2021: The Year of Apprehension

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com – In remembrance of New Years Eves past

The COVID-19 pandemic, the battered democracy, the turbulence of racial and economic struggles – this is definitely the Year of Apprehension. We’ll probably all survive. Even if a lot of people continue to suffer and die and need our attention.

Given the difficulty of looking ahead, I dug into the archives for a look back. New Year blogs – and a bunch of New Year stories that pre-date the era of the blog – turn out to offer many bright spots and a little reassurance.

New Year’s 2000 – That one was fun. Remember the Y2K problem? The Millennium Bug? Computers everywhere, unequipped to deal with this new digit coming after 1999, would be crashing and burning and taking us all down with them? My husband and I actually attended a somewhat subdued New Year’s Eve dinner party at which one of the other guests was an official of a global engineering company which will remain un-named. He spent the evening with an ostentatious black box at hand – during dinner he did get it off the table and into his lap – because of mysterious dangers that might need his immediate attention at the stroke of midnight. We followed that stroke across time zones. Our highest moments of hilarity were speculating about exactly what that black box was going to do to us all when he pushed his magic button; our engineer friend was not amused. The covid bug does make the Y2K bug seem quaint.

Photo by VisionPic .net on Pexels.com

When New Year’s 2009 arrived I was heavy into brain exercise, having become a participant in a brain health study not long before. That piece reflected on the proliferation of brain health studies – New York’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine, the University of Texas’ Center for Vital Longevity to name two – specifically targeting the aging population. The resultant general recommendation was for everyone to plunge into word games and math games and we’d all be fine. Having still never found the time to get into games of any sort, I guess my brain just continues to muddle along.

In 2010, as the year turned, I was still preoccupied with brain stuff: esoteric questions (and some more fancy studies) about the passage of time. It was a sort of “Where in the heck did ten years go?” rumination. Considering the fact that the past year has seemed at least thirty years long, this perspective also makes past issues seem quaint.

For many of the in between years I included a favorite poem, just because poetry seems a good way to start a new year. So for these troubled times I offer the first and last few verses of Ian Frazier’s priceless holiday poem “Greetings, Friends!” in the December 28 issue – back in that old year – of The New Yorker.

Friends one and all! Let us unmute,

Excite the timbrel and the lute,

Make merry with our pots and pan

(The hour is seven, so we can),

Shout from the balcony or lawn

For joy at what will soon be gone,

And praises sing for what is here:

The end to this undreamt-of year!

Frazier goes on for 70+ poignant and hilarious lines, rhyming in friends and neighbors and people we know of or wish we knew; and finally winds up thus:

Let gladness rise, despite, despite;

“Love one another” routs the night,

And kindness is a folding chair

We carry with us everywhere.

In depth of winter, prospects brighten;

Mighty streams of light will lighten

The miles ahead, and goodness reign –

Once more, the angels’ grand refrain!

Thanks, Ian Frazier, and everyone who helped us though the old year with reminders that grace and humor still abound.

Happy New Year, and welcome, 2021!

Photo by Ryutaro Tsukata on Pexels.com



This essay also appears on Medium.com

How to Stay Sane in 2021

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

“Everything is not either all bad or all good,” observed my friend Oli. “There’s a little bit of good in things that are bad, and a little bit of bad in things that are good.”

This was after a discussion of how COVID-19 is affecting the entire country, in ways almost too numerous to face. Oli tends to get deeply involved in conversations of these sorts.

“For example, take pollution,” he said. “Since we’ve been staying home more, pollution has fallen dramatically.” Other observations were possibly less significant, but still to the point: “Noses aren’t as cold as they used to be, thanks to mask-wearing.”

Oli is seven years old.

This issue is way beyond “Out of the mouths of babes . . .” Surviving the weeks and months ahead – vaccine or no vaccine – is going to take a good bit of creative effort. As someone who has not seen her family for well over a year, who has had moments of panic and nights of insomnia over exposure to the virus – real or imagined – and who suffers from hug-deprivation to a major extent, I do not look forward to more months and months of masking, distancing and observing every precaution 24 hours a day. Because I live in a senior housing facility I will probably be an early recipient of the vaccine, but little will change other than perhaps feeling a little personally safer. Too much remains unknown, too many people will continue to sicken and die well into the (otherwise surely happier) new year, but these vestiges of the old year need to hang out with us until a new normal evolves in the new one.

So how to get through it with our sanity?

I think Oli is onto something. Finding ways to counter the sadness, the feelings of isolation and desolation, the sheer continuing disorientation of the months ahead might just be easier if it’s possible to discern a little good within the bad – while minimizing the bad that clouds the good.

This site, over the past few months, has featured brief glimpses into the struggles of aging, the pleasures of city walks, the art of communicating while masked, San Francisco city life and California wildfires, and one of the many great losses of 2020: Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Looking back, there’s one common thread: good was always found alongside the bad.

RBG’s legacy is wide and lasting. Amid the horrors of the wildfires there were extraordinary acts of kindness. Masks can’t keep strangers from interacting with eye-messages. Outdoor dining might just become a permanent fixture across the U.S. as it’s long been elsewhere: think Parisian sidewalks. Even among the sequestered elderly, friends and laughter make life livable. And most recently, with the remarkable convergence of Jupiter and Saturn just before the solstice, there was proof that no amount of stress on earth can eliminate the wonder of the universe.

Thanks for noticing, Oli.

Happy New Year to us all.  

This essay also appears on Medium.com

What If the Stars Align?

The scene from within the cathedral

It was like entering a giant cathedral, invited to a mystical once-in-a-lifetime event to which the entire world was also invited. Yet there was an intimacy unlike anything Notre Dame ever offered. On the way up – a familiar climb that bore an unfamiliar sense of impending awe – I encountered my first fellow pilgrim. She was in running clothes despite the chilly December dusk and I’d heard her swift sneakers approach. I was stopped mid-climb, though, as is somehow my regular custom on steep hills.

She stopped. “Are you OK?” I could hear her concern. “Oh, sorry,” I said. “I ran a half-marathon in 2006 myself. But I was 73 at the time; now I’m catching my breath.”

“That’s impressive,” she said, now running in place. “Are you going up to the park?”

“Definitely. I think I’ll be in plenty of time.”

Jupiter slipping past Saturn, unconcerned

“See you there,” she said, taking off upward. “Merry Christmas!”

Pilgrims, I think, are bound together by both a common purpose and a sense of goodwill. Of the others who passed me on uphill blocks – I can still hold my own on the level ones – most said hello; one, “beautiful night, isn’t it?”

Reaching the park and beginning the last uphill climb along the path was when I entered the cathedral. Darkness was quickly falling on this longest night of the year. Fellow pilgrims were scattered along the path and across the meadow – carefully staying more than six feet from each other – and most were motionless. Like Rodin statues artfully spaced across the cathedral, they reinforced the feeling of awe.

It was utterly silent.

Jupiter and Saturn do this little dance for earthling admirers every twenty years. But it’s been eight centuries since they performed this particularly stunning pas de deux for us, a “great conjunction” created by Jupiter’s catching up to Saturn just as they are orbiting the sun. People who understand all this far better than yours truly say the last time our fellow planets did their Great Conjunction thing and it could be seen by earthlings, was in 1226.

Well, no wonder there was wonder. Some Christians think it was this event that led the wise men to Bethlehem. Fine with me, a Christian who struggles with much of the whole virgin birth/manger/shepherds/wise men thing, because mostly all I could see from the cathedral aisle way down below was one incredibly shining star. I guess I could have brought binoculars, but doubt they’d have made a lot of difference to my macular-degenerating eyes. Below me, though, under a park light, was a young man with a serious camera on a tripod. As I walked back down I said with some redundancy, “Can you see both of them?”

“Sure,” he answered. “Take a look.”

And there they were. Jupiter, orbiting its way around the sun exactly as planet earth is doing, and Saturn orbiting its own way around the sun, with even its rings also visible in this fine earthling device under the light. All three just going about the order of the universe without the slightest concern for the heartaches everywhere on the smallest planet of the them all. Amazing.

Peace on earth, goodwill to all.

Some Assembly Required

Confronting the task

It is the phrase that strikes fear in the heart of every parent of young children on Christmas Eve. Similarly, it raises the blood pressure of anyone over 60 (and this writer is wayyy over 60) in anticipation. Some Assembly Required.

The effort is launched

I have a very beautiful little 30” Baby Balsam Fir with LED Lights Christmas Tree now happily decorating my 7th floor balcony. Should you be in San Francisco, I hope you’ll drive down Post Street and admire it. But in order to appreciate it fully you need its story – a story not unlike the countless stories of parents everywhere faced with toys to be put together at midnight on Christmas Eve.

My daughter Sandy, a parent herself and someone with both great familial love and an interior designer sensibility, cannot handle the idea of her mother not having a Christmas tree. No matter that I’m 2000 miles away on another coast. And we’re in a pandemic forheavenssakes, who am I going to be entertaining? It’s Christmas, and Mom should have a Christmas tree.

Roquel to the rescue

It only took one glimpse into the box containing my carefully wrapped 30” Baby Balsam Fir with LED Lights Christmas Tree to convince me this was going to require help. So I closed the box and went for a long walk. On return I invited three 7th floor neighbors in my geezer house over for cocktails and (by the way) help assembling my Christmas tree. (All three are Jewish but compassionate.) Lois and Arthur declined cocktails or even a cup of comforting tea; Joel, knowing I don’t drink and not trusting my faux wine cellar, brought a fancy rum something he’d fixed at his place.

For about 20 minutes – a token amount of time, any parent of a 6-year-old will acknowledge – Lois and Joel and I deal with the initial Assembly and Care instructions. Remove tree stand, tree sections, and Welcome Kit from box(es), and identify the total number of sections of your tree. Joel has left his untouched drink across the room, but is probably beginning to be glad he brought it. Arthur, being already in his 90s (the rest of us aren’t quite there yet) has been exempted from active duty and assigned the position of assistant photographer. 

Eventually we work our way to the battery part. (By this time Lois is uttering a few bad words, Joel is drinking and Arthur is saying he knows from nothing about iPhones.) We persevere. Push the locking hooks away from the battery box and gently (Joel and I had different interpretations of the word ‘gently’) lift the battery box away from the base. Please mind the electrical cord attached to the battery box and base.

Progress

Do you have any batteries?” The second phrase any parent fears: Batteries Not Included. Joel went back to his apartment and produced several requisite AAA batteries for the something-or-other. For a while we proceeded nicely. Connect the male plug from the tree to the female sockets from the burlap base, secure the connection by fastening the lock nut. Well, we may be geezers but we’re still humanoids. The connection didn’t work (draw your own conclusions.) Maybe, suggested someone, your D batteries are a little out of date. Well, they did say “Best if used before November 1994,” but who am I to throw things away?

Enter the #1 advantage to living in a Senior Facility, especially The Carlisle, San Francisco. I called the Front Desk. “Lian,” I said in my sweetest helpless-resident voice, “is there any chance we might have, anywhere (by now it’s about 7 PM) two D batteries I could beg, borrow or steal?”

Well hallelujah. Not only did Lian find two D batteries, but the utterly brilliant (and way over-qualified; we’re likely to lose her soon) Activities Director Roquel happened to be still hanging around. We are saved, I realized, Roquel is here. There was unanimous applause when we burst into the room.

Here is the final truism of all Some Assembly Required/ Batteries Not Included reality: EVERYthing will be teeny tiny. The instructions, the assembledges (think male plugs and female sockets) the whole catastrophe. But then we find we know someone in a brand new generation, with delicate fingers that still work and a refusal to be daunted by anything digital or mechanical. (There are few daunting issues with computers that stump Lian or Roquel.)

City tree with city lights

Good friends to laugh with, young friends to fix things, there is hope for the world. Which is good, since the whole world now requires assembly.

Until then, I submit my tree.



And, as Tiny Tim so presciently put it:
God bless us, every one.

The Art of City Walking

San Francisco from atop Alamo Square Park – a great place to conclude a City Walk

City walks rock.

Parks, mountain trails, beaches, all those other walks — wonderful. But city walks are in a class by themselves. It’s just a small matter of mastering the art. It helps (IMHO) to live in San Francisco, but I suspect anyone who loves his or her city might agree: walk with your eyes and mind open, listen for the life behind the sounds, look up and down and all around, and there you have: COVID-free (masks, distancing, no problem) exercise, unique entertainment, an educational and uplifting activity of however many hours you can spare. Totally free. Nighttime walks can be times of wonder, but given the weirdness of today’s pandemic realities, this addresses the joy of daytime city walking.

Creative tent-dwelling

Cities everywhere have, tragically, people with no home, forced to confront the virus and the cold in whatever ways they can. Some, like the above San Franciscan reduced to tent life, stake out kingdoms of their own. Walking by people on the street — many struggling with addiction or mental health issues — is the saddest part of City Walking, sending you home (hopefully) with a renewed commitment to working harder to find solutions. But if you look, you find homeless citizens are really just fellow Americans with problems, bad luck, and often a good measure of ingenuity.

And then there are the trees. Even in the most urban of urban areas, trees survive. Sometimes on their own (look into corner parks or corner lots that have been abandoned.) You can find trees that are trying to save us from ourselves by storing carbon, preventing flooding & erosion, staving off climate change — or just standing there being beautiful.

A cypress on Sacramento Street

The good people of SFTrees.com occasionally go around chalking the sidewalks with little Look! signs that point to trees like the one pictured at right and generously ID them for you.

Some of the most interesting sights of City Walks are down the alleyways. Granted you may find strange and unpleasant surprises, but you may often find the products of graffiti artists’ most elegant endeavors. Alleyways offer other surprises: hidden houses and back entries and flower boxes on third-floor fire escapes you’re delighted to have noticed, plus a few ground-level sights you’re happy to pass by as quickly as possible. It’s a city, after all.

Most City Walks — thanks often to the work of the Trust for Public Land, which has a goal of every urban dweller living within a 10-minute walk of a park — pass an urban park or two. Some are so small as to go unnoticed. But if you can work your city-walking paths by a park, possibly the happiest faces of the day will be found there. Where there are basketball nets you can watch the action but rarely get any interchange.

Kids in a TPL-sponsored City Park

But kids on jungle gyms will smile for the camera at the slightest invitation. Search for urban parks in your city and you might be surprised to find tiny treasures. In San Francisco, also, almost anywhere you’re willing to climb upward will lead to another kind of park — glorious spaces with views and dogs and picnickers and more views. An unbeatable way to conclude a City Walk. Which brings us back to the vista from Alamo Square at the top of this essay.

This essay appeared earlier on Medium.com

Talking With Eyes 101

Photo by Ani Kolleshi on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Anika Huizinga on Unsplash 

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.

The F-Words of Senior Housing

Photo by Joyce Huis on Unsplash

Looking for a Senior Living spot for a parent or friend – maybe even for yourself? Here are a few tips to speed the process, in these upside down times when you can’t simply go visiting.

Where to start? There are almost as many varieties of Senior Living as there are seniors on park benches. Or there were, when people could go to parks. The site to which I’ve directed more geezer friends than I can count is A Place for Mom. (Why is it always mom? Well, sorry dads, but we seem to outlive you by a long shot.) This site, though, has a wealth of short-form information to help you home in on the sort of place you’re looking for.

After the basics – cost, location, availability etc – all you need to consider are the three F-words. The promotional stuff really doesn’t tell you about the F-words. In essential order of importance they are:

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

Food. Interest in food increases exponentially with age. At my own geezer house (call these places what you will, I call mine the geezer house) we have a four-star chef. Presumably the salary and benefits here are good, because the job has to be about as much fun as being a Trump appointee. Somebody wants ethnic, somebody wants more garlic, somebody else wants bland and tasteless. Too much spice! Not enough dessert variety! More light choices! You get the picture. So ask about the food. Ask whether there’s an onsite chef or an outside food service. If meals are contracted to a supplier, you or your geezer friend/relative may not love the food. Weekly entrées repeated throughout the month? Not wonderful. Get specific with your food questions.

Frivolity. Almost everywhere promises eternal happiness through crossword puzzles and arts-&-crafts. Almost everywhere advertises elegant-looking dancing couples. Don’t believe it. Ask for pictures of the onsite library. Ask about the fit with what you or your geezer enjoy: Symphony & opera – assuming we eventually get those chances? Find out if the facility has regular transportation to such events. Nature walks? Find out if there are arrangements for hikes or offsite exercise. Socialization? Find out what the real opportunities are, not what the pretty pictures in the brochures suggest. Preferences about all of these don’t magically change on moving from a regular neighborhood to a “senior community.”

Photo by Kai Pilger on Unsplash

Fire drills. Every city or county has safety regulations. Equal parts important and invasive. Once you move into a geezer house your safety is in its hands, and it’s not always pretty. Ask for details. Some places (mine included) have unannounced fire drills. As far as I know, no one has ever died of a heart attack by being blasted awake from a nap by the most god-awful shrieking noise you’ve ever heard, generally followed by instructions to remain calm. But I’ve come close enough that we now have an agreement that they alert me ahead of time so I can arrange not to be at home. Try to find out what invasive procedures are in place for staff to enter an apartment without prior permission. It may well be necessary (Is Mrs. Jones OK? She hasn’t been seen today . . ) but it’s one more major change to face, and geezers don’t do change any better than the next person.

Here’s to the day when we all emerge from virus hell, and explorations in real time render a focus on the Senior Housing F-words unnecessary.   

Living While Boarded Up

There was dancing in the streets all over San Francisco on November 7th. I was walking in the Presidio, trying not to get wiped out by flying cyclists whizzing downhill shouting Biden/Harriss!!! It’s been pretty much party mode ever since.

But downtown — and in a few other areas — preparations had long been made for the mayhem that wasn’t. It would be hard not to agree with business owners who boarded up. Protests following the George Floyd killing and racial unrest at other times in recent months brought out the bad guys along with the earnest. There was widespread, costly looting. I live not far from a BevMo store that looked as if someone had tossed a large bomb through the front door. So if I owned a business I would have boarded up too.

Eyes on the passers-by

Following the election of Joe Biden which was finally declared on Saturday, November 7th, though, there was only dancing. And since then, it’s fascinating to see signs of how life goes on around (and behind and in front of) the plywood. This is a quick Plywood City tour.

High end social distancing

Some businesses behind the plywood have gone under and won’t be back. But others are bravely carrying on. At Louis Vuitton — there are people out there still buying $3,000 handbags? — a polite security guard at the door carefully limited the number of shoppers entering. And inside (the polite security guard let me peek) shoppers and staff kept their masks on and distances measured.

Local billboard creativity has definitely peaked. On some of the plywood sheets there were phone numbers to call or — frequently — “We’re Open!” messages pointing to the plywood door.

Finding shelter from the storms

At some locations, the irony was painful. One nonprofit (not that far from the Louis Vuitton store, actually) which was created to help the homeless covered its plywood with optimistic messaging. But it managed to offer a likely spot for one down-on-his-luck guy to construct a resting place at the same time.

Still, high above the boarded-up storefronts and sheltered-in-place citizenry, somebody remembered to hoist the flag.

Long may it wave