Keeping a journal (of sorts) about sanely surviving in seclusion (mostly)

Keeping a journal (of sorts) about sanely surviving in seclusion (mostly)

Observations, gleanings, and the new normal while navigating this open-ended pandemic

James Cagney glowered from behind bars in 1938, in “Angels With Dirty Faces.”
James Cagney glowered from behind bars in 1938, in “Angels With Dirty Faces.”

This will not be a journal or diary in the ordinary sense. No hours — not even any a.m. or p.m. — no dates, no particular order, no detectable deepening of joy or gloom. For me, everything now is either extremely fuzzed or extremely clear within the confines and context of days passing in separation, hunkering down, isolation, sheltering, or some other version of quarantine. You choose the most appropriate description.

My mind flashes to the old Warner Bros. movies of the 30s, where Cagney or Raft would grip their cell bars in desperation as superimposed calendar pages flew by … 1933, 1934, 1935. I dwell in lockdown nation (well, some states and a certain leader still cling to the notion that it can be optional), regularly needing to remind myself that I’m in this with everyone else. That helps tamp down the ego and heighten a sense of community. My wife, Gail, is with me; my stepsons, Mike and Steve, continue to work successfully from home, and my four grandchildren are safe.

It’s been a month now, and as we observe a Passover unlike any in memory, I know the curve will be flattened “soon,” but I anticipate the pandemic’s economic, psychological, and political-societal fallout will reverberate for years to come.


I’m almost 78, my wife is nearly 77, and that puts us in the highest-risk group for the coronavirus. This cold chronological truth hit me for the first time with unsettling clarity about three weeks ago. In past situations, it’s always been someone older than me, someone with more underlying conditions, someone without the medical and financial resources that I have at my disposal. Now my wife, a recent recuperative from open-heart surgery and a pacemaker implant, and I are quite conscious of our statistical vulnerability. I read that the lieutenant governor of Texas suggested older people “sacrifice” themselves so younger residents could get better access to re-emerging jobs. My suspicion of most things Lone Star rose instantly.


This is an appointment I must keep with my oncologist to deal with a recent development that has nothing to do with the pandemic. I reach St. Barnabas Hospital in Livingston and use the emergency room parking lot. Before I can enter the cancer center on the second floor, a nurse takes my temperature (it registers normal with the new spot-check forehead device) and tells me to douse my rubber gloves with hand sanitizer. The waiting room, usually all-chairs-occupied, is nearly empty. I’m called in to see Dr. Grossman, who spends the better part of an hour drawing diagrams, using his smartphone to call up NIH guidelines, and reassuring me that both my cancers are in the lowest category and should require nothing beyond monitoring at this point. I leave his office relieved.

More encouraging news follows two weeks later. My urologist wants to give me test results via a tele-consultation on Zoom. (More about the app later.) I fret about dropping the connection during his briefing. Dr. Galdieri’s nurse patiently guides me through the process and the “visit” proceeds without a hitch. Plus, the news confirms earlier diagnosis:

No radiation at this point, just quarterly exams.

Footnote: My younger stepson, who is 52, takes a twice-yearly drug infusion for MS. His procedure proceeds uneventfully at the hospital center in Freehold, where, he reports, extra precautions shielded patients. The usual five feet between stations was extended to 15 feet, and only three people were infused at a time, a seven-hour marathon for each. Michael is my medical rock star. He handles his condition with dignity and regular doses of self-deprecating humor. A father of four in a blended family, Mike is extremely active as a fundraiser for the national organization. I hope to behave exactly like him when I grow up.

On other medical fronts, all of my wife’s appointments have been canceled for the duration. She exhibits a sunny stoicism, cheerfully working the phone, checking up on children, grandchildren, and friends. My sister-in-law’s eye procedure, once postponed, has been rescheduled for next week. We will accompany her to the doctor’s office and then to her apartment.


While rummaging through the upstairs closet, a long-overdue chore, I unearth a box of 10 surgical face masks manufactured — where else? — in China. They were purchased after my wife’s open-heart surgery three years ago, but never used. I distribute four of them to friends and will try to make the rest last as long as possible, using the current one well into its second week. Whenever I go out to market, or jog, or do the bank drive-through, I mask up and pour alcohol over my gloves. The ongoing shortage of masks upsets me, as does some people’s refusal even to wrap a handkerchief or bandana around their faces when they are in public.


I’ve developed a special appreciation for the men and women staffing my ShopRites in West Orange and Livingston. Panic buying mostly has subsided, but empty shelves, especially where the paper products and hand sanitizers should be, still are the norm. Workers seem extra courteous under dire conditions. The checkout has been funneled into one line, with a starter directing customers to individual aisles. The floor has taped squares six feet apart to maintain social distancing. The cashiers are separated from the customer by glass or plastic shields. They are truly heroic, nonstop heroic.

All has been orderly. Patience seems more in supply than sanitizer. And just last week, the Livingston store added taped squares outside to control the number of patrons entering at any given moment.


My wife and I are discussing menus and compiling shopping lists to prevent overbuying and keep waste to a minimum. So far, we’ve assembled a really tasty chicken stir-fry for the first time (experimenting with the amount of soy sauce) and successfully prepared two briskets, one of which we shared with neighbors. I managed to buy the precious first cuts after two days of inquiring with the butcher and luckily being in the right place at the right time. Our noodle pudding turned out yummy, and I’ve been breaking in my new grill when the weather permits. At least we will enjoy some tastes of the holiday, but I hunger for people in close proximity around a big table to savor the moments. One saving grace, though — our delicatessen, Eppes Essen, remains open for curbside pickup. Right now, I’m contemplating corned beef.


After weeks of viewing press conferences, here are my short-form credibility grades:

Governors Cuomo and Murphy and Doctors Fauci and Birx, all of the time; Mayor DeBlasio, most of the time; and President Trump, little of the time. I recall during the Vietnam War how American correspondents in Saigon derided the daily briefings by the U.S. military as the “Five O’Clock Follies.” Observing Donald Trump disseminate disinformation and misinformation and lash out at his enemies, real or imagined, is disheartening and profoundly disconcerting, considering the enormity of the stakes. Even more appalling is his cavalier view of science and epidemiology, his refusal to wear a face mask, or to order a national stay-at-home-policy, or even to study the possibility of a virtual or mail-in national election. He seems more worried about starting the football season than ending the ventilator shortage. His pettiness knows no bounds, especially when he periodically bans Dr. Fauci from the podium even while backhandedly accepting his advice. His promotion of the anti-malarial drug Hydroxychloroquine is both reckless and unsupported by the facts.

After absorbing Trump’s White House briefings, I am reminded of the court-martial scene in Herman Wouk’s “The Caine Mutiny.” The movie version features Humphrey Bogart as Lt. Cmdr. Phillip Francis Queeg, captain of the minesweeper Caine. During his turn on the witness stand, as he is questioned witheringly by Lt. Barney Greenwald (Jose Ferrer, but substitute the “fake news” press), Queeg melts down in the courtroom, cupping two little steel ball bearings in his hand, denouncing the crew to cover his own cowardice and ineptitude, claiming credit for solving the mystery of the “stolen” strawberries, and exhibiting a frightening level of paranoia. Substitute ventilators for strawberries, and it becomes a lot scarier.

How distant the impeachment proceedings and the Democratic primaries seem now.


My morning wellness meeting has migrated to the virtual world. I now commune with friends via the Zoom app on my smartphone. Their faces appear in gallery or single view and I can raise my hand to share with the tap of an icon. The views also allow me a background glimpse of the artwork and tchotchkes people use to decorate … but no judgment. Here’s a shout-out to technology from a person not well versed in it or especially appreciative of the changes it has wrought. The power of collegiality and fellowship does, however, come through, and I am meeting people from all over the country who have dialed up and plugged in. My secular morning minyan remains buoyant and vital, elevating my spirits by seeing how others are coping with the crisis. 


The South Mountain Reservation, a 2,000-acre oasis in densely suburban Essex County, contains a reservoir and running path hugging its contours. Since the JCC Metrowest closed, along with its banked and elevated track and massive weight and exercise rooms, the reservoir (adjacent to the Turtle Back Zoo) has become my default exercise area. I mask up and start the nearly two-mile trek on days when the weather permits. I wish more people were wearing masks (at least 40 percent by my unofficial reckoning don’t) and observing social distancing. I’m very aware of all the families walking with children and leashed pets, and I bob and weave through my notoriously slow jog to maintain separation. Everyone seems to be gulping in the outdoors before returning to quarantine. I show up last Friday and the facility is gated shut; an electronic message board advises that all Essex County parks will be closed for the duration. After a few moments thought, I decamp to the Livingston oval in front of the high school. Not as pretty as the reservoir, but better self-distancing.


I started my collection 70 years ago, with encouragement from my aunt and uncle, and I keep it current with new issues mounted in annual supplements. My intention is to turn over the 25 or so albums of U.S. and Israeli stamps to my oldest grandson as a legacy thing. Philately proved the complete antithesis and counterpoint to my newspapering career. There were no deadlines. It was a quiet and contemplative pursuit, compared to the controlled chaos of the newsroom. Speed was supplanted by precision and care. A sense of history and permanency developed as the pages filled up with commemoratives and definitives issued during wars, depressions, celebrations, and centennials, as contrasted with the more quotidian preoccupations of the press. (But here let me emphasize the ultra-importance of the media during this crisis, or any crisis, to sift facts from fiction, nonsense, and conspiracy theories.)

I can remember impressing (or maybe alienating) my seventh-grade classmates at Maple Avenue School in Newark when Mr. Zucker asked if anyone could name all the presidents. My hand shot up and I reeled them off from Washington to Ike (and, correctly, Grover Cleveland twice). Collecting the 1938 presidential series with heroic facial profiles of each occupant of the office helped fire my lifelong interest in history. Today, I sit by the window, watching forsythia, magnolias, cherrys, and daffys come into bloom while updating my collection. Hopefully, someday grandson Daniel will enjoy the hobby as much as I do.


Gail and I raid the front closet for board games to help pass the time and we decide on Scrabble. Only problem is we have several Scrabble sets and an uneven distribution of letters. We play the first match and there’s something amiss. As we discover afterward, it’s a J and two Ts. Although I fancy myself a wordsmith, I couldn’t deal with the lack of consonants. Gail, a retired special educator, wasn’t fazed in the least by the missing letters and beat my socks off, as she usually does. We will continue the competition, but with a full deck, so to speak. Elsewhere, we are devoting a little time each day to the basement, taking inventory and thinning the contents. It’s slow and sometimes painful going. Our papers, books, memorabilia, and materials from long and rewarding careers in teaching and newspapering (her crayons, my editing pencil), plus troves of family photos and keepsakes, require some difficult decisions. It’s far from downsizing, but still a necessary pruning.


Traffic is a breeze and gasoline at $1.93 a gallon seems like a giveaway, though hardly worth the cost of what we are going through to achieve it. Satellites hovering over our troubled planet tell us pollution is way down. I guess soaring unemployment has an upside.


My friend totally surprises me with a copy of Matthew Goodman’s “The City Game: Triumph, Scandal and a Legendary [mostly Jewish] Basketball Team” about the college point-shaving scandals of the early 1950s in New York. Perfect reading for a pandemic, or any time. My plan is to do a book review for the Jewish Standard in a few weeks.


The more, the better.



Jonathan E. Lazarus of West Orange is a retired editor of the Star-Ledger and a proofreader for the Jewish Standard. He is about to go jogging en mask.

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