“If you voted for Biden,” she wrote, “you are still my friend. If you voted for Trump, you are still my friend. We are all friends and neighbors, no matter what.”
Can you argue with that?
The writer is a 20-year-old college student; smart, pretty, popular and well-grounded. Someone who actually believes that business about loving one’s neighbor, and doing unto others as one would like done unto oneself. The problem is, she wrote those lines not on some old-fashioned email or piece of paper; she wrote them on Twitter – which commands a worldview of its own. It was posted months ago – eons, in Twittertime, but nothing in Twitterworld goes away.
Thus the post was discovered recently by an erstwhile friend who decided a lesson needed to be taught: This tweet clearly indicates that the writer is a Trump voter, the friend decided. No sensible non-Trump person could befriend a Trump voter, therefore the writer is a bigot and a racist and no longer welcome in any known friend group. Shunning followed. Friends took sides. Incredible amounts of time were wasted.
Yes I know, it all strains credulity. The re-tweeter is obviously unstable or worse, someone with a distorted self-image and too much idle time. Truth does not figure in, anywhere. But Twitterworld does not seek truth, only agitation and activity – which quickly develop once such stupidity begins.
Here is the question: In a world where Twitter rules, is there any hope for Truth? When words taken out of context can quickly become distorted and accepted as ‘fact,’? When scrolling through a couple of cellphone feeds passes for being informed and ‘friendship’ twists and turns with a tweet?
Maybe, if we ever slow down.
For a while it appeared the pandemic might teach us to slow down; but then came zoom and we zoomed ahead at breakneck speed. What might have been slowed down at in-person events was instead accelerated via digital and social media. But here is the gleam of hope:
What if, on spotting an argumentative tweet, post or whatever, one were to bite one’s digital tongue and NOT hit Reply? Or even better, not hit Retweet/Share/Re-post? What if, instead, we could cultivate the old-fashioned practice of speaking person-to-person? Even on an old-fashioned phone of some sort? What if we could revive the old-fashioned practice of saying, “Tell me what you mean, what you’re thinking.” The old-fashioned custom of cordial dialogue.
That would bring us all the way back to “You are still my friend.” A long, slow journey.
Should be a very good year. Having just turned 88 on the 8th, I am assured by many of my Chinese friends of an especially fine time ahead: Double joy! Prosperity! Wealth and success! Devin, my extraordinary acupuncturist, tells me that when he was racing motorcycles (a few decades ago) his number was 88 – and here he is, still alive and practicing acupuncture. I may not be Chinese, but I’m a believer. So I hereby embrace it all, the whole cloud of blessings.
With a little help from Wikipedia, the TravelChinaGuide people, and even a few highly questionable biblical reference sources – I offer this look at the year ahead for the Eight-blessed. Even if you aren’t turning 88, surely you can find an association that will let you in.
Lucky number 8 people, it is said, have strong intuition and insight, and thus “the potential to explore things undiscovered.” Can’t argue with that. We are supposedly also able to complete our plans step by step; somehow I missed this trait. It conflicts, I believe, with the Gemini inclination to zizz around from one thing to another before completing any plan at all. But I’m into numerology today, rather than astrology, so am decidedly accepting that insight thing.
Number 8’s are reportedly mild and honest to others. “Their characteristics would never lead to arguing with other people or causing them to be depressed. In order to avoid hurting people around them, they always hide their real emotions.” I’m only partially sure about this one, being decidedly mild and honest and inclined to avoid hurting anyone anywhere. But hiding my emotions? They are written on my very forehead.
The number 888 is a triple confirmation of the biblical meaning of the number 8, one of my questionably reliable sources reports, but I’m going with this too. “It is ostensibly the number of a new creation, new beginning, resurrection . . .” If the world ever needed new creations and new beginnings it’s now; and while we’re at it we could resurrect a little kindness and compassion to spread around. And double joy.
Her name was Joyce Almeida. An 18-year-old student, she was killed instantly by one shot through her lung. Joyce had been on the edge of the downtown crowd with her parents, who had fled for cover behind their car and at first failed to notice Joyce’s soundless collapse onto the pavement. One man in uniform, though, was seen at the exact same time, on horseback, galloping away but firing behind him in all directions at the crowd of mostly civilian men, women and children.
A sadly familiar story today. I was stunned to discover it, reported in a familiar script, in a letter written by my mother to my father on November 1, 1923 in Porto Alegre, Brazil.
In the midst of digging through files of documents, mostly letters, that remain un-sorted even after countless moves and major downsizes, surprises keep showing up. On the date of this letter my parents were not yet engaged – that would happen the following spring, and they’d marry on November 18, 1924 – so where my father was is a mystery; probably just somewhere else in Porto Alegre. Phone calls were rare; notes and letters were the preferred means of communication. My mother had been in Brazil a little over a year, under the auspices of the Methodist church; her job involved teaching music and folk dance to preschoolers and young children while also teaching English at all age levels. She and her roommate Mary Sue lived in the girls’ dorm of a school that housed students from elementary grades into the equivalent of junior college. I think neither of them were trained to deal with protest mobs.
“I ran a couple of blocks,” my mother wrote, “to catch up with the Red Cross people.” The Red Cross people had come to notify them of a student being wounded, but given the name Joycelina; moments later the two young teacher/chaperones realized it might be Joyce. “She had gone with her family to welcome Setembroio the Minister of War from Rio. The mob lost itself while he was making his speech and firing began. A stray shot struck her in the lung and killed her instantly. All this we learned later at her home.
“Immediately then Mary Sue and I went to take home the few other externs who were here. All we have is a great deal of hearsay centered around a core of fact. It seems now, after things have quieted down, that 50 or more people were wounded, a number fatally, and one rumor says 18 killed.
“Of course the children were all very much frightened. Before going out, Mary Sue talked to them about the need for calm, and of the comparative safety of the college compared to other places. They took it all very well and after dinner settled down quietly to sewing – after calmly taking a collection to send flowers to Joyce. Only Mary Sue and I went to the Almeidas. It is very sad. Mr. Almeida looks so crushed. Igaleilita’s dress was still spotted with blood from the wound.
“Yet with all this the people continue to move to and fro on the street just as they have been moving to the cemetery all day. The federal soldiers have taken charge, and they have asked for an Estado de Sitio permission from Rio. Things are apparently quiet now – 10 PM. The school children went to bed calmly. Mary Sue and I are really more nervous than they – after the stress of going to the Almeida house and then carrying the news to many of the school mates. I folded up all the costumes of the ‘May Festa,’ to have come off on Tuesday, and laid them away.”
My mother – a ferocious seamstress who could whip up a dress or costume in minutes – had started “May Festa,” a May Day celebration that continues to this day. It involved all-day singing and dancing and unfortunately had been scheduled for a few days after the shooting. “Joyce was to have a new white net dress for the festa,” my mother wrote – “and it was her shroud.”
The discovery of this century-old letter is fascinating on more levels than I can count: some things change; some never do. But it’s tempting to reflect on the similarity of mob violence whatever the century, and the difference of news reporting in the days before TV (or effective radio, for that matter.) Possibly the biggest difference? News transmission via pen-and-ink paints pictures of a singular sort. My mother’s letter concludes:
“Strange – Mary Sue and I sat taking coffee instead of dinner, and discussed the use of the basement of the other building in case of necessity – of barricading the spaces between the pillars at the back – you don’t think about being afraid when you are actually in it. Most absurd of all, I loaded the revolver – in case we should have trouble on account of absence of police.” I am satisfied that my mother never fired a gun in her life.
No amount of internet searching can confirm the details, so please don’t consider the above to be historical fact. Some things I don’t know – the correct name of the Minister of War, what the riot was about, how the students and families coped. But some things I do. My parents exchanged letters every day they were apart (a LOT of days) throughout their long and happy marriage – 1924 until my mother’s death in 1970 – and this story fits with their lives in Brazil and the low-key but thorough communications they exchanged. I am struggling over what to sort and what to keep, but I believe this story contains truths worth keeping.
Brazil’s history is not unlike our own – various European countries conquered and abused the indigenous people for centuries (beginning in the 16th.) The young Republic was established in 1889 and its democracy is still fragile. We’ve had better luck holding off dictators and autocrats than have the citizens of Brazil, but recent years have shown us all – north and south of the equator – how easy it is to distort or snuff out the Voice of the People.
Let’s hear it for the Voice of the People. Surely there’s still time to set things right in THIS century.
One more strange thing during the dark days of Pandemia was my sense, much of the time outdoors, that I may have been the only person in San Francisco without a dog. Crossing the dog play area while doing my par course thing at Mountain Lake Park, skirting the similar space in Lafayette Park, or walking along any of San Francisco Bay’s limitless varieties of woods and beaches – I have felt acutely dog-less. Despite having had and loved a long list of family canines; I am currently without. And in recent times that has seemed particularly unseemly.
“You want to know how to stay busy in a pandemic?” my daughter Sandy said to me, early on; “get a puppy.” Scooter had joined her household as lockdowns were just beginning. Although theirs is a multi-dog household that leans toward rescues, Scooter was chosen because he was a purebred Catahoula Leopard Hound, and in a sense a replacement for Blue. Actually, no creature could replace Blue, who had been at my son-in-law’s side for 17 years before succumbing to cancer and the vicissitudes of very old dog age. In one of his countless obituary remembrances someone wrote, “Blue taught all the dogs at the lake how to be dogs.” But eventually Scooter, a multicolored Catahoula with one brown eye and one blue, was chosen to join the family.
While I was a continent away from the growing Scooter, I followed his progress throughout the pandemic on Facebook and on countless videos as he learned (more or less) where to dig or not dig, what to chew or not chew, all those niceties of canine upbringing that are far easier to watch online than to teach onsite. But they kept me entertained and Scooter’s family busy.
Two other dogs close to my heart were central to pandemic survival for their human moms and, by extension, me. Unlike young Scooter, Ringo and Delilah are both certified old dogs. I am partial to old dogs. This is partly thanks to my excellent late husband Bud’s book Old Dogs Remembered, but also because, well, we understand each others’ aches and pains and geezerly stuff.
Ringo, 14, whose official name is Ringo Dingo Django Durango, or RD3, was not partial to me in his youth. He customarily started barking about the time my car entered the driveway, and didn’t stop until he had sniffed and grumbled for at least five minutes. But we soon became cordial acquaintances, and by his middle-age and my confirmed geezerhood we were fast friends. One of Ringo’s primary daily occupations is patrolling the exquisite rose garden spilling down the hillside from his home. The back-breaking daily work involved in keeping the roses, fruit trees and other flowers flourishing perhaps doesn’t require Ringo’s attendance. But I’m satisfied that his company helped get my friend Margaret (the Ringo-namer and chief gardener) through the pandemic and constantly able to post beautiful photos of blooms to get me through.
But briefly back to Scooter. Sadly, Scooter went way too far in providing diversion from the pandemic. Several months ago, just before his family was heading back to the east coast from a winter vacation, Scooter went missing in the Wyoming forests near Jackson. No amount of searching, calling, whistling or pleading to the canine gods could get him to appear. So the family went mournfully home, finally accepting, at the end of the four-day drive (drives with large dogs take time) that he was likely dead of hypothermia in the sub-zero snows. Hypothermia, we all agreed, would not be that terrible because you fall asleep before you die. (Please don’t try to clear that up with scientific fact; it’s a comforting thought.) But the next day came a report of a Scooter sighting.
Thus began the most exhaustive search and rescue operation in this reporter’s long history of tracking operations of every sort. After flying back to stay with generous friends, Sandy took to getting up at 5 AM in order to ski out and fry bacon on camp stoves in areas where a sighting was thought to have occurred – the smell of frying bacon being something most of us, including dogs, as it happens – find worth following. No luck. She left articles of family clothing inside comfy kennels in the snow. Game cameras positioned near foodstuffs got some excellent photos of foxes – but no Scooter. Flyers were posted. Rewards offered. Drones flew around the forests to no avail. Even with the remarkable assistance of a Boise-based nonprofit called Ladies and the Trap, whose fit and determined volunteers devote themselves to finding lost pets and reuniting them with their humans – no luck.
In the end – or perhaps it’s still the late-beginning, or the middle – no one knows Scooter’s whereabouts but Scooter himself. Unless he has a secret admirer and protector. His family has settled into a three-possibility resolution: He did indeed die, quickly and relatively painlessly, of hypothermia in the Wyoming snow country. Or. Someone took him in and began to love and care for him; someone unaware of (or uninterested in) the microchip beneath his skin or the rewards posted for his return. Or. He will, one day, mysteriously reappear. Stranger things have happened, say the Ladies who Trap – and others.
And meanwhile, all along there has been Delilah the Wise. Delilah lives in Southern California with her family, which fortuitously includes my cousin Jan (we have Virginia roots; cousins extend in Virginia to the 7th in-law generation at least.) Jan, a comedian, keynote speaker, comedy writer, and author, was available – thanks to the virus cancelling every gig she had lined up – to help Delilah find her voice.
So. “Good morning, everyone! Delilah here,” said Delilah, brightly, on a regular basis, via Facebook and thanks to the miracle of modern video-manipulation. “I hope you’re enjoying the day.” (Or words to that effect.) Delilah was consistently anxious to get us all through the darkest days. Early on (3/26/20 to be precise,) this was one of her suggestions:
“Today we’re going to play a new game! It’s called Guess What’s in That Zip-Lock Bag in the Freezer! All you do is dig wayyyy back into the back of the freezer and pull out all of the zip-lock bags. So far, Jan has found one full of orange stuff, and another with, umm, chicken bones? Just eat whatever is in it! Enjoy your dinner and relax. Let me know how it goes.”
Thus did Delilah get us through week after tedious week. Sometimes it would seem even too much for Delilah herself – at which point she would scramble to the end of the sofa and commence digging a hole all the way to China. At last report, she had not yet made it through, but if a virus variant returns she may get there. Delilah, who her family says is perhaps a “pugzu” – some sort of pug/shih tzu mix rescued years ago from the Burbank Shelter, is somewhere around “12-ish” in dog years. With age clearly comes wisdom.
So with apologies to playwright John Patrick, to whom the original version is first attributed:
The pain of the pandemic surely made us think; what else was there to do? Thought makes us wise. And wisdom – especially the wisdom of old dogs – makes life bearable.
On moving from a four-story, century-old Edwardian into a 1600-sq-ft condo eight years ago I wrote a lengthy feature for the local newspaper (The New Fillmore, May 13, 2013) titled “Lessons Learned from Downsizing.” It drew editorial applause and a bunch of affirmative comments. But it seems not to have sunk in all that well.
I am back in the downsizing business. This time around it is partly a matter of trying to get organized, but despite the donating/tossing/selling/shredding activities of 2013 I am once again (or still) overwhelmed with Stuff. You don’t have to be a Marie Kondo drop-out to know how quickly Stuff can overwhelm. (I applaud every KonMari success story out there, but frankly never got past Step One.)
Here is the Big Truth: downsizing is good for the soul. Whether it’s moving from a 4-story Edwardian into a 3-room condo or reducing a tall pile of photo albums into one small box, there is a lightness akin to joy in the afterglow.
Looking back on it, there was some pretty good advice in my 2013 article. But as it ran to something over 5,000 words I’ll spare you the whole thing. (Digital copy on request.) I itemized its wisdom in eight lessons learned, which included: Treasures are your enemy; and The Fast-Disposal Plan: put it on the sidewalk with a large sign taped to it reading FREE. Also, even eight years ago much of what is cluttering up the planet (and our lives) could be digitized and made to disappear.
Downsizing is probably good for the soul at any age. What’s your teenager going to do with that wall of blue ribbons from hockey games or dressage events? Maybe one Little League trophy could be representative of the other 57 after the other 57 go to the Goodwill? Or wherever the trophies of our youth go to die. And that, of course is the other half of the Big Truth: wherever our souls go when we leave planet earth, our Stuff remains.
Award-winning (multiple major awards at that) author Ann Patchett confirmed my theory of the Big Truth – this writer uses any crafty means of mentioning herself and Ann Patchett in the same sentence – in a recent, reflective article in The New Yorker. Letting go of an old manual typewriter was particularly problematic for Patchett, as it was for me. She had several more of these treasures than I, and solved the problem by keeping two that had maximum meaning and giving another to a delighted eight-year-old. I solved mine by giving Pearl the Pert Pink Portable to my daughter, in whose family room it is respectfully, somewhat regally, displayed. Although Pearl will live forever in my heart for getting me through college and launched into my literary career, she is undoubtedly happier on display in a room of constant socialization than on my dark closet shelf. (Patchett noted the tendency to anthropomorphize our treasures.)
Back to the issue of departing souls and remaining Stuff. “I was starting to get rid of my possessions, at least the useless ones, because possessions stood between me and death,” Patchett writes. “They didn’t protect me from death, but they created a barrier in my understanding, like layers of bubble wrap, so that instead of thinking about what was coming and the beauty that was here now I was thinking about the piles of shiny trinkets I’d accumulated.”
Disposing of the shiny trinkets, along with the ancient documents and the favorite jeans from the 1980s and the shelf of folded paper bags – there’s an unwritten law about getting rid of paper bags that came bearing bottles of wine or small gifts? – and even beloved manual typewriters is a liberating act. If the disposer has begun to realize that he or she may, in fact, die some day, it is liberating to the extreme. With every drawer-cleaning comes lightness.
I may die? Worse things have happened. At least no one will have to curse my ghost while clearing out this junky drawer.
When my beloved mother-in-law died I remember flying to Detroit with a sense of dread about dealing with her house and the trappings of 93 years. My husband was her sole survivor. But nobody had had to tell Isabel Johns to downsize. We would find in a drawer one carefully folded, tissue-wrapped sweater. In a closet, perhaps several dresses and two pairs of shoes. In the pantry, the barest minimum of canned goods and a broom clipped to the door. There were no mysterious piles of documents and receipts, no dusty boxes of unidentified photos, no collections of sermons written by her Methodist preacher husband of fifty-plus years – worthy though a few of the hundreds might have been. In lieu of Stuff, Isabel left only the enduring memories of a life well lived. And a lightness in the afterglow.
I am a hopelessly public social being. The annoying kind who says Hi there! and Good Morning! to every passerby on the sidewalk or the park trail. Who stops perfect strangers pushing strollers to comment on cute toddlers in puffy snowsuits. At random moments I’ve been known to walk up to frazzled moms in grocery stores whose small boys are demolishing the place and say, “One day he’ll be 26 and he’ll send you flowers for no reason at all, and you’ll know it was all worth it.”
So now, along with all the rest of you, I am silenced. Who can toss out a muffled Hi there! before the passerby has long passed? Masked strangers in their faces have to be pretty scary for toddlers in strollers. Increasingly isolated from friends and family by the coronavirus itself, we’re getting more isolated from our fellow masked humans by the day.
In the interest of brotherhood and sisterhood, I offer the following solutions:
The raised eyebrow hand salute. Starting about a yard or so from the passerby, raise both eyebrows simultaneously with the hand nearest the passerby, palm out. Works every time. Nobody even opens his or her mouth (risking the escape of those scary droplets) but you’ve acknowledged your fellow human, and your eyes have done the Hi there thing.
The eye-laugh. Trust me on this. The eye-laugh says Hi there, friend! If you actually (silently) laugh behind your mask, your eyes get friendly. Passing humans see a friendly passing human, which encourages us all to believe there is still humanity and friendliness in the world.
The open-eyed head tilt. If you don’t feel like laughing, you can try opening your eyes wide and tilting your head toward the passerby. This is the most abbreviated of Hi there!s. But interestingly enough, it often evokes an eye-laugh from a passing stranger.
Thanks to the ubiquity of Zoom gatherings, our colleagues and pods – friends & family & such as qualify for frequent contact – still recognize the bottom halves of our faces. The rest of humankind, though, are consigned to eye contact alone for now. When we’ll all be able to wander around unmasked again is an open question that only the very brave or very foolish are likely to try answering.
Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex summed it up nicely in an op ed published recently by the New York Times: “We are adjusting to a new normal where faces are concealed by masks, but it’s forcing us to look into one another’s eyes – sometimes filled with warmth, other times with tears. For the first time, in a long time, as human beings, we are really seeing one another.
I brought this on myself. Not by committing a crime, I hasten to point out, but by leaving the building, which is forbidden. Two months behind on a medical appointment, and confronted with signs of problems ahead, I broke out. And the policy of the geezer house where I live was thus: leave the building, return to 7-day isolation. Solitary confinement.
There are limitless varieties of isolation these days: young singles working 12-hour days from within tiny apartments; frail elderly trapped in inaccessible homes; wheelchair-bound and disabled – we’re all in this together, but alone. My own isolation is embarrassingly fine by comparison: three meals a day delivered to the door, a sunny balcony with lovely views, plenty of music with which to interrupt the nonstop news on TV. But total isolation, for the vast majority of us hopelessly social creatures, is tortuous.
This is a commentary on solitary confinement. There is a reason why solitary confinement is employed as an ultimate punishment, and I think I have a tiny glimmer of insight into what that’s about. More relevant to the outside world, and to these days: all those mentioned above are facing today’s viral version of solitary confinement. It’s not intentionally punitive – though it so feels punitive – but this corner of Covid19-Land is a world unto itself. What follows is a report from inside Solitary.
Day One: On first closing the door behind me, there is a shock of desolation. I grab a glass of water out of the refrigerator, sit down at the computer and find myself in tears. I cannot imagine what it must be like to hear the cell door bang shut, but I have a sense of what isolated others felt on first hearing that Stay Home order. When talking on the phone later with a working-at-home friend she uses the term “unmoored,” which feels particularly appropriate. We highly social creatures are moored to each other just as are boats tied to docks; cut loose, we tend to drift, and the seas feel turbulent and full of danger.
Day Two: For someone who has seldom been bored, I feel myself fearing boredom. I consider calling my friend on the second floor, a noted poet and retired professor now totally blind, but there’s no way to phrase a question about boredom to her without seeming cruel. And as to my unmoored working-from-home friend, a union organizer/justice warrior – her workdays can run well past 12 hours; I think she’d welcome a little boredom. Still, it looms.
Day Three: Zoom and FaceTime have their benefits, but in some ways only heighten the yearning for real-time human interaction. Isolation leads to lethargy, which manifests as physical. With absolutely nothing wrong, I still feel unable to eat. I fix a bowl of plain rice; comfort food is comfort food. I wonder if any condemned prisoner has ever specified plain rice for a final meal? Also: why should anyone start wondering, ten minutes after a nap, when it will be bedtime again? Thankfully, the Rachel Maddow rerun – if I skip the 6 PM (PST) broadcast in favor of PBS NewsHour – sails unmoored boats, now reminded of real problems in the real world, straight into 10 PM.
Day Four: The interesting thing about lethargy and unmoored-ness is that they are interspersed with moments of anxiety. It’s an unspecified anxiety, but then, that may be how anxieties work. As I am one whose moments of anxiety usually happen about once a decade, I can’t say. All I know is that solitary confinement comes with anxieties. In addition to having generally been anxiety-free most of my life, I have also always loved periods of solitude. The difference between chosen solitude and enforced solitude is equal to the difference between night and day. Chosen solitude = peace, beauty, tranquility. Enforced solitude = anxiety.
Day Five: I feel myself having tipped over into something that would probably just give any self-respecting psychotherapist the creeps. Or the shakes. In five days, I have morphed from sane person to blob. I have, however, been firing off a lot of pathetic emails to the Resident Care Director and the Executive Director, they who are in charge of my case. They show up, together, at my apartment. They tell me they (presumably with the approval of the Virginia corporation which owns this plus several hundred other geezer houses) have re-thought this policy. If someone goes from Point A (here) to Point B (doctor’s office) using maximum caution (latex gloves, outside shoes to change, mask, hand-washing at either end, clothes washing on return) one need not be isolated. I resist pointing out how nice it would’ve been to have reconsidered that policy five days ago, because I am way too happy. And besides, I’m in a hurry to go down to the exercise room.
I think it is not irreverent to hear Martin Luther King Jr’s voice booming in my ear, “Great god a-mighty, free at last.”
This essay appeared first on Medium.com, a good site for which I’ve been writing for several months. You might want to check it out.
“Six die, 53 ill at nursing home,” reads the San Francisco Chronicle headline. It follows a similar, recent headline, “Coronavirus: 27 test positive at Orinda nursing home,” and seemingly endless others: “New cases in Alameda County facility,” “Another death at Gateway Manor”. . . These are the sorts of headlines that the management of my particular senior housing community most fears, and that strike a little dread in the aging hearts of my neighbors and myself. I live in a 12-story assisted living building near downtown San Francisco. It includes some 90 apartments housing singles and a few couples with a median age of, say, 87. That is a random number, chosen only because it puts me in the younger half. I generally refer to our place as the Geezer House, but the marketing materials use slightly more refined wordage. Those materials do not lie: this is not the ritziest senior living place in town, but it would fall in the “upscale” category.
There are hundreds of senior living facilities in the San Francisco Bay Area, ranging from minimum-care to rehab to lifecare to nursing home; all of us are, to one degree or another, the scariest target populations for COVID-19’s quiver of poison arrows. At the center are the nursing homes, source of the horror stories that seem to increase daily; my community is somewhere around the second ring out from the bullseye. Though we are somewhat less vulnerable than nursing homes, if one COVID-19 virus particle managed to sneak into our building it would be Katie-bar-the-door. We’ve had practice runs, with flu or norovirus, but those moved in slowly, two or three new cases per day until the mini-epidemic retreated. With COVID-19 we’re staring down a mystery virus that, in neighboring senior facilities at least, seems to move in and take over in a blinding flash.
Extreme measures are underway to prevent that from happening in my building. Think San Quentin, but with better food. We began with Mayor London Breed’s shelter-in-place decree on March 16; this being San Francisco, Mayor Breed got a three-day jump on Governor Gavin Newsom’s March 19 statewide order. Life in geezer houses took a sharp turn toward confinement at that point. I encountered the new reality head-on when innocently heading out to drop some mail in the box across the street. “If you step out that door,” my friend the concierge remarked, “you must first sign this document.” He handed me a paper declaring that I “understand that by departing (the facility) I am violating Public Health Order No. C19-09, enforced by the San Francisco Police Department” and that I “may be excluded from (the facility) and not re-admitted.” I thought better of mailing my letters.
There is a stillness here. Sometimes it’s eerily pleasant, the silence broken by birdsong in nearby trees. But often it is ominous. Having worked as a hospice volunteer and with other end-of-life organizations, I know the sudden stillness that is death, and others here have experienced it when losing a loved one. So here we are, in a place where most of us have come planning to stay until we die – and we’d just prefer not to be thinking about it in the middle of a pandemic. Listening to the stillness, watching the quiet streets no longer bustling with cars and people – manages to equate with death and become just a tiny bit stressful.
Life in confinement turns out to be something for which many of us were remarkably ill prepared, and there’s little comfort in knowing we share that woeful lack with millions of fellow citizens and certainly the Trump administration. Comfort is in short supply under social distance guidelines. Most of us here were children during World War II, memories of which have a certain nostalgia: there was shared sacrifice then too, but it felt noble rather than resentful. And there were Mr. Roosevelt’s fireside chats.
I don’t remember the first of these, which was given a few months before I was born, but I well remember some of the last, during the war, when we’d gather around the big Philco radio to hear that deep, cultured voice. Grammatically perfect, unfailingly calm and reassuring. It’s hard not to yearn for such a voice when listening to our current president’s egotistical bombast and vulgar, vicious divisiveness. I think the memories of very different times accentuate the vague feeling among residents of senior living facilities that we are imprisoned against our will.
On the upside for my fellow inmates here and me, our fortress is pretty posh. Three good meals delivered daily in compostable containers, creature comforts like views of the San Bruno mountains to the south, or the San Francisco sunsets from our west windows. On the downside, it is possible to spend days at a time without seeing another human being, other than the masked person who shows up every day to take your temperature. For those of us still mobile there are decidedly other upsides: a small exercise room with treadmill, weights etc, and an outdoor terrace on the second floor (barred gate at the bottom of its stairs.) Walking from one end of the terrace to the other requires 180 steps. The exercise room being too small to accommodate more than one socially-distanced person, I get my best exercise walking from the 7th floor to the 3rd to see if anyone is on the treadmill. Eight or ten of us are also known to go walking at the same time, appropriately distanced, and thereafter to hang out for also distanced but at least human-to-human, conversation – though it does include frequent remarks in the “Did you see who that gurney came for?” category. Some of us are more obsessive than others about checking the case/death numbers posted every morning at 9 by the San Francisco Department of Public Health; everyone talks less and less about when the country may “open up.” Or about politics at all, for that matter. Political discussions pretty much begin and end with “What about Trump saying . . .” This place is not a bastion of conservatism.
What’s not heard a lot? Complaints. If we chafe at confinement, we’re grateful to wake up without a fever. Most of us have friends or family in New York, Atlanta, New Orleans or Seattle and we worry about them far more than they need worry about us. All of us have friends or family who are doctors, nurses, first responders and others on the front lines. Somehow, gratitude seems to edge out the fear in our geezerly hearts.
This essay also appears on Medium.com, a fine site committed to the exchange of ideas, knowledge and perspectives, on which I’ll be posting in the future. But I’ll still be holding forth right here on franjohns.net. So stick around!