Fear Is A Four Letter Word

There are two times during the day when I don’t worry.

When I don’t fear for my own mortality, or the mortality of my loved ones. When I don’t worry that I will lose all my money and the only food I will have are the oranges growing in my backyard.  A litany of worries leaves me two times a day.

The first time is when I step outside our home – standing alone on the front lawn – and I take that first glorious deep breath of fresh air. I feel alive again and not afraid.  I feel safe for the first time in the day.  Until I see a person walking down our sidewalk heading towards our home and I start to tense up.  

Humans are the enemy in our world right now.  

Well, no that’s not entirely true.  Humans aren’t the real  enemy:  the coronavirus is the enemy. Humans are the vehicles that the virus hitches a ride on to get to the next human.  Without us, the virus dies, so to stop the spread we have to stop human connection: no reaching out to one another, no touching, no hugging, no people to populate our lives.

But humans need other humans.  

Research has shown that babies who aren’t touched or picked up stop growing, and if they aren’t ever hugged or held they eventually die.  That’s how important human touch is to us.  And now, we’re being asked to eliminate it from our lives. We’ve been sent to our rooms and told to isolate, separate from one another.  Those of us who are lucky enough to have a spouse, a roommate, or some children in our homes, overlook our current fear of intimacy and somehow find safety with the one(s) we’re locked up with.  

But even that we can’t be sure of.  

We’re not connected by the hip – before this quarantine we didn’t all go to the same places or have contact with the same people before we closed our door to the world.  In the beginning of our quarantine, we sweat that out, praying that we didn’t bring the virus home with us, as we sit and wait in dreadful anticipation: Will I get sick? Will my family get sick because of me?  And if sickness followed us inside of our home, how will we care for each other when caring involves connection and touch, and touching is no longer allowed?  We toughed it out during those anxious first couple of weeks and when we didn’t get sick we started to feel a little safer; bored, even.  At least the threat was outside our doorstep now and not within.  We settled in and tried to adjust.

Until it was time when we had to leave the house again.

We needed food, we needed supplies, medicine, toilet paper; we needed M&Ms or more importantly, alcohol.  We’re not the only ones; the rest of the world needed it too. We had to go back outside again and that meant more people, more human connection.  How could we navigate this new outside-our-door world and still stay away from people?  Figuring this out is what stresses us, exhausts us, pisses us off, makes us grumpy or depressed or filled with a hunger that no amount of Doritos, Reese’s peanut butter cups, or Dove bars can satisfy.  It doesn’t take one glass of wine or even two to deal with life now.  We’re at the leave- the-bottle-and-get-the-next-one-ready stage.

And this forced isolation has only just started.

We see one month end and learn that we will be indoors for the next month, too.  April looms long in front of us, and we hear of events being canceled all the way through June.  How will we do this?  Will we get used to it?  Will it start to feel easier?  Will we ever stop missing each other, and the human connection, that needed human touch that we all seem to live for?

The second time in my day when my worries slip away happens at bedtime. When I shower again to wash the day off of me, when I gargle with Listerine in the hopes of killing whatever germs or viruses might be thinking of settling there.  When I wash my hands for the hundredth time, and put bandaids on the tiny cuts on my skin from washing so much.  When I put on my hand lotion, knowing I won’t have to wash them again for eight hours, and I crawl into bed, finally done with my day.  Now, at last, I can rest.

Until tomorrow.

(How are you filling your days and what are you using to help you connect with loved ones who you can’t see in person?  Is the quarantine getting harder or easier for you with each passing day?)

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Wake Me When This Is Over

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(Some people bake when they’re stressed. I write. I’m going to do that here, partly to vent, but also to connect with people.  Since we can’t step out from our homes to be with one another we can at least keep connecting on another level, by reaching out with words and shared experiences.  Please feel free to do that in this space.  I don’t have anywhere else to go, so I’m here and would love to hear from you and know how you’re doing.  I’ll start…)

An agoraphobic is a person who’s afraid to leave the house.

Nowadays, that doesn’t sound unreasonable.

But before it was fashionable to lock ourselves away like some Rapunsel in her tower, I struggled with agoraphobia for years.  It wasn’t a picnic, trust me.  It’s taken a long time for me to feel a little more comfortable in the world.

And now, this craziness called Coronavirus.

Such a cruel cosmic joke!

Except I’m not laughing and neither is anyone else.  Well, on certain days we do look for a way to laugh and manage to find something on Facebook: “Tomorrow I’m visiting Puerto Backyardia. Los Living Room is getting boring.”

It’s been 18 days?  No, 19?  Who can keep track of the calendar when there’s nothing on your calendar except “Stay Home!”

Everything in life has changed – seemingly over night.  

FLASHBACK to January 1st when I began to check flights to France. 

At  Christmastime our family sat around discussing my birthday (a big one)  in June. “We have to do something special to celebrate it, Mom,” our daughter said.  She suggested  a family trip to Paris and the Basque country, where my grandmother was born, and where our family still owns 23 acres and a crumbling 200-year-old stone house.  My children have never seen the little village, St. Etienne de Baigorry, where their great-grandmother was born and lived until she came to America at the age of 14.  The Basque country and her people are part of their lineage and I eagerly jump at the idea of introducing them to Euskal Herria.

Mananea House & Barn

The House of Magnanea in St. Etienne de Baigorry

A trip to France for seven people is not going to be cheap and that concerns me.  Eager to have everyone come along and not wanting to break my kids’ bank accounts I decide to break my own. I check the flights (and the prices) and feel faint.  It’s going to be a lot of money.  But my portfolio has done well over the last two years, so I decide to take the risk and book seven seats on Air France to Paris at the end of June.

I let my kids know with phone calls.

“There’s a virus in China,” my son tells me.  

I’m not worried.

“That’s China, Josh and it’s a million miles away.  They’ll knock it out.”

“I don’t know, Mom.  It’s spreading fast and they’re starting to lock up areas.”

Lock up?  What’s that?  I’ve never heard of such a thing.  

I will learn about that later.

“Well, that’s China. I’m not worried,” I tell him.

I make hotel reservations. Paris.  Biarritz (pre-paid to save money). An Air B&B in the Basque country.  I look into train reservations.  I’m about to book two cars for rental. 

“That thing is spreading, Mom. It’s in Italy,”  my son tells me.

Italy?

“We’re not going to Italy,” I tell my son. Am I in denial, or what? No, I’m just an American who feels invincible because well, I’m an American.  We’re protected from all those nasty things happening outside our shores, aren’t we?  And, I’m privileged. Middle class. Not poor. Flush with credit cards. My life is good. I trust the world I live in.  I believe in governments and healthcare systems (because I’m covered by insurance) and I’m a believer that those in charge will protect me and my family.  I don’t live in Italy. I’m not going to Italy.  I’m a safe American and so is my family.

February comes and I’m starting to see more news about this virus.  I see Italians being shut away in their homes.  But I see them singing and it makes me feel safe.  How bad can it be if the Italians are singing?

Then, the numbers come out about people dying.

And the numbers are growing.

So too are the news stories about how this thing is spreading.

I start reading up on travel insurance.

I always buy travel insurance for our trips, but this time I put it off because frankly, it’s not cheap to cover seven people on a family trip.  Now, I seriously start figuring out the costs for some kind of travel insurance (cancel for any reason?), and yes, they’re high, but I’m contemplating buying some, just in case.

And then, this article comes out in the Wall Street Journal: travel insurance doesn’t cover this virus. You get it, you own it. The whole cost for the insurance is on you and it really doesn’t pay you anything back if the virus stops you from traveling. 

That gives me pause.

What happens if the virus hits France and one of us gets sick?  Will travel insurance pay for that?  To keep us in France until we’re better?  I start reading every article I can find about insurance – trying to get an answer as to whether I should insure this trip or not.

And while I am researching it hits.

That terror that seemed so far away hits us. Hits here in the U.S. Washington State first, and California soon after. NYC is getting hit hard and the virus is spreading rapidly.

The market starts to tank.  There goes the money for the trip that has no insurance. The news is on fire and in the middle of this crisis-in-the-making another hits our family:  My mother-in-law dies. 

Nanny with Stokely

Gloria Levien (Nanny)

She was 94 and it was expected, but this pandemic was never expected, and it especially wasn’t expected to be growing so quickly.  Nanny has been living in a nursing home and she’s been on hospice for months.  The last few weeks she’s been bedridden and not really eating.  My husband’s been visiting her every day, and now on March 11th she passes away and the nursing home is locked up to visitors.  

And then, there’s the funeral: it’s scheduled in New York City.

 We’re Flying to NYC In The Middle Of A Pandemic?!

Nanny was a life-long New Yorker; the last thing she wanted to do was to move to a small town in California.  But a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and a son and daughter-in-law living three thousand miles from New York City, where she was living by herself at the time, made the move a necessity.  She fought it for about six months, and then, as the Alzheimer’s progressed, she settled into her new life.  The nursing home became her resort, and she enjoyed being pampered by the staff.  Meals were taken care of, activities were around every corner, friendly caregivers were there when she needed them, and there was a lovely dining room with a classy menu and a waitstaff dressed in uniforms. With such a devastating illness, my mother-in-law was lucky enough to live in a beautiful and loving environment.  She lived there for almost seven years and when she passed away her caregivers cried and said how much they loved her, that she always had a smile on her face, and she said “I love you!” to all the staff every time she saw them.

But now it was time for Nanny to return to NYC, to the city she loved so dearly. 

The funeral was all spelled out in her will:  funeral services were to take place at one of the most well-known mortuaries in the country, and burial would be in a family plot that dated back to the early 1900s, when Nanny’s family first arrived in the city watched over by Lady Liberty.  The plan was all set: We would have to fly to New York City.

And then, the virus hit the Big Apple.

While Nanny’s funeral is being planned, everything else in NYC is being cancelled.  

Music events. Live theater. Weddings. Bar Mitzvahs.  The numbers keep going up higher, the infection keeps spreading, gatherings of people in large groups are being re-scheduled, dropped from calendars, postponed.

But what about funerals?

Loved ones need to be mourned. Need to be buried. Family and friends need the comfort of each other, hugs and kisses, laughter and tears shared as we grieve together.  That human connection has always been imporatant when people say goodbye to a loved one. It’s part of our humanity.  But that humanity is at odds with fear today.  Our need to comfort and be comforted is in conflict with our need for self-preservation and survival.

Nanny picked a heck of a time to pass away.

And to be buried in New York. 

New York is a hotbed for coronavirus infections right now.  The number of dead are just starting to rise.  Hotels ands restaurants are still open, but over the last few days Broadway has shut down completely.  There’s not enough medical equipment – ventilators and masks – for the medical personnel and the hospitals are filling up too quickly.  There is fear everywhere you look, increasing by the hour.

The family talks about how to handle the funeral, but the plans have been made in advance, and no one seems to want to admit that this is not the best time to travel to New York City.  We try to find some levity to all of this – searching for something amusing to get our mind off the big question: whether to go to NYC or not.  We say that his is so appropriate for Nanny – many times whenever she travelled there were problems: a military coup in Panama, a typhoon in Southeast Asia while she sat in an airplane on the tarmac waiting to take off, traveling to China when the students were rioting in Tiannamen Square.  And now, a pandemic in her own hometown of NYC.  

We watch Cuomo on television, and tune into the news 24/7 to see if it’s safe to travel.  Flights are being shut down internationally, but domestic flights still are available.  Should we book?  Do we even have a choice?  What if they quarantine in NYC?  What if everything goes on lockdown?  Each day we seem to be creeping perilously closer to the edge of the cliff. And frankly, it’s terrifying.

I’m a recovering agoraphobic, so I don’t need a reason to stay home.  Staying home is my normal go-to position.  But this time I have family responsibilities – I’m a mom whose kids have just lost their grandmother.  I’m a wife whose husband has just lost his mother.  I don’t have room in this equation to call the shots or make decisions for everyone.  I have to suck it up and go with whatever choice everyone else is making.

Hell no, I don’t.

It takes one long sleepless night before the day I’m supposed to buy family plane tickets for me to finally speak up.  My agoraphobia (once tamed, I thought) now reappears.

“I can’t do this,” I tell my husband. “It doesn’t feel safe.”

We talk. My husband understands. I don’t want him to go, either. Or the kids to go.  It doesn’t feel safe, he says, but he’s not sure what we can do.  The plans are set.  We talk some more. Cookie, our friend talks with him.  There has to be another way. “What if you get stranded in New York, in quarantine, and you have to pay for all those hotel rooms for the family to stay  in NYC? That’s thousands and thousands of dollars.”

She’s right.

My husband calls the mortuary, calls his brother, the family talks, and the decision is made.

The funeral will be televised.

What seemed so new to us for Nanny’s funeral on March 20th has now become a way of life for all of us.  ZOOM enters our world and we seem to be stuck with it for the immediate future.

None of us know how to run the damn software, but Frank E. Campbell’s Funeral Home, one of New York City’s finest, handles the entire event seamlessly.  People from all over the country – family members and friends – are able to attend through the magic of one videographer and his camera, and a link that is emailed out to everyone.

The eulogies are spoken.  The Rabbi says the prayers.  Photos of Nanny and her life fill the screen.  It was a beautiful service. And yet, we the mourners watch from a distance.  Separated by this unseen stranger that cruelly keeps us hidden in our homes and away from each other. One moment in the day, however, serves to finally connect us – at the graveyard, as the Rabbi speaks the Prayer for the Dead in Hebrew, the celebrant says the names of each family member and drops a single rose into the grave with every name spoken.  Those who are connected to Nanny, now finally are connected together in this last gesture of love and honor.

And New York City now shelters-in-place.

Wake me when this is over.

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This Is For You, Taff

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I never had a big brother, but Richard Annis (aka Taff), took that role in my life.  I met Taff when I was a teenager, and we acted together for many years, from our Santa Barbara days at Dolores Catholic School Community Theater (when everyone called him “Taffy”), to the three small theaters we helped build in Hollywood.  Well, he helped build them – I just watched, while he grumbled about me just watching and not working. 

When I dropped out of UCLA at 19 and I was panicked because I had never worked before, he was responsible for helping me get an interview and eventual job as a tour guide at Universal Studios. I watched as he went from Housekeeping as a street sweeper to playing Frankenstein for the Tours, to becoming a tour guide, Director of Tour Guides, all the way up to management of Tour Operations. Twenty-three years he worked for Universal Studios, and in Hollywood years that’s a lifetime.

In between our early Universal Tours work, we acted at night, seven nights a week, doing repertory theater in Hollywood, and I saw Taff living the dream of every actor: he signed with an agent, he was hired for a commercial; he was finally able to join S.A.G; he was cast in television shows; he worked with Jimmy Stewart and Peter Falk. His star was rising.  And then one day he forgot to check his messages and he missed the BIG call for the BIG job. A lead in a series. When that happened, and the producers refused to re-schedule, he realized that a business that treated people like they were supposed to be heart surgeons, on call 24/7, wasn’t for him.  “The hell with this!” he said, or words to that affect that probably began with an “F.” That’s when he traded in the greasepaint for a suit and took that management job at Universal.  

Jimmy Stewart with Taff

             (Richard Annis guest starring with Jimmy Stewart on The Jimmy Stewart Show)

And he never acted again.  

When the studio politics got too much for him in management, he bought a screening room, raced his cars on the weekend, met the love of his life, Christine, and finally, traded in Hollywood for a one-way ticket to Mount Dora, a small town in Florida, where he bought a tea room and never looked back.

He moved away and I stayed in Hollywood.  

And I missed him like hell.

There was so much goodness in Taff, but he liked to keep that hidden away a lot of the time, tossing off one-liners so you’d keep your distance. He liked to tease, and he could cut you down with a slow look or a quick word. I was a little bit afraid of him, but he was always the first person I’d call when I needed help. He was that big brother I never had. When my car broke down or that night when it was stolen, Taff was who I called, and he pissed-and-moaned and shook his head, letting me know how much I had messed up or how much I was putting him out.  When I had too much to drink at a party and he saw me leaving with a guy I barely knew, Taff was the one to step in and tell Mr. Romeo to take a hike, saving me from more than just a morning hangover. When I had a Peeping Tom at two-in-the-morning, Taff was who I called. He came over (bitching about it) to check and make sure everything was ok.  After he searched my backyard with a flashlight and a bat he told me no one was there, but he saw how frightened I still was and as he headed out my front door, he snarled, “All right, get in the car!”  I spent the night on Taff’s couch, feeling safer knowing he was there in the other room.

After my car accident, when my agoraphobia kicked in, I was hired to write a screenplay about the Black Rodeo in Houston, Texas.  Unfortunately, the studio wanted to send me to Houston to do research, a journey I knew I couldn’t do. I was terrified of flying, or doing any kind of traveling, and in fact, I had even stopped driving. I didn’t want to leave my house, at all. I told Taff that I was probably going to have to turn down this very lucrative and career-building job.  Without hesitation he said to me, “Rent me a Cadillac and I’ll drive you to Houston.”

So I rented Taff a Cadillac.

Wearing his ten-gallon cowboy hat and his best Iowa boots, Taff sat behind the wheel of this great big brand new Hertz Cadillac, and the two of us took a road trip to Houston, driving non-stop from L.A. so I wouldn’t miss my first meeting with the producer on Monday.  

It took 26 hours.

We only stopped for gas and food.

Three hours from Houston Taff started to yawn, and rolled down his window for fresh air.  He started to sigh deeply, and then, slapped himself hard in the face, trying desperately to keep awake. I thought for sure he might drop dead behind the wheel. He was a big man and I thought maybe his heart would give out.

“Are you ok?!” I asked in a panic, afraid he’d pass out and I’d somehow be stranded in the middle of East Butt, Texas, too terrified to drive myself to civilization. “Do you want to stop?” I asked.

“No!” he bellowed. “I need fuel! Got to eat!”

We pulled over to the next truck stop to get him fed, and after he ate he was ready to hit the road again.  We made it safely the rest of the way to Houston with a few hours to spare before my meeting.

That was Taff.

Taff

                                          (Richard “Taff” Annis)  

He was fearless.  A mountain of a man with the gentlest of hearts. A heart that finally gave out on September 29, 2019.

I miss him like hell.

That’s what it’s like when you lose a big brother.

Taff was never a man who was philosophical or waxed poetic.  But there was something he said to me once, and I never forgot it.  As a matter of fact, I used it in a play I wrote, in Pizza Man.  He said it to me in the early 1970s, long before the phrase ended up on coffee mugs or t-shirts.  We were struggling actors at the time, commiserating about how tough it was in Hollywood.  Well, I was the one complaining; Taff was just listening.  Big brother, that he was.  He was building a set at the time, and I was supposed to be painting; but instead, I was doing my down-in-one soliloquy about the difficulty and unfairness of show business.  When I had finished my rant, Taff paused a moment before hammering the next nail.  “Life’s a bitch,” he said. “And then, you die.”

At the time, that pretty much summed it all up. 

Until we changed our lives and things got a helluva lot better.

Christine came along, and Mount Dora, the Windsor Rose Tea Room, The Highland Street Cafe, and all of his wonderful Scottish Terriers; and life changed for the better. I think what Taff would tell me now would be different than what he told me back in the 70s.  He’d say, “Dar, I was wrong. Life can be very sweet.”  

And he’d be smiling, with all his wisdom. 

Just like a big brother.

Taff & Our Family Mount Dora(Taff in Mount Dora with our family: Philip, Josh, and Katie.  And an anonymous  turtle.)

It’s Impossible to Hide In Your House When You’ve Got Friends

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You Gotta Have Friends LIGHTERFriends manage to talk you into doing things, going places, and tasting life outside your comfort zone.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it againFriends can help your agoraphobia get better.  Not the ones who shake their head and tell you you’re being dramatic, just get out of the house.  Not the ones who laugh and say, “You’re a agor…ah…a WTF?”  Not the ones who try to talk you out of the house, or guilt you into stepping outside.  Those people you will eventually learn are not your friends; they’re simply people that you know.

The friends that I’m talking about are those that love you for who you are.  And if that means you don’t get out much (for whatever reason) well, that’s okay, and they’ll sit in the house with you and be perfectly fine with it.  At my most phobic, when I was terrified of so many things, a rather large space station called “Skylab” (yes, a whole space station!) was poised to re-enter our atmosphere and come crashing back to earth.

I was certain it would fall on my head.

Actually, fall directly on my head.  Nobody else would be injured, I was sure, except for me.  And boy, that did nothing to get me to budge from my couch.  The logic escaped me that perhaps if I left the house and moved around a lot, that maybe I could avoid this 169,000 pound massive missile from the skies.  No, my idea of saving myself was to become a sitting duck on my sofa in West Hollywood.

The truth was I was just too terrified to move.

So what did my friends do?  We had a party to celebrate Skylab’s return.  Well, actually, I threw the party because I was the only one with a blender at the time and we were having frozen daiquiris.  But the point is:  my friends came to keep me company.  There I was sitting on my couch, so terrified that Skylab had my name on it, and my friends came over to join me on that couch.  In my mind, they were risking their lives just to be there with me.

And that’s not all.

They showed up – all of my friends – wearing construction hard hats, an Army helmet, and my dear friend John even put a large bullseye and a magnet on top of his baseball hat just to defy fate.  Or maybe to save me from a direct hit.  I was so busy laughing and enjoying our “impromptu” party that I completely forgot about Skylab.  All that dread and terror my imagination had been feasting on simply was forgotten that evening.

My friends got me through the night.

Thanks to my friends (and 9 other things that helped me go from agoraphobic to recovering agoraphobic) I now get out of my house.  I still need help with driving – I don’t do freeways.  So if there are freeways involved, my hubbie is the one behind the wheel.  And that’s how I will be getting to Ventura this Saturday for a book signing and personal appearance at Bank of Books at 748 E. Main Street. It’s an hour away from my house so I’m calling it a road trip.  Yes I’m a little bit nervous – it’s definitely out of my comfort zone.  But I’m certain I can do it.

My friend Wayne talked me into it and he’ll be there.

And thankfully, no space stations are scheduled to fall this weekend.

(If you live in or around Ventura, please come by and keep me company.  It always helps to be around friends.  Not sure I can bring any frozen daiquiris…Will cookies do?)

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