SAN FRANCISCO — The new thing we do here when we get up in the morning, even before the tooth brushing and the coffee making, is to look at the sky. Then we look at the internet to see if our eyes deceive.
“Purple again,” I said to my wife this morning. Not the sky. That was the color of soot, like a child had taken dirty fingers and rubbed them all over the horizon. Purple is the color on the air quality chart. It means that we’ve hit “very unhealthy,” our air filled with microscopic particles that, speaking of children, are dangerous for them to breathe into their soft pink lungs. And not so great for those of us who have a few miles on our lungs already.
During the coronavirus pandemic, our last refuge had been to stay inside the house, but when things go this purple this persistently, the trouble seeps inside. Thanks to rampant wildfires, our at-home air filter has started telling us that things have turned unhealthy in our home — the bad air is managing to sneak in, even through closed windows and doors.
So we’ve taken to passing our one air purifier from room to room so our two children can do SOTG (school on the go) without getting SOOT (soot in the bloodstream). We clean each room, then rotate the device, and I trail to maintain the obnoxious optimism that is my hallmark and fatherly duty. But you can tell things are bad when you start reaching for comparisons, like: Well, we could be in Flanders in 1918. (Maybe that rose tint to my glasses is actually ash.)
In actuality, I don’t have to reach back to Belgium during World War I to know things could be worse. We could be in the Portland suburbs or lots of other places in the Pacific Northwest, circa right now. There, the ash in the sky comes with rampant blazes that are creating actual refugees, meaning people who are running from death with whatever they can carry.
So yes, we are privileged: roof over the head, freezer full of meat and crisper stocked with vegetables. My wife and I remain employed and no one we are close to has died from that terrible virus.
That said, I have had a migraine three days running from the poor air (or self-pity, or both). My wife is a neurologist who specializes in treating migraines, and she says that it’s supposed to help when you sit in darkness. But I can tell you that on Wednesday morning — when we woke up and looked at the sky and it was the orange-black of Halloween — the all-day darkness did little to calm the headache.
I’m a science reporter, and it’s hard not to see what’s happening now as a science story, with Covid-19 taking advantage of population density and other modern factors to hop and skip across the globe and from cough to nose and lung to lung, and for wildfire to take advantage of our human spread into the urban/wild nexus and turn our Manifest Destiny into so much hay. Mother nature tidies up, you might say, which is a really clinical and unsympathetic way to see things, to the point of being fatalistic.
What my family wants is not some “context” but to go outside and play. Or even inside and play.
“Dad, can I come out of my room after school?” my son, Milo, 12, asked me this afternoon when he poked his head into my home office. He’d been under orders to stay in his bedroom, with SOTG and his turn with the air purifier.
“I’ll check the air,” I told him.
I looked outside, and it was yellow-gray like a smoker’s teeth. I looked on the internet and it was purple still, worse than this morning, the air quality index now reading 228, a higher level of “very unhealthy.”
This weekend was supposed to be a relief, the start again of some socially distanced sports, including baseball and tennis practice for my son, tennis for me, maybe a family bike ride. Unlikely now. I’m hoping just to look up in the sky, and on the internet, and see only red (merely unhealthy) or even yellow. That would be moderate.