It Is What It Is

There is no such uncertainty as a sure thing. (Robert Burns)

April, being my birth month, is the time I usually regale you with the Big Stuff I’ve learned travelling life’s bumpy road in my eternal quest for grace—which I define as that ability to remain calm and carry on no matter what. And without overdosing on the antacid tablets.

This year, I’m focusing less on the bumpy road and more on the GIGANTIC pothole that threatens to swamp us all. I think even Thomas Paine would agree we don’t lack for soul-trying times. As The Nation headlined its March 13, 2020 issue: “Our Worst Crisis Since 2008 … and We Have an Idiot at the Helm.” No **** Sherlock. Which is an apt comment, as I sit here penning this in March, because the Corona virus madness has made toilet paper the new holy grail. You may search far and wide without finding a single roll.

 Could someone please pass the antacids?

Anyway, I was driving along the other day, immersed in concerns of pandemic proportion as well as my own pathetic little pile of personal troubles, when the Eagles’ Take It Easy came on the oldies station: We may lose and we may win, but we will never be here again. Instantly, my heart lightened. I’m alive. I’m OK. And this is the day I have at hand. Don’t muck it up worrying about stuff beyond my control. As I pulled into a Taco Bell parking lot to jot down that transformative line, something like grace descended.

We may lose and we may win, but we will never be here again. The winning part’s easy. It’s the losing part that poses the challenge: how to cope in these troubled times.

Perspective is Everything

While researching my WWII novel, I came across an arresting story in one of my sourcebooks, London 1945. Author Maureen Waller describes a scene in a north London cinema. Though 28,000-pound V-2 rockets had been falling in the area for three days and nights, the locals still flocked to see the new film. As a revolver fired onscreen, one of the actors cried “What was that?” A wit in the audience responded, “Only a bloody rocket!” It made me laugh. It made me think. The tenacity of life—the green shoot that rises from the slender crack on a granite cliff in a barren landscape. Over 80,000 Londoners were killed or seriously injured in WWII. Every night, they went to sleep not knowing if a bomb would fall on their house. Not knowing if they would ever wake up again. And yet, life, however changed and rearranged, continued.  

If you live in North America or western Europe and were born after 1940—which is most of us reading this—you have lived a life relatively free of disaster on a grand scale. Not in a war zone or under some violent regime. Our tragedies have largely been personal, and though that doesn’t minimize the pain they caused the people who experienced them, the scale has been one of the individual, not the universal. As Humphrey Bogart famously said in Casablanca, “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Well, now we’ve got much more than the problems of three little people (though it is, indeed, still a crazy world). Now, we do have to keep calm and carry on, as all those Brits did in WWII England—minus the congregating in cinemas part—because, literally, what else can we do?

Chuck the Crystal Ball That Never Really Worked—It’s Still Not Working

In mid-March, I was trying to calculate whether or not we’d be able to take a planned mini-vacation to Portsmouth in May. Would my son be able to safely fly here for a visit in late July? Could we even count on finding laundry detergent when the current bottle ran out in two weeks? And then I stopped. Because no one knows.   

The bottom line is: We have to stay in the here and now. The here and now is all we have. It’s all we can rely on. It’s actually all we ever have, but pre-pandemic life gave us the illusion we could make plans and have reasonable assurance things would unfold accordingly. Well, now we can’t. Trust me, for someone who dots all her Is and crosses her Ts, who mentally fast forwards to consider every contingency and prepare, this does not come easy, but there simply is nothing ahead any of us can know with certainty.

And that includes the pundit alarmists out there who predict the virus will go on for years, erupting again and again. That our country and the world will never be the same. Our way of life is gone. Forever! While there’s no denying, TheRUMP and his profiteering pals have mucked up the rollout of everything from test production to desperately-needed masks and ventilators—resulting in a huge spike in COVID-19 cases and needless deaths—forever is a very long time, and history is proof that even the awfullest awful disasters come to an end. Bubonic plague. The flu pandemic of 1918. The Great Depression. World War II. Ironically, we tend to overlook the big lesson these dark moments impart because we see everything in the past as over and done, but living through a disaster in real time is always the same. For those who suffered prior global catastrophes, there was no certainty in the present. There never is.

As for the doom-and-gloom about our way of life disappearing, the world is always changing. Our way of life is always changing. The noun “crisis” comes from the Latinized form of the Greek word krisis, meaning “turning point in a disease.” A moment when things could get worse. Or better. Opportunities arise at such crossroads. Out of the Great Depression came the Social Security Act. After the 1918 flu pandemic, many countries adopted free universal healthcare. Though (sadly) the U.S. did not do so—opting instead for employer-based insurance plans that left many uninsured—it did consolidate the field of medicine to include the sociological as well as the biological and experimental. The concept of public health was born and, with it, epidemiology which studies the patterns, causes, and effects of disease.

This is a crisis, and with it comes the opportunity to rethink the way we live.

Joan’s Theory of Relativity

A good friend from my younger days used to talk about her mom, Joan. If you complained about something in your life, Joan would remind you of all the people who had it worse. My friend called it Joan’s theory of relativity. It made us laugh back then, but it underscores a valid point.

If you’re healthy and have no symptoms of COVID-19, you’re having a wonderful day. Go read a book. Or write one. If the weather’s good, take a walk. Do some gardening. Whatever the weather, dance in your kitchen, bake chocolate chip cookies, take up the bongos.

And do something for a better future:

1) Protect the 2020 election by writing or calling your U.S. reps and senators. Let them know you support voting by mail in all 50 states;

2) Join an online group to protect the environment. Many orgs are now working with activists through the Internet, advising on how to take effective actions from home;

3) Money is uncertain for many of us now, but if you have $5 or $10 to spare, there are numerous good causes out there: Feeding America; Direct Relief; The American Red Cross; Team Rubicon (an NGO service organization that puts veterans to work providing disaster relief); United Way Worldwide. (For full descriptions of these and other charities, checkout this WaPo article.)

The Humane Society International could use your help, too. Hundreds of thousands of pets have been abandoned around the world in the mistaken belief they can pass on COVID-19. Both the CDC and the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department have issued statements that no evidence exists that companion animals, including pets, can spread COVID-19. 

If you’re doing a self-quarantine because you’re feeling a bit squishy around the edges, you’re maybe not having such a good day, but hopefully you can draw some comfort from listening to your favorite music, reading (great time to reduce your TBR pile), binge-watching old movies you love or streaming new series, and connecting with loved ones by phone or social media. Do take very good care of yourself. We need you.                                   

If you have COVID-19, you’re probably not reading this, but if you are, know that we are all pulling for you. That millions and millions of people across the globe are rooting for your full and speedy recovery. You have every right to be angry—the White House’s mishandling of this pandemic is cruel and inexcusable—but anger is a poor healer. Get well and take your revenge at the ballot box in November.

And that’s Joan’s theory of relativity.


Giuseppe Argenziano

The only place I venture out to these days is the supermarket, where I try to buy enough to last a full week. Or put another way, I go weekly and whatever I forget, we do without. When I went last week, the store was in full insanity mode. Aisles stripped bare of every basic as people piled their carts high with multiples of whatever they could grab. I kept thinking They must all have a platoon of giant chest freezers in the basement. You know, the kind where they discover the victim’s body on murder mysteries.

But things were calmer today (although for some inexplicable reason, butter and yogurt are still on the MIA list). Gone was the frenzy, and in its place, a new patience, bordering on generosity, had descended. People acknowledged each other with a nod, a smile. Maybe we are realizing that we really are all in this together. And that we can’t know when this will end or exactly what shape it will take in the months ahead.  

David Veksler

Ahead of me in the self-checkout line was a woman with two small children. The children were being, well… children, so the process of emptying her cart and bagging her items was something like watching paint dry. I told her to take her time, no stress. We all have enough stress. And I realized I wasn’t just being polite. I meant it. In this new world, what is the rush about anything for anyone who’s healthy? As I watched the kids, excited by a pack of modeling clay they were getting, my heart went out to them and their mom—to have young children or an infant at this time has to have its scary moments. Like may be a lot of them. My kids are grown and I’m still concerned. As professor and author Elizabeth Stone famously said: To have a child is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body. 


So, my annual birthday cake and champagne bash for the neighbors won’t be happening next week. The incredibly delicious cake Ed usually orders from our local bakery (lots of frosting!) won’t be happening—we’re limiting all outings to the supermarket and pharmacy for now. But I can always bake one from scratch. And we can hold the celebration when all this is over. Whenever that is. We’ll see. 

Is that grace? Maybe. I only know that my job—our job—in this difficult hour is to endure.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ve probably run across my “mantra”, the Rumi quote that hangs by my desk. It is especially apt in these times:

Keep walking, though there’s no place to get to. Don’t try to see through the distances, That’s not for human beings. Move within, But don’t move the way fear makes you move.

Winston Churchill put it even more simply: If you’re going through hell, keep going.

Until the moment you’re not here, you are here. Whatever the circumstances, this day, this hour is your life. It is precious.

Stay well. And live.     

Sitting Here in Limbo

To err is human, but to really foul things up you need a computer. (Paul R. Erlich, biologist/author)

On a wintry day, temperature hovering just above freezing, leaden skies overhead, I found myself sitting with about 150 other people in my regional Social Security Admin office. Waiting. And waiting. The little slip of paper with my customer service number growing damp and creased in my palm.

In setting up access to an SSA online account the week before, I had encountered a disconcerting roadblock: We have no records that match this information. Try again. So I did. Again and again.To make a long, extremely frustrating story short, every which way I tried—former hyphenated surname (marriage #1), current unhyphenated surname, birth date with zero preceding a digit, birth date without the zero —failed. We have no records that match this information.

Oh yeah? Then explain to me, please, why I’m sitting here with the annual notice you sent in 2018, reporting every year’s social security deductions from my earnings for decades!!!      

Ah, modern life.

This Facelessness We Face

It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity. (Albert Einstein)

Thirty-five years ago, the movie Brazil, brainchild ofMonty Python’s Terry Gilliam, painted a Munch-ian (think The Scream) portrait of near-future life that is as terrifying today as it was then. A well-oiled featureless orb of a bureaucracy with no edges, nothing one can grasp. An impervious, slippery thing that eludes our efforts to interact with the institutions that shape our lives.

We’re pretty much there:  

Phone bots demand we “say or enter” our answers to pre-determined questions, which often fail to address the reason we called. When we attempt to respond, these bots rap out a snappy “I didn’t quite get that. Can you try again?” And then hang up on us.  

Emails direct us to links that don’t work. When Microsoft took over Skype, I had a $10 phone credit—not a lot, but I need the dough more than Bill Gates, so I clicked on the link the Microsoft message assured me would allow for the transfer of my money to their new Skype system. Another long story short: the link made no mention of transfers or phone credit. No further link to customer service, no phone number. Bye-bye ten dollars.

Online support systems launch our requests for help into deep cyberspace (we used to call this the “circular file”). Three years ago, when my email account was behaving erratically, I left Google a message on their “support” page, you know the one that invites you to “Describe your issue or share your ideas.” Never heard back from them.   

The utter facelessness of modern life often renders us voiceless. As the Ghostbusters theme song asks: “Who you gonna call?”  

How Did We Get Here?

Western society has accepted as unquestionable a technological imperative that is quite as arbitrary as the most primitive taboo: not merely the duty to foster invention and constantly to create technological novelties, but equally the duty to surrender to these novelties unconditionally, just because they are offered, without respect to their human consequences. (Lewis Mumford, historian and sociologist)

By the time I was born, the post-war (that’s WWII for the Gen Z crowd) economy of labor-saving gadgets was in full swing. Dishwashers. Automatic clothes driers. Frost-free refrigerators.

On a larger scale, technological advances made commercial air travel not only possible but relatively affordable, paved the Interstate highway system, and boosted healthcare for the entire planet with the mass production of antibiotics and the development of the polio vaccine.

Throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, the march of progress continued on. Color TVs. Touch-tone phones. Copier machines. Heart transplants.

And on… Word processors. Flip phones. Affordable PCs.

Innovation. It’s a beautiful thing. Up to a point.  

If you can recall life before Facebook. Before bots supplanted flesh-and-blood customer service reps. Before every transaction of life—except possibly a trip to the loo—could be accomplished by a text, a tweet, or an app. If your memory stretches back that far, then you probably recall chatting regularly with your neighbors (all of whom you knew by name), exchanging pleasantries with the (real people!) tellers behind the counter at your bank, the butcher at your local supermarket, salesclerks, your postal carrier.     

In that misty, distant past, virtually all our interactions took place face to face with other humans, or at the most remote, with a real live service rep over the phone, not an algorithm designed to address the most common problems, but almost never your specific issue.

My headbanging experience with the Social Security Administration website illustrates this slippery slide into the faceless technological abyss, which was resolved only when I trooped down to my local SSA office and after half a day’s wait, spoke to a real human being. Ten minutes later, problem solved.

Humans avoid the computer error.

Cyberspace: Not-Your-Mother’s Neighborhood

Each of us is now electronically connected to the globe, and yet we feel utterly alone. (Dan Brown)

Several months ago, a person I’m connected with on Twitter created an informal poll asking how much time people spent daily on social media. I was amazed—and let’s be honest, somewhat appalled—to learn that 6-8 hours a day was “typical” for many respondents. We’re not talking teens here. This group of several dozen Tweeters has a median age of about 45-50. Most hold full time jobs and many have families still at home.

How do they do it? Since the day drives a hard bargain—24 hours, not a minute more!—something must be sacrificed to get that 6-8 hours of social media. That something, I suspect, is face-time with other people—neighbors, friends.

According to a Pew Center Research poll, 29% of American adults know only some of their neighbors by name, and another 28% know none, whereas the average number of friends someone has on Facebook (2019) is 338. And the average number of followers a Tweeter has is 707 (2016), a number that’s up 340% from 2012.

While these FB friends and fellow Tweeters are real people (with the exception of the occasional bot), it’s likely most of them don’t live in our community. We probably didn’t go to school with them, or raise our kids in their neighborhood. They’re not likely to come to our 50th birthday celebration. We’re not likely to attend their wedding. We click on a heart emoji to respond to their post about their child’s cute photo, then go about our day—our RL (real life)—without giving it or them another thought.      

Even family—perhaps especially family—suffers from members orbiting cyberspace. Couples dine out in total silence, both partners texting through the meal. Parents take kids to the park, to the store, to a café, where no one speaks while Mom or Dad check their notifications. Sometimes they bring a screen to keep the kid busy/quiet.

Ian Bogost, writing in The Atlantic, describes his experience with the social network service Nextdoor, an app (oh irony of ironies!) designed to counter the effect of all those other social networks that take us into cyberspace and away from our neighborhoods.

So, what do neighbors chat about on Nextdoor? Do they discuss their day at work? The kids’ experience at the local school? Who’s looking like a winner for the Yankees? The funny joke they heard on Colbert last night? According to Bogost, his Nextdoor neighbors have reported a fallen tree blocking a major road, someone seeking belly-dancing classes, lost cats and dogs. They also complain about a variety of things, especially the sending of “urgent” alerts by other neighbors in the wee hours.

Nextdoor’s VP of policy, Steve Wymer, told Bogost that pretty much the same topics arise everywhere: Service requests/recommendations and real estate discussions make up about 50% of the buzz. Noise complaints are another hot topic, and more disturbingly, the sightings of “suspicious” people, i.e., people of color in white neighborhoods.

Though one may learn the actual names of their neighbors on Nextdoor, it seems a poor substitute for a personal relationship. Regular face to face contact. The shared laugh. The visible smile. The sympathetic hug or pat on the shoulder. A neighborhood barbecue. The annual block party.

The Impact of Technology on Our Humanity

Technology is a way of organizing the universe so that man doesn’t have to experience it. (Max Frisch, playwright and novelist)

In my first “real” post-college job as an editor, the industry journals I read were white-hot about the coming thing, the revolution in the wings that would render us one happy globally-connected world: The Internet! How exciting to think we in the States would soon be able to “talk” to people in India, in China. What no one envisaged back then was how much we would stop talking to the people around us—the people we pass on the streets of our neighborhood, in our local park, the town beach. That while “chatting” to thousands of strangers on FB, we would avert our eyes and zip our lips when passing the actual people in our neighborhood, our community, avoiding all contact as if we were all continually riding a crowded subway car in Manhattan.      

Much has been inked about the spike in our stress levels and its possible sources: threats of gun violence, environmental poisons, climate change, racial and social/political divides. All this is very real, but I believe the biggest single stressor of all may be the social isolation we experience in Real Life.                   

Ask yourself: How much energy is consumed in NOT looking at or speaking to people we pass in our daily life?

Of course, technology is just a tool, and like all tools it can be used for good or bad. A hammer, for instance, can repair a broken fence. Or it can bash in your skull.

James Surowiecki, writing in the MIT Technology Review stresses that contemporary criticism of technology is not so much about specific technologies but about the impact of technology on our humanity. That “technology is central to the increasing privatization of experience [my italics], which in turn is creating a fragmented, chaotic society, in which traditional relationships are harder to sustain, community is increasingly an illusion, and people’s relationships to each other, mediated as they often are by machines, grow increasingly tenuous.”

Increasing privatization of experience. Our hectic skeds (would they be so hectic if we weren’t spending gobs of hours online?) create a ready market for convenience services. Daily Harvest, one of many such services, brings food right to your door: “No shopping, chopping, or prepping.” Similarly, supermarket chain Stop & Shop offers two “convenience” options: Food ordered online is either delivered to your door or ready for drive-by pick-up at one of their “click-and-collect” locations. But no shopping means you won’t run into old friends and acquaintances: your child’s former teacher or the woman who coached your daughter’s softball team.    

In his book To Save Everything Click Here, Evgeny Morozov argues that we must take control of technology—make decisions and set limits as a society—rather than allowing it to control us. It’s a valid and important argument, but in the seven years since Morozov published his book, our society, our world has splintered further still. While demanding (and voting for) some kind of accountability from Big Tech, we need to start talking to one another again. Go out into our neighborhoods, parks, and town centers to rediscover and reconnect with the people behind the faces we pass by every day.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

We get so wrapped up in numbers in our society. The most important thing is that we are able to be one-to-one, you and I with each other at the moment. If we can be present to the moment with the person that we happen to be with, that’s what’s important. (Fred Rogers)

Growing up, during my family’s annual pilgrimage to visit relatives in Ohio, my Aunt Marg often took me to the park, a short bus ride away. Each time we boarded that bus, she greeted the driver. “Hey, Oscar, how’s the family?” or “Oscar, did you catch the Reds’ game yesterday?” I liked that she knew his name, knew he had a family, knew he enjoyed baseball. It made me feel like we were part of something larger than two people on a bus, that we were part of a community with everyone on that bus.

At age 5, I was not a stranger to this kind of bonhomie. In my small Michigan town, neighbors chatted with each other while mowing the lawn or raking the leaves or taking a walk. They also banded together in emergencies. During one terrible winter storm—snow drifts to the top of our back door, impossible impassable roads—my dad and our neighbor, Wally, took my Flexible Flyer sled and headed into the sleet for the store a mile away where a helicopter was delivering emergency basics like bread and milk.  

It was neighbors I sold nickel subscriptions to for my first “newspaper”—a weekly two-page rag full of local “scoops”: Who’d just had a baby, who was painting their house a new color. When my best friend Mimi and I put together an acrobatic show (all the latest gymnastics we’d learned at school), it was neighbors who bought tickets. As Mimi and I tumbled rather gracelessly about our yard, I remember the women sitting in lawn chairs, chatting happily, pausing only to applaud our efforts. I later babysat for many of these families. They knew me, knew my parents, knew that in an emergency my parents would be available.     

This was my model growing up. You interact with your neighbors. You talk to people. And even if you don’t know someone, you nod and smile as you pass each other in the coming and going of daily life. It was a model that extended seamlessly into my early adult life. Our family was part of a neighborhood babysitting co-op who swapped childcare favors, held neighborhood potlucks, barbecues, and New Year’s Eve parties. My kids attended the family daycare of our neighbor, Judy, across the street. On a sub-zero Saturday night in January, when our furnace broke down, her husband Bob came over and helped me get that cranky old heatbox re-lit. The night severe gastroenteritis necessitated an ambulance ride to the ER at 1 a.m., it was another neighbor, Paul, who came over to stay with my one-year-old son. When Nina, one street over, traveled, we fed her cats.

In recent years, it has been disheartening to see how fewer and fewer people respond to a smile or a “hello” in passing, but the ones who don’t respond seem more puzzled or startled than annoyed. So I keep smiling, I keep saying hello. Because I don’t want to live in a faceless world. And sometimes the human beings behind those glazed-over “masks” respond in delightful ways: The day after Christmas, I was taking a walk on the bike path with my daughter, her partner, and my son. We encountered a cyclist and when I commended him for braving the ice-encrusted pavement, he laughed: “So far, so good.”  He later caught up with us at the cross-light. “It’s an amazing day, isn’t it,” he said. “More like late-March than December.”

We just feel better when we talk to one another, when we acknowledge each other. Even in that cattle pen of the social security office, once I started talking to the folks next to me, several more people joined the conversation and suddenly everything felt better, the time went faster. It returned our humanity to us. And when my number was called, I was grateful to explain my problem to the real person at the service window. After we got it straightened out, I thanked her. “You do your job very well,” I said. She smiled. A short ten minutes in which we shared a bit of human helpfulness, human kindness, human gratitude.

A small exchange. And a vital one.