On Tyranny — and Anti-Tyranny

Feodora Chiosea/Getty Images

Everybody knew one: the bully kid you couldn’t avoid; the neighborhood tyrant.

When I was six, little Beverly Ann Brooks was queen. Everybody deferred to Beverly Ann. When pushed against, she had only to say, “Well, I quit,” the ultimatum that ended any game (or whatever) unless the rest of us immediately caved. That was the usual case. One day, however, my sister Mimi – Beverly Ann’s age, they were a grade above me – reached her limit. She positioned herself in front of Our Leader, placed her balled-up fists on her hips and said, “Well, quit then, Bev’ly Ann.” You can see why Mimi was my lifelong heroine. Furthermore, the tactic worked. The rest of us figuratively turned and walked away, and leadership became at least slightly more communal for the rest of the summer.

This essay is not just about tyrants on the political front, several of whom probably come to mind. (It was satisfying though, after years of watching everything I hold dear fall to one super-bully senator who will remain nameless, to see Chuck Schumer turn out to be a modern-day Mimi. At least for a while.)

I worry that we are turning into a country of mini-tyrants. Not just about laws and masks and vaccines (whereupon no amount of authoritarian edicts seem to work very well anyway) but about all manner of other things, from who gets to go where in person to why one rule is good and another the work of the devil. The dictionary definition (a few of us still keep a dictionary on the bookshelf, just because…) of a tyrant settles on “cruel and oppressive.” There seem to be cruel oppressors around at every turn. Would it not be lovely to replace a little tyranny with some old-fashioned negotiation? Negotiation seems eventually to become either too contentious or not worth bothering with – which clears the field for the tyrant. This does not seem to bode well even for tyranny, because so many tyrants are left to preside over scorched earth and a lot of dead bodies.

So what’s to be done? The best books on the subject (which I have not read, I’ve only been studying excerpts and what do I know?) advise things like standing your ground and giving the appearance of being confident. This is supposed to work for the bullied and the tyrannized, as was true for Mimi and (briefly) Chuck Schumer. Now, if we the bullied and tyrannized could figure out how to stand our ground without punching the other guy out, that would be an excellent first step.

We are also advised to try to understand the bullyer. This may be why Mary Trump’s books are selling so well, but I’m trying not to focus on the former Bully in Chief. In fact, just a rudimentary knowledge of money and power makes understanding political tyrants too easy, so this essay will focus on the local citizenry.

After standing one’s ground and trying empathy or understanding, advice turns to walking away, and/or modeling better behavior – think kindness, humor, those sorts of quaint behaviors that came naturally in pre-pandemic times. Actually, I tested this one out a few weeks ago. Caught in a sudden heated argument about outdoor restaurants, it was two against one – I love the outdoor eateries, they just hate them all because they’re unsightly and  usurp precious urban parking spaces and should be immediately outlawed. Facing the loss of both argument and friends I came up with an alternative. “Okay, okay,” I said with my sweetest smile. “I’ll go with banning everybody unless they serve ice cream sundaes with caramel sauce and extra whip at discount prices, any hour of the day.” My adversaries may not substitute that for the ordinance they’re proposing to introduce, but at least we parted friends.

And that’s all I hope for. A little less tyranny, a little more friendship.


Whither the American Mall?

The old Emporium dome lives on at Westfield Centre

The weary, wobbling American mall is a piece of today’s weary American story that’s hard to ignore. This story is about just one – which is still wobbling a bit, but working to emerge from its lingering depression.

In the Before Days – before pandemic, before economic woes, before Amazon – were the malls. Like Chicago’s Water Tower Place, Atlanta’s Phipps Plaza, Seattle’s Pacific Place or the ultimate mega-consumer destination Mall of America in Bloomington, MN. And thousands of others from the large like these to the small ubiquitous strips.

Signs of the glory days, Market St entry

Teenagers by the millions hung out in malls. Senior citizens speed-walked and exercised in malls. Shoppers even shopped in malls – enough of them to keep retailers happy, from the giant-store anchors to the boutique in-betweens to the aromatic food courts. But after getting clobbered by economic downturns and online shopping, the pandemic delivered what was a final blow to the Mall Era. A few survive, others are struggling or reinventing themselves and others make you want to weep for the desolation – and sometimes environmental disaster – their abandoned parking lots suggest. This is just one tiny glimpse backward and forward into one survivor: my city’s brave and even partly beautiful downtown Westfield San Francisco Centre.

Decades ago, in the 1970s-1980s glory days of malls, I was writing for commercial magazines that included Business Atlanta, National Real Estate Investor and – may it rest in peace –  Shopping Center World. If I could resurrect those memories (most of them delightful, some better off dead) I’m satisfied that Westfield Centre would be in there somewhere. Although that would have been in its former life as the chic San Francisco Center, with its grand Emporium rivaling the upscale Union Square emporiums for tourist business. 

Today, Westfield is reopened to masked visitors. Anchors Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom are keeping the lights on (a LOT of lights.) A respectable number of small retailers and service shops help keep Westfield from feeling totally deserted. But it is definitely deserted in spots, such as the eastern end on Market Street, where a handful of visitors rest below the carefully preserved dome of the old Emporium. On the Mission Street side of this end is sparkling Bloomie’s though more than one department seems better suited to rolling a bowling ball down the empty space than to browsing the expensive racks.

Social distancing on elevators

At the Nordstrom end things are decidedly livelier. Shoppers and browsers keep their masks on (or are reminded to do so by signs and salespersons at every turn) – but there are more small shops with lights on than boarded over storefronts.

A few other random sights remind the shopper/stroller that this is not your yesterday’s mall: Skateboard-carrying teenagers, en route to the empty upper decks of the parking garage across Mission Street, drop them to the marble for a quick joyride along the near-empty hallways. Food court places ask for your phone number so they can text you when your order is ready, even though you’re standing barely six feet distant. Speaking of (social) distances, they are pretty much ignored – until you’re in a line somewhere and X’s mark the spots. Escalator passengers often politely wait an appropriate few stairsteps, which seems a nice touch. Otherwise, the multi-colored masks serve as a perpetual reminder that we’re a long way away from the bustling crowds of shoppers past.

But some things remain sturdy reminders of bygone days. Claire’s, the iconic ear-piercing place, apparently emerged from bankruptcy a few years ago and is back in business on the lower level; this reporter stopped by for a re-piercing job, raising the median client age by about 70 years. And one uniformed guard, standing watch at the Market Street entry for the unmasked, the disturbers of the peace, the lost or the questioning, was asked how long he’d had this job. “Since way before, ma’m,” he said with a weary smile, “way before.”   

Post-pandemic travel: planes, trains & the Flixbus

All Bus Destinations: Book your Bus Tickets from $4.99 → FlixBus

The FlixbBus Experience has won my personal post-pandemic travel award. Surpassing Amtrak, several major airlines, Lyft, Uber, even Big D’s Limos and my own beloved 2001 Volvo S40 – just to illustrate the scope of transportation choices made since we were sprung from Covid captivity. Unsure of how much traveling remains in my anticipated lifetime, and even less sure of how many virus variants are yet to come for us, I’ve been doing some serious roaming the country in the past few months. None of it dull. But the FlixBus Afternoon wins the gold medal for sheer adventure.

Pre-pandemic, I had never heard of FlixBus. You may not be familiar with it yourself, unless you’re one of the 100+ million travelers across Europe and the U.S. who have hopped aboard one of the lime green jumbos since they came into being less than a decade ago. FlixBus was the genius idea of three young entrepreneurs in Munich, Germany who wanted to make sustainable bus travel both comfortable and affordable. (Read: environmentally friendly and the price won’t break your bank account.) I learned this post-trip from the FlixFacts on the website; all I knew in advance was that the FlixBus, according to the website on which I purchased a ticket, would have an indoor bathroom and free wi-fi, my two top travel priorities. I’d already gotten to NY from San Francisco on a traditional old airplane.

There being very few ways to get from Manhattan to Ithaca, New York, I booked a seat on a FlixBus. Actually, two seats. On making my reservation I was invited to buy the adjacent seat for $5 and “travel neighbor-free.” I was also invited to add 44 cents to offset my personal carbon footprint through a contribution to the National Forest Foundation. What’s not to love about the FlixBus? But it is the total experience that merits this award.

Former fellow step-sitter punching at fellow passengers

I got to the Manhattan departure site near Madison Square Garden just over an hour ahead of time. Big mistake. FlixBus does not waste its energies (or your money) on things like bus stations, benches or ticket agents. You already bought your ticket online, anyway; don’t you know where you’re going? I finally found someone who seemed to know about things like announcements (there are none) and waiting areas. “See that building across the street?” he said; “you can sit on the steps with those people.”

Stone steps beat standing on sidewalks in 90-degree sunshine. This worked until a drugged-out fellow step-sitter above me fell over and rolled down to the sidewalk, nicking my backpack on his way. I decided it was a good time to recross the street, where I noticed a line forming beside one of the lime green FlixBuses. Someone said it was indeed going to Ithaca, so I stood in line (where the drugged-out former step-sitter was now shadow-boxing other standees) and eventually we departed.

Because drivers can’t easily access the indoor bathroom while they’re working, we pulled into a mega-gas-station/deli/store several hours later. The driver announced a 15-minute rest stop. Most of us filed in to find an iced latte, or hung around doing yoga stretches for the allotted time, at the end of which the driver reappeared and started counting noses. There were not enough. He disappeared back into the store for a while and returned to count noses again. We were still two passengers short. After two more trips and rechecks, two unconcerned passengers mysteriously reappeared and we were on our way.

In Ithaca the FlixBus came to a halt on a downtown street (where there was at least a bench) and bus and driver quickly disappeared into thin air. The other passengers were disappearing about as fast, but I asked one of them where we were and he said, “Green Street.” The Lyft people said (via app) “Are you sure you want to confirm? There are very few drivers and you may not get a ride.” The Uber people just said “No cars available.” I eventually learned there is one taxi company in Ithaca (277-7777, you can at least remember its number) and someone there said they would pick me up on Green Street; happily they knew where I was, in front of Urban Outfitters. Some 20 minutes and a repeat call later, a cab pulled up and I completed my trip from Manhattan to destination.

A few days later Big D’s picked me up – you’ll want to know about Big D’s Limos if you don’t have your own car in Ithaca and would like to count on a ride – and got me to the Syracuse terminal from which Amtrak got me back to Manhattan just in time for Hurricane Ida. An airplane later got me back to San Francisco, and all is well. For post-pandemic travel, though, the FlixBus link was definitely the most memorable segment.  

Fear of Quarantining

Photo by Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash

How, I wonder, do the imprisoned survive?

Covid quarantines are giving us a new appreciation for jail time. Me, at least. Personally, I just would not make it. Going to jail has always been low on my list of reasons to obey the law, but lately it has risen to the top. I do not handle isolation well, to put it unreasonably mildly.

Early on in the pandemic, when the geezer house in which I live was totally shut down, I had a doctor’s appointment. On my return I was told, by management people who without prior notice had been transformed into wardens, that I would need to quarantine in my apartment for the next two weeks. Maybe this had been posted somewhere before I left, but it had missed my notice.

TWO WEEKS?” I shrieked. “In this very apartment? No quick trips to the outdoor restaurants? No walks in the parks? For TWO WEEKS?” It was not a pretty scene. Five days later the warden revisited to tell me I was cleared to leave the premises. During the interim period I had received three meals a day delivered to my door, done a good bit of pacing and totally caught up on emails and writing projects. But I had also felt myself going a little nuts. In five days. To clarify this absurdity a little further, I have a lovely 1600-sq-ft apartment with a balcony looking across San Francisco to the San Bruno Mountains, and a western view of extraordinary sunsets – something few jail cells boast. Still, I feared for my sanity throughout five long days.

Half the people I know are self-quarantining somewhere or other for up to two weeks, for the pleasure – or often the necessity – of traveling these days. For the most part, they seem to be suffering in silence, and I appreciate the fact that they are doing this to protect you and me. It’s slightly less common now, unless you’re doing international stuff; but because the Covid virus, in one variant form or another, is likely to be with us for many months ahead, quarantining is also likely to remain.

As I wimped my way through five days of isolation I experienced at least a half-dozen of what the Mayo Clinic identifies as symptoms of anxiety, including tension, restlessness, nervousness and “having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom.” This was the worst moment of all: an ice cream truck set up shop on the street below, midway through a warm afternoon. Almost pushed me over the edge – or off the 7th floor balcony. That truck was just below my eyes, and I was forbidden to go downstairs and buy a popsicle. It would not have helped to think about people in prison who don’t see ice cream trucks outside. I survived by remembering I had a Haagen Dasz mini in the freezer.     

If you suffer from anything similar to the above, I strongly recommend against visiting Hong Kong. A young friend of mine, an American who has lived and worked for four or five years  in Hong Kong, recently came to the U.S. for a visit with friends and family. When we met for a brief reunion I asked if she would face quarantine on her return to Hong Kong. Whew. She will be escorted from the airport to a hotel not of her choosing, where she will spend 21 days in a room with bath. She will wear a bracelet tracking her every move, and if she leaves the room she will be faced with huge fines – and possibly worse. She will be able to order food and necessities but they will have to be left outside the door because no one will be permitted to enter the room. She will do her laundry in the sink. “Does the government foot the bill?” I asked. “No,” she said; “it will all be at my own expense. Travel is considered a luxury in Hong Kong.”

My visiting friend did mention, as we urged her not to leave her cellphone on the far edge of the outdoor table, that she is not the least afraid to walk home alone in Hong Kong at 4 AM. Autocracy has its privileges.

But I’m going nowhere near there. Or anywhere else, without my KN95 mask.  

Ten Top Reasons for Masking Up

Photo by Jacek Pobłocki on Unsplash

The delta variant, no surprise, is felling our fellow citizens left and right and here we are back in the middle of the mask mess. Full disclosure: this writer is fully vaccinated but still pretty freaked about the possibility of becoming a break-out victim. That I probably won’t die is small consolation; the variant is seriously messing with my life.

Because I’m unlikely to get the virus from someone wearing a mask I have compiled my ten best arguments for masking up. Set aside the small detail that infection and death rates are going up at the rate of about 100% every week or two, most of which could be avoided if everyone were simply to get vaccinated and wear a mask. That seems not to matter to the unvaccinated and unmasked. So herewith my arguments:

Coronavirus has no race.

1 – Why not? It’s just a piece of paper or cloth. Some of them are pretty nifty.

2 – That brings up the fashion aspect: today’s masks can be downright elegant. I have one that’s studded with faux rhinestones; putting it on equates to getting dressed up.

3 – Plus, the mask is today’s easiest way to make a statement (Go Green! Vote for My Person! Etc)

4 – I deeply regret the politization of the whole business, but some current opportunities for expressing yourself via mask are still pretty good. I recently passed a stout gentleman whose  mask read “Because I’m keeping you from getting sick and possibly dying. What’s your reason for NOT wearing one?”

5 – And before I retreat from politics here, masks seem to offend Rand Paul. Offending Rand Paul is reason enough to mask up any day.

6 – Fall and winter are just ahead. Masks keep noses warm.

7 – You might want to make plans. Or at least not interfere with others’ plans. My poor niece, a doctor in a major urban hospital, has postponed her wedding multiple times. If her patients had been wearing masks they wouldn’t have become her patients, and she would not now have covid – and looking at possible postponement once again.

8 – Also, you might be protecting yourself against all manner of invisible evil. One scientific study estimated that the air we breathe contains some 1,800 bacteria. This was before the coronavirus joined them.

9 – Masks are today’s contribution to history. Sort of like the flapper dresses of the 1920s, history will look back on the 2020s as the Mask Age. Unless, that is, those pathogens and their viral colleagues carry us all off before the 2120s. Which brings us back to

10 – Why not? People are needlessly dying, every hour of every day. If we all just put on a mask maybe a few of us will survive to remember them.

Optimism in Five Easy Steps

Image from The News International

We’re still here. The Optimists of the World Society may hold its annual meetings in ever-smaller closets, but it is a relentlessly ongoing – optimistic, you could say – society. Here are a few steps with which you can guarantee continued inclusion.

Faith. For example, I live in a 12-story building with two elevators, both of which currently operate on faith. Oh, they are reportedly safe – a nice touch – but the electronic system involved with button-pushing has spun into its own inscrutable non-pattern: the Up or Down button may or may not light up, or both buttons may have already been pushed by some passing ghost. This is the current passenger system: If an elevator stops at your floor, you get in. Say you want to go from Floor 7 to the lobby, but the elevator decides to go Up. Not to worry. When it gets to 12 it will eventually go Down. If you’re lucky it will make fewer than 11 stops before attempting to deposit you in the Garage, but hang on, it’s likely to go straight back up to the lobby, which is where you wanted to go. There are very few enthusiasts about Kone Elevators in my building, but we are nothing if not patient. Which brings up the second step –

Patience. I know, I know. Still, just as the elevator will eventually come, your turn in the phone queue will too. This morning I was informed, after finally getting through a dozen or so menu options, that I was #14 in the queue to speak with a person who might cancel my account. Speaker phones are good for this step, as they allow you to put the thing in a far corner until you find yourself at position #1. Position #1 will drive you to a chat, which often leads to a solution. In this particular instance, my patience led to a happily cancelled account.

Kindness. Always works. Will conquer pessimism, even when malfunctioning elevators and phone menus have rendered you temporarily pessimistic. For instance – speaking of pushing buttons – those buttons in drugstore aisles that say “Push for Customer Assistance”? These require patience and kindness in the extreme. Unlike the elevator buttons which summon no elevator, they summon the Assistant to your precise location – – eventually. Sadly, the Assistant tends to be a grumpy little guy in a rumpled blue jacket who answers any question by saying, “Just tell me which one you want!” He probably just got yelled at by the last customer. Try to be kind. Once he unlocks the little shelf, just pick any one of the 17 varieties of medication on which you wanted his advice. They’re probably all about the same.

Perseverance. See above. The elevator will eventually get you to the right floor, the scammer will give up and the drugstore Customer Assistant will unlock the shelf so that you can pick one of the medications whose 17 varieties had so bewildered you. If you persevere.

And last but not least –

Hope. That business about faith, hope & love? That’s a given with optimists, who tend to love people/times/circumstances largely because it’s easier than hating. But with some people/times/circumstances being so thoroughly unlovable these days, one is left only with hope. Hope that the anti-vaxxers will wake up before they nurture new variants to come after us all, if they don’t get covid and die first. Hope that the rains might miraculously come before drought and wildfires consume the west. That members of Congress will decide to get together and do stuff rather than pointing fingers and playing power games.

Hope springs eternal.  

This essay appears also on Medium.com

Twisting a Friend on Twitter

happy birthday to you print
Chris J Davis on Unsplash

“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.

But what a happy destination.    

New Year’s Day in July

Photo by Anna-Louise on Pexels.com

My friend M reports losing five pounds since starting a new weight loss/mindfulness program. The next door neighbor is training for a marathon in the fall. Actually, I’m signed up to do the (virtual) Rabun Ramble 5K, having plotted an acceptable route in San Francisco not quite as challenging as the real Ramble’s North Georgia hills, but who’s  checking? Liz, one of my longtime best friends, is working with an editor on the memoir that many of us, not just her family, have been pushing her to do for years.

You’d think it was New Year’s.

Actually, that seems to be where we are: at the beginning of a new year, a new age. What kind of an age it will be is still anybody’s guess, as is how long it might be until we’re officially in it. All those unvaccinated people out there are sitting ducks for the coronavirus still roaming the country, and who knows how many variants are planning coming-out parties with their antecedents’ approval. It’s hard not to be grumpy about the unvaccinated. Granted, everyone has the right to choose not to be vaccinated, I suppose, but thank heaven for the millions who did get the vaccine and thereby made it possible for this New Year’s Day to dawn. Maybe some day the unvaccinated will at least find it in their hearts to appreciate the vaccinated.

Celebration in the pews

Those of us who have been trying to keep the literal faith throughout these dark months, with a little help from Zoom and Facebook and YouTube, have found that being back in churches and synagogues is particularly celebratory. This writer’s return to the Presbyterian pews coincided with Pride Week and couldn’t have been more rainbow-filled. We were even singing from behind our masks – with the blessing (or approval, at least) of the City of San Francisco.

And then there is the indoor dining-out business. Friends of mine on both coasts are absolutely giddy about discovering old restaurants feared long gone, along with new eateries popping up all over the place. In San Francisco, to the dismay of parking space seekers and absolutely no one else, parklet dining – the street spaces taken over by beleaguered restaurants during the pandemic – seems here to stay. But being able to sit inside a quiet (OK, more often noisy) restaurant and enjoy a meal without the accompaniment of traffic noise feels like a new day indeed. “Restaurant X is back!” as the subject head of a Facebook or Twitter thread suddenly morphs into a list too long to comprehend as one friend after another adds one returned eatery after another.

New Year’s Day, of course, seldom dawns without some residual hint of New Year’s Eve and the old year behind. This old one left us with a lion’s share of hangovers: friends and loved ones taken by the virus, personal and congregate losses too many to count, an entire year of suspended existence. But here’s a pearl of wisdom dropped by a very wise friend in a recent Sunday sermon: “Happiness is to joy as whining is to lament.” Work on that one if you want.

Meanwhile, here’s to the happiest of New Years for M, for Liz, and all the rest of us.

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