First please allow me to confess—I have been looking for any excuse to use the word “conundrum,” and so this column is more driven by my need to use the word than any content, as you will plainly observe.

We who live on the West Coast during this time of pandemic and wildfires are facing a unique conundrum. There, I have used the word again. The question we need to be asking ourselves is when we go to a restaurant, if given the choice, should we be dining in or out. 

Various state mandates have made it quite clear that the best way to avoid contracting the Covid-19 virus while eating at a restaurant is to eat outdoors. That certainly makes sense not only from a health perspective but also from a language standpoint. You see we almost always say we are “dining out,” even when in normal times (I am beginning to forget what normal times were like) we were actually eating inside—very confusing.

So restaurants up and down the West Coast moved outdoors and for the most part, municipalities accommodated this safety precaution by allowing tables on sidewalks and parking lots. Fortunately, tables have not yet made it out onto the PCH.

And then came the fires which have ravaged California from top to bottom, and what was considered healthy just weeks ago, no longer is.  Each day I check the air quality, and it tends to fluctuate somewhere between terrible and downright horrific. In other words, were I to eat at a restaurant and sit outdoors, which is under current regulation my only option, my chance of survival is nominal, and that is assuming the food is any good.

In classical Greek mythology, Odysseus, aka Ulysses, while on his way to Troy was faced with a navigational challenge. He needed to steer between Scylla, a horrible six-headed monster who lived on a rock on one side of a narrow strait, and Charybdis, a dangerous whirlpool on the other side. When ships passed close to Scylla’s rock in order to avoid Charybdis, she would seize and devour their sailors. I guess you could say these sailors were between a rock and a hard place. 

And so are we. Just as Hamlet could not make up his mind about being or not being, every time we go to a restaurant we face a navigational choice no less daunting than those encountered by the ancient Greek sailors.  We can no longer enjoy a meal without asking ourselves, “In or out?”  In other words, do we prefer to have the virus destroy our lungs or would we rather succumb to unhealthy particles in the air? In either case, our lungs are in for a tough time.

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