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!
I don’t know about your neighborhood, but Covid-19 is making life interesting here in the San Francisco Bay Area. Difficult for many, devastating for some, and interesting for the rest of us. As of this writing (I recommend the CDC site for accurate data on other areas, other updates) we have sped past the first hundred confirmed cases in the state, and who knows how many of the 10,000+ Californians in self-quarantine are also my Bay Area neighbors.
This little virus brings with it a large bunch of life lessons. Some of them are shared here, as a public service.
First off (I hate to bring politics ever into this space, but what can you do?) if you ever believed anything said by our commander in chief, this is a good time to mend your ways. Covid-19 is not a Democrat hoax, it is not going to disappear in a short time, you really shouldn’t go to work if you’re sick, a vaccine is at best many months away, and good luck finding those test kits that anybody who wants can get. This is only a life lesson in the sense that, in today’s crazy information-overload reality, Truth is hard to find. So, Life Lesson #1: Seek Truth. Read several newspapers if you still read news. Otherwise, visit the CDC site and scroll through more than one mainstream news source, please; do not believe Facebook will give you Truth. Watch PBS and occasionally Fox News; if one disseminates truth, the other reinforces your neighbor’s version of truth – and we’re all in this together.
Other life lessons are happier, and equally easy to learn. For instance, at my church we very quickly learned to replace hugs and handshakes with fist bumps and peace signs. Not as much fun, but whatever. The ushers are equipped with bulletins and hand-sanitizer. Choir members last Sunday spaced themselves three feet apart, which looked rather elegant – but they sounded the same, i.e. gorgeous. We also learned translations of the word Covid into Hebrew and Yiddish, which I have already forgotten, and which doesn’t matter anyway since the name was chosen by the World Health Organization thusly: Co and Vi come from coronavirus, D stands for disease and 19 (as in 2019) = the year the first cases were seen. To connect all this: I belong to a Presbyterian church that is heavy into hugs, scientific truth and interfaith understanding.
As to flexibility, this viral pandemic is teaching us, wisely, not to be so rigid about stuff. I was dismayed when the San Francisco Symphony cancelled a concert on my regular series that I really wanted to hear; and the political roundtable at the Commonwealth Club, a favorite regular program at which I always volunteer, similarly disappeared. But symphony season will resume in good time, and do we really need to talk politics late into the evening when it invariably produces nightmares? Sleep is better. That long-planned trip to Tucson in a couple of weeks? Probably not the wisest thing for my octogenarian cardiovascular system. Purpose of trip, however, was to join my daughter for a visit with a childhood friend of hers (whose mother, lost to cancer decades ago, was a good friend of mine) – and they can definitely have a ball without me.
So take deep breaths and wash your hands. We and the planet will survive in good time.
I have taken to waking up at three or four AM in a state of (pick one) sadness, anxiety, unidentifiable angst or worry over the future of the planet. It’s not something I recommend, and hopefully it will not become a permanent habit. But I do note that I wrote about it on May 22, 2016. Had totally forgotten that profound essay, which may say something about its profunditiy. This one, however, is about solutions! The earlier one did in fact have a bunch of potential solutions, because it was inspired, at least in part, by a wonderful New Yorker piece that the inimitable Patricia Marx wrote about the limitless assortments of insomnia aids currently on the market. What follows are the things that get me back to sleep – – – eventually.
Watching the night skies. This has to be #1. Works best for me, thanks to the happy circumstance of having a large window that looks westward over San Francisco 7 floors below. I often get reflections of the city lights onto the clouds (or fog) above; occasionally I get a setting moon. Staring heavenward does not require turning on the lights or getting out of bed – unless the sight is so remarkable I feel the need to capture it with my iPhone camera. The conviction that something more competent than the planet’s current inhabitants is in charge enables me to talk myself down from whatever woe has me in its grip.
If I do the turn-on-the-light-&-make-a cup-of-tea thing, there are the wonders of modern technology for #2. My smart phone spends the night in another room (something I find necessary to my sanity) so accessing it requires a measure of wakefulness (see above.) But then there it is with its handy little Calm app. Or better still, I will pick it up to find my friend Liz has just sent a video of tall trees in a Georgia forest sending their fall leaves off into a symphony of gentleness. If that doesn’t lull me back to sleep, there’s an entirely other solution now that the accursed device has injected itself into my insomnia. Ninety percent of the non-existential things about which I am stewing have simple answers that Safari can provide: Yes, that book I need is available at my Western Addition Library branch! Here are the directions to a repair shop! An email just arrived from the editor I thought didn’t like my story! (What’s he doing up at 4 AM? Not my problem.) Spirits calmed or problems solved, I can then manage to go back to sleep.
And now that the light is on, the book is there. I am pretty careful not to keep Bram Stoker or Franz Kafka on the bedside table, or any of those excellent books about apartheid or the Holocaust, however fine they might be for daytime reading. But I’ll have A.S. Byatt, or Laurie Colwin, or Edith Wharton – any of those lovely friends who can pull you so deeply into a story that they will displace the cause of the insomnia. Of course, you might not want to put the book down, but that’s another problem altogether.
Insomnia is not an easy foe. It may indeed require calling in the troops Marx uncovered – eye masks, stretchy hats, blue lights, Valium, whatever. But before you go to all that trouble and expense I hereby recommend the good book, the internet solution or the celestial assurance that the universe is in good hands – if you’ll just go back to sleep and quit worrying about it.
“I thought I would have a life,” Sharon said to me. “My youngest is now in college, my husband is nearing retirement and we thought we would have a life. Instead, I am juggling time with my father – who’s in an independent living facility but is certainly not independent – and my mother who lives alone in the house she’s had for 40 years. My mother is, how do I put this?, needy. Suddenly she needs help with all sorts of things and I have been designated The Helper.”
It was one of the saddest mini-conversations I’ve had in a very long time. I had known Sharon for less than an hour. She is 54. She was visiting a friend of mine, and this report came when 6 of us were having lunch at the retirement condo where I live. Actually, other than one sixty-something I’ll call Joan, I was the only one in the group older than 54. At 86 I happily accumulate younger friends as often as possible, since the rest of us keep dying off. My lunch guests were talking about what a good spot I am in, especially since my children all live in faraway states. That was when one 40-something said, “I wish my parents would consider moving to a place like this; they don’t want to leave their big, three-story house, and I’m afraid I’m going to be trying to take care of them there by the time I hit my fifties. And that’s when Sharon chimed in with the comment above: “Yeah, I thought I would have a life . . .” And Joan said, with a wry smile, “Welcome to the club.”
I have another friend I’ll call Robert, a business associate with whom I’m not all that close. But because he knew I was writing this piece he told me a similar story. His parents are somewhat younger than this octogenarian writer, but not that much. They had what my friend describes as “a rather loveless marriage” for more than 20 years, but when it ended – with his father leaving to be with an old sweetheart whom “he probably should’ve married in the first place” – that was the last time they spoke. His mother later found a new partner, and both parents, though neither remarried, were contentedly partnered for many years. Not long ago, though, his mother’s partner died, and at about the same time his father’s partner sold their house (which she owned) and moved to another state to be near her daughter. Robert’s father “now rents a room in a home not his own — surviving on Social Security and a small amount of work— surprised he’s still here because he thought he would be dead 10 or more years ago and did not plan to see his 80s.” So much for life plans. “Both are alone and needy now, in different, complementary ways,” Robert says. “If they could somehow bring themselves to talk to one another, perhaps they could begin to chisel away at the layers of resentment, hostility and blame that destroyed their relationship.” Apparently this won’t begin to happen any time soon, however, as Robert tells me they maintain no interest in communicating. His mother lives alone in a home she owns and craves companionship; his father has little money left and needs a roof over his head, a more secure one than the stranger’s home in which he’s been unhappily existing for more than two years now. Robert laments they are in a unique position to help each other, if they were open to it. As their only child, Robert sees this as the sensible alternative to driving him crazy. But he also admits they might not reflect upon or even begin to realize just how their current lives affect him.
Two messages stand out: Needy parents, and children going crazy as designated helpers.
These two examples may not be universal, but they are surely not uncommon. The upside is that many such parents have children at least able to help. (Many parents also have children who are delighted to be caregivers, resulting in a blessing for all. I’m just not sure this is often the case.) But consider the aging elderly who have no (available) children and even fewer resources; be grateful if you’re aged and have one or the other. The downside, at least across the U.S., is a growing inter-generational tragedy. My unscientific micro-sampling, conducted over a period of several weeks, turned up a half-dozen youngish Boomers caring (with varying degrees of joy & satisfaction) for septuagenarian or octogenarian parents, and a handful of Gen-X’ers caring for Boomer parents. Two of the latter have serious financial concerns put this way by one: “So I’m spending my retirement savings on my mom, and – considering my choice not to have children myself – wondering what’s going to happen to me.”
The above, should you want to consider it as such, is an open letter to parents of my generation. Here’s the thing: 100% of us are going to die, which will definitely not be the worst thing that ever happens: just look at all the great people who have already done it. Most of us will need some degree of care by someone, in the months or years leading up to our deaths. Some of us have more choices about our final years than others, but there may be ways to get through our geezerhood without upending our children’s lives – if we talk with them about it.
The envelope is lying right here on my left, now looking altogether spooky. It is even stamped and addressed; that’s how close I was to getting a note into the mail.
Then the phone rang. The note was to begin, “So, how are things going? How’s Gerry? How are you holding up?” The envelope is addressed to Gerry’s wife Kathy.
Several months ago our old, dear friend Gerry, age 75, was looking after the horses on their beautiful Southern California ranch when his heart failed. They got him to the hospital, but then came the bad news: his heart could not be revived or repaired. His only option would be a transplant. The good news? Because he was strong and otherwise healthy, he was a good candidate for a new heart. The further bad news? In order to be on the transplant list he would need to remain in the hospital, in intensive care, ready.
Kathy and Gerry are what I would call salt-of-the-earth Good People. They are deeply religious, clean-living and hard-working, and committed to living lives of service and gratitude. Within a few days of Gerry’s diagnosis they found themselves in the unenviable position of waiting for someone, somewhere, to die. Some generous someone who had signed agreements for his organs to be donated. (It would presumably be a ‘he,’ as Gerry is a fairly big guy, and would need a heart coming from someone roughly of equal size and weight.) After talking with Kathy early on in this saga I found myself also having queasy thoughts: How hard should I pray for some good person – do bad people sign organ donor forms? – to die in order for Gerry to live? It is an across-the-board existential dilemma.
The longer he remained in intensive care, the further Gerry’s condition deteriorated. This presented a scary picture but pushed him higher on the recipient list. In other words, the worse he got, the more urgent his need, the higher his spot on the transplant list. Another existentially fraught situation.
On August 15 (or perhaps the hours before August 15 dawned,) a 34-year-old man died in another state. A man who was on life support in a hospital because at some earlier point he had taken the generous step of signing organ donor forms. One of Gerry’s doctors flew to that hospital, examined the heart, confirmed it to be a very good match for Gerry, and boarded another jet plane back to Southern California. Gerry was already opened up, his original heart beating – with a lot of help from outside sources – outside his body.
He is already back home. Part of the somehow endearing characteristics of these two old friends of ours is that they do not have email or participate in any social media. So it’s taken Kathy time to get around to calling friends with this lovely update.
Somewhere in the southwest a grieving family is saying goodbye to a 34-year-old they had not expected to lose. “Gerry cries every time he thinks of him,” Kathy says. “There are just no words.”
Other than these: “August 15th is his new birthday.”
I can say this with some authority, having inhabited this strange new realm for roughly two months now. And though I concede probably 90% of the widows of the world – more, if you count Syria, Afghanistan, Mozambique, etc – are way worse off than I, still I can feel pretty pitiful about it with very little effort at all. Because:
No matter how independent you might have been for how long – and in six wearying years as a caregiver I have surely gotten used to flying solo – there is a weird stigma thing one now feels, as if an indelible W had been surreptitiously stamped onto one’s forehead. Accented by a gray veil that is technically invisible, but all-enveloping. The status is distinctly different from being single, or divorced, on both of which I can also speak with authority. Singlehood and divorce imply a chosen freedom, an aura of devil-may-care, if you will. Unless one all but takes out an ad proclaiming I don’t want this! I need a partner! (been there done that too, I’m afraid) the solo by choice can have a pretty good time doing exactly as he or she pleases.
Widowhood, on the other hand, is the Great Unchosen. (Well, unless you do in an unloved spouse with an axe or something, and choose to spend your widowhood in the penitentiary.)
It is like being suddenly halved. The other side of the bed is too vast and cold; the placemat on the left too perpetually vacant. The ability to spread out the New York Times without knocking over the adjacent morning coffee does not compensate for the darkness spoken by that empty space. Half of you reads the paper and sips coffee; the other half of you waits in vain for commentary on today’s breaking news or for the request for another piece of toast. The toaster isn’t even half functional any more; it only grudgingly accepts the new reality.
Widowhood is forever opening doors onto sadness. Occasional doors open to rooms full of people who feel sorry for you. They’re only being kind, but still. Many doors open into areas of couplehood where you no longer belong. And who can predict how many zillion times you open the door on coming home, calling out greeting and overflowing with tales that can no longer be told — because who can tell tales into a void?
The world shifts and resettles. Life goes on. Widowhood – even for the young, who lose husbands to stupid wars or senseless tragedies – is likely forever, since we females have an unnerving habit of outliving the males of the species. One adjusts, explores new avenues of finding joy.