I Eat Meat. Why Was Killing My Own So Hard?

This night is different from other nights. Last week I was huddled in a foggy parklet listening to triple-vaxxed friends crow about cryptocurrency over wisps of hamachi crudo. Tonight I’m sitting fireside beneath a heavily bearded bison, digging daggers into a feast of wild game, and dinner conversation is…wild.

Topics include favorite methods for excavating ungulate innards and the joys of canning raw bear meat. One woman explains how she strategically stashes firearms in case of a home intrusion. Another asks: “Who is Fauci?”

Our host, Jen Judge, poses a question. “Where’s the best place to shoot an elk?” “In the heart and lungs!” someone cheers. Yes, but no. “As close to the road as possible,” she says, smiling. It’s an inside-hunting joke I don’t quite get, yet. 

I was already having second thoughts. Now I’m having third thoughts. Dramatic thoughts. Coen Brothers–esque thoughts. I’m here to kill. Why?

Not like I’ve killed ants crawling on my kitchen counter. Or any plant I’ve ever owned. Not even like, oh, nooo, the raccoon I just didn’t see that one dark night. 

But I was here now, at Vermejo, a New Mexico eco-reserve half the size of the Grand Canyon, where Ted Turner’s deer and antelope roam. The 83-year-old billionaire CNN founder and conservationist has long lived by his own motto: “Save Everything.” He has dedicated the last three decades to restoring wildlife and, in turn, this land it lives on. Managing populations of bison, cutthroat trout, and a herd of 7,000 elk that includes some 4,000 females (a.k.a. cow elk), which is what we’re hunting. No antlers, trim beige coats, bottomless brown eyes, and puffy white butts so cute and bouncy they belong in a Charmin commercial.

So cute, so alive, I’m not sure I—an urban-dwelling, gun-shunning omnivore who can’t pull her own kid’s loose tooth (gross)—will be able to do what I came to do: pull a trigger, and then do every unappetizing thing it actually takes to eat a steak for dinner. Perhaps a hideous wild boar or a wee bird would’ve been easier?

This was not a vacation but a new forest-to-table workshop aimed at women who know little to nothing about hunting—nor possess the things required to try it, other than an open mind, a tough stomach, and deep pockets. Access to these 550,000 pristine acres isn’t cheap, especially since it comes with perks a bare-bones hunt on public land does not: comfy beds and hot showers, safety courses and expert guides, butchering demos, three chef-y meals a day. Every confounding detail (licenses, tags, firearms, ammunition, rubber gloves) prearranged. And if all goes well, more than a year’s worth of the most sustainable meat a family could eat.

Hunting on private land is akin to having CLEAR at the airport. It makes things a little easier, a lot less crowded, complete with someone to guide you through the maze. It also makes you feel like a prick.

Still, an opportunity like this transforms hunting into something it otherwise isn’t—not really—for someone without a tether to the tradition: Doable. Safe. Supportive. Lacking the machismo that women who hunt with men (which is most women who hunt) say they often encounter.

It makes it possible to breeze into northern New Mexico, ignorant and inexperienced, and leave six days later a new woman in a way, with purple elk steaks in her carry-on.

“Lots of people hunt,” shrugged my friend Chris, who doesn’t, before I left. He’s right. Lots of people hunt and have, of course, since the cave days. Although since the rise of the industrial meatpacking industry, not to mention DoorDash, let’s be honest, not that many.

The number of hunters in America has declined steadily over the decades, from 17 million in the 1980s to around 11.5 million today. The pandemic, however, gave hunting a boost. Like birding and biking, hiking and camping, COVID life led to a newfound appreciation for all there is to do outdoors. Pickleball, pig hunting, same-same?

A whopping 80% of Americans say they approve of hunting yet only 4% do it. California, where I live, issued 300,000 hunting licenses in 2020, a 9% increase over 2019. But that’s still less than 1% of its population.

That 1% did not include me. I was raised in suburban Boston. My father ran video arcades. My mother cooked Steak-umms. Somehow I grew up to be a fleeting San Francisco restaurant critic who finds hiking fun and enjoys gardening, as in picking lettuce at a farm-y Airbnb. Other pastimes include graciously accepting fresh-caught salmon and foraged porcini from friends and having nothing to offer in return. I even wrote a book about how to avoid wildlife encounters—which is the opposite of stalking them. Self-sufficiency isn’t my thing. Anxiety is.

To me, people who hunt have always been Other People. Hardier people. Rural people. Sturdy Midwesterners and genteel Southern people. British queens and their tweed-knickers-clad people. A certain breed of chef people. Increasingly, in the United States, hunting has attracted more women and people of color—but still, stereotypically, statistically, white, right, aging-male people are the majority.

Of course, I’m hardly the first coastal elite, shall we call me, to try hunting, or to write about it. Mary Zeiss Stange, an academic and author of the 1997 book Woman the Hunter, grew up in Hackensack, New Jersey, before morphing into a Montana rancher. “I assumed…that a good day’s hunting was best accomplished at Saks Fifth Avenue,” she once wrote. For his 2006 book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan went on his first boar hunt, and wrote about it with an ego-free eloquence rarely associated with the pursuit. Soon lady-hunter tomes were trending, like Call of the Mild and Girl Hunter.

Post-2020, liberal-leaning deer hunters appear to be coming out of the woods like never before. Tamar Haspel’s new book, To Boldly Grow, chronicles her “firsthand food” adventures, from planting tomatoes to hunting turkey. Rue Mapp, the founder of Outdoor Afro, a nonprofit that inspires Black connections in nature, told me she’d “signed up for a pheasant hunt a few years ago but then totally chickened out.” Come COVID, though, she was ready to forgo grocery lines and factory farms, reclaim her family’s rural roots, and become something none of her Bay Area friends were: a hunter.

Rugged 101 camps are cropping up around the country. In 2021 veteran course Path of the Hunter, a months-long series outside Seattle, sold out twice for the first time in its dozen years. “We’re talking about harvesting roadkill!” my friend Damien Huang texted on day one. He’d bought his first gun for the occasion. “My homework is to carve a turkey call from bone! Here we go!”

These coastal elites are tougher, more capable coastal elites than me.

Here at Vermejo we were a dozen women, from opposite parts of the country. Omicron en route, I was the only one wearing a mask indoors and the only one afraid of firearms. Michelle, a middle-aged farmer from North Carolina, has carried one for protection she has never needed, she said, since she was 16. She gifted this trip to her daughter, Cat, a country singer, for Christmas. Christine, willowy with coiffed silver hair and armed with a Coach purse, came from Minnesota, where she owns a family-friendly shooting range. Julie went from managing events at Auberge in Napa to running a women’s handgun self-defense school outside San Bernardino. Her second husband proposed with a ring hidden inside a bloody elk heart.

Our guides: Amanda Caldwell, a Montana millennial who grew up feeding her family; Rihana Cary, an un-vaxxed ex-vegan with extra long eyelashes, more than a decade of wild game experience, and 90,000 Instagram followers; Jenna Rhoads, a 20-something realtor who daylights for her dad’s hunting and fishing outfit. As if by a yenta, I am perfectly matched with two boosted adult-onset hunters focused on filling their freezers. Aly Courtemanch, a wildlife biologist from Jackson Hole who hunts once a year for meat, and Jen Judge. She created this course, with Vermejo’s Kyle Jackson, a quiet, imposing man wearing the world’s biggest belt buckle. The two have long shared a vision: to bridge the illogical chasm between those who hunt to eat and those who merely love to eat.

Now’s the time. Awareness of Big Beef’s role in the intensifying climate crisis has never been greater. Livestock contributes to 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Many people are looking to change their meat-eating habits: reducing the amount they consume, seeking alternative forms, forgoing it altogether. And although nine out of 10 Americans still eat it, a whopping 23% cut back in 2019. Investment in plant-based is soaring. Lab-grown is supposedly coming soon.

But Impossible patties and cell-cultured duck alone can’t save us, says Celia Homyak, co-director of UC Berkeley’s Alt: Meat Lab. Moreover, whether cultured meat will ever scale enough to affordably feed the ever-growing masses remains a topic of debate. “It’ll either become, like, a niche-y ‘foie gras’ served at a Michelin-starred restaurant or the next Google,” as Homyak puts it. But “the goal is to decrease the methane gas that comes from animal production.”

Oat and almond milk have already begun to siphon off demand for dairy, but what is ultimately needed, she argues, isn’t the total elimination of cows but a diversification of food sources—of plant-based and cell-based products and small local farms. “Hunting holds a place,” in all of this too, Homyak says. It has a low carbon footprint, mitigates the overpopulation of wildlife, and helps keep the ecosystem in balance. As Tamar Haspel argued in The Washington Post, venison is unequivocally the single most ecologically friendly food you can eat.

I’d been so focused on the animal part, I’d forgotten about the gun part. The trip took place days after the mass shooting in Oxford, Michigan. Not long after the Alec Baldwin incident. And here I was in the company of six rifles and two men in shirts emblazoned with the name of their gun company (Best of the West), learning how to safely use one.

Not just any guns either: $10,000 guns custom-designed for this trip, according to instructor Wade Brown, a former Cheesecake Factory GM turned rifle salesman. Dominic “Dom” Pasquale, ex-military with the calming voice of Mr. Rogers, hands me a rifle splatter-painted pink and purple. It reminds me of my favorite Esprit T-shirt from sixth grade, except it’s a lethal weapon capable of sending a bullet flying 2,870 feet per second. The artist, I’m told, named it “Sexy Spruce.”

Set in a peaceful meadow, the practice range is, I’ll just say it, fun. Exhilarating. Team-building, like trust falls. Out here, in nature and benevolent hands, guns seem to me more sporty than evil.

 But shooting, accurately or otherwise, isn’t coming naturally. Was Sexy Spruce too big? Was my cheek weld too low? Shoulder pressure too weak? Rihana adjusts my stool. Amanda elevates my chin. Jen plants my foot firmly on the ground. How many women does it take to get a nice Jewish girl settled into proper eye relief? (Answer: six). Peering dizzily through the scope, I try to line up my crosshairs with the bull’s-eye. It feels as if I’m failing an eye exam, like I’ve shown up drunk to the ophthalmologist. 

“You’ll get it,” patient Dom promises. Eventually, hours later, as the hills burn gold, I do.

Day one of the hunt starts as hunts do: early. Legal shooting light begins a half hour before dawn and lasts precisely 30 minutes after sunset. Honestly, I’d never realized hunting had rules. I naively thought it was what the movies have long made it out to be: a trigger-happy, beer-guzzling, let’s-get-’em free-for-all. Hunting is not like that.

Aly, Jen, and I pile into a Toyota Tundra. With 150,000 acres—or a Zion National Park–size parcel—to ourselves, I drop “Dick Cheney accident” from my list of worries and leave my playing-it-extra-safe neon orange hat behind. But I clutch my multicolored Cotopaxi puffy coat like a security blanket.

As the inky sky streaks yellow, Jen turns to me, riding shotgun: “It’s time,” she laughs. Reluctantly, I wriggle into my new Sitka Optifade Subalpine outfit. Save my khaki Lululemon pants, I’m head-to-toe camo. Extreme Makeover: Hunter Edition.

Scanning for the flick of a female ear, we see only bulls. And a band of wild horses, flocks of turkeys, a lone bobcat, countless bison. Like elk, New Mexico’s bison population was decimated by commercial hunters by the late 1800s, but Vermejo’s conservation efforts over the past 26 years have taken its herd from zero to 1,200 strong. 

Pulling into the lodge after dusk, empty-handed, I feel relieved.

Dawn, the next morning, Jen and Aly spot a small herd of females bedded by a beaver pond 400 yards away. An experienced hunter might’ve gone for it. Not me. We let sleeping elk lie and press on. More bulls. More bison. A hundred pronghorn sprinting through the trees like a cross-country team taking off at the starting line.

The sun is sinking. The clock is ticking. Tomorrow’s forecast calls for snow and 100 mph winds. Hunting in that doesn’t sound fun. I’m still not certain hunting itself is fun. Then almost karmically—last light, last chance—there they are: at least 60 cow elk, scattered across a small valley backed by a steep hillside even the most agile animal would have a hard time climbing. Slinging my rifle over my shoulder like it’s a laptop bag, I march silently back toward the herd.

Ducking into the grass, Aly and I creep in slo-mo behind Jen, avoiding the crunch of pine cones, the snap of twigs, stopping mid-step when she does, like mimes playing freeze tag. They surely smell us. And likely see us, all those elk eyes with 280-degree vision. Okay, camo comes in handy. We look like the trees: unthreatening. Inching ever closer. Peering through Sexy Spruce’s scope, it’s elk in HD. Some are head down, eating. Others mill aimlessly, elegantly, like they’re bored at a garden party.

A garden party suddenly set to a string quartet. Chirping fills the air. Ooh, wow, I mouth to Aly. The birds! Though I don’t see any. Those aren’t birds, she mouths back. It’s elk talking, telling each other something’s up. They’re not scared, she says, just aware. 

I, however, am terrified. There are so many elk but only one standing apart. A clean, clear shot. Tripod set, muzzle pointed, camouflaged finger extended, safety unlocked. She’s in my crosshairs, crystal clear, but my thoughts are not. Take the shot, Jen mouths. I can’t. Not because my hands are shaking. They’re not shaking. 

I think about the randomness of death, of who dies from COVID or a car crash, at a concert, in a classroom. Hunting, I know, isn’t the same as such atrocities. Yet I couldn’t help but, if only for a second, see a parallel. Americans. Elk. Going so achingly innocently about their day. 

“Don’t hurt any animals!” my son cried on my way out the door. I won’t, I’d promised. I didn’t want to hurt an animal either. I let the elk drift through the grass, like a cloud in the sky, until she’s surrounded, saved by the herd. A lucky duck. 

Hunters don’t call it killing, by the way. They call it harvesting. Because at the end of the day, that is (also) what it is: hand-sourcing sustenance from the earth, instead of Costco.

Most modern humans don’t need to hunt. We don’t need to build our own houses or knit our own sweaters either (though some admirably handy people do). The rest of us, even the most food-obsessed, we’re busy! Sitting. Slacking. Cooking in our ivory kitchens, tweeting about mashed potatoes, posting halved burritos, scrolling Resy, regrowing scallions. Wandering around supermarkets instead of fields. Maybe wondering what the hell Mark Zuckerberg’s Horizon Worlds is and why on earth we’d ever want to “live” in it? Adhering to the sensible proverb: Why freaking kill a cow when we can press Purchase on a pound of local organic grass-fed grind for $13.99?

And yet there’s something about living on the edge of the metaverse that makes you want to flee as far from it as possible. There’s also something about living in the rapidly warming real world that makes you want to do a tiny part to help, or at least feel like you can.

Soon another perky-eared elk is on her own, standing broadside, 237 yards—a quarter of a second—away. Smushing my cheek, lining up my crosshairs, I steer my mind to what I’ve learned. How herbivorous animals often experience worse deaths at the paws and jaws of predators. How aging elk lose their molar teeth and suffer slow starvation. I think about how much respect I have for Jen and Aly, and how much they have for these animals.

I think about tomorrow’s forecasted bone-chilling blizzard and how, if I’m doing this, I’m doing it today, and drinking an old-fashioned or two tonight. Whenever you’re ready, whispers Jen. I’ll never be ready. So I shut down and just do it. Shock, adrenaline, shame. I bury my face.

Until I force myself to look up. The herd has bolted at the sound of the gun, leaving my elk standing alone. And me, horrified, confused. You shot her in the liver, Aly says. She doesn’t feel pain, just a little sick.

The second shot is harder because it’s quartering away, because I don’t want to shoot anything ever again. I squeeze. She drops. I sob like a sudden widow, like someone I don’t want to be.

Crossing an icy creek we trudge through the tall grass, eventually finding her on her side, heat rising from her fur. The sky glows. The moon shines. “Want to make the first incision?” Aly asks, Havalon in hand. “No,” I snap. “How about holding her legs?” I grab the hooves, the biggest-ever big toes, then her scratchy ankles, if ungulates have ankles, angling for a better grasp of the animal, of the situation. Lifting her lanky limbs like a wheelbarrow that won’t budge, I splay them apart. I’m an OB-GYN to a giant. Aly yanks her organs while I widen her rib cage, wading elbow-deep in electric red blood. Her heart is warm, the size of a Mary’s Organic chicken. She has such a big heart, I say, like people say.

No, I don’t take a bite, per supposed tradition. But now I get that fireside joke about being close to the road. Had we been deep in the backcountry, we would’ve had to dismember the elk in the field, pack it out, and walk for miles with 300 pounds on our backs. Instead, Jen pulls up with the truck; we heave the animal into the back and rumble out beneath the stars. Late, though not exactly starving, for dinner.

That night, showered, mired in remorse, I can’t sleep. So I do what anyone does after harvesting her first elk: send out the Paperless Post for my daughter’s bat mitzvah.

Back in my San Francisco comfort zone, I look the same, but I feel different. In that way you do after your internal world has shifted, like after you lose your virginity or someone you love. Like after I gave birth.

Hunting, I realize, doesn’t just access meat in its rawest state, but ours too. Did pushing a life out of my body make me a mother? Did taking one make me…a hunter? Did I ever want to do either of those things again?

All I know is now I have two kids. And a basement chest freezer from Home Depot, brimming with some 130 pounds of tenderloin and roasts, rumps and grind. And nine months later I haven’t bought an ounce of beef from the supermarket. I recently asked Michael Pollan if he ever hunted again. Just mushrooms. “My basic belief is that if I spend enough time in the company of a gun, someone’s going to get hurt,” he said. “I’m just too much of a klutz. I know my limitations.” I know mine too. Hunting, on my own, would require things I don’t have (a sense of direction, sniper-level archery skills) or want (a gun).

Still, when I’m in my slippers, stirring Bolognese or searing lean, grassy steaks in gobs of butter, I feel something I’d never felt after unloading $300 of groceries: accomplished? content? proud? To know what it truly means to be a meat eater. To finally have an appropriate thank you gift for my friend with the foraged porcinis. To be a mother just, you know, feeding her family supper.

I once tried a chicken nugget concocted in a lab. It tasted like a chicken nugget. I still picture the sterile, secretive factory, all the stainless steel, some tech dude in a performative apron, frying it up in a mini pan, serving me the future. If, one day, the meat we eat boils down to beakers versus bullets, which to choose?

I don’t know. I’d rather be standing at my stove, transported to New Mexico. Awed by the sunrise and the symphony. Laughing in the truck. Crying in the trees. Clinking midday whiskey in Jen’s kitchen, butchering a leg longer than mine.

Walking sheepishly into the bar that night with blood on my hands, I was welcomed with hugs and hoots. There was a high five, which felt weird. And my two old-fashioneds. We toasted a feat, our week, our elk, each other. I smiled. I hugged back, not feeling celebratory so much as supported. Understood. Cat and Michelle, Christine and Julie, Jenna, Rihana, Amanda, Wade and Dom, even quiet Kyle—somehow this unlikely crew had become my people. I felt like I’d traveled far, crossed a border into a world I’ll never quite consider home. Yet one I feel a little more at home in.

We created this course for people like you, Kyle told me, towering in his 10-gallon hat. “Whether you ever hunt again, you’ve tried it. You understand.”

I get what he means. When do we ever sit around a table—or belly-crawl through brush—with people from wholly different walks? When do we talk and listen, without anger or arguing, just curiosity, even compassion? Bound by an experience so shared and primal, it somehow makes America’s Great Ideological Divide seem a little less wide?

Kyle wants people to give hunting a chance. Which really means giving people a chance. Hunting elk, I have to say: more bonding even than breaking bread.

Rachel Levin is a San Francisco journalist and the author of LOOK BIG: And Other Tips for Surviving Animal Encounters of All Kinds and co-author of the cookbooks STEAMED and EAT SOMETHING.

The Adele of Audiobooks

There are a lot of voices in our heads these days, some more welcome than others. “I’m kind of on a Julia Whelan bender,” a reader tweeted recently. Most people have never heard Whelan’s name, but her friendly-firm timbre is familiar to anyone who listens to books or magazine articles.

The other morning, Whelan had a meeting at Bad-Ass Breakfast Burritos, in the Woodland Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles. She had been up at six to Zoom with a Canadian book club for the blind. “I was doing my makeup and shit,” she said. “And then I got on the call and was, like, ‘Oh. Wait.’ ”

She had only fourteen pages to record that day, new material for the tenth-anniversary edition of Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl.” She ordered carefully anyway, requesting the spicy mayo on the side. “I’m Irish,” she explained. “My lips go numb.” Cheese is also a no-no in her line of work. “Makes you phlegmy.” But her biggest job hazard is her stomach. “It’s just really fucking loud.”

Whelan, who has stick-straight brown hair and pale skin, wore a loose black jumpsuit. She generally spends workdays at home, in the Coachella Valley, sitting alone in a dark padded booth, staring at a screen, talking to herself. “I know,” she said. “Very pandemic.” That day, she fled the jackhammering of workers installing a pool in her back yard for the offices of Penguin Random House Audio, where she could work alongside a longtime producer of hers, Kelly Gildea.

The two met in 2012, when Whelan, then twenty-seven, was making her living tutoring celebrities’ kids. (Prior to that, she’d narrated two Y.A. novels.) One day, she got an e-mail from Gildea, asking if she’d like to narrate a new book. “It’s a bit R-rated,” Gildea warned. The fee was a couple of thousand dollars. The book, “Gone Girl,” has sold more than ten million copies in all formats.

The book launched Whelan’s career. “People remember when you play a psychopath,” she said. “Gone Girl” was also a watershed moment in the audiobook world. The pandemic was another. “Everyone worried, ‘Will people stop listening to audiobooks now that they don’t have a commute?’ ” Whelan continued. “It turned out to be the opposite: they listened more.”

She didn’t set out to become an audio narrator. “No one does,” she said. As a child, Whelan, who grew up in Oregon, acted in a few Lifetime movies. At fifteen, she landed a role on ABC’s “Once and Again,” after Scarlett Johansson turned it down. “It was network TV in the nineties,” she said. “You were either the hot cheerleader or the troubled girl.” (Troubled girl.)

After studying English at Middlebury, she returned to Hollywood to start auditioning again. A producer told her, “College isn’t sexy. Rehab would’ve been.” She said, “I wasn’t Natalie Portman.”

Instead, she has quietly become a star of the unrecognizable kind. Whelan has recorded more than five hundred audiobooks, and has received AudioFile’s Golden Voice, an honor for lifetime achievement. (“I think they’ve gone through all the older people,” she said.) At the 2019 Audies—the Oscars with less cleavage, more eyeglasses, zero assault—she won best female narrator, for Tara Westover’s “Educated.” “It’s a brilliant book, but there are so many I’ve sweated more!” she said. “The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue.” (“Try aging a voice over three hundred years.”) “The Four Winds.” (“Accents all over the place!”) The most stressful title in her recording queue, she said, is her own. “Thank You for Listening,” her second novel, a rom-com about two audio narrators, is out next week. “I’m pitching it as ‘In a World’ meets ‘You’ve Got Mail,’ ” she said.

She also regularly records long nonfiction pieces for the Audm app (which produces audio versions of The New Yorker’s stories). The Trump years were draining, as was the pandemic. “I actually had covid while recording that viral New York Times piece about covid by Jessica Lustig,” she said.

Pronunciation research is arduous: “A piece about the cuisine of the Faroe Islands will come through, and I’m, like, ‘Fucking pass!’ ” (She did that one nonetheless.)

After breakfast, on the way to the studio, she vented about the pay scale. Narrators straddle the publishing and entertainment fields, yet often reap the financial upside of neither. She is paid per finished hour of recording, and although Whelan is at the top of her field, her hourly rate is only twice what it was a decade ago. “It’s an egregious miscarriage! This industry hasn’t caught up with how popular audiobooks are,” she said. “I still get residuals from acting shit I did when I was ten”—most recently, a couple of hundred dollars for “Fifteen and Pregnant,” in which she played Kirsten Dunst’s chaste younger sister.

At the studio, she greeted Gildea with a hug. Photographs lined the walls: Michelle Obama (“American Grown”). George W. Bush (“41”). Lena Dunham (“Not That Kind of Girl”). “They’re famous,” Whelan said. “They don’t put real narrators up.” ♦

Published in the print edition of the August 1, 2022, issue, with the headline “The Adele of Audibles.”

What Went Wrong with the iPhone Purity Pledge?

Brooke Shannon, a mother of three in Austin, Tex., was traumatized by what she witnessed one day in 2017 while driving by her local middle school. She saw dozens of tweens standing around with their heads down, phones up, glazed eyes staring into their devices: alone together. “I went home and emailed 20 moms,” Shannon said, posing a heretical question: What if we kept phones away from kids until eighth grade? What if we all simply…waited? 

She called her idea “Wait Until 8th.” It was hatched out of desperation a decade after the birth of the iPhone. A few months later, the world’s then-richest man Bill Gates admitted that he and then-wife Melinda had kept smartphones from their kids until they were 14. Then The Atlantic published “Has the Smartphone Destroyed a Generation?”—a generation the article’s author dubbed “iGen.” 

What had started as a simple idea within one Texas community “spread like wildfire,” recalled Shannon—and became a movement. Run entirely by volunteers, Wait Until 8th garnered media attention from outlets including NPR and the Today show. At its peak it collected tens of thousands of online signatures from parents in all 50 states, who promised to hold off on giving iPhones to their children—to “let kids be kids a little longer,” or at least until their frontal lobes further developed. 

Dana Tuttle, a physician and mother in Marin County, Calif., remembered hearing about Wait Until 8th and weighing whether to commit her child, then eight, to the pledge. “It was such a depressing, inevitable feeling as a parent,” said Tuttle, who often found herself eating breakfast, looking out the window, “and watching all these 10-, 11-, 12- year-olds walking to school with their big backpacks, their arms extended, staring into their phones.” 

“I didn’t know when exactly was the right time [to introduce phones],” said Tuttle. “I just knew waiting sounded good.” So she banded together with Dabney Ingram, a local mom with a doctorate in education research, and in 2018 they launched ScreenSense—“to help families and their communities teach healthy tech use to children.” 

Suddenly, whatever sort of phone-rollout strategy parents adopted, there were options. The efforts signalled a growing awareness that maybe this smartphone thing wasn’t such a smart idea after all. It was a coast-to-coast wakeup call, led in large part by moms—mothers against smartphones, the Mothers Against Drunk Driving of the 21st century.

The tech hubs of San Francisco and Austin didn’t suddenly turn into Amish country, but parents like Shannon and Tuttle started noticing a subtle change. Suddenly, not every fifth grader in Marin was getting a phone for graduation. Communities were having conversations. Schools were hosting speakers. Families were at least establishing rules, if not always following them. “We were making progress,” said Tuttle. “I felt heartened. There was a noticeable cultural shift.” 

And then Covid-19 arrived.

“The pandemic hit and it immediately sent everyone inward,” said Tuttle. Two years later, the fallout has been extreme. Adolescent screen time doubled during the pandemic, according to a recent study in JAMA—on average going to 7.7 hours a day. And that number doesn’t include online school—it’s just pure, unadulterated digital distraction. 

According to the report, girls now spend twice as much time on social media as boys. As Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s testimony emphasized, the extra screen time has impacted girls especially hard, causing significant increases in anxiety and eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression, loneliness and cutting, and, according to the CDC, a 50 percent spike in visits to the emergency room for suspected suicide attempts.

That’s all the bad stuff. Of course, all usage is not equal: A solid chunk of the time that our youngest generation (newly coined as Zoomers) was spending on phones was, in fact, beneficial. FaceTime, Houseparty, Zoom gatherings—these all offered a lifeline for otherwise socially isolated kids. Yet even now, as in-person education and IRL hangouts resume, the JAMA report concludes, “screen use may remain persistently elevated.” 

Today, the average age at which kids get a phone is 10, according to some industry groups. Common Sense Media says the average is 11, and one in five kids has a phone by the age of 8. Its new data, to be released later this year, shows a continued “aging downward,” as the group’s senior director of research, Michael Robb, put it. While it’s tricky to show the effects of the pandemic, he said, “you’ll see that slightly more 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds have smartphones relative to 2019.” (This is despite the fact that a pre-pandemic Pew study found that 73 percent of parents said they believe it’s acceptable for children to have their own phone only after age 12.) 

Whatever the age at which a kid gets a phone, it still arms the kid with a device designed to addict. “Silicon Valley wants the same thing Vegas wants,” said Dr. Richard Freed, a psychologist and the author of “Wired Child.” “Time spent on device. Teen time spent.”  

Freed works with families in lower-income Antioch, Calif., as well as in posh Palo Alto, Calif., and the divide is wide between those communities: “The difference is, tech parents haven’t been duped. They know the dangers. They know Apple and Zuckerberg and all the social media apps are after their kids—which is why their kids aren’t on them!” 

On the other hand, the parents working two jobs and struggling to make ends meet “don’t have access to the inside scoop,” he said. “They see smartphones as a status symbol, something they think helps their kid, something they want to give their kid.” A lot of affluent parents don’t want to give their kid a phone. But just like their children, adults succumb to pressure—peer, family and societal—all too easily.

“I would’ve loved to have made it to eighth. We tried. We failed,” said Jeremiah Rosen, CEO of Sundae, a social media marketing firm in Manhattan. “My daughter would’ve killed us. It would’ve seriously ruined our relationship.” He first heard about Wait Until 8th through a friend of his wife. “She was really pushing it,” he said. “Like, ‘You guys have to do this, too.’” And for a while, they did hold out—even lasting through the first 18 months of the pandemic. Then, last September, the day before the beginning of school, they gave their sixth-grade daughter a phone—albeit scrubbed of social media. “That’s the hill I’ll die on,” said the father, who works in it.

Now, said Rosen, his daughter is constantly looking at her phone. “I’d rather she be looking out the window! There’s a real value in that.” He asked her recently: “Do you feel more fulfilled? Are you happier? Is your life better now that you have a phone?” She shrugged. Not really, she told him. But she uses it to arrange lunches in Union Square and walks around the Village with friends. She plays Sneaky Sasquatch. She listens to Bleachers. She has taken 700 photos. And her parents know her whereabouts; they are reachable, and vice versa. “As an only child, in New York City, I think it’s been a good social outlet,” said Rosen. “She has gained a new level of independence—well,” he added, “while becoming more dependent on her phone.”


The thing—the worst thing—about handing kids a mobile device is that it offers them “access to everything,” said Tiffany Shlain, author of “24/6: Giving Up Screens One Day a Week to Get More Time, Creativity, and Connection.” “Do we really want them to have access to…everything?”

Shlain serves on the advisory board of The Digital Wellness Lab at Harvard’s Boston Children’s Hospital and has been a proponent of Wait Until 8th since the start. Her older daughter, now at Yale University, didn’t get a phone until midway through her freshman year of high school. “I think we were the last one at Tam High,” Shlain said, laughing. She wondered if maybe they’d waited a tad too long, given that Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley, Calif., uses apps in its curriculum.

As for her younger daughter—half the parents in her class took the pledge back in fourth grade. But come Covid-19, everybody caved, Shlain included. The pandemic scuttled everything, she said. “We never even used to allow iPads in the bedroom! And then suddenly bedrooms became classrooms.” On one day of home-schooling, it hit her: “The iPad is just a big phone. We’re so adamant about not getting her a phone, but she’s already got this iPad.”

Shlain and her husband, Ken Goldberg, a robotics professor at University of California, Berkeley, really wrestled with it. “I was like, what am I doing? I spent so much mental energy thinking about it, I wanted to scream.” They had a big discussion, drew up a contract, and eventually gave their seventh-grader a super-stripped-down iPhone—text, camera and calling only, barely more bells and whistles than in the Gabb phone she had once had but never used. “It just wasn’t the cool phone,” explained Shlain. “You want to think what’s ‘cool’ doesn’t matter, but it’s middle school. It does.” (One San Francisco parent told me about a boy so mortified by his flip phone that he’d walk away and hide whenever he had to send a text.)

The phone, some say, is just a conduit to the real culprit. “Social media magnifies age-old teenage problems,” said Dr. Roni Cohen-Sandler, author of the new book “Anything but My Phone, Mom!” “Before smartphones, kids would hear about a party they weren’t invited to on a Monday; now that party is posted in real time, so they can watch it endlessly and make themselves miserable.” 

In some ways everything has changed, said Cohen-Sandler, and in others “nothing has changed.” Wait Until 8th’s Shannon agreed. “Every day all day, these platforms are just showing kids every BFF they don’t have, every group they’re not a part of, every sleepover they’re not invited to,” she said. It’s ironic: “Kids say they feel so left out by not having a phone—they don’t realize they feel just as left out having one.”

During the home-schooling phase of the pandemic, parents were in survival mode. Now it’s time to recalibrate, many say. Or as Dr. Jean Twenge argued in her 2021 New York Times op-ed, “This Is Our Chance to Pull Teenagers Out of the Smartphone Trap,” it’s time to rethink and reduce the amount—and kind—of time kids spend on phones. 


After a two-year pause, groups like ScreenSense and Wait Until 8th are rebooting—taking surveys, switching gears, admitting a sense of defeat. They’re still calling for parents to delay giving kids phones, if they can. But if they can’t fend off their kids’ phone usage, the goal is to at least cordon off the most attention-sucking, confidence-stealing applications. Shannon and Wait Until 8th suggest not allowing any social media until kids reach 16.

There is the fear that the idea of Wait Until 8th is too puritanical—a digital version of 1990s virginity pledge craze. Maybe, some suspect, it’s not all that effective. As Cohen-Sandler says, every child is different. There is no magic age or grade when someone should suddenly be able to access everything. That includes eighth grade. As one friend of mine said about her 15-year-old twins: “We waited till eighth—and they’re still fucking addicted.

A lifetime ago, back in 2017 B.C. (Before Covid), my husband and I declared to ourselves (as opposed to signing a pledge) that we would not give our daughter, then 8 years old, an iPhone until eighth grade. So far we’ve stuck to that (although we did gift our kids a landline—a once-cool 1980s ombre phone, which my parents would never let me have, in my bedroom or otherwise). 

Still, I know the end is nigh. As much as I hate having other people’s kids in my car’s back seat, necks curved downward, texting, scrolling and watching instead of chatting (especially after I’ve cheerily said, “No phones in the car, please!”), I also hate wondering: Am I sabotaging my daughter’s social life by barring her from an online one?

Though I’d like to parent like it’s 1994 and tell my kids to meet me at the Orange Julius at 5 p.m. or call me collect from a payphone if they need me, I realize that’s not realistic. So we will probably opt for Plan B: We will start slow, giving her a Wi-Fi–free “on-ramp,” as Cohen-Sandler said: “When your kid gets his driver’s license, you don’t just send him out on the highway with five friends in the car!”

Maybe if we sign other types of pacts and contracts. If we establish trust and communication. If we ban phones from the classroom and the bedroom, from carpools and dinner tables, while walking or talking, certainly while crossing the street. Maybe if our daughter can remain confident and capable of conversing and forming real-life relationships. Then maybe…giving her a phone would actually be more helpful than harmful? After all, devoid of Instagram and TikTok and the Wi-Fi–fueled freedom to forever scroll, maybe a phone is just a…phone, almost as innocuous as the ombre ’80s landline. 

“Pick me up in Dolores Park at 5 p.m.!” my 13-year-old daughter emailed me the other day from her laptop at school. At the park?” I wrote back in a panic. Where in the park? At 5 p.m.? On a Friday? I’ll never find parking! I’ll never find her! But it was too late. She was offline and unreachable. 

So I did what any mother of one of the few remaining phoneless seventh graders in San Francisco would do. I texted her friend.

A Family That Runs, Really Fast, Together…

Leap Day, February 29, 2020. Sara and Ryan Hall are in the backseat of an Uber, sitting in traffic—and silence—in downtown Atlanta. Shivering a little in her race kit, Sara accepts Ryan’s offer of his sweatshirt. The driver mutters something about road closures. It would’ve been faster to get out and hobble back to the hotel, but they just sit there. Staring out the window, in disbelief. “We were in total shock,” recalls Sara. “We just didn’t see this coming.” 

Sara arrived at last year’s Olympic marathon trials as the second-fastest woman at the starting line, favored to make the U.S. team for Tokyo. Confidence was high. The night before the race, Sara and Ryan told their four daughters, biological sisters adopted at ages 5 to 15 from an orphanage in Ethiopia in 2015: All of mom’s hard work will be worth it for this moment. Ryan, Sara’s husband of 15 years and coach for the last five, even teared up. “I remember…” Sara says. “He’d said, ‘Tomorrow is going to be your day.’”

Except, it turned out, it wasn’t. Atlanta’s tough course “obliterated” her legs, as Sara posted on Instagram. She dropped out at mile 22. DNF. Her dream—their dream—dashed.

Sara had made it to the Olympic trials five times before. But this time was different: “I’d never felt this prepared,” she says from her home in the hills of Flagstaff, Arizona. “It was the biggest heartbreak of my career.”

And then, ironically, she went to Disney World. Well, technically, Wizarding World, at Universal Studios. With Jasmine and Lily, her two youngest daughters, licking her wounds in the line for Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure while Ryan went home to Flagstaff with Hana and Mia. A week later, the world shut down. With the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus and all the unknowns that came with it, there would be no more races. No redemption.

“It was definitely an emotionally hard time,” says Sara. “It’s tough to motivate without a race in sight.”

It was just as tough, if not tougher, for Ryan. A retired two-time Olympic runner, he knows disappointment intimately himself. Now that he’s a coach, he says the hardest thing he’s had to learn, especially as Sara’s coach, is to “be invested in the athlete, but not go on the same roller-coaster ride as the athlete.” And for Sara, for Ryan, for all of us, life has been a roller coaster. An emotional and physical roller coaster. It’s been a year of change for the Halls. One long-haul marathon of a year.

My button-down no longer fits!” says Ryan, over the phone last fall, from a hotel room in Tucson, where he and Sara are getting ready for a dinner function during the pandemic. It’s a fundraiser for Lifesong for Orphans. “It’s like Tommy Boy!” he laughs. “I’ll be twirling around singing ‘fat guy in a little coat’ all night.”

On the menu is steak, mashed potatoes, and asparagus, which Ryan will eat even though he isn’t hungry. He hasn’t been since summer, when he started taking in upwards of 5,000 calories a day. That’s a couple of thousand more than back when he was running 100 miles a week and eight races a year, including the Houston half marathon in 2007. He crushed it in 59:43, making him the first American to break the half’s one-hour barrier. In 2011, in Boston, he rocketed 26.2 miles in 2:04:58, becoming, to date, the fastest marathoner in America.

The fastest marathoner in America who, at 38 years old, doesn’t run anymore. Not competitively. Not weekly. Though on a whim, occasionally: as in, maybe 25 miles in all of 2020. Well, not counting the 43 he ran in September, from Crested Butte to Aspen, in 12:47 with a 6,000-foot elevation gain. “I just hopped in,” he says, about the Grand Traverse Mountain Run. His first. For fun.

And his body has changed substantially since his marathon days. He’s gained a ton of muscle. Since retiring from professional running in 2016, the 5’10” Ryan has gone from 127-pound waif to 200-pound weightlifter. “After depleting my body of so much strength for years and years with intense training and dieting, my body was craving an activity that was anabolic,” Ryan explains. He also just fell in love with “the sensation,” he says, of pulling something so freaking heavy off the floor that he previously couldn’t budge.

He noticed it in his face first. “A marathoner’s face is gaunt,” he says. “Right away, I lost that. I was retaining a ton of water. My face got so bloated. My arms just kept getting bigger and bigger,” he says, not boasting but as a matter of fact. “I barely recognized myself!” Sara and others barely recognized him, too.

“It was a big transition,” says Sara. “I like his physique now, but it took getting used to.” Ryan had looked “emaciated” since they first met after the Foot Locker West Regionals outside L.A., senior year of high school, at 17. But now his body was completely different. “We were in an elevator and this guy walks in who’d known Ryan for years. He was like, ‘Hey, Sara. How’s Ryan doing?’ And I was like: ‘He’s standing right here!’”

In his old life, Ryan was long and leggy, with the kind of natty, sun-bleached blonde mop you’d expect on a kid who grew up in Southern California. Clean-shaven with concave cheeks, he had a boyish, Oliver Twist look about him. He used to gallop the streets with the speed and light and grace of a gazelle. Now, bearded and buff, he spends one to two hours a day working out in his garage. He hoists and huffs, presses and puffs. Veins pop from his neck. Pecs bulge beneath his T-shirt. “Happy Birthday Hulk!” one of his 90,000 Instagram followers commented, with a biceps emoji, beneath a chronological series Ryan posted of bare-chested, six-packed, painstakingly sculpted selfies. A virtual flipbook of his physical transformation over the past five years.

Unlike most of social media, though, it doesn’t come off as a gross display of vanity. Ryan isn’t saying, “Hey, look at my body!” He’s saying: Hey, look at the body. Look at what the human body can do.

As a runner, Ryan used to hate lifting weights. And as a typical baseball- and basketball-obsessed kid, he hated running. Until, at 13, gazing out the car window at Big Bear Lake, God urged him to run around it. And so, a boy of faith, who’d never run more than one dreaded mile in PE class, he begged his dad—and ran 15 miles. From then on he never stopped running, racking up four state championships, a track scholarship to Stanford, and two Olympic teams. Until, at 33, tired of injuries and low testosterone, and just plain tired, he rather abruptly did.

In their old life, before kids, Sara and Ryan traveled the globe to training camps and races with nothing but each other and their Asics. (The company has sponsored the couple since they both graduated from Stanford and turned pro.) In their old life, they concentrated day-in, day-out—like all elite athletes have to—on themselves. In their old life, whenever they were not running, they were in “energy conservation mode,” says Sara. Expending as little energy as possible: literally lying on their couch, watching movies, reading books. The antithesis of parenting, essentially. “With kids, you can’t live that way,” says Sara. “You’re constantly doing things and sensing things and listening to them talk for hours about Harry Potter.”

And talking to them for hours, too—about Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. In May, when Floyd was murdered by a white cop in Minneapolis, the world erupted, and the Halls awoke. “Coming from Ethiopia, the girls had never seen themselves as Black before,” says Sara. They didn’t know about racism, let alone systemic racism. Arbery’s murder was especially disturbing, and confounding, for the girls. Why was a man shot and killed while he was just out running? “Suddenly, they were learning what it means to be Black in America. It was new to them. It was new to us,” says Sara. “The family spent the summer having hard, deep discussions. “I had to tell the girls, ‘This country I brought you to, that you’d idolized in your minds as this idyllic place…is not.’”

Motherhood takes up mental space formerly fully reserved for running. That is not necessarily a bad thing, says Sara. “I’m not sitting around overthinking running,” she says. It doesn’t mean she’s leading a balanced life. She wishes she had extra energy to go on a hike with the girls. Or kick around the soccer ball without worrying about getting injured, she says. “When you’re trying to be the best in the world at something, your life is never going to be balanced.”

Being a mom motivates her as a runner, she explains. It has made her value, even approach races differently. “I think: I really fought to create the time and space in my life for this opportunity. I’m going to take advantage of it.”

Ryan, too, has turned his formerly laser self-focus on his daughters, of course. Driving them to the dentist, helping with homeschooling, coaching Hana and Mia, the two eldest, during the pandemic, before team practices resumed. He also personally coaches a dozen or so amateur athletes through Run Free, the online holistic coaching company he cofounded in 2018 with his friend Jay Stephenson. Ryan and Sara have worked on behalf of millions of women and children living in extreme poverty in Ethiopia through the Hall STEPS Foundation, the development organization they established in 2009, most recently raising $50,000 to fund a home for homeless girls in Addis Ababa.

But Ryan’s attention these days is, most acutely, on Sara. Riding a bike beside her as she runs, he watches her every move: How is her breathing? How is her form? Her pace? Her knee drive?

When he was a pro athlete, Ryan never wanted to be a coach. “It always just seemed like what all pro athletes do after they stop competing.” He aspired to no part of that cliché. But soon after retiring in 2016, he received a cold email from a runner in New York City looking for a coach. David Roeske, a fellow Stanford grad, had always admired Ryan’s “gutsy” approach to racing from afar. Recently back from climbing Everest without oxygen, Roeske’s body was wrecked. He hoped to PR in the upcoming NYC marathon that November. He also wanted to PR in the Fifth Avenue Mile, and win or PR the Empire State Building Run-Up, where he’d placed eighth in the past. “I thought Ryan might understand my weird set of goals.”

He did. Ryan took him on. For no other reason, really, then, well, what else was he doing? Plus, Ryan says, “he sounded like a cool guy.” Within a few months, Roeske accomplished several goals, if not those, including cutting his fastest marathon time from 2:37 to 2:34. Ryan told him, ‘Run the first 20 miles with your head, and the last six with your heart,’ Roeske recalls. “As I ran those last six miles I kept repeating, ‘With your heart! With your heart!’ as a mantra, and it fueled me through the finish.”

Ryan and Sara realized he should coach her, too. “It just made sense,” they both say, in separate conversations, like melded couples do. “You want your coach to know everything about you. How you sleep, how you eat, what makes you tick,” explains Sara. Ryan, obviously, knew it all. “He’s always been that person for me, even when he wasn’t my coach.”

Ryan and Sara, both devout Christians, bond over the Bible and statistics. Their lives are steeped in both scripture and the stopwatch. Luke 1:37. Sara 2:20.

Sara says she’s often felt misunderstood by her past coaches. She likes to experiment with her workouts and training. Ryan gets that. “We have a mutual trust. He trusts that I’m in tune with my body,” she says. “That’s allowed me to be more aggressive in my training than a coach would normally be.” Which means: Ryan lets her do crazy, unconventional things professional runners don’t typically do. Like, say, take relatively few rest days and run back-to-back marathons.

“Ryan’s goals are Sara’s goals, and Sara’s goals are Ryan’s goals,” as elite runner Rachel Johnson, 27, puts it. The fellow Christian athlete moved to Flagstaff in 2018 for its “skinny air” and the opportunity to train with Ryan Hall. His was a name she’d first heard from reading magazines like Runner’s World, back when she was a high school track star in Plano, Texas.

After just two phone calls with Ryan, she was sold. “I was like, I’m going to Flagstaff!” She could just tell: “He’d put everything into running himself. It was clear he was going to put everything into coaching, too.” He did. Johnson set several PRs and represented Team USA at the Great Stirling XCountry International Challenge 2019 in Scotland. “He’s made me a better runner,” she says. As well as a dedicated coach herself. In 2019, she moved to Virginia to coach cross-country at Liberty University; she also works for Run Free as a virtual trainer. She often hears herself sharing what she’s learned from Ryan with her own athletes. “He talks a lot about heart goals,” she says, “about how everyone has time goals, but you also need a heart goal.” To run a race with joy, perhaps; or to run without comparing yourself to others. “You may not achieve your time goal, but you can still feel good about achieving your heart goal,” says Johnson. “And you usually end up running way better than if you didn’t have a heart goal in the first place.”

Goals—time goals, heart goals—are what drive all the Halls. You can’t be a Hall (or for that matter, human, really) without them.

Back in 2019, plagued by injuries, Sara started writing her goals on the bathroom mirror, in erasable marker. 2020 Olympics… 68 half … 2:22… It helps focus her attention, she says. She likes how it shows her girls how you go after goals, how to tangibly put them front and center. After failing to make the Olympic team in February 2020, she came home and immediately wiped off “Olympic marathon trial champion” and replaced it with “America record holder.” It was her way of moving on, of looking forward. 

There was very little room left. “Can I have some space to look at my face?” Ryan joked not long ago, then squeezed one in: 200 pounds, he scrawled. “That one was clearly his,” Sara laughs.

Achieved. Ryan has indeed tipped the scale over two hundred. It was a “soft 200, though,” he says. He wants “a lean and cut” 200—muscle, not fat. Bulking up is not as fun as it sounds, he says. But bench-pressing 330, deadlifting 520, and squatting 475 and counting is. The other day he came across some dude on Instagram, from San Diego, who deadlifted 500 pounds then dropped it and immediately ran a 4:49 mile, a world record. It’s a rather niche record relative to the kind Ryan used to shatter, but still: He plans to beat it.

Maybe it’s Ryan’s easygoing yet self-assured tone, or his seemingly innate sincerity, or his guiding belief in God—or just the credibility that comes with super-heroic athleticism. But what in another messenger might be construed as self-help BS comes off as inspirational. “Anyone can be good at something,” he says, invoking wisdom gleaned from his father, who coached him as a kid. “But if you want to be great at something, it’s about finding what you’re made to do, and doing that.”

And Sara, it seems, is made to run. After taking some time off after her Olympic trials heartbreak in Atlanta, she got back in her Asics. And Ryan got back on his bike, pedaling alongside her, shouting “Put yourself there!” and “There is more there!” and “Make it feel easy!”—and, as her tempos and times continued to improve: “New normal!” (As in: this—this!—is your new normal.) In June, she ran a half marathon on the treadmill at her chiropractor’s office, setting a treadmill world record at 1:09:03. In August 2020, in a solo time trial, she ran 13.1 miles along a bike path in Eugene, Oregon, in 1:08:18, a personal record—and beating her mirror goal.

It was just the boost Sara needed going into October 2020’s London Marathon, a windy, rainy, pandemic-style bubble production. It was to be run by some 40 COVID-tested elite men and women, on a 1.3-mile loop, without spectators. Unless you count the cardboard cutouts of Queen Elizabeth and Prince William, complete with thumbs-ups, lining the course.

The first 13.1 was tough. “I was running alone in the silence,” says Sara. Which is not how Sara likes to run. She took it one lap at a time, spending most of the first half somewhere in the middle of the pack. Because of the loop route, she passed Ryan every six minutes or so. He was going crazy. “I was like a caged animal!” he says. “I had all this energy and nowhere to go. I’d see her come around and start screaming super loud.” Soon, Sara started to catch people, including Ethiopia’s Ashete Bekere, winner of the 2019 Berlin. As she moved from ninth place into fifth, then fourth… the switch was flipped. “I wanted the podium,” she says. Heading into the final lap, she found herself in third.

Watching her pain and effort and superhuman humanity, it was as if she had channeled not just all her training but all she’d been through, all we’ve all been through, all year. “I wanted to do something inspirational in London,” she says. She did.

Sara killed it, coming in second and completing the 26.2 miles in 2:22:01, the fastest of her career by 15 seconds, at age 37. Her kick-finish—a surge of the very best kind—blazing past Kenya’s Ruth Chepng’etich, 2019 marathon world champion, brought her, and Ryan, their daughters watching on TV, and people everywhere, runners and not, who happened to see the clip come across Twitter, to tears.

She came home to Flagstaff to flowers and chocolates that the girls had gone out and bought with their own money.

In late December, a mere 11 weeks after London, Sara wowed the world again at the Marathon Project: running circles around the three dozen competitors and mostly spectatorless 4.263-mile loop, finishing first with yet another personal 26.2 mile best: 2:20:32 — on the heels of Deena Kastor’s 14-year-strong 2:19:36.

And yet, Sara’s mirror doesn’t lie: “American record holder”—and breaking 2:20—had been her goal. Crossing the finish line, “the prevailing emotion I had was just disappointment,” she says. Though for the rest of us mortals watching, it was anything but. Instead, we saw a woman rise up, from the biggest blow of her career, during a goddamn pandemic to, once again kick butt, and become the second-fastest female marathoner in America.

People age. People change. Most people do it at a slow, steady clip. Not the Halls. Clearly, they move at a different pace. Over the past five years, all six have undergone transformations of epic proportions. Not to mention the fact that under Ryan’s tutelage, Sara just keeps getting faster, it seems.

In 2015, back in Ethiopia, the girls were prohibited from leaving the orphanage. But the eldest, Hana, had always wanted to be a runner, like the elite women runners of her birth country, and then, of course, like her adopted mom. Three years later, as a junior at Flagstaff High, she became the third Hall to win a state cross-country championship. (And win again.) In November, Mia, still a sophomore, became the fourth state champ in the family. “She took it from a minute in and never looked back,” Sara posted on Instagram, to her 148,000 followers.

Watching their daughters quite literally follow in their footsteps fills Sara and Ryan with immense joy. But so does watching the girls work hard in school. And master the English language after knowing not a lick of it. And rap every single word of “Hamilton” while playing on the banks of Colorado’s Slate River during a family vacation. Hana attends Grand Canyon University with a track scholarship. She’ll compete on the Division 1 squad, pandemic permitting. Mia is chasing PRs in the mile and 2-mile. When Jasmine grows up, she wants to be a Hollywood actress, but in the meantime she has joined the soccer team. Lily, age 10, wants to be a scientist.

“I just hope to show our girls what it looks like to come alive,” says Sara. “The world needs more people doing things they love.” Or as Ryan put it: people doing what they’re made to do.

Was he made to be a runner or a coach? “I was made to do both,” he says. “I think this is a common life experience, where one’s first life purpose is primarily ego driven. It’s about an individual trying to maximize their own potential, which gives way to a second purpose that is ‘other driven,’ where the goal is to help others maximize their own potential.” There is nothing wrong or better about one stage compared to the other, he adds. “They are both necessary and good.”

Helping others, as it happens, requires Ryan to do something he’d never done much of before: sitting. At his computer: at 5 a.m., writing his first book, Run the Mile You’re In: Finding God in Every Step, a religious-running memoir published in 2019. Typing up personalized workout programs for the dozen or so runners he trains virtually through Run Free. Sequestering himself in his garage, recording the weekly companion podcast, on which he chats effortlessly and honestly with guests like his younger brother Chad about booze and body image; with fellow runners Dathan Ritzenhein and Alan Webb, about their high-school heyday when they were dubbed “the big three”; and occasionally with his wife, about training and breakthroughs and his famous high-protein pancakes. He has also sat on his couch watching The 41st Day, the new documentary about his career, from first-time filmmaker Tim Jeffreys. Three times.

“It was hard to watch,” he admits. “I felt like I was just watching a lot of failures, my failures, being played out on the big screen.” The pulled hamstrings and plantar fasciitis, the low testosterone levels, the fatigue that plagued his final years—years he practiced “faith-based coaching.” God was his coach. But even God couldn’t save him from the biggest failure of his career: his 11th mile walk-off and DNF at the 2012 London Olympics.

“I’d so clearly missed what God was telling me,” he recalls. In the months, leading up to the games, he’d had a vision. God had told him about a golden puzzle, which, of course, Ryan interpreted to mean a gold medal. Who wouldn’t?

It wasn’t until his third time watching the documentary—the final scene with Sara and their newly adopted girls—that it all came together. “I had this aha moment,” he says. A healing moment. “Wait a second…God never said it was a gold medal, he just showed me a golden puzzle, put together.” The golden puzzle, he realized, was his family, two families brought together into one.

Ryan may have symbolically—and literally—left his sneakers at the finish line in Sydney, after completing the World Marathon Challenge in 2017, a mind- (and body)-boggling seven marathons on seven continents in seven days, but as a husband and a coach and a father, he runs on. Through Sara who’s not slowing down; through Hana and Mia, who are just getting started; through David Roeske and Rachel Johnson and all the athletes who Run Free.

“Running isn’t meant to last forever,” he says, almost shrugging through the phone. “That’s what makes running special. That’s what makes life special.”

Still, don’t most runners want to run until we can’t? Doesn’t every runner but Ryan dread the day our bodies tell us to hang it up? I ask Ryan: Does watching Sara run—watching her arms pump and her chin lift and her legs churn in long, strong strides, in the prime of her career—ever make you jealous?

He pauses for less than the three seconds that gave way to his famous sub-2:05. Maybe it’s their faith in God, or their faith in each other, or their faith in training—but envy is wholly absent from their relationship. He cites a Biblical verse (Mark 10:9) as a way to describe their marriage: “And the two will become one flesh.”

Sara is hoping to get a chance to run a sub-68 minute half marathon and “get in sub 2:19:30 shape” by fall. Her hopes are concrete, clearly spelled out, right in front of her face as she stares into it every morning. 

After falling short of her Olympic team dreams again, in June, she watched the Tokyo games like the rest of us—at home. Still, today, at 38, her aspirations remain scrawled, and simple (so to speak): “Olympian” and “American record holder.” What she wants even more than the record, though, is to finish first in Chicago on October 10th.

What about Ryan? Apart from breaking the scale, I ask him what everyone, athlete or not, asks themselves —whether in the final days of December or summer’s waning sunlight. “What are your goals for the year ahead?”

At first, it seems as if he misinterpreted the word your—until I realized: no, I did. “Aw, man, there’s so much more there,” he says. “We still don’t know how fast Sara can go. I want her to finish her career knowing.”

Can California Tourism Survive Climate Change?

“Want to go camping in October?” a friend texted in August. Somewhere pretty, she suggested. Big Sur? “Yes, but …” I replied, “how about May?”

Fall used to be my favorite season. I’d traipse up and down California, from coastal cabins to backcountry lakes to wine-country weddings. But in the last few years, fall has become something I rationally, and irrationally, fear. It’s too unpredictable. Too hot. Too dry. Too smoky. Too anxiety-provoking.

I’m not the only one worrying. As climate change continues to ravage our planet, those who like to explore it — as well as the travel industry that supports them — are inevitably affected, too. Especially precarious and popular California. And yet no one seems prepared.

In 2019, California was the No. 1 state in visitor spending in the United States, according to Visit California, the state’s tourism agency, with tourists bringing in $145 billion to the state economy. It was an unprecedented amount. Travelers splurged at Napa wineries and San Francisco restaurants, San Diego surf-side hotels and Sierra slope-side resorts, Airstreams in Yosemite and yurts in Joshua Tree, stargazing in Los Angeles, whale-watching in the Channel Islands — and don’t forget Disneyland! California tourism saw 10 consecutive years of record growth — until the pandemic. In 2020, revenue plummeted 55 percent.

Now, as travel emerges, pent-up demand has many small towns from Ojai to Oakhurst rocking. This mixed-up moment may not be a fair gauge of what’s to come. What is to come? According to Visit California, a full recovery and then some — $157 billion tourist dollarsby 2025.

And yet: Wildfires consumed 4.2 million acres of California in 2020, and roughly 2 million so far this year alone. Severe drought forced quaint Mendocino inns to beg guests to conserve water. South Lake Tahoe was evacuated. In Death Valley, two hikers died in August from extreme heat, as did a family of three hiking southwest of Yosemite. This week’s welcomed rain came hard and fast, causing flooding, power outages and rockslides. All of this will continue in California’s future.

Though little research has been done on climate change’s long-term effects on tourism in the United States, much less in California, many scientists see the poorly managed forests through the trees.

“Places that are already hot are going to get hotter,” said Tamma Carleton, an assistant professor of economics at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara. We’re going to see extreme heat paired with impacted water supplies, and that will make it really hard for visitors to enjoy the activities they’re there to do, she explained. “Who wants to go wine tasting or hiking if you’re baking?”

Hot and unbothered in Wine Country

One of the state’s hottest tourism spots, Napa County, drew 3.8 million visitors in 2018 (and some $50 million in occupancy lodging taxes), according to Visit Napa Valley, the region’s tourism group. But it’s getting hotter.

Instead of four days of extreme heat each year, it will see 36 — a ninefold increase — by the end of the century, projected Lisa Micheli, founder of the Pepperwood Foundation, a Sonoma County climate research preserve (which has burned, twice, since 2017). Roughly 42 percent of Napa County was consumed by fire in 2020: land, vineyards and some 1,500 structures were lost, including one luxury hotel (Calistoga Ranch) and much of another (Meadowood). More power shut-offs, rising electricity bills, decreasing water supply, increasing infernos:These are problems that will only persist, Dr. Micheli said. “Whatever is stressed now, is just going to get worse.”

The science is way behind, said Marshall Burke, an associate professor at Stanford University who studies the social and economic impacts of environmental change. “The rate of change has been so dramatic. If I was the California tourism industry, I’d be really worried.”

And yet, it seems, it often isn’t. In Napa, the luxury hotel operator Auberge Resorts, which already operates two resorts in the region, is opening a third there, and another in arid Santa Ynez. And from Auberge to Airbnb to fully booked destination-wedding planners, not many cared to discuss how climate change will affect business.

“Maybe my head is in the sand, but I’m not going to put that negative energy out there!” laughed Sonja Burch, founder of Intimate Napa Weddings Napa Valley, a local wedding planner. Smoke-choked pools? B.Y.O. water to weddings? Last-minute cancellations? “Everyone is just thinking: ‘We’ll deal with it when the time comes,’” she said.

Perhaps reticence goes hand in hand with livelihoods. California’s tourism sector employed 1.1 million people in 2019, according to a report by Dean Runyan Associates, a tourism research firm. “Leisure and hospitality” is one of the top 10 drivers of California’s enormous economy — below industries like finance, manufacturing and health and education, but above the construction sector, according to a 2019 ranking of gross state products provided by the economist Troy Walter.

Visit California has said little publicly about climate change. At a trade show appearance in September, the president and chief executive, Caroline Beteta,briefly discussed the “natural phenomenon” of wildfire. She emphasized that while the fires in Tahoe resulted in mass evacuations, the flames didn’t infiltrate the “tourism corridors.”

Still, Visit California is starting to think about global warming. “Climate change impacts California in profound ways,” Ms. Beteta later wrote in an email. At a recent board meeting the group designated a board liaison, she noted, “to help navigate the industry’s approach to sustainable tourism and sound practices in destination stewardship.”

(California State Parks wanted to discuss all they’ve been doing to help mitigate the effects of climate change, but because of the Alisal fire, staff were unavailable to talk.)

Palm Springs is one of the few sunny tourist destinations in the U.S. climate scientists havestudied. Francesca Hopkins, an assistant professor of climate change and sustainability at University of California, Riverside, released a paper last year that looked at how climate change will affect snowbird season in the Coachella Valley. Conclusion: rather dramatically. (“And no one cared!” Dr. Hopkins said.) Daily temperatures between Thanksgiving and Easter have historically averaged below 86 degrees Fahrenheit, but going forward, research showed that there will be far fewer days that fall below that “pleasant” threshold. Palm Springs will become uncomfortable, on both ends of snowbird season,she projected, pushing those average daily temperatures toward 96 degrees, and almost doubling the number of extreme heat days.

More tangibly, the probability of having a high-heat day during April’s Coachella Music Festival will increase. Dancing in the desert in 105 degrees? “Even young people could experience heat stroke,” Dr. Hopkins said. “They’ll move the date.” Eventually, she said, people will start to think: “Why go to Palm Springs if it’s so miserable, when I can go to Monterey?”

Low snow, shorter ski seasons

Most research that has been done on climate change and U.S. travel destinations centers on ski resorts — which, facing decreasing snowpacks and truncated seasons, have had no choice but to assess their future. The number of low-snow years has spiked in the last 30 years, said Geoffrey Schladow, director of the Tahoe Environmental Research Center at University of California, Davis.

“It’s the extremes that will hurt the ski industry,” he said. Extreme lows like on March 29, 2021, when the Sierra snowpack measured 89 inches — well below the 142-inch historic average.

Snow itself has declined as a fraction of the total precipitation in Tahoe, to 33 percent in 2020 from an average of 52 percent in 1910, according to “Tahoe: State of the Lake Report,” research published this year by U.C. Davis. In other words: We’re seeing rain in winter, when it should be snow. “Given that we are at an elevation of over 6,200 feet, have hosted the Winter Olympics and have a snow-based economy, this is a dramatic fall,” Dr. Schladow said. The number does not have to drop to zero, he explained, for Tahoe to no longer be a snow-based economy.

For many out-of-state skiers who must book visits in advance, Tahoe has become too unreliable to bother. Jonathan White, 47, of Boston had a ski trip planned several years ago for Squaw Valley (now Palisades Tahoe). “Lack of snow caused us to bail, and actually just go to Stowe,” he said of the resort in Vermont. (Imagine: New England skiing being better than out West.) Now, if the investment manager wants to ski deep powder, Utah is his destination. The state’s snow, he said, is “much more predictable, when thinking about Western ski trips for our East Coast crew.”

Royal Gorge Cross-Country Resort, Tahoe’s largest — and, at 7,000 feet, highest — Nordic area, has been feeling it. Unlike its alpine sister property, Sugar Bowl, Royal Gorge is “100 percent reliant on Mother Nature,” said Jon Slaughter, the executive director of marketing for the privately owned properties. “It’s scary,” he said, but they’ve been doing all they can, including investing in snow-making machinery for Sugar Bowl and creating “low-snow” cross-country trails: super-smooth, packed tracks the resort can open with just 2 feet of snow compacted to a 6-inch base. The goal is to increase the miles of these low-snow trails in the coming years.

Still, not a lot of U.S. ski destinations “have a climate action plan, or have even done a risk assessment,” said Daniel Scott,research chair in climate and society at the University of Waterloo.In Canada, the Whistler resort has heavily marketed itself as a summer playground — to the point that summer visitors now outnumber winter. A wise idea for Tahoe’s dozen-plus ski resorts, too. Except, wait, wildfire.

Where there’s fire, it’s everywhere

The Caldor fire burned more than 220,000 acres in Northern California this year. The evacuation of South Lake Tahoe cost local businesses $93 million in lost revenue in two weeks, according to the Center for Economic Development at University of Nevada, Reno.

What’s even more disruptive than fire, said Dr. Burke of Stanford, is its erratic sidekick: smoke. Visitors can choose to avoid a place that’s burning, he said, but smoke is, well, up in the air.

This summer, Lori Droste, the vice-mayor of the city of Berkeley, and her family faced a series of doomed trips. In July, they booked a cabin near the McCloud River in Northern California, but had to cancel because of smoke from the Salt and Lava Fires. In early August, they made it to Serene Lakes, in the Sierra — but because of the Dixie Fire, were “basically confined to the Airbnb, because the smoke was so bad,” she said. They planned a do-over, during the Labor Day weekend. “But then Caldor was raging.” They canceled.

Shifts in where we go, when

California is often presented in the media as an object of disaster, as Tom Hale underscored to me. Mr. Hale is the founder of Backroads, the Berkeley-based travel company, which has been operating biking and outdoors-oriented trips in the United States and 54 other countries for four decades. It deals with fallout from it all, from hurricanes in Baton Rouge to floods in Berlin. As we all know, climate change is not a state or country specific issue.

And in California, 2021 has been Backroads’ best year yet; 2022 is booked nicely, too.

“I don’t see natural disasters having a permanent impact on demand,” Mr. Hale said. “Unless thewholestate is on fire — which is not the case. As much as newspapers make it out to be.”

Still, he acknowledges there have been some differences.

“Wine country used to be our bread and butter,” said Mr. Hale, “but we’ve seen a decline in bookings in the last five years.”

Utah State University study, published in September, found that changing climate conditions are likely to affect the recreational use of public lands across seasons and regions of the United States. California’s public lands are likely to see a decline in visitation primarily in the summer and fall. What people dothere will change, too.

These results hints at what’s bound to happen beyond the parks — to small towns and big hotels; mom-and-pop restaurants; “taco trails” and hiking trails. “When you put it all together, tourism patterns will be altered pretty significantly,” said Emily Wilkins, the study’s lead author.

A shift is already quietly, anecdotally, underway. In Northern California, low snow, early melts and high winds forced the Shasta Mountain Guides tour company to cancel its most popular route up Mount Shasta in April. Yet Casey Glaubman, a guide, offered words of higher wisdom. “Part of mountaineering is being flexible; adapting and adjusting plans is what it’s all about,” he said. “Things are changing, but it doesn’t have to mean the end of everything.”

It willmean running more rock-climbing trips, though. The mountains aren’t going away, he said. “There will just be more rock.”

It might also mean Napa promoting a lush spring, or Joshua Tree National Park touting starry winter skies. (And me perhaps sequestering myself in San Francisco each year until the winter rains begin.) Ski resorts, wineries, desert spas, woodsy retreats and more treasured California destinations will have to learn to attract visitors in different ways, at different times.

“Tourism in California is going to need some serious innovation,” said Dr. Scott, of the University of Waterloo. “Good thing you’ve got Silicon Valley.”

Rachel Levin is the author of “LOOK BIG: And Other Tips for Surviving Animal Encounters of All Kinds,” and co-author of “STEAMED: A Catharsis Cookbook,” published in May. She lives in San Francisco.

The Grapefruit Spoon Makes Life Easier

We had two grapefruit spoons when I was growing up. Stragglers, clearly, from somewhere. They sort of scared me: With their sharp teeth, they were the sharks of the silverware drawer. Since only my parents ate grapefruit, only they used them. My parents had grapefruit spoons because their parents had grapefruit spoons, but those came with more pomp: They were sets of eight, sterling silver, each lying peacefully in its own slot in a felted wooden box. Whereas our serrated, stainless steel duo lived unceremoniously, jumbled among the teaspoons. Every so often I’d accidentally grab one and get a good cheek-graze with my Honey Nut Cheerios.

Once I had my own home, and my own silverware, I forgot all about the citrus spoon, even though I came to love grapefruit. Instead, I painstakingly cut through the membranes with a versatile paring knife, until each wedge was wrested free. Using a grapefruit spoon to eat a grapefruit seemed akin to using an umbrella in a drizzle. A little ridiculous. Dainty. I was tougher than that. More practical, too.

Like fine china, specialized silverware seemed so antiquated. One-off utensils of yore. So Emily Gilmore-esque effete. So superfluous. Just more stuff in a drawer — in a world! — already cluttered. My kitchen had what it, and I, needed, and nothing more.

Until I met my mother-in-law, the queen of obscure, single-use culinary gifts of the inexpensive, unrefined kind: plastic-square pan scrapersstrawberry de-stemmersapple slicers — she’s sent them all from across the country, with love. It was the pasta scooper that sold me. Serving spaghetti had always been more of an unruly spoon-fork-lift affair for me — and now here I was! Filling bowls like a boss, not a strand astray. It began to dawn on me: By dismissing such humble, hyper-specific inventions, I was actually making my kitchen more complicated.

But while the pasta scooper made me a single-use convert, there’s no Grandma Ida Kitchen Item I’ve loved more than the peanut butter knife. With a sturdy, thick, red handle and perfectly curved 7-inch stainless steel blade, the $12.99 utensil gets to the bottom of the jar, “saves your knuckles” from getting gooped (per the website), and spreads flawlessly. Its official name is the PB-Jife, and it has its own rather catchy jingle, or (ahem) jam, written and recorded by PB-Jife founder Landon Christensen. “It’ll change your life,” the lyrics promise.

Or at least change your mornings. As someone who eats peanut butter toast for breakfast five or six days a week, it has changed mine. Especially those mornings when I pull my toast hot out of the toaster (oven, always) only to realize I’ve got a brand-new jar that needs stirring, fast. And efficiently, sans the oily spillage that inevitably comes from a simple butter knife, or what I used to use: a backward-facing soup spoon. (Not a bad option, but it’s no PB-Jife.)

Of course, the PB-Jife is not some priceless family heirloom, some marrow scoop passed down through generations. It’s not a relic of another time. It evokes no nostalgia. Single-use silverware itself, on the other hand, does. Consider the Ortiz anchovy fork. That cute, dollhouse-sized prong that comes affixed to the jar of olive oil-packed filets, to keep your fingers from smelling like anchovies all night. A treat taped to a treat, since 1891.

Occasionally, I’ll keep the Ortiz fork for a stint. To use with the cheaper jars, the lesser jars, that come without a fork of their own. I go through a lot of them. For six years running, I’ve been a jar-carrying member of an Anchovy Supper Club. Every dish must feature the bottom feeder, or its friends. My friend Samantha gussied up our most recent socially distanced backyard meal with a rare form of vintage fish flatware: a sardine fork. The squat, multi-tined symbol of Victorian refinement was used by oh-so-sophisticated people to horizontally support the slick and slender tinned fish. As did we, unpolished people, using it to bestow potato chip after potato chip with one marinated anchovy after another.

A collectible utensil, a single sardine fork can fetch upward of $900 on auction sites. Samantha found hers, etched and elegant, on Etsy for $30. A luxury, yes, but a little one. It left us swooning. Amortized over all our Anchovy Club years to come, we concurred: The fork was a worthwhile investment.

Did we need this wide-mouthed little-fish fork? Of course not. Specialized silverware is never necessary. That’s what makes it special. A simple, affordable, and, yes, superfluous pleasure smaller than a bread box. (Also nice, but non-essential).

The point is: The blissful functions of these forks and spoons and knives far outweigh both their price and the kitchen space they take up. Life is hard; single-use silverware makes it infinitesimally easier. It also makes me realize that maybe my grandparents, with their precious felted boxes, knew best.

One winter, a few years ago, I was reintroduced to the grapefruit spoon, and more specifically to its simple genius and true joys. My friend Lisa showed up to a shared Airbnb bearing breakfast fixings — bagels and cream cheese and coffee beans, and not only organic grapefruits but, being the overachiever that she is, a Ziploc of grapefruit spoons. All the freaking gear involved in packing for a family ski weekend, and this saint of a woman packed grapefruit spoons, too? “You can’t eat grapefruit without a grapefruit spoon,” she said, matter-of-fact.

She was right. The ease! The effortlessness! The neatly scraped rind! All that sweet satisfaction without an ounce of exertion. (And only $5.99 for a set of four at Bed Bath & Beyond.) She accidentally left them behind. They’ve lived happily among my teaspoons ever since, but lately I’ve been thinking they deserve better.

The other day, over a family text thread, I learned that my mother-in-law ate a grapefruit every single night for decades, until her cardiologist told her to stop. She never used a grapefruit spoon, though, she said. What! Why not? I asked. “Why would I?” she responded. “I had a grapefruit knife.”

Rachel Levin is the coauthor of EAT SOMETHING (Chronicle Books, 2020), and STEAMED: A Catharsis Cookbook for Getting Dinner and Your Feelings on the Table, which comes out in May, from Running Press.

The Cut: Can I Interest You in a Dogshare?

Maybe I’m a monster, but all the posts of pandemic puppies have annoyed me. As have the calls from friends that precede them. “I’ve got news!” no longer applies to just engagements and pregnancy but rescue mutts and $4,000 bernedoodles. It’s not that I don’t find all these new dogs adorable — I do. It’s just that with everyone I e-meet, it feels like I’m one step closer to succumbing to my family’s command: that we get a dog, too.

Thirty-one days into quarantine, they ambushed me after the 31st dinner I’d cooked in a row, with a PowerPoint presentation entitled “WHY WE SHOULD GET A DOG,” littered with pictures of irresistible pups and prayer-hand emoji. My sweet little 11-year-old daughter poured her heart and soul into these slides and argued her case like an extra-small RBG, and still: Being the cold-hearted mother I guess I am, I remained unconvinced. And told her so. And made her cry.

I didn’t want a dog pre-COVID, and I don’t want one post-COVID, though I admit I can see the appeal of a dog mid-COVID.

The begging continued. My kids told me I’m “ruining everything.” In the heat of quarantine bliss my husband said he wants a dog so that when we get divorced he has someone who loves him. Around Day 120, I semi-acquiesced: Okay. We can get a dog, I said, on one condition — and one word: DOGSHARE. Part-time. Splitsies. A cuddly King Charles or bark-y beagle, maybe even a giant Newfoundland (please God, anything but a golden retriever) that will shuttle evenly between two loving, likeminded homes, like the child of an amicable divorce. My friend Samantha is onboard. She lives by San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. Our urban dog would have a beach house!

It’s an idea I’d been chewing on for a while. It sounds dreamy. All that puppy love and affection for half the price. The pros appear plenty. Week on, week off. No $35/hour dogsitters. No pleading with friends to pleaaase watch Wobbles. We could hike any trail! Loll on any beach! Rent any Airbnb. Fly back east to visit family without spending money to board a dog and a plane. The cons seemed nonexistent, until I started talking about it. “Once you have a dog, you’re not going to want to share her,” warned Nina, snuggling her new Cockapoo the other night on Zoom. “It won’t know its true owners,” counseled Maddy. “The dog will get confused.” Bullshit! (Which, I declared, I don’t want to pick up either.)

I rang a professional dog person. “Am I being selfish?” I asked Clive Wynne, a behavioral scientist, founding director of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University, and author of the 2019 book Dog Is Love. “Oh, I don’t think so,” he assured. “Dogs experience strong emotional connections, but they also come into and out of relationships easily.I see no reason at all that a dog couldn’t find it tremendously satisfying. I bet the dog would be thrilled!”

In his three-decade career, Dr. Wynne has never known anyone to dogshare, he said, but it sounds like a decent antidote to the modern ill of dog loneliness. In normal, non-quarantined times, “We bring dogs into our busy lives, then treat them like Wii consoles,” he said. “Alexa doesn’t get depressed if you don’t speak to her for a week, but a dog does.” A dog shared across two parties, he reasoned, is better than a dog too often ignored by one. After all, what will become of all the pandemic pups once the pandemic ends (if it ever ends) and their owners get back to their busy lives?

After mulling it over, Cameron Woo, co-founder of long-running magazine The Bark, agreed. “The traditional concept of the nuclear family has been turned upside down … What we consider a traditional dog’s family could, too.”

Woo certainly has a point.Why, in a world where we share cars and houses and clothes, hasn’t this clearly win-win notion of dogsharing caught on?Services like Copuppy and Let’s Share a Dogcropped up several years ago, allowing strangers to enjoy a furry fling for a walk or a weekend, but neither ever really took off. Breakups often lead to embattled co-custody of pets, and the legal contracts that go with it. So why not two families willing to share a Fido — forever — from the get-go?

“It’s not the dogs, it’s the humans,” said Dr. Wynne. Consistency is key for dogs, which calls for agreement among people. How many walks a day? Is the dog allowed on the couch? At the table? Is that $7,000 surgery necessary? Dogsharing wouldn’t work for everybody, he warned.

It works for Heather McIlhany. “It’s the freaking best,” said the D.C.-based marketing executive. She and her ex-boyfriend share two Jack Russell mixes, swapping every week and splitting all expenses. Just because she loves having her dogs half time doesn’t mean she loves them any less, she points out.“A dog shouldn’t be treated like an end table. When I’m with Cora and Crash, we go for long walks. But they also puke on the couch, bark at every falling leaf. If I had them every week, it might feel like a burden.” Sure, she gets “a little pang” watching the dogs run into her ex’s house, nary a look back, and since the pandemic began it’s been lonelier. But then they’re reunited and it feels so good. “I tell everyone they should set their life up this way!”

Not all experts think such a set up affords a good dog life, though. Crossing town every two weeks would be “disruptive” for all but the most resilient dogs, said Dr. Stephanie Borns-Weil, a veterinary behaviorist at Tufts’ Cummings Medical Center. “You have to think not just how it’s going to be for you — but how it’s going to be for the dog.”

For Lulu, a French bulldog in San Francisco, it’s been fabulous.“She has two families,” said Suma Gona, a psychiatrist. For the last ten years, they’ve split the week with another couple. “I thought it was crazy, but they just fell in love with Lulu. They take her to acupuncture! She has this whole other life!” At 14, it has also been a long life. No doubt due, in part, to all the attention that’s come from their unique arrangement — which will likely expire with Lulu. “The kids want to get another dog, but I don’t know …” said Dr. Gona, considering the full-time commitment. “That would be a lot.”

My fear exactly. Dogs are work! I whined to Dr. Borns-Weil. “Well, I also have a ball python,” she offered. “They like to wrap around your arm and you only have to feed them once a week.” (Albeit “a defrosted medium-size rat.”) I floated the option to my family.

They prefer a dog. “But I’ll take a snake,” said my 8-year-old, “if we don’t have to share it.”

Challah giving sourdough some competition

Sourdough may be the celebrity loaf of #quarantinelife — and it is delicious and deserves all of the love and care and at least half of the amateur photos it’s getting — but it’s not the bread I’m suddenly baking.

Instead, every Friday since San Francisco mandated we shelter in place, my 11-year-old daughter, Hazel, and I have been making challah. Sure, I spent eight weeks every summer at Jewish camp, lost the limbo at my bat mitzvah and was hoisted in a chair at my wedding — I even recently co-authored a Jewish cookbook — but confession: baking challah is not something I often do. Now it’s the only constant of our amorphous week. I’m not religious at all, but there’s something comforting, even moving, about this part of the Shabbat ritual. Perhaps because, in a way, it feels like we’ve all — regardless of religion — been tossed into a secular sort of Shabbat. An endless Shabbat.

The Sabbath, as the more pious call it, is intended to be a day of rest. A time when time seemingly halts and we slow down, ditch our cars, go for walks, cook and eat, and focus not on work but on what ultimately matters: the people we love, the present. As 20th century German philosopher Erich Fromm once wrote of Shabbat: “By not working — that is to say, by not participating in the process of natural and social change — man is free from the chains of nature and from the chains of time, although only for one day a week.” Typically, Shabbat lasts 25 hours. (No, not 24, an hour after sundown on Saturday, and all.) Right now, though, it feels like we’re honoring Shabbat seven days a week, every week. It’s like the Jewish version of “Groundhog Day” (starring Billy Crystal instead of Bill Murray?).

Shabbat, too, comes with rules and restrictions. They are different than those of the coronavirus, but restrictions nonetheless. Both come with family time. (So. Much. Family. Time.) And wine. So much wine.

Even before our collective lockdown, the ancient tradition was trending. In her 2019 book, “24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week,” local filmmaker Tiffany Shlain urged modern families to turn off all devices for 24 hours and take what she calls a “technology Shabbat.” Ashton Kutcher was lighting the Friday-night candles and racking up tens of thousands of likes. My gentile friends in Fairfax were “Shabbat-ing” amongst themselves (and, yes, turning it into a verb). A WASP-y mother of three in Potrero was powering down at the end of the week, bringing her kids together around the table. Millennials were hosting group dinners with OneTable, a social dining platform with a challah hotline and the tagline: How do you Friday? Everyone taking a collective pause on a Friday night over roast chicken (or fried chicken, shumai or shrimp tacos) and calling it what it is: Shabbat.

In COVID-19 times, Shlain has been baking challah every Friday with her daughters — and a hundred or so strangers online (hashtag #zoomchallahbake). OneTable turned its Friday dinners virtual with a new tagline: “Shabbat Alone, Together.” And recently, Wise Sons launched a $110 Shabbat meal kit, including schmaltz-roasted potatoes, candles and a pre-made challah of its own, that’s quickly proven popular.

Pop star Katy Perry, raised an evangelical Christian, told a reporter not long ago: “I wish there was a thing like Shabbat for the whole world.” Well, Katy Perry, now it seems there is.

When this unprecedented, virus-induced reality was foisted upon us, something about it felt vaguely familiar. Like other times in life where it was upended in an instant and rearranged into something unrecognizable. In the beginning, I’d tried to pinpoint it. Sept. 11. The sudden death of my old boyfriend. The slog and fog and existential anxiety of new motherhood. The times when I’d wander the house and streets in sweats, forget where I parked, venture into the world only when I had to, warily. Times when the new normal was unwelcome, wrapped in a bubble that would eventually not so much burst as slowly blow away like a lost balloon, until I could see it only in the distance.

And then, the other day, as I sat in the backyard reading with my son, waiting for the dough’s second rise, I realized there was something else this quarantine reminded me of: Shabbat.

Around Passover, everyone was calling this 21st century pandemic our 11th plague, and — far worse than lice and frogs ever were — indeed it is. But it’s also been 14 weeks and counting, of an endless Shabbat. All the days blend together, but not Fridays. It was a few hours before sundown, and Hazel and I rolled and braided and brushed, like Jews have done, in some form or other, for thousands of years, through persecution and pain and perhaps times harder than this, and yet still: come out OK.

As does our challah. Warm and soft and sweet, made with flour and oil and eggs and honey and, unlike sourdough: yeast. (Which was not easy to find during this pandemic, but I had a connection.) An improbable sign of hope? It gets better each week.

Rachel Levin is the co-author of “Eat Something: A Wise Sons Cookbook for Jews Who Like Food and Food Lovers Who Like Jews” (Chronicle Books).

Diary of My So-Called Homeschool Life

7:51 a.m.: We’re still in bed. Hazel, Oren and I. Typically, at this time on a Tuesday, I’m yelling at my 8-year-old to put on his shoes because our carpool is coming at any minute and he needs to be ready and out the door. But this morning Oren does not need shoes. There is no carpool, and no one is coming at any minute. Sometimes people do come, though — for a minute. To drop off homemade snickerdoodle cookies. Or tell us they found a salamander that looks like a snake. Or to just chat below our window, Rapunzel style.

8:07 a.m.: Breakfast is Josh’s meal. I escape for a run in the already-too-crowded park. Why is it only male runners who barrel ahead, center path, refusing to budge for pedestrians, while I make giant half-moons into the street?

9:02 a.m.: I return reluctantly, to find my kids engaged, actually engaged, in morning meetings, live Zooms our school started three weeks into quarantine. Hazel is upstairs in her room, on her laptop like a teenager instead of the sweet, 4-foot-6, fifth-grader she is. Shunning his new little makeshift desk in the kitchen, Oren settles into the beanbag, iPad in his lap. This is the 32-minute highlight of my day, and — I think — my kids’ too. They get to hear their teacher and see other kids and share their feelings about what they’re feeling. (“I miss my friends,” is a collective refrain.) I drink coffee and turn on my laptop: headlines, emails, Twitter threads, Instagram. This time is finite and I should not waste it, but I can’t help it: I do.

9:24 a.m.: “Why couldn’t the toilet paper cross the road?” Oren asks his classmates over Zoom. “Because it got stuck in a crack.”

9:30 a.m.: Hazel consults her schedule and keeps to it. Rarely online before homeschool, she now Gchats all day with friends. She also does whatever her teachers ask of her. I don’t even know what that is. I pretend she doesn’t need me.

9:33 a.m.: Oren logs off Zoom with good intentions. He will do all his work, he says. He just doesn’t know what he wants to do first. He wants to make his own schedule, he says, snubbing mine. I wish he would do reading first: 30 minutes of solo reading a real book every day. If only he’d do morning meeting straight into solo reading — that would give me a full uninterrupted hour. How about math? I ask. No, he wants to wait for Dad for math. I don’t blame him. Dad is working downstairs in the cold, dark, windowless basement. Uninterrupted. I’m envious.

Oren and I settle on social studies. He is studying changemakers, like Ruth Bader Ginsburg. We watch an animated RBG on the iPad. Oren liked watching RBG on “SNL” better. “Does she really lift AA batteries for weights?” he asks. My work is not done.

9:58 a.m.: Ah, Hazel does need me. She lugs her laptop downstairs to the dining room and sets it up an inch from mine. “The Armchair Historian” and its nine-minute segment on the British colonization of India is not making sense. The guy in a blazer and button-down is using big words. “What does subjugate mean?” she asks.

9:59 a.m.: “You said you’d read the Newsela article with me!” Oren wails, referring to the distance-learning education company that rewrites news articles for young students. He climbs into my lap, almost knocking over my third cup of coffee onto both laptops. “Let’s watch Hazel’s ‘Armchair Historian’ first,” I say. He doesn’t want to, of course. I don’t either.

10:04 a.m.: The Newsela article profiles a local changemaker — a woman who plays cello on her front porch during the pandemic. “Why did the woman play the cello?” asks a multiple-choice question at the end. “C,” Oren says. “To help people feel less lonely.”

10:09 a.m.: Writing. Biographies. Pick a family member to interview, the purple slide instructs. Oren picks me. I have a better idea. “Let’s call Grampy in Florida!” I prop up my phone at Oren’s little desk and let my father’s big face fill time and space. “Where were you born?” I overhear Oren asking as I leave the room. My heart warms. Grandfather and grandson connecting across the country and generations during quarantine. “Brookline, Massachusetts,” replies my dad. “How do you spell Brookline?” B-R-O-O … my dad spells as Oren writes each letter with care, and cross-outs. “How do you spell Massachusetts?” he asks. “M- A-… just abbreviate it,” my dad says, already over his celebrity interview.

10: 21 a.m.: “I’m hungry,” Oren declares for the third time since breakfast. He helps himself to another mini-bag of Cool Ranch Doritos, which my husband bought in bulk, because when he thinks school snacks, he thinks 1987.

10:50 a.m.: Live Zoom PE with the PE teacher! We love the PE teacher. “How’re you guys doing?” she asks the kids. “Good,” Oren says, sprawled in his beanbag and sounding like he’s stoned. For exercise, he flips through the anamoji options on the iPad.

11:01 a.m.: Raz-Kids. Oren likes Raz-Kids. A woman’s voice reads “A Job for James.” He listens, looks at the illustrations, and “turns” the pages, sort of like a real book. I turn to my laptop.

11:08 a.m.: The woman’s voice has gone quiet. I suspect foul play, as in: Oren surreptitiously switching from Raz-Kids to Pixel Gun 3D. Because I have a deadline, I pretend he’s still e-reading.

11:32 a.m.: “Oren, what’re you doing?” I call from the next room. “Raz-Kids!” he lies. I let him.

Noon: Lunchtime. Leftover pesto pasta and Hazel’s hand-rolled bean-and-cheese burritos. She’s got serious burrito-rolling skills. I decide she will be OK. Josh emerges from the basement. Everyone eats. I do the dishes.

12:18 p.m.: Josh and Oren descend to the basement. It’s MATH TIME. They do math! Hazel and I go for a walk up and down the street. The same street we’ve been walking up and down every day, sometimes three times a day, for the past six weeks. At least I love this street.

12:40 p.m.: Josh has a work call. Oren reappears. We do math. 7 x 8 = 56. It’s all coming back to me.

1 p.m.: It’s only 1 p.m.?

1:02 p.m.: Hazel sequesters herself in her room to draw the digestive system. She will work on this for the next few hours — while on Google Hangouts asking friends for advice on how to convince her mother to get a dog — until every part, from esophagus to anus (her word), is sketched and labeled and every last bit of large intestine is colored pink. Oren will work on nothing.

1:04 p.m.: Well, technically he is practicing his stealth ninja skills as he makes several attempts to sneak into the dining room, slip quietly under the table and reach his hand up to steal my phone. I urge him to practice ukulele instead. He plays “You Are My Sunshine” once then throws his uke like Eddie Van Halen and storms the pantry for his fourth mini-bag of Doritos, which he stuffs in his sweatpants so I don’t see. Except I do.

1:10 p.m.: I spy two bruised bananas on the counter. Activity opportunity: banana bread! Oren mashes. I mix. We pour the batter into a pan. He licks the spatula clean. It’s a cute, quality 18 minutes.

1:42 p.m.: Oren challenges his friend Zagnut42 to a game of online chess. He loses, too quickly. Rematch? Zagnut42 disappears.

2 p.m.: Desperate measures mean: It’s documentary film hour. “Can we watch ‘Marvel’?” Oren asks. No, I say, this is homeschool. He cries and whines and says then he will watch nothing. So, watch nothing, I reply. Read instead. He agrees to a matinee. “March of the Penguins”! I proclaim. (I love “March of the Penguins.”) “Pumping Iron!” Oren counters. (“Pumping Iron”?) We watch the 1977 trailer starring a young, bronzed, bulging Arnold Schwarzenegger. “He used to be the governor of California,” I say. Oren is confused. “March of the Penguins” it is. The penguins are so not social-distancing.

3:51 p.m.: It’s cold and gray and drizzling. Whatever. I’ve got to get him outside. We’re going for a run, I inform him. Yes, I know I already did.

4:12 p.m.: Oren finally puts on his sneakers. We head down the street, the street I love, and over the grassy knoll and down the creaky wooden steps. It’s wet and slick. “Don’t touch the railing!” I yell. Oren touches the railing. We hang a left and wind up and up, flanked by the lush electric-green hillside, as we walk-run through the middle of the double-yellow-lined road, toward a Twin Peaks devoid of cars and tourists. I hope, post-corona, neither come back. Oren pulls ahead. I watch his ever-longer hair flop in the mist as he plods along the pavement. I decide: He’ll be OK. We all will.

Pandemiquette: A guide to manners in the age of coronavirus

I’d been sequestered in the Sierra all week, seeing no one but my family and the 5 feet of snow we weren’t allowed to ski in, so our return to the newly locked-down city was especially eerie. The Bay Bridge devoid of traffic. Haight Street sidewalks deserted. Buses empty. The gravity of the novel coronavirus began to sink in. But, wait, was that someone walking out of the Ice Cream Bar with a $9 waffle cone?

“Oh, can we get ice cream?” my kids squealed from the back.

“What?! Of course not!” I shrieked, suddenly turned into a shrew.

We unpacked the car; all at once there were so many people. Kevin, from across the street, confessed that his teenage son may have been exposed to COVID-19 at a sleepover because the dad of that house just tested positive. You let your kid go to a sleepover party?! I managed not to scream. Pride in my self- restraint was short-lived. When neighbor Nancy, back from a speed-walk, came over to say an innocuous “hi” to my husband, I did scream, loud and shrill: “You’re too close!”

What was left of my manners? Nothing, apparently, by the time I escorted my son to see his friend, from a distance, on the sidewalk. Sweet Miles had brought Oren a gift, a small Ziploc of gummy bears, which he tossed across the 6-foot, invisible divide. “Nooooooo!” I yelled, as the baggie, clearly covered in a thousand viral droplets, arced through the air slo-mo-style and landed in my son’s little hand. Seeing the horror on my face, Miles’ mom apologized profusely. Miles himself began to cry. I felt like a madwoman. Or just — more accurately — an ass.

Courtesy and civility, always important, matter even more in a time of crisis. But the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the very meaning of those terms — and doing away with handshakes is the least of our conundrums. When epidemiologists tell us the kindest thing we can do for our fellow human is to avoid them like the plague they might harbor, manners inevitably take a hit. It’s an “exogenous shock” to our norms, says Jennifer A. Chatman, a professor of management at UC Berkeley. “What you’re seeing now is that people are negotiating what those new norms should be.”

The point is worth remembering: We’re the ones writing the new rules of etiquette; the new customs are in our (chapped-from-scrubbing) hands. Some lovely new traditions may yet emerge from what otherwise seems a manner-pocalypse. “Be your most positive, vibrant self,” counsels fourth-generation etiquette expert Lizzie Post. Her preferred greeting of the moment is a Middle Eastern custom, she says: placing a hand over your heart, with a slight bow of your head. “It’s such a beautiful way of greeting people, I wish we did it all the time.”

Maybe, when all this is over, we will. In the meantime, some suggestions on staying human while complying with our new order:

On the sidewalk: Eye contact won’t kill you

We in the Bay Area have never been big on acknowledging the strangers we encounter. Maybe it’s time to change that, given that many of us are now stepping off the sidewalk and into the street to keep our 6-foot distance. Next time, try that little half-circle with a smile — or at least a nod, a look in the eye, or any subtle acknowledgment of our new spatially awkward custom. Also, I’m no expert, but it’s gotta be OK to stop holding our (my) breath. (And to those who continue to commandeer the 3-foot-wide path in Golden Gate Park without shuffling to the side, who are you? It’s worse than manspreading on Muni. Make room.)

At the grocer: Practice personal-space shopping

It’s not so easy in those narrow aisles but please, give your fellow shoppers some space. If two people are picking out their dozen boxes of pasta at the same time, that is not 6 feet. Quell any impulse to hold open the refrigerator-section glass door for someone; chivalry is dead for now. And don’t make anyone else hold open the door for you so that you can sneak in and grab your eggs without touching the germy door handle. (I’m talking to you, dude who got way too close the other morning at Luke’s Local.)

Resist the urge to hoard

In recent days, you may have encountered Amazon’s doomsday note, “We don’t know when or if this item will be back in stock” — especially if you searched for, oh, toilet paper, yeast or Rao’s tomato sauce. Perhaps your heart raced and your chest tightened. But the Bay Area — and America’s — food supply is healthy and, as Chronicle reporter Janelle Bitker recently wrote, “There’s no need to panic.” There is, however, a real need to resist the impulse to overbuy so there’s enough for everyone. Trader Joe’s has propped up in-store signs, written in a sweet cursive, asking customers to “show kindness” by not buying more than two units of any single item. “Let’s Get Through This Together,” TJ’s urges. #truth.

Throw money around (if you have some)

Everyone who is still out there in the working world — chefs, delivery drivers, pharmacists, grocery clerks, and above all doctors and nurses — is risking their lives so the rest of us can shelter in place. Now is not the time to skimp on appreciation: May we suggest a minimum 20 percent tip? If there’s no way to tip gracefully (Walgreens and Whole Foods execs: It seems like a good time to roll out the tip jars), a heartfelt thank-you and smile is the very least you can do.

Apologize as necessary

Remember Neighbor Nancy, victim of my fear-induced wrath? I later emailed her to say I’m sorry. (I wasn’t going to, God forbid, ring a doorbell!) She understood. “For 1/100th of a second I felt a sting,” she replied. “For the rest of that second, I felt gratitude.”

Thank your teachers

Parents of younger kids are enduring their own version of hell: homeschooling. Show them compassion. Just because someone pushed a child or three out of her body does not mean she wants the sole responsibility of educating them, or knows anything about doing it. My 8-year-old son has spent much of his first homeschool week writhing on the floor crying, playing something previously prohibited on my phone called Pixel Gun 3, and asking for snacks and sandwiches every hour. So on behalf of struggling parents everywhere, please keep reports of your A-plus, Harvard homeschool to yourself.

Bring back “I hope you’re well”

Crafting an email to colleagues in the Age of Corona isn’t easy. Even if you don’t know what others are dealing with — illness, economic trouble, son writhing on the floor — you can be sure it’s a doozy, if not an outright cluster. Not acknowledging the severity of the times seems, in some way, uncouth.

Not long ago, there was a movement to do away with certain superfluous, empty-sounding greetings in email. Though I stopped leading with “I hope you’re well” long ago, I’ve started using it again, or sign offs like “Be well.” Where once I heaped scorn on “Take care” — irritating and dismissive, I thought — I’m now using that one, too. Because now I really, truly, mean it.

Rachel Levin is a freelance writer and author of “Eat Something,” published this month by Chronicle Books.

Delivery Date

Performed at La Cocina’s “Voices from the Kitchen”—delivery-date/

The Great Schlep: Florida

WHEN MY GRANDMOTHER died in Delray Beach, a few weeks shy of age 97, I was sad, of course. And then, as we ushered the final shiva guests out the door and into the monogrammed golf carts they’d arrived in, I realized a silver lining: A Florida without Grandma Frances, as unfathomable as that was, was a Florida I no longer had to visit.

Schlepping to the Sunshine State to see your grandparents is as much a Jewish tradition as eating Chinese food on Christmas—one highlighted by Sarah Silverman during the 2008 presidential campaign in a YouTube video (aptly titled “The Great Schlep”), in which she urged us to go see our bubbes and zaydes, and convince them to vote for Obama.

East Coast Jews have been making the trip for close to a century now. So religiously upheld is the ritual that the flight routes between New York and Florida have garnered such nicknames as the Hebrew Highway, the Kosher Clipper and the Bagel Run.

Florida and Jews wasn’t always a thing. But after the “No Jews. No Blacks. No Dogs” signs came down in the 1940s and the A/C came on, the “chain migration” of snowbirds began. As seniors set south, they realized they liked palm trees and putting greens better than snow, and decided to stay. At least until spring.

Today, Southern Florida is home to the country’s third largest Jewish population (behind New York and L.A.), with hundreds of communities lining the multilane boulevards with the same lifestyle, if varying levels of luxury, behind every gate.

My Brooklyn-born grandparents, Frances and Samuel Rubin, found their slice of retiree heaven in 1972 at one of the first, the Fountains, in Lake Worth, a series of low-slung, stucco apartments set on three golf courses, with communal swimming pools, a clubhouse and cul-de-sacs boasting exotic-sounding names like D’Este, Trevi, Tivoli.

My sister and I grew up making an annual Bagel Run from Boston during winter break. As a kid, I loved everything about Florida: The sweltering days spent under chlorinated water, timing our handstands; the candy dishes; the clink of the mahjong tiles; all those wizened women and their perfectly painted toes.

Every night, as the sun dipped behind the 13th hole, we’d devour grandma’s “Swedish” meatballs. (“How many bawls do you want?” she’d call from the kitchen). We’d nurse our sunburns, watch “Wheel of Fortune,” then wake up excited to do it all again. If we ever left the Fountains, it was only for the Publix supermarket, where I’d bask in the Arctic chill and beg for Entenmann’s crumb cake.

In my 20s, when I started traveling to truly exotic places, I began to dread the obligatory Florida Trip. So much about the place suddenly made me cringe. The sterility. The homogeny. The canasta scene. And yet, lately, I admit: I’m beginning to get it. For many secular Jews, “Boca” is a bond. My Jewish generation may hate Florida, but we also love to hate Florida. Everyone loves to hate Florida! Political strategists. Larry David. Buzzfeed’s annual “32 Unbelievable Things that Happened in Florida” lists are always a viral hit.

But for us, it’s personal. Our roots run deep. When my Canadian officemate and I first met, in San Francisco, and realized we were both descendants of the Fountains’ D’Este court, we had an instant connection, an immediate understanding of where we came from, of who we were.

I like to think of Florida’s gated Jewish communities as the modern-day equivalent of our ancestors’ Eastern European villages. Maybe the gates themselves were erected not so much to keep others out, but to keep Jews in, as August Wilson might say. Together, in a world where we are otherwise spread thin.

My cousin Emily calls Florida “God’s Waiting Room.” At 44, she’s an aspiring resident. Not me. I prefer skiing to water aerobics, seasonally-driven restaurants to multistation buffets. Still, I admit: There’s a familiar rhythm to the gated community vacation I find comforting. In its Seinfeld-meets-Truman Show way, it’s a place where nothing really happens and nothing really changes. Until, of course, it does.

Last winter, my mother reminded me: I may no longer have to visit my grandmother—but my daughter still has to visit hers.

My parents swear they never saw it coming, but somehow they succumbed to Florida’s generational pull and became snowbirds, too. “This is it,” I informed my mother. “You’re the end of the line. My future grandchildren will never step foot in Florida,” I insisted, as we watched 7-year-old Hazel do her 27th handstand in the pool. My mom and I sat with our legs outstretched, our toes painted the same exact shade.

My Accidental, Alcohol-Drinking Pregnancy Adventure

“What a day…” I said to my new husband, Josh, uncorking a bottle of cab before bed.

On my commute home earlier that evening, my best friend Madeleine had called from Portland, with News, out of nowhere. “I’m pregnant!” she cheered. I was happy for her, if overwhelmed by what it implied for me. The fact that Madeleine was having a baby meant that someday sooner than later, I might have to have one, too.

I hung up and dashed into a Thai restaurant, where my friend Kimmie was waiting—with more News of her own. Meanwhile, my little sister back East was well into her second trimester.

“I can’t believe this is happening already!” I cried to my husband, an aspiring father himself, as I curled into the fetal position on the couch with my goblet of red. “Why is every human I know pregnant?”

A few nights later, he and I went out for Mexican food with Kimmie and her boyfriend to celebrate. The three of us non-pregnant people toasted with tequila shots, followed by ginormous margaritas, while Kimmie clinked her sparkling water with lime and tried not to glower at us.

A month, maybe more, passed. My sister emailed me photos of her bulging belly. Madeleine and Kimmie’s pants grew tighter. I continued to pop my birth control pill every morning.

And my urban professional, semi-hedonistic, happy child-free life in San Francisco carried on. Josh and I went out for our weekly sushi fix, complete with sake and Sapporos and more nigiri than you’d expect a normal hungry couple to consume. I drank a double-shot latte every morning and a glass or two of wine, sometimes three, more nights than not. I ate soft cheese. I ate raw cheese. I ordered a processed turkey sandwich from the deli counter pretty much daily. I skied at 11,000 feet. I lolled in a hot tub or two. Once, home solo on a Friday night, I discovered a leftover joint in the coffee table, lit it, and looped reruns of Sex & the City.

Then a good friend who likes good food was visiting from Manhattan and we went out for what I now jokingly refer to as my Last Supper: a four-hour Michelin-starred meal, which kicked off with Prosecco and ended with port and had at least seven courses and as many wine pairings in between.

The next day my head hurt. But, oddly, my breasts hurt more. I recalled Kimmie complaining about a similar symptom and rang her immediately.

“Maybe you should take a pregnancy test,” she advised.

“Why would I do that? “I said. “I am on the pill!”

But, then I remembered: I am also irregular. So, just to rule out the possibility, I swung by Walgreens and grabbed one of those purples E.P.T boxes I’d always assumed were for other people.And then, home alone in my bathroom, I watched as a fuzzy blue + appeared. Like Juno, I remained unconvinced, and frantically took another test. There it was again: +. WTF.

As soon as Josh walked in the door, I showed him this strange cotton strip of an intrusion. Stunned, and late to meet friends, we tabled it and adjourned to dinner, where I didn’t touch my glass of wine. As if it matters at this point, I thought. My mind did a rapid rewind of the past few months. I had no idea how pregnant I was, if I really was pregnant. But either way, wasn’t the damage already done?

The next day, I demanded an appointment with my doctor. She was on vacation and I was redirected to a white-haired old man I’d never met. A younger woman in a white coat sat by his side with a notepad, apparently a resident, there to learn the ropes. Trying to sound like the intelligent, responsible person that, up until then, I’d thought I was, I spilled my story, in between sobs. The pill… The tequila… The wine… Kind of a lot of wine, sometimes…

I tried to make light of my predicament and put it in perspective. “I mean, aren’t there babies born to crack addicts every day who turn out fine?!” I said smiling weakly, waiting for him to tell me, Yes, yes, of course it’s fine. But instead he just gave me a strange look and said, deadpan, “No, those babies are generally not fine.”

But I didn’t smoke crack! I reminded him, realizing he wasn’t getting my bad joke—or me. “Do you think this baby will be okay? I mean, should I not keep it??” I asked, searching for some sort of affirmation. He said nothing. I looked to the female resident; she remained silent.

I sobered up from my hysteria. “Wait, are you telling me that because I drank alcohol, I should have an abortion?” I asked.

“It’s your decision,” he said flatly. I walked out of the office and into the crowded elevator, wailing.

I felt like one of those hapless 16-year-olds on that TLC show, “I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant,” except I was 33 and newly married and fully employed and primed—by societal standards, at least— for motherhood.

Later, at my first ultrasound, I was told I was 13 weeks, six days pregnant. Further along than both Kimmie and Madeleine, much to their amusement when I later broke my news. Somehow, a baby had invaded my body and I managed to sail through my entire first trimester—typically a trying, anxious time— without even realizing it. I have to admit, ignorance was indeed bliss. Had I known, I would’ve been like every other pregnant person out there: overly preoccupied, paranoid, and occasionally, insufferable.


Women today are subject to a whole laundry list of worries regarding what not to ingest and not to imbibe and not to involve themselves in when pregnant. After the first article on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome was published in the Lancet in 1973, alcohol eventually made its way to the top of the list, dropping into “occasionally okay” territory, whenever a report was released that said “light drinking” during pregnancy contributes to better behaved boys or some-such.

More recently, it seems, the restrictions have intensified. I mean, bury yourself in’s “Pregnancy Safety” section, and you may spiral into a virtual state of paralysis: Is it safe to take a bath? Is it safe to ride the bumper cars? Is it safe to use a smartphone? Is it safe to sleep in a waterbed? (Wait, does anyone even still sleep in a waterbed??)

And now, last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took it a step further—by declaring what women ages 15 to 44 who are not pregnant should not do: Namely, drink alcohol.

The backlash was, of course, rampant. Tweets and op-eds and rants posted all over the place calling the (albeit well-intentioned) suggestion condescending and unrealistic. (A favorite was from Kalyie Hanson who called herself the “pre-pregnant” national communications director for NARAL. “Okay, CDC. It’s not my glass of rose that’s the problem. It’s a culture that doesn’t respect women or trust us to make our own decisions.”) A friend of mine told me how someone on her Facebook feed linked to a news report saying the CDC recommends all women not on birth control abstain from alcohol, and she added the comment, “Oh yeah? Well I recommend you go suck a bag of dicks you sexist douche bags.”

I prefer the way Rebecca Solnit put it. But hear, hear to the Internet’s collective outcry. Plus, instilling fear in an entire population of people who may or may not—or may never even want to become pregnant at some point is kind of absurd.

I agree that the American Academy of Pediatrics’ current position makes good logical sense: the standard for pregnant women should be no drinking at all, since alcohol-related birth defects and developmental issues are “completely preventable when pregnant women abstain from alcohol use,” as a report released in October stated. But I do think, like many others, that the level of panic surrounding pregnancy has become overblown.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is real and tragic— and yes, completely preventable. For alcoholics, of course, it’s a serious problem. For frequent pregnant drinkers, it probably is too. But, I don’t know… if, once in a while, a pregnant woman waddles into a bar for a beer, is it really such a big deal?

There’s this strange idea that from the moment a woman is impregnated she’s supposed to, somehow, avoid all risk. But a pregnant person is still a person—and, as people roaming the planet, we are constantly taking risks. When we cross the street (could get hit); when we go to the movies (could get shot); when we eat at Chipotle (if we ever eat at Chipotle again…). I commuted two-and-a-half hours a day in California traffic while I was pregnant. I wonder, really, which posed a greater threat: the wine I drank or Highway 101?

Being a responsible pregnant woman, or parent, doesn’t mean eliminating risk —but managing it. Is it responsible for someone who is actively “trying” to drink four shots of bourbon or shoot-up heroin? Obviously not. But it does seem like a reasonable level of risk for a 30-year-old woman who is having sex and not on the pill to split a bottle of wine with her boyfriend at dinner. Who invited the CDC to the table?

 A lot of OBs will quietly tell you what mine —one of the most respected in San Francisco— did (once I finally got an appointment to see her). That this “no drinking while pregnant rule” is really in place because, well… if it wasn’t, some women would probably go nuts.I get it. I realize with the advent of the 44-ounce Super Big Gulp and the $9.99 all-you-can-eat buffet, Americans have lost a little credibility in the self-policing department. Still, whatever happened to the Socratic motto, “everything in moderation, nothing in excess”?

When I got pregnant with my second kid, I knew it from the get-go. And, yes, I curbed it like a normal person. Still, during a weeklong vacation to Paris, while seven months pregnant with my son, I drank one glass of wine a night. (Despite the fact that, for the record, according to my server, French women actually don’t drink wine when they’re pregnant.)

I’m not advocating women booze their way through their first trimester. Not even through their thirdMy story is just one data point in an amniotic sea of overwrought 21st century anxiety. Maybe it will move one newly pregnant woman to live a little and put lox on her bagel.

Back in the Mad Men era, of course, pregnancy was considered a nine-month inconvenience at most, barely a reason to alter one’s lifestyle. Expectant mothers swilled martinis and smoked cigarettes, even swallowed diet pills if they’d gained too much baby weight (doctor’s orders!). A vodka-and-OJ was essentially a welcome cocktail at some hospitals, believed to prevent premature labor. In the 19th century, physicians apparently suggested champagne to ease morning sickness.

We’ve all guffawed over these outdated anecdotes. I clung to them constantly during the second half of my pregnancy, as friends consoled me with tales of their mothers’ gin-and-tonic habits that put my glass of wine or two to shame.

My mom never drank, she still doesn’t, but she did smoke a pack a day while she was pregnant with me. (“The doctor said I could!” she reminds me, adding that they’d share a Parliament at every appointment.) I was four pounds and a month premature, but otherwise apart from seasonal allergies and non-pregnant neurotic tendencies, I’m alive and well.

And so is my daughter.

Friends told me I was lucky. To have so easily gotten pregnant. To have avoided worrying about every little thing, like they did. And though I felt anything but lucky at the time, looking back now, I realize of course I was, for so many reasons. Number one being now seven-year-old Hazel— a witty, sweet, little girl with wild curls and a wide smile— who dodged every obstacle I’d inadvertently thrown at her in utero, including a pill intended to prevent her very existence. And yet she emerged on that clear October day, a healthy, blue-eyed, tiny triumph.

How Was Your Day … Last Coast Miwok on Tomales Bay?

In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”

Merrel Rocca
Marshall, California

I’ve been in my Winnebago all morning watching Buffy (Season 6). My daughter bought me the entire VHS set for my birthday and I’ve been burning through it. Not much else to do. I roll my own cigarettes, I fill them with pipe tobacco. I’m a smoker. I’ll smoke anything. I don’t have a phone. No email. People knock on my door or leave a note if they want to find me. I’ve lived here on Tomales Bay for 61 years. I don’t like to mention it to everybody, but I have.

Usually sitting here outside in this La-Z-Boy I got from my neighbor. He said he slept in this more than his bed and I believe him. God, is it nice. This spot is protected from the wind. So I sit here, smoke, and look at the water. Watch the tourists speeding to the oyster farms. I’ve got my own oysters, growing on the dock across the road. When the wind blows, a lot of the times one of the Hog Island sacks will break away and they’re floating, and I just pick them up. Free oysters.

A while back, I worked at the Bohemian Grove up in Monte Rio, splitting wood and driving around members. Like Ronald Reagan and Clint Eastwood, and a retired Supreme Court judge who gave me $400 for picking him up. Now I drive old people around, a few locals from here. I drive my neighbor, he’s about 100 years old. I take him over the hill, to Trader Joe’s, doctors’ appointments. Last time I drove him all the way to Novato for an ear test. Five hours and he only paid me 20 bucks.

My son and his wife live in this house 5 feet away. I’ve got my trailers. My grandfather came from Italy all the way to Ellis Island and then here, to Tomales Bay. There were a lot of Italians here. He was a rum-runner during Prohibition. My grandmother grew up in this A-frame across the road, it was built in 1864. I didn’t even know my grandmother was half Indian, Coast Miwok. She never mentioned it until she was on her deathbed.

Then she filled out all the papers, so now we’re connected with the new casino they built in Rohnert Park. We got two free days there before it opened up. Me and my friend were invited to the opening party. We got to eat all the food that was in there. They brought it to us, we didn’t have to move. God, they brought these pot stickers … the Indians throw fun parties.

I don’t know much about the Coast Miwoks. They ate the little oysters, the Olympians. After they finished shooting us and doing all the crap to us, there were only about 15 of us left, as far as I know. They say there were more Indians here years and years ago than there are white people now, which must have been a lot. They said they owned more land than anybody too, all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge and way up north. Now we don’t own crap. Now we’ve got a casino.

I asked them, “How much do you think my share will be after we pay back the government?” About $10,000 or $12,000 a month. Jeez, after I got up off the floor, I said, “You’re going to put me in a higher tax bracket.” I just want to collect one share and go to New Zealand. And if I die after that, I’ll be happy. Did you see Lord of the Rings? All that land was New Zealand. It’s beautiful … but I’d go just for Hobbiton.

They asked me if I wanted to move; they are going to build us a rancheria and they asked me if I wanted to live on it. I don’t know why they call it a rancheria — it’s a reservation. They asked me if I wanted a house. Why would I want to live there when I can live here?

I’ve been looking at this bay for years and years and years. Sometimes I take it for granted, but usually when I’m gone and I come back, it’s like, wow, like new again. That’s a good view. And one of these days, they’re going to charge me for it. Don’t laugh. They do that.

As told to Rachel Levin

How Was Your Day … Quadriplegic Dad?

In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”

Les Peer 
Stowe, Vermont

Well, I stay in bed more often than not lately. Getting up doesn’t happen very quickly. I’m on a ventilator. I need round-the-clock care. Sometimes I’ll sit at my computer or go into town for lunch with my wife, Marion, but I can’t eat much anymore. I used to love a good steak, foie gras, homemade popcorn.Now I drink Ensure.

I also used to be a skier. It’s been 33 years since my accident. I wasn’t supposed to live this long. At 69, I’m supposedly the longest surviving quadriplegic, but I don’t know for sure. I moved to Vermont back in 1965 to ski — and to go to college. Goddard was one of those avant-garde schools, you know, where anything goes: coed dorms, plenty of dope, your own self-designed curriculum and class schedule. You took what you wanted, when you wanted, and I arranged it so I had plenty of time to ski.

I worked as a bellhop at the Lodge at Stowe and got free lift tickets. I skied pretty much every day. I loved the snow, but I liked adventure better than school. A year later, I went to Iceland and worked on a fishing boat … then I went off to London and worked as a waiter at the Playboy Club. I actually tried to get into England’s Royal Academy for acting, but when that didn’t work I went back to being a busboy and a ski bum in Vermont, in the Mad River Valley.

I was footloose. I became a ski instructor and a bartender; I was a pretty popular one, I’ll admit. It was Sugarbush, in the ’70s, and everyone dated everyone. In the winter of ’71, I met a beautiful woman named Barbara; we dated for three, maybe four months. She was a ski instructor, too. It was a fling; and at the end of the ski season, she just disappeared.

After eight years as a ski instructor, I took a job as a sales rep, pedaling skis for Elan. I was pretty good at it so they sent me everywhere: the Midwest, NYC, the Lake Placid Olympics, Colorado. One day, in Aspen, in 1982, I was out skiing with a couple of friends — and, all of a sudden, I just fell. When I woke up I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t feel anything. I was numb. And I just knew.

I was paralyzed from the neck down. I was 36 and single and I would never ski again.

Marion and I had dated for a bit back in Vermont, in 1981. When she heard about the accident, she came out to Colorado to visit me. She came a few times over the years, and eventually we started dating again. She had two young boys at the time. I had my condition. And I proposed. We got married in 1992 and moved back to Vermont, to Stowe. I ended up adopting her children later. I remember the judge asked, “Do you have any other children, Les?” I’d laughed. C’mon, I couldn’t have kids.

Then in the fall of 2008, the phone rang. Marion answered and hooked me up to the line, and the woman at the other end asked if I knew someone by the name of Barbara. I said, yes, I used to. The woman said she was calling from an agency in New York, that they’d hired a private detective to find me. She said there was a child. A child that could be mine.

It was mind-boggling. We did all the tests and blood work, but when I saw the picture, I knew.

A month later, this smart, beautiful, 36-year-old woman from San Francisco named Katrina walked in our door. She was a gift from heaven. Truly. A skier, too, raised in Manhattan. And she looked just like me. Her first words, she joked, were: “Can I borrow the car?”

I’d remembered I’d seen Barbara, once, in the ski line, a few years after we’d broken up. We just nodded at each other through the crowd. I don’t know why she never told me. I wish she had.

Katrina moved to Vermont a few years ago. To get to know me, she said, which made me feel like a billion dollars. She lives down the road now. Still, I am very sorry I missed something so huge in my life. And in hers. I would’ve given my right arm to watch her grow up. I would’ve given both arms, actually. They’re dead weight at this point.

As told to Rachel Levin

This Is The Day Before 40

“July 18th” read the email that appeared a couple of weeks ago at the top of my inbox, so bold-faced and full of promise.

Ah, the day before my 40th birthday, I thought; Josh must have something fun planned for My Big Middle-Aged Moment. Dinner at State Bird? A weekend in Big Sur? Ooo, a Billy Joel concert?

Back when 40 sounded as far, far away as 50, I had all sorts of plans, too. Oh, by 40 I was supposed to have been a New Yorker staff writer; a Kenyan-level marathoner; an unselfish mother. (I mean, if a mother at all, which was not so much on my “To Accomplish List” as it was on my “To Put Off Until the Last Possible Moment and My Husband Makes Me List.”)

I was supposed to be the mature adult I’d always avoided being, but by the time I actually turned 40 presumed I’d just naturally, you know, be.

But now here I am, a day away from the birthday every female dreads—despite Tom Junod’s recent backhanded ode to women even two whole years older—and I’m 0 for 3:

The New Yorker once paid me $1,200 for a short piece, but then it never ran. I haven’t run 26.2 miles since the year 2000. And as for the unselfish mother thing… weeeell, I just took a two-week solo trip to Bhutan, the other happiest place on earth, and left my two little kids at home.

Which brings me to my less, shall we say, lofty goals. You know, the stuff I just expected to havegotten around to by the dawn of my fourth decade. Like, learn to ride a bike. (Yup, pathetic, I know. 0 for 4.)

By 40, I was supposed to have done something about my hair. I was supposed to have put my wedding photos into an album and read Moby Dick and purchased matching bath towels and prepared for the earthquake. I was supposed to have stopped ordering take-out Thai food twice a week and drinking wine six and started calling my grandmother once and having sex with my husband at least every other.

I was supposed to have stopped buying airplane movies like Awkward Moment and watching The Bachelor and, according to my friend Katie, waltzing around in bikinis. I was supposed to have remembered my nieces’ birthdays and been a prompt thank you note writer and started making my own tomato sauce instead of spending nine bucks on a jar of Rao’s. (But their Arriabata is just so damn good.)

I was supposed to have cured my allergies and done Invisalign and finally booked a dermatologist appointment to make sure I don’t have melanoma, because—after early years spent lathering on the Baby Oil and later years pretending my Neutrogena SPF 15 face lotion counts as sunblock—I bet I do.

I was supposed to have been nicer to my mom and calmer when crossing streets and cooler when mingling at cocktail parties. I was supposed to have learned to make decisions (wise or otherwise) and love beets and pull-off white summer pants and spell “rhythm” right on the first try.

I was supposed to have mastered a softer laugh and slower speech and conversational Spanish and an ability to intelligently discuss Middle East politics.

I was supposed to have worn shoes other than flip-flops or clogs, and have a closet full of appropriate clothes for every occasion, not a closet with a slight mold issue that recently turned my sole pair of leather boots fuzzy with green stuff.

I was supposed to have stopped eating four slices of pizza in one sitting and “carrying the one” when adding a tip on a credit card slip. I was supposed to have started doing yoga and taking shorter showers and checking for lumps. I was supposed to have rid my dresser of holey socks and shrunken wool sweaters and totally stretched-out lacey Hanky Panky thongs, all of which I still wear. Which begs the question: Should 40-year-old women even be wearing thongs?

I know: most 70-year-olds would give up their weekly canasta game to be 40 again.

I know: I’ve lost people I’ve loved before they even made it to 30. I know being Forever 29 isn’t, really, any fun.

I understand the alternative: You either turn 40 or… you don’t.

Still, I don’t know. By now, my Billy Joel obsession not withstanding, wasn’t I supposed to have felt even a little more like… an actual 40-Year-Old?

It wasn’t until I opened Josh’s email that I actually kind of did.

“July 18th, 8:30 a.m.” wrote my sweet, thoughtful, balding husband of seven years. “I made myself a dermatologist appointment—and made you one, too.”

I’m 1 for 40, just in time.

‘Fraidy Cat Lady

There are cat people and there are dog people and then there is my mother. She once brought home an aging wheaten terrier and tried to be a dog person, but it didn’t really pan out. The rest of her life she’s spent being actively anti-cat.

Not in a pro-bird way. But, like Gareth Morgan, the Kiwi economist who called for the elimination of cats in New Zealand, and Audubon contributor Ted Williams, who caused a recent uproar for suggesting poisoning cats with Tylenol, my mother, too, wants a world free of felines.

It’s not that she’s worried about being mauled or scratched or even sneezy. The 66-year-old woman is terrified that a little kitty will “rub up against [her] leg.”

Or worse: Land next to her schnitzel in Tel Aviv. I remember it clearly. My mother standing on her chair. Arms flailing, tears gushing, mascara smearing, “Do something, Danny!” she frantically screamed at my father. “Do something!!!!!!”

Nothing objectively traumatic ever transpired between my mother and cats. It all started, she says, with the hedges in Jersey City, N.J., where she grew up. “I’d be walking home from school, and the alley cats would jump out of nowhere!” she recalls. “At night, their screeches sounded like wailing babies.”

By high school, her fear had unfurled into a full-on phobia. Her best friend had two cats. “Get this,” my mom tells me now. “One was named Pussen. And the other was Boots. You know, like Puss ‘N Boots. How gross is that?”

“Ughh. Disgusting,” agrees her mom, my 94-year-old grandmother. “I can’t even watch them on commercials” she says, wincing. I recently learned that her mother, my great-grandmother, felt the same way. Turns out, ailurophobia is the closest thing we have to a family heirloom.

My mother was a realtor. I remember listening to her make appointments to show houses. “Now, are there any cats?” she’d routinely ask, twisting the kitchen phone cord around her finger. She lost more than a few listings.

Finally, in 1992, she went to see a shrink, who tried his best, but unfortunately he wasn’t as successful as the Russian hypnotist who’d cured her addiction to cigarettes.

Which, is why I got to go to Cuba in January.

My parents were packed and ready to go—until mom Googled “Cuba and cats” and discovered that Havana has a “severe” stray cat problem. In Marbella, Spain, she’d once seen “hundreds of cats dripping from the roof” of her hotel. “I will not go through that again, Rachel,” she said, when I told her she was being ridiculous. “Now you’re not going to travel!?” I asked, totally annoyed.

“Just not to Cuba,” she said. “Or to Puerto Rico. I won’t go anywhere with narrow streets. Then there’s no escape,” she explained.

“You really should see someone,” I said. “Your phobia has officially taken over your life. No it hasn’t,” she said. “I’m fine. So what if I walk in the middle of the street instead of the sidewalk? So what if I don’t go into antique stores? So? I miss Havana …” she said. “There’s always Helenski. I Googled it. No cats.”

So Julie and I joined our dad—and the Siegels and Rosenblatts and Rosenthals—on a bus tour of seniors from the Boca JCC for a week in Havana. While mom happily stayed at home, secure in her gated golf community, where she occasionally sits on her back patio with a squirt gun. “Just in case a cat comes by.”

“I understand your mother,” says her friend Estelle Siegel, as we stand in Plaza Vieja surrounded by pigeons pecking at breadcrumbs. “I feel the same way about birds.” She pinches her face and inches closer to her husband. “It’s the flapping.”

As we wander Havana’s (indeed narrow) streets, sip mojitos by the rooftop pool, eat in al fresco paladares, we’re on the lookout for cats. Motivated not by fear, but by schadenfreude. Look, mom! No cats! We want to come home gloating.

And, lo and behold, we see not one. Instead we see a shell of a once-regal Caribbean capital, gorgeous Baroque architecture begging to be restored. A moving museum of ’54 Fords; peeling billboards advertising the perks of socialism; leathery men smoking on stoops and lipsticked ladies topped in tangles of fake flowers. And dancers and artists and musicians, so many musicians, shaking maracas, banging on drums, belting “Guantanamera.”

On our final morning in Cuba, Julie and I stroll back to Plaza Vieja for the best coffee in town. As we swat flies and sip our café caliente, a black-and-white kitten with cloudy gray eyes and a thimble-sized nose tiptoes towards us. Soon, a fat cat appears out of nowhere, as if it rose from beneath the cobblestone, and crawls over to its baby.

“Look, they’re cuddling,” Julie points out. “That’s cute,” she says, shifting her chair to the left. The cats nuzzle and purr and move closer. As we rehash the highlights of our trip, I feel soft fur gently graze my ankle. Like grass in a summer breeze. I sling my camera over my shoulder, and without saying a word, my sister and I stand in unison, leaving our glass mugs half full, and slowly walk away.

Soup with Everything: A Freaky All-American Party in Northern California

Where is this place? We tilted the handmade map every which way, reread the directions a fourth time and made yet another U-turn on a gorgeous dirt road lined with craggy oaks and broken fences. We’d driven four hours from San Francisco into the golden hills of Northern California with a sack of jalapeño peppers, and were nervous we wouldn’t make it before the welcome gate closed.

For years, I’d been hearing about Soup — a five-day retreat from the doldrums of daily life at a 400-acre homestead, off the grid and blissfully in the middle of nowhere. Inspired by the fable of the stone soup, in which a traveler unites a hungry village so that it can feed itself, the Soup celebration gathers 250 people, by invitation only, who come bearing organic vegetables (and herbs), as well as creativity, costumes, consciousness-raising conversation and extraordinary musical talent — to commune in honor of, well, community.

What began in 1994 as a hippie-pagan outgrowth of the Grateful Dead tour has evolved into a family-friendly feel-good festival of eco-entrepreneurs and nonprofit executives, lawyers and doctors, Pilates teachers, politicos — and, at last count, 45 kids, happy to be dragged along to their parents’ party. Eighty-dollar passes are as hard to score as Willy Wonka’s golden tickets, and all proceeds are donated to a local charity.

Last year, two recycled-paper tickets depicting smiley pink Buddhas arrived in the mail, inviting my boyfriend and me to “Lucky Soup 13.” As a buttoned-up Boston native, I’d always decided Soup was not my thing; but, for a second, I felt as if I’d won the lottery. Then I remembered a college friend: “I was totally into the massage circle,” he had said, “until this big, shirtless, hairy guy squeezed in front of me. It was hot; he was sweaty. It wasn’t pretty.”

We rolled in at dusk to a sea of Westfalia campers, Subarus plastered in anti-Bush bumper stickers, biodiesel Mercedeses and a few shiny new BMWs.

As if sensing our unease, our sole Soupster friend materialized, with a woman wearing angel wings. “Where were you guys?” he asked. “You just missed the Midsummer’s Eve wine tasting in the garden.” I pictured pink fairies and men in loincloths flitting about. I was bummed. Wine would have been a good start.

Set up like a sukkah was the welcome gate, or “luck activation portal,” a metal structure with hanging hula hoops covered in multicolored cloth. “Leave your troubles behind,” the sign said. As I stepped through, a gorgeous woman dressed in a flowing, all-red “I Dream of Jeannie” outfit appeared.

“Spin the wheel and select your tribe!” Jeannie instructed. Four of clubs. My boyfriend got seven of diamonds. “You’ll be separated during tribe time,” she advised. Tribe time?

Inside, a medieval village mixed grassy lawns with shady pines, rock walls, a small pond and a fully rigged stage. Tents dotted the hillside. Drums beat faintly.

We set up above the pond, our neighbors just inches away. A dinner bell rang. We lined up for a locally grown organic veggie meal and filled up with Dragon’s Drool: fresh-filtered water that drips from a stone dragon’s mouth. We were encouraged to sit anywhere, per the pre-Soup e-mail message: “Cliquey can be icky. … We’re all in the same broth.” We grabbed a seat next to the one guy we knew.

As I was scraping my plate into the compost, yet another glowing woman in wings tossed glitter on my face. Showtime.

We shared a hay bale with a psychiatrist from New York. “I try to come to Soup every year,” he said. “It’s that good — to the last drop. Way better than Burning Man.”

The entertainment began. A pair of newbies performed a hilarious skit about getting lost, just like us. A Soup veteran warned the attentive audience against FOMO (“fear of missing out,” since there’s so much to do at Soup). And then a familiar-looking folk singer walked onto the tiny stage: Kris Delmhorst. “No way!” I said to my boyfriend. As her soulful, carefree voice filled the starry sky, there was nowhere else I would rather have been.

A series of Bay Area-based bands played: JP*Orbit, Hot Buttered Rum, New Monsoon. People poured onto the hay-strewn dance floor. I looked up at the hot tubs perched on a hill and saw a gaggle of naked folks rocking out. Two descended to the floor to slow-dance. One guy in a skirt twirled wildly in front of the stage.

Morning dawned with fair-trade coffee, fresh fruit and announcements. Up jumped a barefooted woman: “At 1 p.m. in the lounge, I’ll be holding a playshop on alternative menstrual products.’” (I skipped it but learned later she was talking about an environmentally safe natural gum rubber cup called the Keeper.) “Two o’clock under that tree,” said a skinny guy in glasses, “I’ll be discussing a loophole in the U.S. tax system. You don’t have to pay the military portion.”

Not true!” a lawyer yelled from the lawn.

A 7-year-old named Rose was offering a fun one: “Yummy Smoothies You Can Make.”

“Let’s hit it,” my boyfriend said.

It was too hot and sticky to take advantage of the massage tent. Still, all the tables were occupied. The pond was filled with float tubes and frolicking naked bodies. I wallowed like a pig in the mud, but the water was too warm, so I opted for the outdoor shower instead. Standing under a cold stream, trying to maintain eye contact with a six-foot male model, I thought about my summer camp days, when I refused to shower with two other 10-year-old girls.

Over at “Noodles,” the 12-and-under Soupster set was captivated by the EarthCapades, a husband-and-wife juggling team clad in rainbow-colored leotards and singing about how to save the planet. After dark, we were equally captivated when they transformed into buck-naked, back-bending flame-throwers.

Saturday night, everyone dressed in their ’80s best for the junior high dance, under our hand-painted stars. There was a photo collage of Soupsters from their awkward years; there was spin the bottle, too. I helped myself to a cup of spiked punch, bopped to “Borderline,” and lo and behold, my boyfriend was break-dancing on stage.

The true meat of every Soup is the Ritual. At Soup 13, it was a silent walk in the woods. After being blessed with burning sage, all 250 of us followed a belly-dancing Princeton grad, Pied Piper-style, along a winding path. A lovely stroll, but the point was lost on me.

Still, Soup doesn’t really end when the party does — it continues all year in various forms, with moonlight hikes and music jams, progressive potlucks and political campaigning. Soup is larger than the limited number invited to the party, bound only by the Ladle listserv and a feeling of family.

Back at camp, drums beat. The sun began its descent, casting that lazy late-day glow across the lawn. A crew of cooks had already begun chopping, grilling and stirring. A ginormous grate was covered in yellow peppers and Yukon gold potatoes, purple eggplant and corn on the cob, zucchini, squash, Swiss chard.

The pot was just like the one I imagined in the fable. It simmered for hours, manned by multiple stirrers, until finally the Soup was served. I looked around my bowl for our jalapeños. “Sorry,” one of the cooks said. “Too spicy for the kids.” The Soup was tamer than I’d thought.

The next day, I sat on the grass, listening to a speaker from the nonprofit organization Challenge Day, the beneficiary of last summer’s Soup. As he talked about his own isolation and his commitment to stopping gang violence by helping teenagers connect with one another, I was moved to tears.

In just a few short days, I’d become a Soupster — at least enough of one to return for Soup 14, which began on Wednesday and continues through this weekend.

“Part-community celebration, part-freaky summer camp, part-grassroots fundraiser, part-private party, part-Utopia,” wrote David Minkow, one of the founders of Soup, in a later e-mail message to the Ladle listserv. “Whatever it is, we’re lucky to experience it.”

Agreed. There’s something to this soupy subculture and the community it’s created; a physical, tangible community — the kind you’ll never find surfing MySpace.

Passover Goes Gourmet

Why was this night different from all other nights? For starters, there was a bar. And not a bottle of Manischewitz behind it. Guests were actually drinking wine — good wine — before the first of the traditional four glasses was poured. Little-known fact about Jews, namely East Coast women over the age of 50: they don’t drink. No religious explanation for this, they just don’t. And, honestly, most of them really should.

Secondly, people were dressed in jeans. My mother never let me wear even my very best Jordache to Passover Seder. Dresses and tights that would sag around my ankles only. Now, almost three decades later — with “you can’t wear that” ringing in my head — I swapped a pair of faded cords for a stylish purple number and heels. I hadn’t felt this overdressed since I wore a bathing suit to the Big Sur hot springs.

But above all, this wasn’t my grandparents’ house in a manicured suburb outside of Boston. My scary old aunts and crazy second-cousins-once-removed were clear across the country. There was no whiny Cousin Gary, who once gave me a trashcan for my bat mitzvah. Or puffy Cousin Linda with cankles as thick as Cottonelle Ultra. There was no kids’ table. Or Welch’s white grape juice. Or lengthy conversations-cum-arguments about what route everyone took to get there.

Rather, this was a Seder of total strangers. Fifty folks here voluntarily — not because their parents forced them to come. Jews and gentiles, gay boys and a sprinkling of grandmas, all gathered under the soaring roof of a mod-white warehouse-café in San Francisco’s Mission District. The real draw: the food.

Leo Beckerman and Evan Bloom were cooking, not Grandma Hannah. Two twenty-something college buddies turned artisanal Deli Guys who launched Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen last year as a weekly pop-up. They had an immediate cult following — and just opened a real-deal restaurant in February. Last April, their first-ever public Passover Seder sold out within minutes by word of mouth.

Imagine, the promise of Gefilte fish that good.

Candles were lit. Communal tables were set. Sparely. No lacy-white tablecloths or blue Danube china. Playing silently on a screen overhead was the ‘50s classic film The Ten Commandments. I mean, Charlton Heston’s low-tech parting of the Red Sea is the kind of Seder entertainment I really could’ve used as a kid.

I loved my grandpa Orrin, I really did. He was a kind, lanky doctor in a knit-tie and corduroy blazer — but the Seders he led were by-the-book snooze.

Here was fresh-faced, 26-year-old Leo! With waist-length dreadlocks pulled back in a ponytail, he had a cool, confident command over the room that would no doubt make his own grandfather proud. “What kind of cigarettes do Jews smoke?” he asked to kick things off. “Gefilt-ahs!” guests groaned. After the blessing over the wine, servers presented plates of matzo–it was blistered, cracker-thin, imperfectly shaped. And not from a box, but made by Blake Joffe of Beauty’s Bagel Shop — with more than just the requisite flour-and-water. If all it takes is a little sea salt and olive oil to enhance matzo’s typically dry-mouth taste, then I vote for a minor overhaul of tradition.

Still, this was a legit Seder. Everyone had a photocopy of a Haggadah, the book of prayers, songs, and biblical tales that recount the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt and freedom from slavery.

Yeah, it’s a good story. But as a kid, taking turns around the table reading the.entire.freaking.thing meant we didn’t eat for hours. I’d steal sprigs of parsley from the tabletop (long after we’d dipped it in salt water) — and sit, starving, and bored as hell. Grandma’s dense-as-rocks matzo balls and gray, leather-tough brisket weren’t any prize. But by the time dinner was actually served, they were edible.

“Tonight, we’re going to move through the Passover story pretty quickly,” announced Leo. “We’ve got eating to do!” Amen to that.

And so it began: The explanation of the Seder plate. The Four Questions. (Typically the youngest person at the table is charged with tone-deaf singing this integral part of the evening. But on this night, the lone ‘tween was too shy; instead we were treated to a woman who actually had a beautiful voice.) The Ten Plagues. By “Dayenu” we’d lost count of glasses of wine and were all one, big, actually happy family–singing, clapping, exchanging smiles. At one point, a black, Caribbean born, non-Jew named George turned to me and exclaimed: “I love this! I’m with my people!”

Before we knew it, dinner was served, family-style: Pickled heirloom carrots and bulls blood beets. “Mock liver” mashed with organic peas and blue lake beans. The prettiest, most perfectly pungent, hand-grated fluorescent-fuschia horseradish I’ve ever had. (Note to Wise Sons: jar that stuff!) The soup was a clean, flavorful broth buoying matzo balls as God intended them to be: feather-light and fluffy. The Gefilte fish was a custom-grind of carp and whitefish in a fennel-thyme fumet and a far cry from the congealed liquid you see every season at Safeway. And the brisket… Not gray! Not tough! But fork-tender shreds of peppery-sweet meat.

One woman at our table sent her husband home to grab some Tupperware for leftovers. “I swear I don’t usually do this, but it’s just sooo good and I can’t eat another bite!” Not me. I was a member of the Passover clean-plate club for the first time.

Down to the last sips of Madeira, matched with a creamy-rich Guittard pot de crème (single-handedly bringing kosher desserts back from the dead), there was laughter; career-advice-giving; gossip about embarrassing wedding toasts and bad break-ups about people we didn’t know. No barking between relatives or “help-clear-the-table” mandates from mom. But hugs good-bye. And sincere cries of: “Next Year — with Wise Sons!”

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