Here we are at the end of March, and who could have guessed how quickly and dramatically our everyday lives would change even just 3 or 4 weeks ago? As the new year began, I’d made plans to travel to Italy over Spring Break, leaving on March 7 to work with colleagues at Mt. Vesuvius on a new study of volcanic risk perception. However, by early February, I was feeling too stressed by my upcoming retirement and move out of California to even think about going abroad for almost two weeks. In a move that surprised even myself, I reluctantly informed my Italian colleagues that I wouldn’t be able to come over as we’d planned. Never would I have imagined passing up an opportunity to go to Italy, but I really do have an awful lot on my plate.
As a consolation prize. I decided to go back to Massachusetts for Spring break and while there, to attend the Eastern Psychological Association conference in Boston, so it would be a combined business and pleasure trip. Of course, as Spring Break drew closer, reports about the coronavirus were starting to make headlines, and I watched in horror what was starting to happen in Italy. Colleagues from my university who were also going to Boston for the conference decided they were too worried about traveling at this time and cancelled their plans. I forged ahead, but as luck would have it, I came down with a cold or the flu just a few days prior to leaving. I knew it was not coronavirus; there had only been a couple of cases in California at that time, but as is typical at this time of year, my classes that week sounded like a tuberculosis ward with students coughing and sneezing their way through their midterm exams.
I flew to Boston on a red-eye flight on March 6. The airport was pleasantly uncrowded, as was the plane. I had an entire exit row all to myself. I felt lousy and was self-conscious every time I coughed. I tried to sleep, but the cabin was cold, and I could not get comfortable. It was a long night and I was dragging by the time I arrived in Boston. I got my rental car and headed into the city to meet my friend Carol for our usual day of fun: pastry and coffee at a bakery called Tatte, a movie, and a late lunch. But over coffee I realized I was really not up for anything. Carol said she had never seen me look so bad, and between feeling cruddy and the disappointment that was taking over as I realized my long awaited day of fun was not going as I planned, I could barely smile or converse. After about 20 minutes I told her to go off on her own and enjoy her day, while I arranged an early check in at my hotel. I got there at noon, slept for 5 hours, ran out for some take-out food, and went back to bed for another 17 hours.
The rest did me good, and I felt a lot better on Sunday, though my cough would follow me for the next two weeks. I saw some dear friends on Sunday and spent a relaxing day on Monday walking on the beach and resting at the small cabin in the woods that I rent often when I am home.
Every once in a while I’d turn on the news to hear the latest, ominous news about the virus. One night I found myself sitting up till the wee hours of the morning, unable to sleep. What did I find on TV but the Will Smith film, I Am Legend. It is a remake of the 1960s film Omega Man with Charlton Heston, a movie I saw as a kid that gave me nightmares for decades. Of course, the plot of the film involves a deadly pandemic striking the world, and those who die become vampire-like creatures that stalk the seeming lone survivor. I watched for a while, but too creeped out, I switched over to AMC and started watching a marathon of Fear the Walking Dead, a spin-off of The Walking Dead. For those who are not fans, these shows share the premise that a plague kills millions of people and they then re-animate as zombies. I mused that I should have brought along my copy of Stephen King’s The Stand, a story about a super-flu that kills millions, leaving survivors drawn to follow either an angelic old woman in Colorado or a demonic young man who leads his people from Las Vegas. If I’d brought the DVD with me I could have completed the “deadly virus trifecta”! If nothing else, my epidemic-thon made coronavirus seem not quite so bad. I had yet to hear about anyone re-animating as a vampire or a zombie, and I know that if that were to happen, our sensation-seeking media would certainly have told us by now!
On Tuesday I got word that my conference had been canceled because of fears of the virus. I was able to cancel two of the three nights I was spending in Boston during the conference, but could not get a refund on the third night with such short notice, so I spent one night at the Sheraton Boston on the 25th floor with a stunning view of Boston’s Back Bay and the Charles River. it was nice to be in the city for a night and I had some great Italian food and a relaxing soak in the hotel’s indoor pool.
Another day I went up to Maine and New Hampshire for an overnight. In the hotel one night, a woman who’d been smoking out in the parking lot came back in and got into the elevator with me. She was extremely drunk and disheveled and as she exited the elevator at her floor, she wished me “Happy apocalypse!” I swear that was a scene from The Stand.
It was rather rainy and cold up there, and people were beginning to shy away from eating out. I discovered a wonderful and reasonably priced local chain called the Lobster Boat and ordered a lobster roll and some fresh, healthy, perfectly cooked and seasoned broccoli as a side. I got them to go, drove out to the beach and enjoyed a delicious lunch as I stared out at the stormy Atlantic. I had a few more meals out with various friends and family while I was back in Massachusetts, so felt like I’d at least managed to salvage some good times from what had been a tumultuous week.
As the weekend approached, I began to get nervous about my return flight to San Francisco on Sunday. I was starting to hear rumors that they were screening people at the airports and that San Francisco International was a madhouse, with hours long waits to be screened and released. It turned out that this was only applicable to international flights. Boston’s Logan Airport was quiet and hassle-free, my flight was again half full and I had an entire exit row to myself, and I arrived at 12:30AM.
Because rumors of food shortages were making the news, I planned to head straight from the airport to an all-night supermarket, but I tried three of them and all were on reduced hours. I decided to head home, sleep for 4 hours and then showed up at my local Safeway grocery store when it opened at 6AM. The lot was already full and there was not a shopping cart to be had. I grabbed two baskets and decided I would fill them until I couldn’t carry anything more. There was of course no toilet paper, and no bread or eggs. The dairy case was almost cleaned out, and I snagged the only thing left: a half gallon of lactose free, low-fat chocolate milk! Desperate times call for desperate measures and it actually tasted pretty good on my cereal! I waited in the check-out line for almost an hour, as the line stretched from the registers to a side wall, up an aisle to the back of the store, and back down another aisle to the front of the store. It was amazing.
Later in the day I hit three more markets, finding regular milk and bread at one, eggs at another, and toilet paper! I had enough meat, fruit and vegetables to last a week or so. My timing was good, because that afternoon the counties around San Francisco gave a “shelter in place” order. We are allowed to go to grocery stores and pharmacies, to get take-out food from restaurants that are still open, and can go walking in parks or at the beach as long as we maintain at least 6 feet distance from others. I also got word from my University that we would be closed all week and would begin trying to offer our classes online starting the following week.
All of that was almost two weeks ago now, and ever since it’s been a surreal blur of spending hours upon hours to restructure my classes and learn the technology to be able to teach online, checking in with friends and family across the country, as well as in Italy and France, and somehow trying to keep my own spirits up.
As for teaching, it feels like I’m designing new classes totally from scratch. I have had to totally revamp the class schedules and requirements because we’ve lost a lot of time already and because things cannot be done in the same way now. I’m trying to arrange to have guest speakers who were to visit one of my classes do their visit via online chat and am delivering lectures online as well. This is a special challenge, trying to ensure that the camera and microphone are working properly and trying not to throw the laptop across the room when it freezes for 30 minutes at a time because it can’t handle the software I’m using. When I am lecturing online I try to pay attention to students’ expressions and reactions and be alert for raised hands, but I have to balance that with referring to my lecture notes on the same screen. Often, when I need to scroll down to the next page in my notes, I find that I have instead zipped down another 20 pages in my notes, and then have to find my way back to where I left off. At these moments I’m again tempted to throw the laptop across the room. Meanwhile I’m fielding dozens of e-mails a day from students and colleagues, all of whom have good questions, but I feel as if I am making up all the answers as I go along.
We heard from the administration that online instruction will continue for the remaining 6 weeks of this semester, and that graduation is cancelled. If I am being honest, I can’t say I am sad about that, as graduation for the faculty is one of the most painful events of the entire academic year. They pack us in like sardines on unbelievably uncomfortable metal chairs that make a middle seat in the Economy section of a a plane seem luxurious! Faculty are seated on stage behind the speaker’s podium facing the students, but strangely, all of the speakers are turned toward the students, so what we hear back in our area sounds like a really bad speaker at the drive-thru of a fast food restaurant. It’s impossible to understand anything the speakers are saying, so I sit there wrestling with claustrophobia, my ears ringing from the deafening applause and screaming of the students and their families and pray that the three hours will end quickly.
That being said, I feel so bad for the graduating seniors, many of whom are in my classes. What a letdown this must be after years of hard work. Some of them have shared with me how discouraged they feel, and one of my favorite students, Ellie, who has been a work-study student in our department for the past four years said, “I can’t believe that after all this time, I may never see any of you in the department again in person.” It is hard to fathom.
It is also a strange way to end my 27 year career at my university. Three separate end-of- -the-year parties/retirement celebrations have been canceled. The thought that when I walked out of a class the week before Spring Break was perhaps the last time I’ll step foot in the classroom is incomprehensible. Meanwhile I have an office packed with 27 years of accumulated stuff that must be sorted through and thrown out, but we are banned from coming to campus unless we get special permission from the Vice President and security. I got permission to go as long as no one else will be in the area when I do, but I will need days to sort through everything.
I’m grateful that all of my friends across the country are safe, though some have lost their jobs and others are having to work harder than ever to figure out how to work from home. My heart breaks for what Italy has gone through, but thankfully all of my friends there are fine, though some have family members who were hospitalized with the virus. Some of the most touching moments during this crisis have been watching videos of the flash-mobs of Italians (and people in other countries now too) who gather at certain times of day on their balconies or in their windows and sing and play music together. It’s beautiful and it has moved me to tears.
I’m lucky to live in a very private apartment with a wonderful view out over the city and the bay. If one must be in “prison”, it’s a very nice cell. Other than the grocery store and one trip to a laundromat, my only recreation has been to go to the beach that I love about 10 miles south of the city in Pacifica. There I can walk the length of the beach, find a solitary patch of sand and a warm rock to lean on, and bask in the sun as I listen to Hawaiian or Italian music on my headphones and dream about these places that I love and miss so much.
I’ll admit that I am feeling pretty isolated, even though I am typically content with living alone. It is hard to have no one to really go through this with, I’ve tried to turn to social media like Facebook, but I’ve found that there are still people out there who will use any and every excuse to try and start a political fight or focus on the negative, and I simply cannot go there or wallow in it. I posted a photo the other day from the beach with the caption, “Fridge is stocked, managed to do a load of laundry, and now having a walk on the beach… feeling grateful.” Someone from my university – who had never once ever commented on anything I have ever posted – swooped out of nowhere and pointed out that although I was grateful, the homeless in San Francisco are NOT doing well right now. It seemed to come completely out of left field. I replied that the homeless have not been doing well in San Francisco for over a decade, how appalling that is, and how our city’s leaders inexplicably seem not to care. That just added fuel to the fire, and I got so frustrated that I simply deleted the entire post and am maintaining radio silence for a while.
So this is how I am surviving the “apocalypse” – doing the best I can and grateful that I don’t have to contend with zombies or vampire creatures, or Satan taking over Las Vegas as the protagonists in those end-of-the-world disaster/horror films do.
I hope all of you reading this are safe and well. Feel free to post comments to let me and others know how things are from wherever you are. Take care.