Isolation is a Soul-Killer


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My sister Helen was a hidden covid victim.

Helen, who died recently at 95, never actually caught the virus until it was in decline; being fully vaccinated and well cared for, she had only a very mild case — and recovered. But like uncounted millions of seniors — and more than a few younger people — she was a victim of the pandemic.

Isolation kills.

Helen was a social creature. Her retirement community ran a weekly bus to the grocery store, but that didn’t work for Helen. The bus returned in an hour, by which time she had only begun her visits with the produce guy and the butcher, the shelf-stockers and the check-out lady. Her son-in-law drove her to the store and worked on his laptop until she finished.

“We’re not supposed to walk in the halls,” Helen reported during the worst of times. We had cross-country phone visits several times a week, but I was seldom able to cheer her up.

“This isn’t living,” she would say.

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Living is interacting with fellow creatures. Even the four-legged kind. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA,) more than 23 million Americans adopted a pet during the pandemic; most of them are still with their newfound families. Depression among the elderly, though, even those with pets, was rampant.

One 80-something friend’s depression became so grave that her children — all of whom lived in other states — insisted she videoconference with her physician. He prescribed medication, but it was only minimally successful. “I’ve just lost any will to live I had,” she told me over the phone. “I’m not suicidal, but I go to sleep every night hoping not to wake up. We have no idea how long this lockdown is going to last.” Happily, she outlasted the pandemic and is shopping and lunching with friends (while staying on her meds). That puts her among the lucky ones.

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For the frail, sick, or elderly, the pandemic was particularly punishing. Already suffering, additional isolation only made everything worse. Some, though, came up with creative solutions:

Two casual friends in a San Francisco retirement community had apartment doors across the hall from each other. They formed the habit of opening their doors and visiting once or twice a day during the lockdown. It brightened their days so much that they circulated a note throughout the building suggesting others do the same. There’s no data on how that worked out, but one of the original door-to-door visitors told me she knew of at least four others who picked up on the idea.

In an assisted living building, residents on several floors had music sessions, wherein they would open their doors, keep their masks on and sing. “Anybody could start something,” one reported; “the rest of us would join in. It was pretty awful, but we had a ball.”

On one urban block, a young man sat on his front steps during the lockdown and played jazz on his saxophone at 10 in the morning. Doors and windows opened; strangers waved.

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Some of us simply walked. I walked for miles, daily as soon as total lockdown ended, across my beloved city. We nodded at each other; masked strangers passing on the strangely quiet streets. I never failed to be uplifted, just by our shared humanity.

We will have another pandemic. Hopefully not any time soon, but it will come. Maybe, along with the ongoing research into developing vaccines and protocols and financial solutions, we can address this existential reality:

People need people.

Watch Your #*$%+#@~ Language

Thoughts on National Grammar Day

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National Grammar Day is upon us.

I learned this from my favorite San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Kevin Fisher-Paulson, who opines and entertains every Wednesday (print edition for me). Fisher-Paulson was arguing (gently, but well within his rights) with a reader who complained about his overuse of So’s and Ands.

If you’re as fine a writer as Fisher-Paulson — who doubles as a cop, gay dad and all-around Good Person — you have grammatical-leeway rights.

Grammatical rights — “Conforming to the rules of grammar,” thanks, Merriam-Webster — were around centuries before Grammarly. I should get this off my chest right away: A pox on Grammarly. Whatever happened to old-fashioned dictionaries? Strunk and White? I may be showing my age here.

Mrs. Vaughan would have a hissy fit.

Mrs. Vaughan, may she rest in correctly spelled and properly punctuated peace, was my fourth-grade teacher, back before your grandmother was born. She taught Old School in the olden days, with a little help from the ruler she was wont to crack your knuckles with if you went astray. (Corporal punishment was allowed in the olden days, in the form of a sturdy wooden ruler for cracking over small knuckles.)

Certain useful words and phrases — such as having a hissy fit — may not even exist in my Strunk & White; I don’t have time to look them all up, so you’ll have to trust me. In my Virginia upbringing, however, we only hoped never to cross Mrs. Vaughan, whatever it was we were fixin’ to do. Such as knock each other upside the head.

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My Michigander husband, a writer and editor who could quote Strunk & White by the page, once told me our romance was almost over before it began the first time he heard me fixin’ to do something. But pretty soon he was fixin’ to ask me to marry him.

So. We write what the Ghost of Fourth Grade Past allows.

It is the grammar of today, however, that creates pain. I mean, like, could we, like, get through a sentence without, like, interrupting ourselves every four seconds?

And. I have pretty much given up on the lay/lie thing. “Hens lay, people lie,” Mrs. Vaughan would declare, long before people began to lie so blatantly; but I have lain that issue to rest, grammatically at least.

The forces of evil declared themselves victorious the day I had a bunch of teenagers in the back of the car when one of them said she was going to lay out in the sun. Another immediately said, “Lie,” in an aside to me, the driver, adding, “I know it’s right, Mom, but it sounds funny.”

Irregardless. If somebody wants their grammar allright they better watch with bated breath what their doing. I could care less. Mrs. Vaughan’s husband cared, but he died of prostrate cancer.

What can I say? Celebrate the Day.

Natasha Trethewey’s “Memorial Drive”


I picked up a copy of Natasha Trethewey’s memoir Memorial Drive at JFK, starting a cross-country flight home just as Black History Month was drawing to a close. Somewhere over Kansas I finished it, wishing for a sequel.

Trethewey spells out immediately, in this brave and beautiful little book, that she is writing about her mother’s murder. So we know it’s not a happy story. But in that same introduction — a dream recalled — her lyrical prose assures us we will be uplifted, rather than weighted down by the tragedy.

Memorial Drive the thoroughfare is a major artery of suburban Atlanta and was the address of Trethewey’s last home with her mother. It’s also a pathway for the reader’s travel.

Memorial Drive the memoir is an eloquent coming-of-age story that explores the complexities of being Black and especially of being bi-racial in the U.S. Trethewey’s early childhood, living in Mississsippi with her educated parents — Black mother, White father — and surrounded by her mother’s extended family, is a happy one. But even in those early days there are foreshadowings of trouble. Trethewey sought to smooth the waters by excelling in all things — specifically school work; the gifts that would prove out in her adult success as a poet and writer are evident from almost the beginning of her life.

When her parents’ marriage falls apart it spells the end of Trethewey’s happy security. She tells the story of how childhood superstitions and obsessions guide her through these years in languid, masterful prose. Moving to Atlanta with her mother when that city and its suburbs were gripped by social and political change, she sees those 1970s days through the lens of a bright but struggling child, wondering always where she might fit in.

Less than halfway into Memorial Drive we meet the man who will become her mother’s second husband — and murderer. We know he’s trouble from the moment he walks in the door. Trethewey knows it almost at that same time. Her helplessness to forestall tragedy or to protect her mother from this monstrous new lover would be unbearable to read about were it not for the author’s skillful, haunting prose.

Memorial Drive is a tale of deep-rooted racial divisions, of family secrets and intrigues and the terrible waste of a tragedy that could easily have been prevented. Bravely and beautifully told, it is a book not to miss.

Survival in the Friendly Skies


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Airline passengers fall into two groups: those who can handle turbulence, and those who cannot.

I cannot.

So when we started bouncing around somewhere over Kansas I went into full freak: teeth clenched, hands gripping arm rests, eyes squeezed shut, feet applying brakes via the seat in front of me.

A flight attendant voice came over the speaker: “Garblegarblegarble Emergency garblegarblegarble Emergency.” The seat-belt sign shone a desperate white. Again: “Garblegarble Emergency . . . garblegarblegarble Emergency. Garblegarble.”

I prepared to die. Mainly, I was running through the list of things I hadn’t finished, stuff I had planned to leave beautifully organized for my mourning children, the dead flowers and moldy coffee cup from my departure a week ago. Then I started thinking: my laptop will go down with me; how can posterity survive without my laptop?

The couple next to me kept right on scrolling through their devices. Eating pretzels, for heaven’s sake. Who eats pretzels on their way into the hereafter?

I stole glances at other passengers. You’d think they were relaxing in a stretch limo.

We bounced more vigorously. I opened a conversation with God, who definitively told me She had other things to worry about so that didn’t help much.

After about five minutes, which seemed a small eternity to me, we leveled off. Just like that, the airplane remained in the skies, with me safely buckled into seat 24F. My laptop still connected to

Glory be.

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When the seatbelt sign went off I made a trip to the restroom. Before returning to my seat I could not resist asking the flight attendant what she had been saying, in those announcements that were totally unintelligible other than the Emergency! Emergency! Business.

“Oh,” she said with a smile. “Someone had pushed their call button. We were just asking them to push it twice if it were a true emergency, as we were buckled in and could only respond if it were an emergency.”

I was happy when the non-garbled announcement came: “Welcome to San Francisco . . .”

Book Banning and Other Nightmares

We have done this in the bleak, dark past

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Today’s education wars are giving me a déjà vu headache.

Ron DeSantis would have Florida’s children believe there’s really no significance to African American history, literature or culture — or any history, literature or culture other than that of Euro-centric white America. (Here’s just one list of a few currently banned books. Read it and weep.)

I was jogged to write this piece by a recent Medium post by Deb C, a writer who knows what she’s writing about. She is hardly a newcomer to injustice. In an earlier opinion piece for a small Florida newspaper Deb C had written, “Why is it not as important to everyone as it is to African Americans that our history be equally shared, as an opportunity for all Americans to better understand and coexist in this country?” That was written in 2003.

Why, today, is it unimportant to Ron DeSantis for Floridians to know the history of other cultures, African American in particular? Deb C calls him ‘Roger B Taney DeSantis,’ just in case you’d forgotten the name of the Dred Scott decision judge. (Now we can all remember.) It is all of a piece, but at this point in time it’s education that we should worry about.

We have been here before.

I grew up (white, relatively privileged) in the segregated south — admittedly a very long time ago, the 1940s and 50s. The textbooks I read, many of them still in use well past Brown v Board of Education, taught that the “War Between the States” (we did not use the term “Civil War”) was solely about “states’rights.” Those evil northerners seeking to dictate to us genteel southerners. Gone With the Wind was in our school libraries, but nothing by Frederick Douglas or Richard Wright or the Black writers who would inspire the likes of Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston and other great African American voices that began to be heard from the 1950s on.

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The big literary event of my elementary school was the semi-annual UDC essay contest. As in, the United Daughters of the Confederacy. There would be an assigned title, usually something relating to a Confederate general or other hero, and the essay was part of our Civics assignment. Even had it not been required schoolwork, everybody wanted to submit a winning essay; prizes were awarded at Assembly by the local UDC chapter president, a dowager of local renown. I may have won, occasionally; I would like to think not.

Just to be clear: the mission of the UDC is to “tell of the glorious fight against the greatest odds a nation ever faced, that their hallowed memory should never die.” If this sounds familiar, it should. It’s woven into the fabric of every white supremacist group in the U.S.

My parents — my father was head of a small college that skirted racial issues in these years — negotiated life in our small town without rippling the waters, though my mother caused eyebrows to raise behind the blue veils of the town gentry by repeatedly refusing to join the UDC and by regularly, though infrequently, hosting visiting Black scholars and friends. (Who of course could not stay in the town hotel.) My sisters and I did not discuss these houseguests outside of our home. Racial injustice itself was seldom discussed in depth around our dinner table. To my parents’ credit, we had books by Douglas and Wright, Langston Hughes and others on our home library shelves, and when there were assignments on the Civil War I was handed an Encyclopedia Britannica. I was more fortunate than most of my friends.

These are the educational roots of millions of Americans: people in their 70s and 80s who studied those lessons. And many of their children and grandchildren are learning by extension. The teachings are from UDC-approved textbooks. One has to wonder who’s approving the books that will remain on the shelves of Florida schools.

Were my family and I complicit in maintaining white supremacy long after it should have been challenged? Of course. Admitting and understanding that, however, does not make me “feel bad,” as today’s anti-CRT advocates fear would befall our poor, defenseless white children. It makes me feel liberated to know truth, and even more appreciative of the countless ways African American culture continues to enrich the lives of us all.

Could someone please explain this to Ron DeSantis?

The Glory of Modern Dentistry

Or – How in the world am I going to pay for all this gadgetry?

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Dentists, my oral surgeon told me almost as an aside — he’s sticking needles in my jaws, and I’m supposed to feel sympathy? — have the highest suicide rate of any profession. I reflected on this, having nothing better to do at the moment.

After Googling around when I got home I learned that MDs are at greatest risk, but the DDS folks are close behind. This is not research, it’s only Googling, but here we are.

Back to my oral surgeon. I am spending a lot of time with oral surgeons, and oral everything elses, having reached the advanced age at which all that expensive stuff — crowns, implants, you name it — done 25 years ago wants to be redone. Regardless of how loudly I argue that I don’t need another 25 years — could they patch me up for five or six, maybe? — I find myself captive to the stratospheric talents (and costs) of today’s dentistry.

Rather pricey view from (one of) my dentist’s offices (Author photo)

Please do not get me wrong. I am immensely grateful to the entire profession, and the way they have kept me smiling through the years without looking like a toothless goofball. Eating is nice, too. So dentists and I are longtime besties.

But now I’m worried about their depression levels.

I do not want to get into the suicide business, which is a sad and serious issue never to be written about lightly. So I am only worrying about what might make them so sad.

Money? How can that be? Admittedly all that fancy equipment must cost a fortune — and many of my dentists are in an historic, heavily gilded downtown building on which I feel I pay upkeep. But as they all have other patients besides yours truly, and what I’m spending on this averages out to the choice between two weeks in Paris or fix that tooth — well, nobody’s talking minimum wage here.

It must be staring down throats all day. Have you considered how repulsive the view into your throat really is? I thought not. Or it could be the fear that, at any moment, an enraged patient might chomp down and amputate your gloved finger? That would definitely increase workplace anxiety.

Self portrait with (happily only temporarily) purple jaws (Author photo)

In the end, however, I have decided to quit worrying about my dentists’ health and wellbeing. They, after all, are not the ones with purple jaws and occasionally absent teeth. Plus, I’m assuming they can afford therapy, given the bills I am paying.

Now, about that bank I’m planning to rob . . .

Losing – But Not Mourning For – My Sister

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Several weeks ago I lost the last of my three older sisters. Condolences are still coming in almost every day via calls and notes and emails. In response I’ve often explained that while I’m feeling extraordinarily sorry for myself — much of my lifelong identity has been as the youngest of four: The Moreland Girls — I do not grieve for my sister Helen.

Helen, I am quick to say, was greatly beloved. By her four children and twelve grandchildren, by a host of friends and other relatives, and very particularly by me. I was her Franciscavichy; she was my Helenchen. Though we’ve been geographically separated for most of our adult lives by thousands of miles, we wrote (yes, old-fashioned notes and letters) and emailed often, and spoke on the phone at least every few weeks. A visit to her western New York retirement community home during the pandemic break of 2021 and again in the fall of 2022 were highlights of those years.

I just don’t mourn for Helen.

The Moreland Girls circa 1940s, bookended by Helen and me (Author photo)

Some years ago, not long after the death of her husband, Helen began to talk about how she didn’t want to “linger.” Her husband had lingered.

When he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in his late 60s they called to say they were going out to celebrate. He had suspected dementia, she’d thought he might have a brain tumor, and they both believed Parkinson’s a far better affliction.

His physician had said my brother-in-law could expect to have “10 good years,” and they said with one voice, “We’ll take it!”

What nobody talked with them about was how many bad years he would have, and how bad they would get. My brilliant, witty, gregarious brother-in-law had spent his life in academia but spent his last years in hell, slowly losing his mobility, his speech and eventually all physical or cognitive function.

I knew exactly what Helen meant when she spoke of not wanting to linger.

More recently she took to saying things like, “This isn’t living.” Life, for her as well as for the two of them during their long and eventful marriage, meant going to dinners and lectures and events with other bright minds, singing in the Boston community chorus they founded, attending concerts and operas and plays.

I often quipped with Helen that she might consider taking up prayer — she was a determined atheist — so she could pray when she went to bed that she wouldn’t wake up. Instead, she simply wished it.

Photo by Sunguk Kim on Unsplash

Once, after feeling bad all day, she was so certain of this likely happenstance that she left a long message on my answering machine about what a wonderful little sister I’d always been; she wanted to let me know that in case she didn’t wake up. (A lovely message to have now forever.)

Over decades of working as a volunteer with hospice, an AIDS support group in the 1990s and currently End of Life Choices CA, I’ve seen some tragically bad deaths, and more than a few you’d call Good Deaths: peacefully in one’s own bed, surrounded by loved ones.

Helen finally got the good death she wished for. Her physician daughter came over to rub her back when she went to bed, after a day of feeling generally low. The next day she didn’t wake up.

Helen was 95. We should all sign up for this: resting in peace like my Helenchen.

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Guns & Massacres & Priorities

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We’ve had a flurry of mass shootings in recent days here in sunny California, the state with the most restrictive gun laws in the country. And it’s not yet February.

In California’s population of nearly 40 million, more than 4 million own a gun (more shotguns & rifles than pistols, but of course all of them kill people).

Nationally, we have more guns than civilians.

In Japan, where almost nobody packs heat (.03 guns per 100 civilians) there are fewer than 10 gun deaths annually. In the U.S. we have more than that every day, any day.

We’re on track for more gun deaths, more mass shootings, more carnage-by-trigger than ever in 2023. The figures generally go up every year.

And all we can talk about is background checks and mental health?