I live with my husband in a small hillside bungalow in Mount Kisco, New York, a town of about 11,000 in northern Westchester County, a commuting hour north of New York City.
Westchester became an early epicenter of COVID-19, so we had some of the first shutdowns and mobility restrictions in the country. We also started hearing about sick people in our region earlier than other places in the U.S. As of March 29, it seems I’m still about 3 or 4 degrees of separation from personally knowing someone who has the virus. On a good note, the three ill folks that friends of mine know personally are recovering. One is still in ICU.
While it’s not a huge town, Mount Kisco is also a medical community with a medium-sized hospital and a sprawling medical clinic. I’ve heard rumors that the hospital is filling up with people with respiratory issues from COVID-19, so that means that a lot of our medical-neighbors might be on the front lines right now. From what I’m reading in the local press, medical personnel throughout New York are fatigued and scared, and they are running out of protective equipment.
Life Without Travel is a series of first-person accounts from the Getting On Travel team. Each one offers a personal glimpse into the lives of our travel writers and bloggers apropos of the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020.
My hope is that some of my neighbors in Mount Kisco now confined to home who originally hoarded face masks and hand sanitizer might donate some of their stash to the front-line medical personnel who really could use it right now. I felt unnerved yesterday when our next-door neighbors—a couple in their 60s and their three working-from-home daughters—packed up and moved to their summer seashore house in Connecticut. That left my husband and I feeling weirdly lonely up here on our hillside cul de sac—even though we hadn’t seen these neighbors outside for days. What do they know that we don’t?
The effect on my writing life
My husband and I have worked at home in Mount Kisco for the past 12 years, so we haven’t had to make many wrenching adaptations during this home-bound period. I have noticed that my internet loading time and browsing speed is quite hampered these days, due to the abundance of traffic on our networks, but this is a minor problem. (I do hope the internet and our national power grids pass these tests of their capabilities.)
My livelihood as a professional writer doesn’t rely on travel, per se, but like everyone around the world I’ve found that my regular work plans have been impacted by the pandemic shutdowns. For instance, I was scheduled to have a second phone interview for a big book writing/editing project with the head of a really cool organization… but the Friday before that took place, everything changed in New York in terms of virus clampdown. Communication with the organization fell off the cliff, and I’m guessing they’ve shelved the book project for the meantime, maybe due to lack of funds.
So, I lost a job that I never had—I consider that a wash and continue on with my usual entrepreneurial work, a lot of which is helping solopreneurs with their digital messaging and running the editorial business my husband and I co-own, WBLK Media. We focus on growing and marketing our beautiful questions franchise. Our A More Beautiful Questions website is here.
My husband, Warren Berger, is a book author and speaker about the transformative power of asking questions. He was lined up to speak at a number of big conferences around the country in the first half of the year, and they’ve all been canceled/postponed. So that’s a major revenue loss for our little company. Plus, in a case of bad timing, he has a new book, Beautiful Questions in the Classroom, coming out on April 6, (if you know any teachers, let them know about this important new book).
The publisher now says they will do a soft launch (which means it just gets cast out to the world with very little promotion) and they “hope to do more in the fall when this period has passed.” If you know publishers, that is a very weak promise. So, as with so many professions right now, it’s a bad time to be an author/speaker! (Unless you have special pandemic knowledge—in which case it’s a great time.)
I moved to New York from Michigan many years ago in large part because of the vibrant live theater available. I love going to the theater, especially in spring when all the new Tony-worthy shows debut. This year I’d bought early tickets to three shows that I was greatly looking forward to. They and Broadway have been canceled—or perhaps just postponed. Time will tell. It’s unclear whether ticket holders will receive full refunds or vouchers. I’d rather see the shows than get my money back. And, to be honest, this stricken industry needs the money more than I do, right now.
And, oh yeah, I listed my little investment condo in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for sale on March 20, after finally getting the hoarder tenant out and rushing to paint and repair the place. This listing meets the classic definition of “bad timing,” with the state of Michigan forbidding all in-person realty activities two days later (six scheduled showings had to be canceled). I don’t know when I can re-list it, but in the meantime I will be paying all the carrying charges for an empty place.
Our family has also been personally touched by the epidemic in a tangential way. Last week, an older relative needed to be rushed to a local hospital for an unrelated medical emergency—bad timing because of how busy the hospitals are here with Covid-19 patients. Fortunately, they admitted him and eventually stabilized his condition. We’re hoping/assuming he won’t contract the virus from his time in the hospital and the subsequent stint in nursing rehab. Of course, during this whole episode we’ve been unable to see him. Stressful.
A chance to help Mount Kisco and its surrounds
We’ve missed being able to go to local restaurants in Mount Kisco and surrounding towns that were suddenly forced to close because of the COVID-19 outbreak, and I started thinking about how hard hit those local businesses who live on the margin are, and I asked myself the beautiful question, “How might I help our local restaurants in this time of need?”
The answer I came up with had me setting aside other less pressing things two weeks ago and quickly harnessing my writing, web design, and networking skills to launch RestaurantRelief.net, a website that aims to collect all our local restaurants’ gift card offers in one place for concerned local citizens to support struggling businesses now and redeem later for a nice dinner.
My idea of people buying gift cards from restaurants will not change the course of history nor save a life, but it gives concerned local citizens a way to chip in now when it matters, and show a vote of confidence that there is a future for these extremely challenged businesses. Personally, it diverted me from that helpless, out-of-my-control sensation we’re all having, and let me feel like I was doing something productive and helpful. Now that this gratis project is launched, I now plan to turn my attention back to lining up some more remunerative gigs.
As a book editor for more than a decade, I sifted through hundreds of manuscripts looking for gems for a general audience. I came to learn that book taste is HIGHLY personal, just as a sense of humor is. “To each his own” is a basic caveat about book recommendations. Along with that caveat, I should mention that while I lean towards literary fiction, I am an eclectic and opportunistic reader—often my next book comes from the ever-changing book-sharing shelf I started years ago at my health club in Mount Kisco.
I snatch up titles I see on that shelf that are on my long “to read” list, and often get my interest piqued by other donated books I’ve never heard of before. These free paperbacks have the extra plus that you can just slot them back on the giveaway shelf when you’re done, and not clutter up your home shelves. That bookshelf is a key thing I’ve missed about not being able to go to my closed-down gym.
So, bearing in mind my caveat and that word “eclectic,” here are 14 (out of dozens more) reads that I’ve rated 5 stars over my past 14 years on Goodreads.com. (If you’re on Goodreads, say hi to me!) These are mostly not lightweight beach reads, if that’s what you’re looking for, but they are all books I loved and remember years after reading. In no particular order:
- A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – I really liked the author’s first novel The Rules of Civility (about a young woman’s adventures in Manhattan in the 1940s) and loved this one (about a Russian count who gets banished to an upscale hotel during the Russian revolution). Wonderful characters and books.
- Random Harvest by James Hilton – Yes, the 1940s classic is obviously from another era but a GREAT romantic yarn about a WWI veteran with amnesia.
- Calypso by David Sedaris – Funny and dark memoir about the Sedaris family by the famed humorist.
- News of the World by Paulette Giles – I loved this novel set right after the Civil War when I read it a few years ago. Tom Hanks is set to star as the memorable Captain Jefferson Kidd in the upcoming movie—read the book before seeing the film!
- Milkman by Anna Burns – A prizewinning stream-of-consciousness novel inside the head of a young woman in 1970s Belfast—amazing writing, great characters, and nail-biting story. Thanks to my friend Alexandra for this recommendation last year.
- Past Tense by Lee Child – Great suspense with biting societal commentary, and one of the last Jack Reacher books written by the stellar thriller writer Lee Child; now his younger brother is writing them.
- Case Histories by Kate Atkinson – The first Jackson Brodie detective book and my first riveting Kate Atkinson novel. My favorite of hers is actually her masterpiece Life After Life, a poignant WWII novel with a fascinating storytelling technique.
- An American Marriage by Tayari Jones – I hadn’t particularly wanted to read this one, but knew it had gotten excellent reviews. It’s as good as all the reviews said—a real page-turner, since you really want to find out what happens to the two main characters when an unfair turn of events befalls them.
- Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden – This was way more interesting and enjoyable than the movie. Today it might not even get published due to double cultural appropriation—an American man writing about a Japanese woman.
- The Godfather Notebook by Francis Ford Coppola – The book offers Coppola’s handwritten margin notes in the famous Mario Puzo novel as he struggled to form the novel into a screenplay. It was a great way to both read that seminal potboiler of a novel and to see into the mind of a genius filmmaker. I learned Coppola was a bad speller.
- Old Filth Trilogy by Jane Gardam – An award-winning group of novels about three old British frenemies who in the past lived passionate intertwined romantic and professional lives that their friends and neighbors never would have guessed. Thanks to friend Nancy W. for the tip-off on these books.
- Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders – Many people can’t get into this experimental novel but I persisted and found it amazing. I was crying along with Abraham Lincoln at the graveside of his son at the end.
- Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen – His singular voice and spirit shines through this life story. He had a mean, distant dad that he still is trying to exorcise. After I finished it, I learned I should have listened to the audiobook for the “ultimate experience” of this story.
- The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies – I read these three connected novels in my twenties, and have never forgotten the characters, storytelling, and magical world concocted by Davies in this ostensible murder mystery set in Ontario. The trilogy is often referred to as “a modern classic,” but I rarely meet people who’ve read it!
Here is a list of some shows I’d like to tout from recent viewing:
- If you liked “True Detective” don’t miss “Unbelievable” (Netflix). A gripping slow burn like “True Detective” but a different feel because it features two intense women as the detectives (Toni Collette and the wonderful Merritt Wever).
- If you liked “The Good Wife” pay for “The Good Fight,” although it’s behind the CBS All Access paywall. Highly entertaining, and worth paying a bit for a month or two while you binge.
- If you liked “Little Women” give “Anne with an E” (Netflix) a go. Watching this fresh, lively, and sometimes dark adaptation of the classic “Anne of Green Gables,” my husband and I laughed out loud and wiped away tears in every episode of its three seasons!
- If you liked “Gosford Park” or “The Queen,” you’ll love “The Crown” (Netflix). My favorite recent series. Each quality episode is a zoom-in, self-contained story about one pivotal incident in the life of Queen Elizabeth. Brings to life famous historical characters in a very personal way.
- If you hated “Green Acres,” get revenge by loving “Schitt’s Creek” (Netflix) which gets better and better as it goes along its 6 seasons. The perfect binge.
Also, if you liked “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” I can recommend a second viewing of it. Brad Pitt and Leo DiCaprio are just as fun to watch the second time around, and this time, when you know how it ends, you don’t have to watch through closed fingers. What a fun, idiosyncratic soundtrack, too.
An audio option, too
For a break from all the news, I highly recommend Radio Paradise internet radio station. It’s been my go-to for music for 10 years now. Wonderful, eclectic mix of classic and current rock & world music, no ads, run by two friendly, soothing baby boomers in Washington State (the name “Paradise” is because they started the station in Paradise, California, but they had moved before last year’s awful fires). I stream RP via iTunes internet radio while doing rote work on my iMac or via my Alexa Dot while cooking in the kitchen or waking up in the morning.
A travel recipe from Jamaica
Warren, aka the Eggmeister, was inspired to create this easy breakfast recipe based around a bottle of Jamaican jerk sauce I brought home from Dolphin Cove, Jamaica, sold by a local vendor at the swimming-with-dolphins Holland America cruise excursion a year ago. (It’s painful to realize how the suspension of the cruise ship visits must be impacting those local workers living on the edge.)
Jamaican Me Scramble (has to be pronounced out loud)
2 hearty servings
- 3 large eggs (for two people)
- 3 frozen sausage links (turkey, chicken, or whatever kind of sausage you like)
- ½ cup or so mushrooms, sliced
- 1 TB butter or oil
- Handful of shredded Cheddar cheese or 1 or 2 slices of Cheddar cheese, ripped into pieces
- Jamaican jerk sauce
- Melt butter or heat oil in a medium frying pan at low-medium heat.
- Cook the frozen sausage and sliced mushrooms in a pan.
- Beat the eggs in a small bowl. (Warren adds, “You can’t beat an egg.” Ba-dum-dum. Groan.)
- When sausages are browned on all sides, take them out and cut into little pieces, and put back in the pan with mushrooms.
- Put your toast in the toaster now because the next part happens fast.
- Pour beaten eggs over the cooked sausage and mushrooms.
- As you move around the egg mixture with a spatula to scramble them, sprinkle the cheese on top of the cooking eggs, where it should quickly melt.
- Dot 7 or 8 drops of the Jamaican jerk sauce around the cooking eggs, and stir until the drops disappear.
- Take the eggs pan off the burner before they look totally dry. They will continue cooking until you put them on your plates.
We usually eat them with our favorite: toasted Bays English Muffins. This recipe only calls for a few drops of the yummy jerk sauce each time you make these eggs. But we must have enjoyed this recipe many times, since our Jamaican Jerk bottle has finally run out after a year. Since Amazon does not appear to sell jerk sauce, I may have to make my own. If you’re curious, I’ve listed what’s in a jerk sauce below the recipe—it was surprising to me.
Jamaican jerk sauce ingredients: 1/2 cup ground allspice berries. 1/2 cup packed brown sugar. 6 to 8 garlic cloves. 4 to 6 scotch bonnet peppers (seeded and cored). 1 tablespoon ground thyme (or 2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves). 2 bunches scallions. 1 teaspoon cinnamon. 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, 2 tablespoons soy sauce, to moisten. Blend in a food processor.
When travel dreams are dashed
Prior to COVID-19, I was fortunate to have a stellar year of wide-ranging personal travel, with trips to the Caribbean, Montreal and Quebec City, Michigan’s up north resort area, the Amalfi Coast and Paris, New Orleans, and then a great three-week sojourn with my husband to southern California this past February. (I have great Airbnb recommendations for Venice Beach and Palm Springs if anyone wants for future reference.) Along with everyone who traveled in February and early March, it feels like we got home from that trip and all hell broke loose.
My suggestion to anyone whose travel plans have been dashed is to use the downtime you have right now to commemorate happier times spent traveling by putting your memories into book or video form. It will be very therapeutic. Warning, though: proud as you may be of the final product, this keepsake is really meant just for you, even if you’re a professional travel writer. Because, sad but true, nobody really cares about all the intimate details of our trips like we ourselves do (remember those boring slide projector shows our parents made us sit through?). So, you should make your project as personal as you can for your own enjoyment. I’m planning to start work on my Venice Beach/Palm Springs video tomorrow, and that already cheers me up.
Looking to the future
My main anxieties right now are societal. When I see the New York Times photos of empty world-class cities I’ve visited and read about the cessation of production and layoffs at every level across our country, I feel an immense disquiet and worry about societal resilience and recovery. I found this round up of global expert opinions on how things will be different after the Covid-19 pandemic both fascinating and unsettling.
As I wrote this up, I came to think of it as a snapshot for myself about what was going on in my life during March 2020. I have a feeling I’ll look back at this with interest someday, shaking my head over what I didn’t realize and how much things have changed.
Laura E. Kelly’s job as the Global Editor-in-Chief of Reader’s Digest Books took her to many interesting places around the world, but she much prefers her post-corporate life, where travel doesn’t mean training sessions in conference rooms. Today she runs an editorial business with her husband, author Warren Berger, and often reviews the deluxe resorts where he is asked to speak. As a top-level reviewer for TripAdvisor.com (tags = “Foodie,” “Nature Lover,” “Urban Explorer,” “Beach Goer,” “Art and Architecture Lover,” and “Peace and Quiet Seeker”), Laura has written about many destinations in Europe and North America. She resides in Mount Kisco, New York.