Allergies in the Age of Covid-19


I am fortunate. I live on four acres with trails and gardens, and I have a peaceful walk to the river and the bay. I can be outside from sunrise to sunset without ever seeing anybody, and I can wander at will to watch the eagles trade calls with the osprey, watch the fishing boats out toward the mouth of the river, and I can breathe deep and feel about as healthy as one can possibly feel.

Well, except for my stuffy nose, my fatigue, and my headaches, which have come to stay for a while as they do every year about this time if I don’t medicate just a little and shower a lot. It’s a bit unnerving having allergies which bring on headaches and fatigue the same time as the appearance of the Coronavirus known for some of those same symptoms.

But I tolerate the meds (or, more commonly the last few years, a lot of green tea) for the sake of such beauty. Living in the country has the benefits I’ve long touted on this page, especially in Spring. The buds on the oaks are changing the tone of the sky from dark blue to a hazy blue with speckles of green, interrupted only by the white blossoms on the apple trees a few feet closer. The daffodils have come and gone but the tulips are pushing through now, and the azaleas are ready to explode.

The white flowers on the laurel bushes are still a month off, but between now and then the honeysuckle will fill the woods from here to the river, and the early wheat across the fields will be knee high. I’ve not yet planted the garden; not going anywhere has interrupted my normal routine just a bit, but I have seeds inside I’m ready to sow so they will break ground or perhaps even blossom by the time we can interact with each other again.

It is Spring, and the rains from the west combined with the bay breezes have awakened every aspect of life, from the bees which I saw again this week, to the Carolina wrens headed back north, to the return of the osprey in the marsh where eagles have nested most of the winter. The farmer across the way will drive his tractors and thrashers and slow us down on the main road as I try and head to the village. He’ll pull into a field to let a row of cars by as he gives a small wave. I most likely would have seen him at The Galley in a few days if the Galley was open for anything other than take out.

The river is changing as well, turning to her normal choppiness this time of year as the March winds wake up the waves clear across the reach so that sculling to Windmill point is, well, pointless. But the breezes, oh they are soft again, and warm, with a touch of salt and the fragrances of goldenrod which, anyway, has turned my dark grey car yellow, the site of which ironically calms my nerves when I wonder if my headache and my fatigue are allergies or, you know….(insert a whisper here)…covid-19.

A quick shower clears away the coating and I can breathe again and have energy again and feel excellent, awakening in me the realization that this time of year I nearly always quarantine myself anyway. Problem is, of course, at my age, I’m only looking at so many more Springs, maybe two decades if genetics stays true. That’s just one score of springs and a few odd years before the allergies alone can cause havoc with my respiratory system.

A quick review of this short dirge seems on the surface to indicate some depressing thoughts until now, but that’s only half true. I don’t sit around and count how many seasons I have until I’m eighty, if I ever am eighty. I really don’t. In the normal doings of life it never crosses my mind. But the news, well, the news has been gray at best, and it doesn’t take much for me to ease down that slippery slope of understanding time’s limitations.

I prefer to think of such an acute awareness of how many Spring’s I have left in me like I do the proctor at a timed exam. She might glance at the clock every once in awhile and call out, “Thirty more minutes,” and everyone looks at the clock in unison and everyone takes a deep breathe, lets out a whisper of a curse, and presses down just a bit harder with the pencil, scribbling a bit faster. I don’t mind the warnings, the head’s up. They awaken in me just enough anxiety to appreciate better the weeding I need to do in the rose garden running along the woods behind the house, or thinking about my ambition to rake away the leaves running along the four hundred foot driveway to plant bulbs and wildflowers, which anyway won’t bloom this year, but soon.

But I’m only out in this wilderness because I can return to town, sit and have a drink with friends, laugh, touch each other’s arms when we tell a story, give a hug to those I haven’t seen in some time. That’s life—that contact, that human touch. Even Thoreau ate dinner at Ralph Emerson’s place on occasion. I’m going for a hike through the woods and then to beachcomb for a bit. I wade calf-deep and then slip the flip flops back on and walk the hill to the house, maybe call a friend who anyway is probably out on a hike as well. We are never alone in this being alone, as Gordon Sumner once wrote. Nor do I ever want to be.


I so late.


My entire life I’ve been running behind. I figured out quite late how to plan ahead financially, professionally, and even emotionally; long after everyone else I grew up with. I am the one who always thinks of just the right words to say only after the situation is over. And I’ve objected throughout my life to changes in plans only to completely agree later, after I’ve thought it through more.

I’m not good at so much of what is necessary to maintain a normal life. A significant slice of my brain still thinks I’m in my twenties, ready to start anew, chase some other dream. Another portion of my cerebral pie is still in its teens, excited about a hike through the woods, wondering if any of my friends on the old block are still interested in a long walk along the creeks of Heckscher State Park on the Island. And still another remains the hopeless romantic, surviving crisis after crisis throughout this narrative just knowing that when we get to the climax, it’ll all turn out just fine.

I’ve mastered the art of self-deception. I’m the proverbial creator of castles in the air, and I’ve convinced myself I’m not too old to build foundations under them. My justification for such quixotic approaches to things is how well it has worked for me thus far. I’ve had my share of living, of adventures, of trunks filled with experiences that have filled dozens of journals from Africa to Russia to Mexico to Norway. I’ve done the professor thing. I’ve built the house in the country near the water and raised a fine, fine son. The old Zen stuff I learned in my teens in the seventies panned out—visualize and follow through. I’ve been best friends with adventurers, artists, musicians, writers, soldiers, homeless, and drunkards.

And I’ve been lucky enough to have older siblings who are two of my heroes; two people who I not only look up too, but who have inspired me more than I can appropriately write about; my parents, too, were examples—in all, four people around me all the time, all raising me to some degree, and still, their lessons I learned far too late. I’m not complaining—just the opposite, my God, I’ve had the chance to live more lives than I ever imagined possible when I was young. What a pilgrimage it has been so far.

But (there’s always a “but”). I was at a meeting many years ago and the division chair had asked us all to tell ten of our own accomplishments—not school related—that no one there would possibly know about. My turn came and I mentioned some things I was proud of, and secretly as I read the list, I thought two things simultaneously. One part of me was thinking, Wow, I’ve had some really great opportunities. But the other part of me was thinking, I’ve spent more of my years not doing things than I ever spent doing things. I feel like I’m still trying to figure out what to do with my life.

There is good reason for thinking that second thought, about how I was “not” doing things, because I was, in fact, doing a lot: I had a young family, I finally had a career, a mortgage, and a job that afforded me chances to do so much of what I wanted. But there was always something missing, something I always felt like everyone else knew about for themselves a decade or two before me, but I just couldn’t put my finger on it, like it was always just out of reach. Everyone I knew seemed to feel settled, like they had found for themselves exactly, I mean exactly, where they should be and what they should be doing. I could see it in their enthusiastic attitudes, in their engaged eyes, in their unrestrained energy for their work, and I just figured I’d come to that attitude late, like I always have, but it never showed up. I thought maybe I’d find it in one of the two dozen trips through the years to Russia or Prague or Amsterdam, or if I wrote it through enough, I’d find it in one of my stories. Well, as another influence in my life, Jackson Browne, once wrote, “I can’t help feeling I’m just a day away from where I ought to be.”  Yes.

Then came this allusive Covid-19, a phrase which has suddenly entered our lexicon without any warning or slow introduction at all. Just “Bam! Covid-19!” And we have been told to isolate as much as possible. We’ve not yet been given the order here in Virginia to stay in place, but when we are, well to be honest, nothing’s going to change much around here. The property alone is huge with trails and a wrap around porch and a patio where I spend much of my time doing work. The river is right here, and it leads directly into the Chesapeake Bay. The village is sparse so that pubs are still open for people who, sitting far apart, can relax on the deck and have a drink. Like always. Nothing here has changed much. My daily walks are still my walks daily, and I still never see a soul while doing so.

So last night I sat at the desk about 3:30 in the morning and read some rough drafts of my work and had an urge to go online and plan some trip; maybe drive to see a friend in Ohio, or head to Florida or New England. I’ve had a burning desire to hike the paths on Antelope Island or have lamb at Peklo in Prague. Yes, I’d apply for some grant like I have so many times before, and I’d just go, and I’d write about it.

But we all now find ourselves in this precarious position of not being able to do what we could so easily do just days ago. We’ve been told to isolate. Down in the city it seems these days that just going to the store is dangerous, making us reevaluate how important that bag of chips really is after all. Now all around the world people are staying in place, like it was a massive game of “Red Light” and God suddenly screamed “STOP!”

It is one thing to blame our inaction on lack of finances or being too busy at work and it is another thing altogether to have immobility thrust upon us, to be told any plans we may have had must be cancelled or, at the very least, postponed.

I despise postponing anything, but in particular, life. There isn’t that much of it to begin with for the youngest of us; and there certainly isn’t that much left for the healthiest of us. So postponing and “waiting it out” contradicts everything believed in by those of us who want to empty the tank before we end this mortal ride.

Now’s a good time to think about this. I wasn’t doing anything anyway. So I stayed up late, or got up early, I forget, it was 3:30 am and I was tired, but I was up and I thought about it and I came to a fine realization, an absolutely perfect epiphany: It is the searching I am after; it is the “looking” I look for. Even Don Quixote isn’t trying to slay any windmills; it is the pursuit which draws him. I have learned after so many years and so many miles that it is the absorption of life on the road, the cultures, the laughter with others that is my livelihood. There isn’t anything in the journals I was ever actually after; it was having something to write about at all that mattered.

We are always faced with the ancient and abstract question, “What do you do for a living?” Well, for a paycheck I teach college. For a “living”??? Well, for a living I have celebrated Victory Day with World War Two vets in Russia on the 50th and 60th anniversary; I walked across a frozen lake in the Arctic while bands of aurora borealis bounced just over our heads; I stood on a rock next to an obo with my son on a hillside above Lake Baikal, and a year later we walked across Spain. I sat and drank vodka with a Russian photographer and friend after his wife died, and another friend of mine and I spent hours counting stripes on the wallpaper in our hotel room. We had wine, yes.

This all crossed my mind at 3:30 am after yet another day of not going anywhere along with everyone else on the planet who is not going anywhere for quite some time to come. Sitting still and isolating myself has set my mind free. Too free, perhaps, so I’ve got to occupy my mind before it gets out of hand and I discover, too late of course, that I’ve wasted even more time. To that end, my moments hence forth and until I’m directed differently will be spent working in the garden, fixing the shed, cleaning out the attic, canoeing to Parrot Island, writing letters every day to my dearest friends, and more, and more.

I am very excited about possible quarantine. Very cool. You see, if we are forced to focus on one or two things, we can usually master them. Put anyone alone in a room with just two things to do and wait three weeks. They will have mastered those things, of course. But life doesn’t allow us this; life demands a degree of multitasking we will never be able to master. But limit me to two things? Really?

As they say in this neck of the woods: Here, hold my beer.

This is what I’m best at: Individual moments. I just could never put my finger on it. But this is how I make a life; slipping all these beautiful individual moments together on a string. I’ll make pretzels and we’ll laugh and drink coconut rum and experiment with the dough. I’ll organize all my photos. I’ll clean up all my flash drives. I’ll wash the windows and they’ll be the cleanest frigging windows in the village. 

I’ll learn to be excellent at just a few things within my grasp instead of half-ass at things just out of reach. Why do I feel like everyone else already knows all this?

Still, it won’t last long. I know me. I may have come to understand who I am later than most people, but I’m there, and there’s still too much gas in the tank to not pursue what’s just out of the reach of my headlights, so I’ll keep driving. Someday I’ll learn. Someday.


Covid-19. 3.16.2020. Day One


The time to be at home begins.

Some have stocked up on food and water and other essentials, some are less worried and go about their business. Some are working from home and many are not working at all, right now sitting at the kitchen table figuring out how to make the money last longer than they had planned just a few days ago, when things were already tight.

Many will try to learn something new or start a new hobby, like the lady at the library a few hours ago who learned to download books onto Kindle so she can catch up on her reading. I heard a man in the store yesterday say he was going to learn to cook. Many will binge-watch shows ad nauseam, all of them trying to avoid this invisible killer, this microscopic mess, and some of them will remember Plato said that courage is knowing what not to fear. An analyst on the radio today, when asked how difficult it is to catch this still relatively uncommon viral critter, compared a town of people to a book and the virus to a page—one leaf of paper, she said—but they’re all bound together. It isn’t easy to keep the pages away from each other, but it must be done. “Take your piece of paper and go home,” she said, her point well taken.

I’m fortunate in that my life won’t drastically change. I’ve moved my art seminars and writing classes online, and I’ll be home to walk, wander about the dock and mess about with boats, since there’s “nothing like messing about with boats” Kenneth Grahame tells us. I’ll get up for the sunrise at Stingray Point and follow it down across the duck pond and the western Rappahannock until the sky blends blue with something like a purple mist, and then deep reds, and then gone.

I’ll sit on the porch and listen to the spring peepers and dream of Spain, of the hot sun and the endless paths through eucalyptus forests and the open plains. I’ll imagine hot nights in the Siberian railroad dining car east of Irkutsk, Michael playing chess as five or six Russians take turns buying Baltika beer and laughing at the way my son keeps winning, noting how good he is, ignoring how drunk they are. I’ll look out through the woods here not far from the Chesapeake Bay and maybe hear an owl, most certainly a whippoorwill, and eventually I’ll head inside and upstairs to this desk and try and rub two sticks together on the keyboard. If nothing ignites, that’s alright; there’s time. I just need patience. They are the two most powerful warriors, Tolstoy reminds us—patience and time. And we’ve been told we’ll have plenty of time, maybe months.

It’s only Day One.

Each day I know I’ll walk to the river and note how predictable the herons can be, fishing the same spot where the water bends along the sand, as they always have, long before this, long before that. Nature has a way of reminding us to come out of the allusive moment, pick up our faces from the flood of current events and study the timeless presence of now, the motion of the tides. Isolation at home is a good time to go out, even if only to a small patch of grass in a park, to find some piece of sky and remember or plan. Some will push strollers, some walkers, and some will walk alone, slowly and against all warnings, preferring the fresh life of nature along a creek behind an apartment complex to the confines of a sterilized hallway. “I just want to go for a walk” someone might say, having never had to say that before.

Sometimes there simply isn’t enough time to take even the slightest of moments away. “Life is paper thin,” my friend Toni Wynn wrote. Yes.


Preaching to the Choir


On the upside I don’t have to tolerate students staring at their cellphones while I’m trying to talk to them. Are these people raised by wombats that they never learned to look at someone who is talking to them?

I will not have to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous double negatives. I ain’t got no need for no more of that. 

I, thankfully, will not have to worry about having a stroke every single time one of my students uses upspeak to talk, turning the simplest of phrases into a question, trying to force me to say “uh huh” every single sentence. Gone. 

Oh, and the dastardly parking situation! Gone!

No one coming in late, leaving early, offering excuses instead of doing the work. No one sneezing in class, coughing into the atmosphere, smelling like weed. No one asking me to repeat what they missed or asking me to start over or asking me what they’re supposed to be doing when everyone but them is doing something. No more. 

No more standing in a long line for a long time to buy an overpriced, badly made egg salad sandwich. No more lines. Anywhere.

What if this stays like this a long time?

What if I can’t get back into my mother’s place because of all the elderly people with respiratory problems, including and especially her?

What if I touch someone who touched someone and then later, briefly touch someone else, helping them onto the curb, into the store, into their car, and then it starts. 

It’s like lungs filling up with glue someone said.

It’s like having no ability to breathe in, someone else said. 

“I”m sorry things ain’t what they used to be.”

This evening a writing student wrote about her concerns, and at the end of her email she asked if I’d ever experienced such a change of how things are compared to how things were. I said, yes, I have. Almost twenty years ago now.

She wasn’t born yet. 

It was a Tuesday, just before nine, and the sky  a cobalt blue, bluer than I’d even known. Afterwards, my office mate and I were walking from the other side of campus around the lake, and we talked about how this all seemed suddenly irrelevant, petty. We didn’t yet know if someone was also bombing the UN, the pentagon, the White House. We just didn’t know anything. 

Well, that’s not exactly true. We knew one thing with clarity: We had the absolute conviction that our destiny which had always been our own had suddenly been obliterated. 

It must feel like that now, I wrote back to her, like it’s going to last and things will never be normal again. I paused in my typing, imagining her reading my words and perhaps nodding. 

Well, I added, We’ll develop a new reality, a new routine, which might include more consistent hygiene, more focused learning, and an appreciation for the small things. The really small things.

Microscopic things. What is essential is invisible to the eye, Saint Euxpery wrote. True, but so is what’s deadly, like microbes, viral ones, which slide without detection into the cheek and then the throat. And then you die. 

It wasn’t a rebellion that brought us to our knees, or any sort of invasion. No. Someone coughed. And then, and then, then…

I wish that peace could spread so easily, like fire, like wind, like time. I wish that we’d wash our hands of greed, of pride, of aggravation. 

tick tock tick tock tick tock people

times ticking away




I remember Dad was a coach for my Little League team, and I was not a good hitter. I could play outfield just fine, but at the plate I panicked. He offered me ice cream every day for a week if I hit a home run, and I did. He knew just what I needed for incentive. To be fair, I hit a line drive over the second baseman’s head which then rolled between the legs of the right fielder; several throwing errors later I scored. I asked the manager if he could mark it as a home run instead of a double with extra bases, and he said yes. Dad just laughed and did, in fact, buy me ice cream every day for a week. We’ve all got stories like that. We all remember moments like that. 

Then there was the time just he and I went to Jolly Rogers Amusement Park on the Island. Maybe I was eight. I don’t remember. But I wasn’t tall enough for some of the rides, and it was just the two of us. When you come from a family of five, time alone with anyone is rare. With Dad it was usually my brother and me with him, playing golf mostly. I like how most of us have several sets of memories—me with Dad; me with Dad and my brother; me with Dad, my brother and my sister. And of course all five of us. Those categories create different memories of various personalities. Dad was different when all three of his kids were in tow—more responsible, more reserved. Crazy how three kids can have completely different memories of the same event, the same person even, but put them all together and it’s a life, a home. 

Dad taught me to drive, how to come out of a curve, how to anticipate what all the other drivers might do, how to expect the worst. I remember how when I was a senior in high school, he’d let me have his car. He and I, twice a week, would go to a local Dunkin Donuts and have coffee (juice for me) and donuts (double chocolate glazed for me) and then I’d drop him off at his carpool and I’d head off feeling way older than my seventeen years. And in the decade that followed I traveled all over the country, and because he had a toll-free number at his desk, I would call a couple of times a week to say hi and update him on my whereabouts. He was always interested, and I must say, now that I think of it, I don’t remember him ever—ever—not taking the time to talk. Like the time I called from Massachusetts to tell him I was going whale watching off the coast of Maine. He was so excited, I can still hear his baritone “Oh boy, that will be something!” But I lied. I was actually in an airport when I told him that, and I was flying back to Virginia along with just about every relative we had to surprise him for his sixtieth birthday. When he and my mom walked through the door to a thunderous “SURPRISE!”  he said, “I thought you were going whale watching!” I swear I’m pretty sure he was disappointed I was there and missing that boat trip. I assured him I’d be going when I returned north. We all remember that party, I’m sure. That’s how I recall it; that and the mostly naked woman who showed up to sing Happy Birthday, compliments of one of my uncles. Mostly I remember Dad asking about Maine. He did his fair share of traveling in his life, but he loved to hear about all of our adventures.

I happened to start teaching college just before he retired, but Mom was still hard at work, so Dad would show up at my office around lunch time once he knew my schedule (to his last days, despite a fading capability to remember most things, he always remembered my schedule), and about once every two weeks we’d go to some fish joint around the beach.

Then Michael was born and since we lived just a mile around the corner from my parents, I’d walk Michael to their home during the week while Mom was at work and Dad and I would kind of talk—mostly I watched television while Dad held Michael or played with him, or walked him to the water to show him the ducks. I have more pictures of my son and my father together than either of them with me.

603239_4773049811633_2022425257_nMy son reminds me in just about every way of my father—quiet, patient, deeply kind—and that spills over into their passions for history and golf. The best times were when my brother came to town and the four of us would play, but even just the three of us was always fun. And always my father and my son would talk about books and about golf and whatever else there was to talk about. And they’d joke around. 


My father’s feet, however, were never really strong, so he couldn’t join Michael and me in Busch Gardens with our season passes. At first Michael wasn’t tall enough for some of the rides, but that just meant we spent more time playing games until he had so many stuffed animals that we had to bag them and donate them to a children’s hospital. He still has a big blue fish around here somewhere. Since we live just a few miles from a beautiful golf course, we played a lot as he grew, and he always brought his camera along.

And then when my son was in his teens, I taught him to drive, how to come out of a curve, how to anticipate what all the other drivers might do, how to expect the worst. I wonder if when Dad taught me to drive, he thought about the same thing I thought about when I taught Michael—that what I really just taught him was how to leave home. I remember telling him about being in college and while other students in my dorm would spend twenty dollars on beer at the skellar, I’d borrow someone’s car and spend twenty dollars on gas and head to Niagara Falls or Lake Chautauqua. He got it right away. I remember how he figured out the highlander got about twenty-five miles per gallon, and how a gallon cost about $2.50 at the time, so he knew ten bucks would get him a hundred miles. I said to him, “So you’re asking me for ten dollars?” He looked past me for a second, figuring, and said, “No. I’ll need a hundred and sixty.”

Funny how now he can travel anywhere in the states and call me for free, tell me about his adventures.

But there’s one significant break in this progression of DNA—the gap between my father’s generation and mine was significant. His was World War Two, the Andrew Sisters, dressing down was loosening the tie, he and Mom had their friends and did their thing, and I had mine and did my thing, and never the twain did meet. But there is very little gap between my generation and my son’s. For the most part we listen to the same music, watch the same movies, and being in your fifties now isn’t nearly as settled down as being in your fifties forty years ago. 

So when I headed to Siberia, Michael came along. And Spain was our trip together from the start. And through it all he would read everything, wanting to know the history, amazed at the details. 10389195_10203789585847576_5770525491992648158_n

These days, when Michael isn’t out at art galleries, he works in a library. And sometimes when I’m home I’ll drive down and see if he wants to get lunch at one of the fish places around, and he’ll tell me of his plans to ride his bike from Pittsburgh to DC, or to go do another artist residency on one of the Aran Islands in Ireland, and I tell him, with a tinge of envy, I’m as excited as he is, and I’ll probably be just as disappointed as he if he doesn’t go.

But he’ll go. It’s what son’s do.