Watching the news, as some of us compulsively do, is hazardous to my optimist health. The virus may be in retreat here, but death and destruction overseas overshadow all.
Still: sunflowers in shop windows, blue and yellow everywhere. Flags, banners, whatever anyone finds. Two women, one in a blue coat, the other in yellow, walk arm in arm just ahead of me. A friend with an overseas relief nonprofit says everyone she knows is putting in 18-hour days — without complaint.
San Francisco City Hall has gotten into the act. From Symphony Hall across the street, I listen to soaring music before walking back into the blue and yellow glow. Optimism survives.
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.
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.
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:
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.
“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.
There’s a charming new neighbor in my building. We have a lot in common: graduate-degree education, reasonably successful grown children, a fondness for historical fiction and long walks around San Francisco. One major difference: nobody ever yelled at me to go back where I came from.
Or spat on the ground while passing by me.
Early in the pandemic but just before the lockdown, my new friend was talking with a college-age cousin in front of a San Francisco store. Two white men dressed in casual work clothes, appearing to be in their forties or early fifties, walked past. One spat. The other looked directly into my friend’s somewhat “Asian-looking” face and uttered those exact words: “Why don’t you go back where you came from?” For the record, she came from Manhattan where she held a high-level corporate management job; before that she came from New Jersey, where she was born. She has voted in every election since the 1960s.
Stories like this, exposing the hostilities stirred up in recent years, make it hard to stay hopeful. But my hopefulness is reinforced by the groups and individuals working around the clock for change. One example is in an unusual nonprofit I’ve only recently come to know. It’s the New Breath Foundation, briefly introduced here: New Breath seeks to offer “hope, healing, and new beginnings for Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) new immigrants and refugees, people impacted by incarceration and deportation, and survivors of violence.”
One of the interesting facts about New Breath is that Founder/President Eddy Zheng is himself an immigrant – and a former “juvenile lifer” in the bargain. Eddy managed to turn his life around while in immigration jails and the prison system. While still incarcerated he began counseling at-risk youth, created an Ethnic Studies program, and co-edited a book. After his release he set about leading youth development and violence prevention programs, and cross-cultural building activities in the San Francisco Bay Area and nationally.If the NBF mission seems a tall order, Eddy found a shortcut. It’s called (something like) Don’t Re-Invent the Wheel. Or – find people and groups already working toward your goals and give them the support they need. New Breath Foundation therefore, conducts targeted grant-making, education, and advocacy efforts in support of other hard-working groups. In its scant four years’ existence the nonprofit has supported causes and events including an AAPI Women Lead conference, Survived and Punished, the Asian Prisoner Support Committee and a variety of others. Those are the sorts of groups that give me hope.
Hope that people like my new neighbor will walk the streets of America without encountering hostility and worse. Hope that instant love and acceptance might replace instant hate.
How many Presbyterians does it take (you may have heard this one) to change a light bulb??
I get to repeat this, having been a Presbyterian for about sixty years and being intimately familiar with our reflex opposition to change. However. The global changes of the past 14 or so months have given an entirely new meaning to things like the trauma of switching a word in some obscure hymn.
With the baby steps we are now taking into the New Normal, some of it looks pretty abnormal. We – I, at least – created an interim sort-of normal and adjusted to it for a year. Wasn’t that normal? But now it does not feel normal to do normal stuff because we declared it not-doable for all those months of the old normal.
The #1 case in point is the Mask Issue. Early on, I found masks to be a giant bother: hot in the sunshine, uncomfortable oftentimes, and impossible when trying to communicate with someone hard of hearing. Not to mention the regular panic over having forgotten the mask when already a half-mile out on a walk or – heaven forbid – about to enter a Walgreen’s. In my building, one could be sent unceremoniously back to one’s apartment if unmasked in any public space, although eating and drinking were indeed allowed once public spaces opened up. But still, masks remain the rule. They can be quirky, funny, political, decorative; Brian the concierge quickly turned them into fashion statements by appearing in matching mask and tie sets (he has five in all.)
But now. The CDC says it’s fine for the fully vaccinated to go maskless outdoors. Some governors agree. Some governors are thinking it over. Some governors still think Donald Trump is president and everything is a hoax anyway: virus, masks, vaccine, you name it, it’s all just a hoax, 580,000+ U.S. dead people notwithstanding.
There’s only one universal truth:
We need to be VERY kind to one another. We’re all on the same planet, and in the U.S. that includes people who are going to keep wearing masks for a very long time and people who absolutely refused to wear masks and now are more or less validated. And definitely unmasked.
Recently, while walking in a super-trendy area of San Francisco, about a mile from my home (which is in a good but hardly trendy area itself) I had my mask hung over my left ear while eating an ice cream bar. I was overtaken – within a few feet, certainly not a proper social distance – by an attractive, well-dressed white man who appeared to be in his 50s or early 60s. He was fit, maskless – and angry. As he strode alongside we both slowed (or, he slowed to match my already-slow pace) and he glared into my eyes.
“I thought we don’t have to wear masks outdoors,” he said.
“Oh,” I said, with a disarming smile that did not disarm him, “I just keep mine handy, in case I want to go into a store or something.”
“Ridiculous,” he said, as he began to walk ahead. Which was my clue to let it drop. But still seeking to disarm I added, “Maybe we’ll all avoid getting the flu!”
“The hell with it,” he threw back over his shoulder. “I’m getting the flu. I’ve had it with this expletive, expletive, expletive.”
So much for friendly passages.
I worry about the fact that this guy and thousands with similar sentiments and temperaments will continue to co-exist (and walk the streets) with mild-mannered sorts like myself. I think we need to find ways to avoid both shouting expletives and making inane comments that provoke others to shout expletives. Could we plaster the country with posters to this effect:
AHOY, MASK-WEARERS: You haven’t been vaccinated, and are being extraordinarily considerate of the rest of us. You have compromised immune systems and must be super cautious. You have terrible cold sores disfiguring your mouth. Thank you for wearing that mask!
AHOY, ALL UNMASKED : Happy to see your smile. Isn’t it lovely to emerge from the dark days. Thank you for being fully vaccinated which I’m sure is true.
TO EVERYONE, EVERYWHERE: Let’s just cut each other a LOT of slack until the world turns fully right-side-up again.
Remaining masked doesn’t have to mean I’m a snob, or a Democrat, or a generally bad person. Being unmasked doesn’t have to mean I’m a threat to your health, or a Republican, or a generally bad person. Several billion masks have been manufactured or created since early 2020 and it’s going to take a long, long time for them to go away.
In the interim, maybe we could take a collective deep breath. And try smiling.
Twelve of our fellow citizens quietly did their civic duty in Minneapolis. Beginning March 29 and ending April 20 they listened to more details of a terrible crime than most of us could handle. They debated among themselves for what had to have been one very long day before delivering the verdict that former police officer Derek Chauvin was guilty of murder.
Sometimes the system works.
I would not have traded jobs with one of those jurors for any 5 minutes of the weeks they gave up to be good citizens, but I appreciate them beyond measure. And I am somewhat in awe of their simple ordinariness. Despite all the pundits and politicians and earnest activists laboring for justice, in the end it was the hard work of twelve committed citizens that offered this small celebration of democracy at work.
They were: A 20-something white man, a chemist. A 20-something woman of mixed race with a policeman uncle. A 30-something white man, a financial auditor. A 30-something Black man who immigrated to our country 14 years ago. A 50-something white woman, a health care executive. A 30-something Black man who writes poetry and coaches youth sports. A 50-something, motorcycle-riding white woman. A 40-something Black man who lives in the suburbs. A 40-something multiracial woman who works as a corporate consultant. A 50-something white woman, a nurse who’s worked with Covid-19 patients. A 60-something Black woman, a grandmother who said, “I am Black, and my life matters.” A 40-something white woman who works in the insurance industry. A 50-something white woman who volunteers at homeless shelters. And a 20-something, recently married white woman, a social worker. Any one of them might have been you or me, and I wonder if we’d have done as good a job. Or if we’d have found a way to avoid giving up a month of our lives for this job.
Over my very long life of trying to be a good citizen I’ve been in countless jury pools and served on a dozen or so juries in Virginia, Georgia, Florida and California. Never one deliberating anything like this. I did serve on one murder jury at which I found myself weirdly sympathetic to the defendant. He said he didn’t mean it, it wasn’t his fault. But I’m afraid the guy did commit murder and in the end we reached a unanimous conclusion to that effect. He went to jail for many years but I suspect he’s out by now. Most of the cases I heard, on one jury or another, had moments of boredom beyond belief, usually thanks to attorneys who seemed enamored of the sounds of their own voices, but I never dozed off. I fudged a little once to escape the jury pool for a corporate case that was predicted to last six months. I was so furious about those corporations ready to disrupt the lives of all those good citizens over an issue they should’ve settled themselves that I could not have remained objective about anything.
Almost exactly ten years ago I wrote a blog about what turned out to be my final jury experience. The attorneys were making their final pitches to a whittled-down group from which the jury was being chosen.
Here’s what the deal seemed to be: A woman had been abused by a guy. It wasn’t rape; it seemed to be everything else. Kidnapping with intent to commit rape. Attempted rape. Even attempted arousal for purposes of who knows what. The trial, if the judge’s overview was any indication, would turn on who you believed, and how far is too far. In the 1950s, when I had my own trials (physical/emotional, not judicial) with date rape/workplace rape of this exact sort, women had little power and less choice. Today it can come down to who has real power and who has real choice. Did she really go somewhere with him willingly? Did she say No? Did he listen?
Sorry guys, unless she’s 6′ tall and outweighs him by 40 pounds, I am going to lean toward the lady. What I wanted to say was: “You do not want me on this jury.” Handily I was caregiver for a disabled husband; I begged hardship exemption. Because I soon aged out of the Report-for-Jury-Duty lists, that was my last chance at this particular exercise of good citizenship.
But thank heaven for the good citizens who gave up a month of their lives to form a jury of Derek Chauvin’s peers. As for their decision, “I don’t see how it could have been otherwise,” one observer famously remarked, “but I know it could have been otherwise.”