading out to get some Dunkin Donuts for Ian who needs to gain a pound or two. CNN Anchor, Alisyn Camerota, grilled the Democratic Connecticut Governor about when he was going to open his state.

The Governor was on the defensive saying that hair salons and restaurants were going to open soon. Camerota said that her hair dresser is desperate to get back to work. Neither talked about the virus making people sick and dead.

If CNN anchors and Democratic politicians in the hard-hit Northeast are talking like this, the pendulum has swung. The country is going to open soon. Why?

Small business owners need to get back to work soon, before our economic situation worsens. People are sick of their children. And they are getting bored.

I was so bored this weekend that I created a list of 200 history books for people who need credibility bookshelves for the Zoom meetings. I’m selling the list as a “digital download” on my Etsy shop.

It was pretty fun to make the list. To be honest, that task, which took all Sunday afternoon, was more of a way of procrastinating, rather than boredom. I have to transcribe some interviews, which is about the most boring task possible. Having enough work is not a problem here.

Other boredom activities here include rearranging the office furniture, painting the area around the back patio, and doing a puzzle that is mostly the color blue.

We are loosening up our own protection standards here at home. Jonah is job hunting. We’re shopping at multiple stores looking for semolina flour. My extended family met up on folding chairs on the front lawn. Push up contest, anyone?

Ideally, we would all continue to stay at home until the vaccine is ready, but I don’t think people will wait that long. Teachers and college professors are holding out to their demands to stay home, but the push to get the kids out of the home will be too strong.

Predictions?

Keeping The Family Sane in Insane Times, Newsletter Excerpt (Plague, Day 71, May 15, 2020)

A bit from my newsletter. Subscribe here.

Walking into this pandemic, my son Ian, the 18-year old with high functioning autism, already had an elevated level of trauma. He was diagnosed with epilepsy in January and then had a SUPER BAD reaction to the medication, which culminated in a three-day hospital stay in the beginning of March. 
 
Ian was devastated when school closed in the second week of March. He missed the academics. Friendless kids like Ian only see other kids in their classrooms, so he had no contact with anyone his age. He missed routine. His school didn’t offer any live zoom classes for the first six weeks of the shutdown; he still only gets an hour or two of live classrooms per week. As I predicted, public schools have done a terrible job helping kids with special needs. 

His stress was compounded by a meltdown in the world — CNN was on all day — and by us at home. Panic levels were high those first weeks, as we had to get our college kid home from school, relocate office space to our home, and buy food necessities. Suddenly, there were four adults living under one roof all day. It was crazy town.
 
As a result, Ian’s OCD verbal tics — if I say “A,” he says “B” in a loud, annoying voice — were off the charts. It was difficult to be cooped up with him. Meanwhile, he was miserable and full of self-hatred for making those tics.
 
So, we regrouped. We instituted a very strict routine at home with meals at 7, 12, and 7. Family yoga is at 11:30 am every day. He takes a two-mile walk on his own at 2:00 pm. This monastic lifestyle does not come naturally to me, so it takes a lot of effort to maintain these new routines. 

Without our usual weekend amusements, we have found new outlets for fun on Saturday and Sunday, so one day didn’t merge meaninglessly into another. The schedule is looser, but still has its own patterns — we go for hikes, watch mass on tv, get a meal from a local restaurant with curbside delivery, do laundry, and work on a home project. Tomorrow, the back patio is going to get a coat of paint. 

If it was just me, I would probably write seven days a week and subsist on slabs of cheddar cheese and Triscuits, but out of necessity, we’ve all gotten sucked into Ian’s compulsive vortex of time and activities. So, now I’m taking a morning walk, doing the food shopping, managing my diet, also on a rigid schedule. I suppose it’s not terrible to be so organized, but it is a major life change, and thus, terribly exhausting. 

Exhausting and annoying it might be, but those changes worked. Ian is back to his normal self with “normal” being a highly relative term. He’s happy and stopped his strange language manipulations. What will happen when he has to go back to school? He may be too independent and eccentric by September to blend back into a mainstream setting without massive amounts of therapy and reprogramming. I am trying very hard to not lose my head about the fears for the future. 

But Ian isn’t the only one dealing with pandemic trauma. As part of the research for an article, I am talking to teachers, kids and families who are truly struggling. Jonah finished off finals this week, without the usual beer-fest reward, and now he has to come up with a new game plan for the summer, and maybe the fall. It is a huge bummer to be a college student right now.

On top of a daily routine, we’re managing to keep sane by each having our own passions/side hustles/hobbies. In my case, I am watching little cooking videos on Instagram and selling vintage books on Etsy. Steve will spend the weekend transplanting little tomatoes plants into the garden. Jonah is glued to message boards on Reddit reading about politics and sports. Ian always has a music app or a computer program on his screen.  

The longer we stay at home away from schools and workplaces and extended family and bars and restaurants, the crazier we all get. Our nation will have to heal when this is all done.

But maybe the healing process won’t involve therapists and yoga mats. Maybe we’ll see a new Jazz Age with free flowing gin or a new Woodstock period of long hair and drugs. Freed from the boring paths that we had set up for them for a few months ago with AP classes and SATs and internships and degrees from good schools — all that doesn’t matter any more — maybe our kids will chart their own ships to more exciting places. 

So, at the end of this, we’ll either be crazy or free. Not sure how it’s going to pan out. 

Be well!

Laura

Monastic Life (Plague, Day 68, May 12, 2020)

As we move into the second month of the shutdown and social distancing, our daily routines around work, exercise, and food are becoming more and more rigid. We’re more independent from schools and jobs. Steve’s hair is growing to Cast Away lengths. Zoom happy hours with friends have lost their novelty, so we’re losing contact with the outside world.

In an effort to undo the first few weeks of breads, baking, and cocktail hours of this pandemic, I have been logging every morsel into an iPhone app, Noom. And that, too, has lead to more rigidity. Oatmeal and banana for breakfast. Whole grain bread and deli meat for lunch. Apple and tea and one cookie for afternoon snack. and so on.

My reading habits are largely driven by the sale section at the iBooks book store. I like cheap books. A couple of weeks ago, I downloaded Pillars of the Earth, a novel set in 12-century England. One of the main characters is a Benedictine monk, and the author provides rich descriptions of monastic life.

Our lives do feel very monastic at the moment. Oatmeal and grainy bread. Everybody spends hours industriously on individual computers screens. With vows of silence, the only noise comes from the tv which is permanent set on CNN.

While there is something zen about this simple life, it doesn’t feel terribly healthy either. I live in a densely packed area of the country with lots of friends and family. I am blessed to normally have an abundance of opportunities for amusements and social life. We’re not built for this spartan lifestyle. So, we’re trying to find a way to make our weekends a little less monk-like.

This weekend, Steve, Ian, and I drove into New York City to visit a Fort Tryon Park, which surrounds The Cloisters, a museum composed of ancient European monasteries. Yes, monks again. It was our first trip into Manhattan in two months. The park was bursting with flowers and life. Even though I lived a block away from that park for 14 years, the masked people made the place foreign. It was unsettling.

Right now, as I’m typing, the Senate is talking to Anthony Fauci about his views about opening up society. He fears a fall outbreak. Will schools and college open up this fall? Will Steve go back to work? A vaccine may be a year or two away.

How long can you keep this up? Are you all doing okay?

Learning to Weather the Storm (Plague, Day 65, May 9, 2020)

Every morning around 7:30 or 8:00, I throw on a particularly thick Rutgers hoodie and a well-worn pair of sneakers. I hook up my wireless earbuds and tune into The Daily podcast on Spotify. Then I go out for a mile walk. It’s nothing ambitious. Just takes me about 30 minutes. But it gives me a little alone time, away from the other inmates in this asylum.

I have been religious about this walk for the past month. I head out in rain and during unexpected cold snaps, like today. Just a couple of months ago, I avoided bad weather being rather wimpy about shivering. There were spin classes at the gym and trips to the museum or the mall to keep me amused and exercised. Now, I have no choice but to deal with the damp and the cold.

I have made friends with bad weather, which makes me feel very rugged indeed. This morning it was 35 degrees and with a brisk breeze when I headed out. I listened to an interview with Rick Steves and thought about Facebook, my current writing project, and various plans to keep Ian amused today.

***

For some reason, all the smoking bathroom kids who scared the shit out of me in high school, have friended me on Facebook. I’m finally popular! Woot! Anyway, they’re all talking about how vaccines cause COVID. Turns out, they still scare me.

I am starting to see other conspiracy theories floating around social media. There are some people think that Bill Gates has released this virus to take over schools and our lives, and make a bazillion dollars in the process.

I am not sure what to do about it. Should I face down these semi-strangers on social media and force them to stop spouting their crazy ideas? Or do I have compassion? They are clearly desperate and sad individuals, so maybe I should let them cling to their ideas. It’s probably a waste of my time to convince them that they are wrong, so I won’t. But I might unfriend them, so they don’t depress me with their stupidity.

Steve’s theory is that the Enlightenment has always had a fragile hold on our society. This pandemic, if the pain goes on for a long time, could unleash all those people who never trusted science and ideas. In former lives, these people were witch burners and phrenologists. They’re highly dangerous and more numerous than we realize.

If that’s the case, then I shouldn’t unfriend them and allow the Conspiracy Virus to spread unchecked. The Conspiracy Virus is just as dangerous as the virus that makes us cough.

Can We Ever Go Back? (Plague, Day 63, May 7, April 2020)

I was talking with an ESL teacher earlier in the week. By all accounts, she is an extraordinarily devoted teacher, so I really appreciated her insights.

As we chatted, she wondered how her students were faring with the lack of school. She said this situation was permanently changing us. She said she couldn’t imagine how we would ever go back.

As Donald Trump and the governors talk about opening up businesses and society again, I talk to teachers and observe board of ed meetings every day, and I’m hearing a completely different story. Schools aren’t anticipating going back to normal months from now. They have no idea how they will be able to open schools safety in September — five months from now.

They are talking through various plans, like social distancing students in the classroom, which would mean that they would need double the amount of classroom space. Maybe only half the students will attend school at the same time. Since teachers couldn’t simultaneously teach regular school and Zoom classes, that would probably mean that students would only be educated part time.

They have no idea how they’ll educate students who have regressed by a full year. They have no idea how they’ll provide special education services. They have no idea how they’ll keep older teachers safe.

Individual schools sit around waiting for some guidance from the state about how they are supposed to be managing the situation RIGHT NOW, and they aren’t getting any help. Everybody is out on their own. A few schools are making things work, but most aren’t.

Schools have been duct taped together this spring, but things are slowly falling apart.

Most parents have given their schools a pass so far. Their biggest concerns have been matters like the prom and graduation, but the rumbles of discontent, particularly among parents with younger kids, are growing louder.

I have no idea where we are going. Will an edTech company, like the Khan Academy, step into the void? Will parents revolt? Will there be a mass exit of the most educated parents? What is going to be the long term impact on the most vulnerable students? Will teachers strike if they are forced back into schools this fall?

As scientists warn that we are only in the second inning in dealing with the pandemic, we are also only in the second inning in rebuilding various government functions, like public education, public college, and transportation. Private businesses can just open their doors, but until the schools are back in order, they won’t have any workers or customers.

Gossip and the News (Plague, Day 62, May 6, 2020)

As life… and death… chug along during this strange period, I find that I get my information from two sources — from gossip from friends and from the news. Now that I’m back to working on an article, I’m also getting information from various strangers who share their own gossip.

It will be years before the gossip is put together with concrete scientific research to flesh out the big picture. Each of us is experiencing this pandemic differently. Everybody has their stories right now, and not enough people are bringing those stories together to stitch together the big picture. Just as we need them the most, journalists are being furloughed or are sidelined with childcare responsibilities.

I think going forward, I’m going to use my daily diary posts on this blog to share the gossip, and I’ll follow up with links to the best journalism of the day. So what gossip can I share today?

****

One of my best friends got the virus last month. She’s out on Long Island, so she probably had the bad New York variety of the virus. You don’t want to get this. She was out of commission for two weeks; it is taking a long time to get her lung capacity back to normal. Her teenager daughters had mild cases. But weirdly, her overweight, asthmatic husband never felt ill.

She got the antibody test last week. She was told that her antibody test was one of the good ones, with a high validity rate. The test found that indeed she and her daughters had the antibodies, but her husband, who lived in the same house with all the sickness, did not.

In some ways, this was good news. Her daughters can get jobs over the summer, which will be good for family harmony. But they’ll bring in the virus into the house every evening and could infect their vulnerable dad. Theoretically, they could walk around in public without masks, but there is no system in place yet to identify who is safe and who isn’t. Going forward, government is going to have to figure out that.

***

Even as we hear more and more about states opening up, teachers and administrators tell me that they are nowhere close to opening up schools and colleges. Without camps, nursery schools, and elementary schools, the economy can’t open.

I’m also hearing lots of confusion by administrators about how they will open schools in September. These plans are particularly murky for classrooms with more intensely disabled children, who require lots of physical contact.

Each school is coming up with their own plans for the fall, just as they have done all along. The diversity of methods for handling this pandemic is truly amazing. The lack of centralized planning for educating kids has been stark.

If we are really going to have to reinvent education going forward, as Bill Gates and Andrew Cuomo discussed, centralization will have to be a big part of any plan.

Gates has tried to revolutionize education before, but hit major resistance from both the unions and conservatives. Neither have had a big voice during this pandemic, so this might be the right time for Gates.

***

We made a truly great meal for Cinco de Mayo yesterday. Steve made pulled pork in the InstaPot. His pork cooked in a mixture of beer and orange juice. I made jalapeño poppers, beans, and guacamole. A couple of friends joined me for a socially distant glass of wine before dinner.