I’m Sick of This. Fortunately.

Dear Will:

I am so sick of this.

We are entering Week Whatever of quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and I’ve had enough. Every day looks like the one before it: Get up. Walk the dog. Stare at a computer screen for nine or ten hours. Scrounge up some dinner. Watch something. Read something. Go to bed. Some nights we order take-out. Woo hoo.

What I wouldn’t give for a hot meal prepared by a real chef, eaten on an actual plate in a corner booth, maybe with some live music thrown in. I want to go to the theater, like we used to. Maybe catch a movie. Go to a game. It’s gotten so bad that the highlight of the week has become the weekly trip to the grocery store. It’s just about the only reason I have to get in my car. But to do that I have to strap on a mask and snap on some rubber gloves. I look like a scrawnier and somewhat less malevolent version of that bad guy in The Dark Knight Rises.

I play along, but never with enthusiasm. Only learning more about this strain of the coronavirus has kept me from defying local restrictions in protest. Even though I have multiple relatives who are medical professionals, I’m not dumb enough to think that their training somehow suggests that I have a natural instinct for these things, so I’ve turned to those with unique expertise to help me understand how this virus spreads or how best to mitigate its impact on society. In the early days of this crisis, this simulation helped me grasp the unambiguous power of social distancing. And this post from Dr. Erin Bromage, an immunologist from UMass Dartmouth, gave me much better insight into how COVID-19 spreads from person to person.

In my eagerness to get back to the life I prefer, I found one of Dr. Bromage’s examples particularly sobering. He describes an actual case in which an asymptomatic person (someone not too different from me, I suppose) had dinner with nine friends at a restaurant. Unfortunately, that person was an unwitting carrier of the coronavirus. Within a week, roughly half of the people at the infected person’s table had become sick, along with five others at adjacent tables. As I read that, I thought: “Wow. I wouldn’t want to be that guy.”

I am thrilled by recent announcements that some of the restrictions where I live are beginning to loosen. Even so, I can see why gathering with a couple of hundred friends at church for hugs and hymns might still be one of the worst ideas around. But gathering with a dozen or so in someone’s backyard might be just the thing I need right now to satisfy my growing desire for fellowship and collective worship. By all means, let’s take some baby steps. But let’s make sure they’re in the right direction.

Something my brother-in-law shared with me a few weeks ago continues to reverberate in my quarantined brain. That he’s a doctor merely adds gravitas to an already persuasive idea. “Don’t change your behavior to avoid getting sick,” he told me. “Assume that you’re already sick, and change your behavior to avoid infecting others.” When I start to feel like I’ve had about as much mask-wearing as I can take, his words compel me to put one on anyway.

This idea—that “I’m not doing this for myself; I’m doing it for others”—is at the heart of the aggressive precautions advocated by epidemiologists. It’s not a question of “rights” but of what’s right. As a Christian, I have always believed that at the heart of Jesus’s teachings is the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you; or in scriptural language, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” It is a universal ideal, as Jewish and Buddhist and Hindu and Islamic as it is Christian. It is an expression of our best selves, woven into the very fabric of civil society. Do I like working from home? Not really. Do I enjoy wearing rubber gloves at Albertsons? No way. But am I willing to do it? For you? Absolutely. And I’m inexpressibly grateful to all of those taking similar precautions to keep me and my family from coming down with COVID-19.

I guess what I’m saying is that, sure, I’m sick of this. But even more, I’m grateful not to be sick of that.


This One’s Going to Leave a Mark


Dear Will:

This is a little embarrassing to share, but we’re friends so I figure, what the heck. Several years ago my daughter and I went for a hike during which I made the ill-advised decision to try to walk on top of a manzanita shrub. (I know.) When the inevitable face-plant followed, I arose with various scrapes and bruises along with an impressive puncture wound near my left armpit. I still have the scar.

Over here on my right forearm you’ll find another self-inflicted malformation from when I was five or six and got too close while my mother was doing the ironing. And this one here on my knee came from a spill I took a couple of years later on the day we moved into our new house in Redlands. The neighbors lived atop a hill at the end of a long driveway. If you were seven and saw a steep driveway like that one, you’d just have to run down it, wouldn’t you? Well, wouldn’t you?

This one on my toe is the result of an unfortunate encounter with a palm tree during a Wiffle ball game in the backyard of that same house in Redlands. Then there’s this stripe on my leg left by the branch of a different tree that sliced me as I was scrambling off-trail while working at Camp Round Meadow near Barton Flats. On two fingers of my right hand you’ll also find evidence of a mopping accident in the camp mess hall. These twin smears on my shins? Don’t ask. Please.

If you must, ask about the most glorious scar of all, here on top of my bald head, the result of a fractured skull in the second grade. The contours of that one include two indentations from where the surgeon put in screws to pop the bone back into place—like he was repairing the fender of our old Country Squire station wagon. (If you were sitting with me right now I would take your hand and show you. Seriously. This is one cool scar.)

Then there’s my midsection, covered with gashes that aren’t nearly as cool as that one and that I would never make you touch: five from the robotic procedure to remove my prostate, a long horizontal number from the emergency surgery that followed, and the newest member of the gut-scar family (still healing) from hernia repair earlier this month. No wonder I am never asked to appear shirtless on the cover of Men’s Health magazine: My belly now resembles the misshapen end of a russet potato.

I’m sure your body is similarly riddled with similar blemishes, each one with its own history. Often they provide endless hours of tale-telling as we share their legends in great, exaggerated, self-deprecating detail with anyone willing to be regaled. More importantly, they are evidence of having lived (and, sometimes, of having nearly died). They are reminders of pain that has subsided and wounds that have healed. And they are proof that, whatever caused the bleeding, we got through it.

And so I sit here in my daughter’s bedroom, staring at my hard-earned deformities, most incurred many years ago. I’m working from home like the rest of you, already impatient with social distancing, only a couple of weeks into the statewide lockdown over the coronavirus. With schools closed, businesses shuttered, and events canceled, it occurs to me that you don’t have to be among the hundreds of thousands infected to know that this one too is going to leave a mark.

But what kind of mark? Much of what ensues in the weeks ahead I will have no control over, but some of it I will. What will I do, for example, with the three hours a day I am NOT commuting? When I look back on this crisis years from now, will my narrative include dim recollections of mindless video streaming? Dozens of hours of computer solitaire? Or will it include the thing I built, the story I wrote, the project I finally got around to? Will I describe the bonus time I enjoyed with my wife and children? The afternoon I finagled a volunteer shift at the local food bank? How I over-tipped at the take-out window? How I overcame my nervousness to donate a pint of much-needed blood?

I do not know—not yet, anyway. But of this I am certain: These wounds will heal. There will be a scar. And that scar will tell a story.