Excerpt from nebulizer instruction booklet that explains how to handle the baffle.

I’ve been having trouble breathing lately — I keep telling myself it’s most likely asthma, but my doctor doesn’t want to bring me into her office for the usual breathing treatment just in case I have covid-19, so she prescribed a home nebulizer, a medical hookah pipe of sorts, one that fills the lungs with albuterol instead of strawberry-scented tobacco.

I haven’t owned a nebulizer for a while my asthma has been fairly mild in recent years, aside from a few spikes like this one— and this model is much cuter than any I’ve seen before, which were all huge and putty colored, not aesthetically pleasing in the least; this one is sleek and white and fits in my palm like a little robot pet. I open the instruction booklet to figure out how to put it together, and a phrase jumps out at me: “Handling the Baffle.”

The only definition of baffle I’ve known until now is the verb meaning “to totally bewilder or perplex”, so this phrase strikes a chord; I imagine “baffle” could be a noun, as well — confusion, bewilderment. We live in baffling times, and I’m not sure how to handle all the things that have baffled me lately, among them:

— Should I be tested for covid-19? Maybe my breathing issues aren’t asthma, or aren’t just asthma. Maybe they are indeed the virus. Maybe they’re a sustained panic attack. But the tests are so limited; I should leave them for folks in rougher shape than I am, right?

— Am I in rougher shape than I think? I tend to downplay medical stuff because my mom went overboard around illness (if you’ve read my memoir, The Art of Misdiagnosis, you know what I mean). A friend reminds me I compensate for this all the time. Am I compensating now? My breathing is really bad. I’m aware of every single breath I take. It feels like something is pressing against my chest, keeping each breath shallow. This is distracting. This is exhausting.

— When I first call the county hotline to ask about testing, they say I should get a strep test and a flu test at my family doctor’s to rule those things out first, but, as noted, my family doctor (understandably) doesn’t want me to come in. When, a few days later, a drive through testing site opens in my town and my doctor suggests I go, the triage nurse on the phone tells me I don’t qualify, even with symptoms and preexisting issues that put me in the high-risk category.

Baffle after baffle after baffle (and I’m not even going to go into the separate baffles of moving my class online, or — most baffling of all — the Trump administration’s dangerous bungle of this whole situation.)

It turns out that the baffle mentioned in the instruction booklet is a little blue two pronged plastic piece that fits inside the medication cup of the nebulizer and helps to catch large, non-inhalable particles. I am curious about why it has this name, so I look up more definitions of the word and find as a verb, “baffle” also means to “restrain or regulate” and as a noun (like my new little blue plastic friend), it means “a device used to restrain the flow of a fluid, gas, or loose material or to prevent the spreading of sound or light in a particular direction.”

This phrase strikes a chord, too. This is how we can best “handle the baffle” of our baffling times, is it not? Amidst all our questions about how this virus will impact us as individuals and communities — culturally, financially, physically, emotionally — we know one thing: we can act as baffles, ourselves. We can stay home to baffle the flow of this virus until we can all breathe more freely again.

Gayle Brandeis is the author, most recently, of Many Restless Concerns: The Victims of Countess Bathory Speak in Chorus (A Testimony). www.gaylebrandeis.com