I think I know how Punxsutawney Phil feels. He emerges from a comfortable dark hole, looks around at the universe, makes a decision about how the future might look and returns to his comfortable dark hole.
The thing about it is, Phil only has to do this once a year. We above-ground types are being asked to do it over and over, and it can be trying for the average citizen. Meanwhile, pity the poor mayors and governors who are – in the total absence of national leadership – trying to advise us. Punxsutawney Phil has, at least, an Inner Circle (don’t look at me, this information comes straight from Phil’s Wikipedia page) to advise him about the forecast. We’ve got Anthony Fauci. But God only knows (and She has an awful lot on Her plate these days) whether science and reason will or will not be allowed the microphone.
(This space being mildly committed to avoiding overt political statements, I will skip right over the resemblances between Punxsutawney Phil and that other prominent American who sometimes pokes his head above the black hole of despotism and stupidity he inhabits, sniffs the hostile atmosphere and sinks right back into a comfy chair to watch Fox News.)
But out here in the real world. San Francisco, for instance.
California, having successfully addressed the coronavirus early on, recently proclaimed semi-liberation day. Announcements of Phase I re-openings were made. Everyone prepared to emerge from whatever dark hole of confinement he or she had been inhabiting. Then apparently way too many citizens of the Golden State threw caution (and masks, and social distancing) to the winds. Infections are running rampant, restrictions are being re-imposed, plywood that had begun to be removed is being nailed back in place. It is beyond bewildering.
So, much like Punxsutawney Phil after a lonnnng hibernation, recently I ventured out of the dark assisted-living hole I inhabit. Authorized to go for an unsupervised walk to restore my health and sanity, I set out, due uphill, for Lafayette Park high atop San Francisco. Here is how it went:
Blocks 1 and 2: Everything’s fine. But when did I get this out of shape?
Block 3: OMG, a person not wearing a mask is walking right toward me. Do I step into the traffic to avoid his germs? Should I call 911?
Block 4: See that lady walking into the apartment building a few yards to the left? She is coughing. Coughing. I summon my diminishing strength to sprint across the street before the light changes.
Block 5: Thank heavens, the park is in sight. At least all those steps at the entrance are shallow enough that I can probably still handle them. And there aren’t a whole lot of contagious-looking people hanging around. It’s important to be out in the sunshine. I need to keep that in mind.
Block 6: But here they are. CROWDS. How do I know whether that group all smushed together over there is really a family? If I take my usual uphill path, can I maintain six-foot distance from everybody? All these happy people, what’s the likelihood they are asymptomatic covid-positives? Anyway, don’t these people know about masks? The view of the Bay is spectacular.
Going home it’s all downhill.
This essay first appeared on Medium.com, interesting site I’ve been writing for these past few months. You might want to check it out too.
CAN WE LAUGH — OR MAYBE SMILE — OUR WAY THROUGH THIS?
“CORONAFEST 2020!” read the ad for Mr. Trump’s Tulsa rally that floated around the internet, “Come for the Racism, Stay for the Plague!” And as a sort of postscript below: “Be sure to reserve your ICU bed and ventilator.” We’re going to hope this stays funny. Although I know the Bible says not to invoke harm upon your fellow human beings, it’s really hard not to wish a moderately severe case of covid19 on every unmasked attendee. I don’t actually want anyone to die, even if Mr. Trump would then be reducing his voter base – just get sick enough to make a point.
When did public health get hijacked by crazy politics? I live in San Francisco, where we started off the pandemic with early sheltering-in-place that kept our numbers low. But our numbers, at least those showing reported cases (3,400+) and deaths (48+) continue to rise. Some other factors are “meeting target goals,” but the list I obsessively keep has never showed a decline in cases since I started obsessing on March 26. We are slowly and cautiously re-opening around here – even geezers in my assisted living fortress now leave for non-emergency medical appointments. I have one this week that is a pleasant 10-block walk away, and you never saw anyone this excited about going to the dentist. However. A few days ago, in the balmy sunshine of Lafayette Park, people weary with staying in were practically shoulder-to-shoulder on the grass, 90% of them without mandatory-in-SF masks.
We seem to have parallel narratives: “Masks & distancing will get us through this with the least damage” – or “Oh, why bother.” The difference between this pandemic and the last is that it’s not just the crazies pushing the Oh why bother. Remember the old H1N1 swine flu a decade ago? Seems almost quaint. The country was prepared, met the virus head-on, came up with a vaccine opposed only by the crazies. To be honest, vaccine supplies fell short and were funneled to the most endangered: children, healthcare workers, pregnant women, people with pre-existing conditions. But compared to the novel coronavirus, H1N1 does look like a pussycat.
Here’s my question. Is there a way to get to the other side of this pandemic without major suffering – more overrun ERs and ICUs, upwards of 200,000 probable deaths this year – or minor discomfort? Keeping six feet away from all those people you want to hug (and many you’d settle just to high five) can sometimes seem more major than minor on the behavioral difficulty scale. But it’s doable. Masks are hot and bothersome and they fog up your glasses. I have a serious dislike of even my new overpriced mask, which I bought because it’s light and washable and theoretically doesn’t fog up my glasses. (They lied. It fogs.) Still, I’m wearing the blasted thing every time I walk out the door.
Maybe a little humor will help. Political jokes? Given where we are, you might as well laugh. Or subtle joys such as a friend suggested. “My boss drives me up the wall,” she said. “But I can look at him with straightforward eyes while I’m sticking my tongue out behind my mask.” A blog about H1N1 that I posted more than a decade ago had a conclusion that still fits, if you substitute “mask” for “vaccine.” In any event, the last line is still appropriate:
The best news of the pandemic is probably the fact that it has become fodder for stand-up comics and comedy shows. Once we start laughing at things they tend to whittle themselves down to sanity. My favorite message so far came from host Jon Daily on the Daily Show, in response to some of the craziness coming from the likes of Sean Hannity and Glen Beck. What we need, Daily suggested, is a vaccine against the vaccine, so we could have peace of mind while being vaccinated.
A little peace of mind goes a long way these days. (franjohns.net 10/25/09)
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.
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!
This space tries hard to avoid overt political issues. But today, with the novel coronavirus sitting in front of our eyeballs on waking and hanging out in our brains throughout the day – whether we happen to be infected or not – it’s almost impossible to avoid how politics impacts the reality of the pandemic. The following is offered just because it seems such a ridiculously obvious way to address the problem.
Recently, this letter of mine appeared in the New York Times:
“At 86, I am absolutely fine with dying — although I’m healthy and active and would not turn down another five or 10 years. So if I wind up with Covid-19, give the ventilator to someone else.
“What bothers me is that if our national leadership had just a fraction of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s brain, they would follow his very rational advice to send all available ventilators to New York until the curve begins to bend, and then ship them to the next crisis area. Under that system, San Francisco would get an adequate supply in time for my neighbor and me both to survive.”
About that “give the ventilator to someone else” line. I should say up front that this is not some lofty altruistic declaration. Ventilators are not a lot of fun, and many older patients (one physician friend suggested a scarily high percentage) wind up dead on them anyway. Even for just a few days, lying still with perhaps a hole in my windpipe and for sure a tube down my nose for nutrition approaches torture, in my considered opinion. Lying still would additionally involve being unable to write, communicate or do anything else that makes life meaningful. Thus, compromised with a dangerous virus and probably soon dying alone without loved ones of any sort nearby – no thanks. Shoot me with all the morphine on hand and let me go.
I am a grateful and enthusiastic board member of End of Life Choices California. As such I’m a firm believer in Medical Aid in Dying: the right of terminally ill, mentally competent adults to ask their physicians for life-ending medications. Now legal in nine states and the District of Columbia, MAID will, I hope, eventually be “best practice” for the medical professions. Refusal of a ventilator falls in the category of mechanical aid in dying, of sorts, and why not?
The second, less esoteric issue addressed in my brief letter is simply a plea for national response to the next pandemic – which Dr. Anthony Fauci, may he long survive and prosper, tells us is likely to come with a reappearance of the novel coronavirus in the fall. Assuming it doesn’t start somewhere they’re still convinced it’s a hoax – hello, Mississippi? – maybe we as a nation could adopt a fast and sensible strategy: throw everything we’ve got at the first peep-through, and try to snuff out subsequent peeps-through as fast as supplies can be diverted from the first. My degrees are in Art and Short Fiction, not medicine or policy, and I admit to having only a rudimentary left brain. But how does this not make sense?
I don’t know about your neighborhood, but Covid-19 is making life interesting here in the San Francisco Bay Area. Difficult for many, devastating for some, and interesting for the rest of us. As of this writing (I recommend the CDC site for accurate data on other areas, other updates) we have sped past the first hundred confirmed cases in the state, and who knows how many of the 10,000+ Californians in self-quarantine are also my Bay Area neighbors.
This little virus brings with it a large bunch of life lessons. Some of them are shared here, as a public service.
First off (I hate to bring politics ever into this space, but what can you do?) if you ever believed anything said by our commander in chief, this is a good time to mend your ways. Covid-19 is not a Democrat hoax, it is not going to disappear in a short time, you really shouldn’t go to work if you’re sick, a vaccine is at best many months away, and good luck finding those test kits that anybody who wants can get. This is only a life lesson in the sense that, in today’s crazy information-overload reality, Truth is hard to find. So, Life Lesson #1: Seek Truth. Read several newspapers if you still read news. Otherwise, visit the CDC site and scroll through more than one mainstream news source, please; do not believe Facebook will give you Truth. Watch PBS and occasionally Fox News; if one disseminates truth, the other reinforces your neighbor’s version of truth – and we’re all in this together.
Other life lessons are happier, and equally easy to learn. For instance, at my church we very quickly learned to replace hugs and handshakes with fist bumps and peace signs. Not as much fun, but whatever. The ushers are equipped with bulletins and hand-sanitizer. Choir members last Sunday spaced themselves three feet apart, which looked rather elegant – but they sounded the same, i.e. gorgeous. We also learned translations of the word Covid into Hebrew and Yiddish, which I have already forgotten, and which doesn’t matter anyway since the name was chosen by the World Health Organization thusly: Co and Vi come from coronavirus, D stands for disease and 19 (as in 2019) = the year the first cases were seen. To connect all this: I belong to a Presbyterian church that is heavy into hugs, scientific truth and interfaith understanding.
As to flexibility, this viral pandemic is teaching us, wisely, not to be so rigid about stuff. I was dismayed when the San Francisco Symphony cancelled a concert on my regular series that I really wanted to hear; and the political roundtable at the Commonwealth Club, a favorite regular program at which I always volunteer, similarly disappeared. But symphony season will resume in good time, and do we really need to talk politics late into the evening when it invariably produces nightmares? Sleep is better. That long-planned trip to Tucson in a couple of weeks? Probably not the wisest thing for my octogenarian cardiovascular system. Purpose of trip, however, was to join my daughter for a visit with a childhood friend of hers (whose mother, lost to cancer decades ago, was a good friend of mine) – and they can definitely have a ball without me.
So take deep breaths and wash your hands. We and the planet will survive in good time.