Soon after the dawn of 2020 – remember way back then? – the news was overwhelming. Junkies like me were waking up at three AM worrying about the coronavirus pandemic, economic collapse, environmental disaster, uncertainties at every turn and erratic leadership that could plunge us all into a dark hole at any moment. It was clearly a good time to lay off the news. So I tried. Repeatedly, beginning about March 15.
I admit this up front: I am powerless over news-following. The first step in recovery is to admit one’s powerlessness. So here it is. I have a compulsion to start the day with the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle print editions; it goes back too many decades to record. Likewise PBS NewsHour. Those might not add up to an incurable addiction. But then MSNBC and CNN crept in, first as sort of companion background noise, later as entertainment during treadmill exercise after my geezer building went on lockdown. And finally, brief but compulsory glimpses of Fox News, just because I feel the need to figure out the parallel universe inhabited by so many of my fellow citizens.
Good citizenship morphed into addiction. I admitted: I am powerless over NewsJunkieism. I determined to quit, and get a decent night’s sleep.
But wait! I would tell myself, in the clear light of the morning, when friends would advise just to turn off Breaking News. I’m not totally powerless after all.I can vote. I can call my representatives, send letters and emails. I can fund immigration causes or justice workers in the trenches. I can march in the streets – well, no, I’m in quarantine. But maybe I’ll send another contribution to Amy McGrath . . . And then myself would say, “Without knowing what’s happened since breakfast? Mitch McConnell might have been hit by a falling meteor.”
See? Once you fall victim to this addiction early resolve quickly crumbles.
And then everything else fell apart, beginning with the world watching as an African American man was casually murdered by four police officers in Minneapolis. Evolving quickly into millions of ordinary people around the world joining their voices in protest. Despite the horrors wrought by opportunistic bad guys swooping in to loot and destroy, those ordinary good people represent hope for a better future that will surely emerge.
How can you not read every word? Watch every newscast? Arm yourself with accurate data to go to work for that future?
We began with a little deep breathing and the day’s mantra: I am a powerful being; I am a peaceful being. Not a bad way to begin a day. Or a discussion, for that matter. This particular discussion was initiated by one of my all-time favorite nonprofits, Ploughshares Fund. Check it out. When I get invited to anything Ploughshares I tend to accept.
The event was a Women’s Initiative Sunday Brunch with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Beatrice Fihn. Fihn is director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN,) which won the Nobel in 2017 for its work. That year 122 countries adopted the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. If you haven’t been following all this, to date 37 countries have ratified the treaty; once that number reaches 50 it becomes international law.
Notably absent from any such ratification list, of course, is the USA. And don’t hold your breath for Russia to sign. The U.S. and Russia together have about 90% of the current supply of nuclear weapons – say, 6,000+ or so each. It will only take a handful to blow up the planet.
It was against the background of the above that we started Sunday brunch with the powerful/ peaceful mantra.
Fihn was in conversation – via Zoom from her living room in Geneva – with Elizabeth Warner, Ploughshares’ Managing Director & Chief Development Officer. Asked how she got into the business of fighting for nuclear disarmament, Fihn said it was “kind of accidental. I was interested in justice, equality, human rights, women’s rights . . . And then I did an internship on nuclear weapons – and realized nuclear weapons are connected to all of these.”
The conversation quickly brought in Feminist Foreign Policy, an alternative to ‘male’ policies reliant on strength and threat – the “humiliate and dominate” approach to relationships personal and international alike that is currently popular. “I’m not one of those people who think women are more peaceful than men,” Fihn remarked. But the ‘softer’ approach – creating security for everyone through healthcare, education, gender equality etc – can be equally effective, she and Warner agreed.
About this treaty to ban nuclear weapons – which supporters, including this writer, believe will eventually gain the magic 50 ratifications and become law: Warner explained there is a three-step process required. First the government signs on, then necessary adjustments are made, then the treaty is ratified. To the obvious next question, “How much does it matter, really?” Fihn explained that “the idea behind (international law) is to create a new normal. We’ve done it with biological weapons and chemical weapons, and inspired the land mines treaty.” This writer well remembers an uncle who was gassed in World War I and never fully recovered; a world without chemical weapons brings solace. Imagining a world without nuclear weapons definitely brings peace.
After a crisis – climate disaster, pandemic, nuclear warfare – “Who cleans up the mess?” Fihn asked; and answered her own question: “Those people who make the least wages.” As this pandemic is making clear, she added, “those who really save us, in addition to the doctors and nurses, are the people who bring food and water,” and all the other service workers.
Warner pointed out that with other global threats – climate change, pandemics – the effect is felt, and then action is taken. But with nuclear weapons, once the effect is felt “it’s too late.”
Asked what gives her hope, Fihn said, “We’re at a point where women have more power, including women of color. More and more people are questioning the powerful. There are also growing calls for justice and anti-racism.” Plus, we’re only 14 countries away from having nuclear weapons be declared in violation of international law.
A final, hopeful note about the Sunday Brunch hosts: As of May 2020, the Ploughshares Fund Women’s Initiative had invested more than half a million dollars in 23 projects focused specifically on the impact of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the nuclear field. Highlighting the interconnectedness of nuclear weapons, women’s rights and other social justice issues is a powerful way to speed us toward a nuclear-free planet.
Which is a peaceful thought.
This essay appeared first on Medium.com, a fine site for ideas and information that I’ve been writing for in recent months. You might want to check it out too.
Got a partner? Partnering is alive and well, and might still save us all.
Not just the individual partner (lovely construct though that is, and I miss mine!) but partnering on the local, national and global level. What’s heart-warming to see are the innovative ways being discovered for partnering while apart.
Hopefully we’ll be able to revive this at the international level. While America-First-ing for the past three years we’ve pretty much eliminated every partnership that was helping us fight climate change, slow the threat of nuclear destruction, protect the planet’s air and water, little things like that. But may we please not totally un-partner ourselves from the W.H.O. and everyone around the globe working to find COVID-19 therapies or vaccines?
But on the upside! Other partnerships are thriving, innovating and saving lives. My friends Terry and Rich, for example – she’s an artist/printer, he’s a retired physician – are partnering with nonprofits which, in turn, partner with restaurants and food sources, and together (while apart) they are cooking, serving, delivering and feeding hordes of isolated or homeless souls across San Francisco. All over America kids and young people are partnering with faith communities that partner with other nonprofits to shop, run errands and otherwise help homebound seniors. The abounding stories of generosity in partnership can get you through the darkest times.
And even for us homebound/quarantined seniors – probably the last who will be sprung free as things open up – there are new and interesting ways to partner with those on the outside world. If you’ve not already met my favorite current partner, may I introduce you to End of Life Choices California. EOLCCA has, from its beginning, partnered with individuals facing the end of their own lives and considering using the California End of Life Option Act. I’m privileged to have worked as a volunteer in this field for the past several decades, most recently with EOLCCA. Supporting someone who is dying, easing that transition however you can, is a fairly straightforward (and immensely rewarding) task. But when you can’t be there to hold someone’s hand? A remarkable EOLCCA management team quickly perfected a system using communications technology to connect key personnel, critical data and the individual volunteer in order to walk dying individuals and their loved ones through an intricately difficult time. I’ve not done this yet, but reports on early cases are uniformly optimistic and encouraging.
Here’s the bottom line: We’re better off partnered. Even when six feet apart, and hopefully back with our arms around each other one day. Not “first” or best, solo macho or going-it-alone. Partnered.
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This essay appeared earlier on Medium.com, a good site for information and ideas that I’ve been writing for in recent months. You might want to check it out. (But my Medium thoughts will also continue to appear on this page. Thanks for visiting!
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.
“You can neither lie to a neighbourhood park, nor reason with it,” wrote Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of American Cities. Jacobs knew a thing or two about parks – and cities. These days we are learning things of our own about parks and cities, a mish-mash of the good, the bad and the ugly. Cities are where many of our hearts lie, but they aren’t so good for containing viruses. But parks? Parks are the totally good. You can’t lie to your neighborhood park because it knows the truth: I’m a space you need. That may not be exactly what Jacobs meant, but close enough.
The Trust for Public Land (a great national nonprofit I hope you’ll consider supporting) maintains that “Everyone deserves a park.” It’s hard to argue with that. TPL believes that even everyone in cities – rich or poor – should be within a 10-minute walk of a park. Hard to argue with that, either. On the poor end, in rich San Francisco, are most of the 40,000 residents of the Tenderloin neighborhood who live within a 10-minute walk of Sergeant Macauley Park. (More about Sgt. Macauley and his eponymous park later.)
On the rich, poor and everything in between end are the happy hordes of walkers, runners, bird-watchers, tiny soccer-players-in-training, birthday partyers, picnickers and playground rompers at Mountain Lake Park. And it is the thing I miss the most, quarantined here in the geezer house: Mountain Lake Park. A little gem of a San Francisco city park, it features (among other things) a Par Course fitness trail that for decades has doubled as my personal outdoor gym, serenity space and yoga substitute. I might as well admit that I failed yoga. Although I stuck it out through the entire course at Temple Emanu-El across the street from my house a few years back, within the first ten minutes of every session, while everyone else was Zen’d out, I just wanted to be outside in the sunshine on the Par Course at Mountain Lake Park. The park itself borders on Mountain Lake, a spring-fed lake from which the Spaniards, and Native American tribes before them, happily drank. But in the 20th century thoughtless pet owners dumped their turtles and goldfish into the lake, and the gunk and runoff from an adjoining stretch of Highway 101 finished off the job of turning it into a virtual cesspool by the 1990s. Because Mountain Lake is part of the Presidio though, now a national park itself, your tax dollars helped restore it to a haven for natural grasses, native fish and wildlife, and varieties of birds and waterfowl. Mountain Lake Park is approximately what I envision as paradise.
Parks are, as evidenced by the above, a lot of things to all people. Sergeant Macauley Park, a tiny, one-fifth urban acre in San Francisco’s low-end-of-the-socioeconomic-spectrum Tenderloin neighborhood, first opened in 1983, intended as an oasis for the thousands of kids within its 10-minute-walk radius. It was named for a popular young San Francisco police officer who was shot and killed the year before while making a routine traffic stop. Despite its optimistic opening, Macauley Park’s young users were quickly displaced by others who found it ideal for arranging sexual encounters, dealing drugs and taking care of public bathroom needs. Most of us, certainly Jane Jacobs, would agree these are not ways to reason with a children’s park. Beleaguered Macauley Park was closed in 1995 during a major project to evict its underground residents, a colony of rats who had moved in, multiplied and disbursed throughout the ’hood like a coronavirus. It reopened in 2000 with an optimistic ceremony I well recall, and it struggles, through ups and downs, to continue offering neighborhood kids an open space in which to play.
Macauley and Mountain Lake are just two parks in just one city, which is blessed with dozens of others in between, of every size and imaginable variety. But maybe they represent our hope for the future: spaces with no entry fee, no barriers according to race, gender, politics or fitness level.
Here’s one piece of extravagantly good news: when we emerge from the confines of Covid19, America’s parks will be right where we left them.
(This essay appeared earlier on Medium.com, a fine site for exchange of information & ideas I’ve been posting on. You might want to check it out.)
Early on, I worried about my fingernails. My fingernails, you see, tend to split perpendicularly, making the simplest tasks like folding socks or making beds a nightmare that leaves me with sometimes bloody fingertips. This affliction struck when I was in my 40s – which was a very long time ago. About 20 years ago (I’m in my 60s by then) my physician gave me her blessing to go get the fancy silk wrap manicure. I think she mainly wanted to get me off her back, having patients with somewhat more severe issues than splitting fingernails. Anyway, you can dig in the dirt with these fingernails. For the past 10+ years they have been gracefully administered by the lovely Little Yen at California Nails. Little Yen is so designated because there’s an older Yen at California Nails. Little Yen is a beautiful young woman whose eyes, when she smiles, which is frequently, crinkle into merry little upside down crescents with accent lines springing outward like fireworks. She has two beautiful children, Rachel and Randy, who are U.S, citizens as I hope Little Yen may soon be. And as a manicurist she is without peer. One springtime she painted little flowers on my nails, just for fun. There is not a day that I don’t worry about how Little Yen is surviving; I can’t find her to ask, or to help. A silk wrap manicure by Little Yen will last for three weeks, maybe longer – at some point the dig-in-the-dirt layer will grow itself out and my ridggedy, problem nails will be on their own. I am somewhere past that point just now.
But we are indeed at an interesting, maybe a tiny bit hopeful, point. Early on in the U.S. chapter of the Covid19 saga I heard a pundit optimistically punditize, “American innovation is going to be the thing that saves us.” Yeah, sure, I muttered. But it’s beginning to look like a wise observation, and perhaps a truth. People are whipping out masks & PPEs on their sewing machines, or making shields and who knows what else with 3-D printers, and creating ventilators from CPAP machines – while every lab in the country is racing to come up with therapies or, some day, a vaccine. One guy in San Francisco’s North Beach district even devised a way to hand out free coffee to his neighbors via a Halloween mechanical gorilla arm; his five-year-old son came up with the idea. Despite being essentially without a left brain, I study every new report of a new lab report like a maniac.
Most of us are a little jagged, because life everywhere was interrupted by the coronavirus. And who likes to be interrupted? My own life was interrupted midway through cataract surgery. I have one new, cataract-free left eye; the right eye was scheduled for Monday, March 16 – well, so much for that eye. Since March 16 I have been sheltering in place with one good eye, one foggy eye and a pair of glasses that have no idea what they’re supposed to be correcting for.
Something else has been more universally interrupted. When my late husband Bud turned 75 I threw him an OGTAB party, to which invitees were to bring a statement of One Good Thing About Bud written on a business card or similar note. Virtually nobody paid any attention to that size suggestion. I wound up with 8 by 10 framed declarations, posters, canvas paintings and one wind-up music box playing an original message. A lot of the OGTABs referred to martinis, but even more of them said Hugs. Bud was a 6’4” bear of a guy who never met anyone – especially a female anyone – whom he didn’t want to hug. Sometimes perfect strangers only newly introduced. Bud would make Joe Biden look like a cold fish. I don’t know about Biden-hug recipients (who are likely to be few and far between from here on out), but Bud-hug recipients simply knew they were huggable. Who doesn’t want to be huggable? This nation was built on hugs, for heaven’s sakes. Handshakes, at a minimum. When this is over may we please touch one another again?
Which brings this essay back to where it started. Some things matter, and others not so much. We can figure out ways to deal with home manicures – even home haircuts although I think I’m going with pigtails. We can pick up lives where they were interrupted, and most of those interruptions will be found to matter very little.
What matters are the people who are suffering. Very few manicurists have savings accounts. I have been down every possible road, without success, trying to find Little Yen just so I could send her a few dollars. Multiply her by a few million and that’s how many people we somehow need to reach, and help. What matters are the innovators and the front-line people they are trying to help.
And eventually, the hugs.
This essay appeared first on Medium.com, an excellent site for the exchange of ideas and information, on which I’ve begun posting. You might enjoy visiting it too.
“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!