As frequent readers of this blog know, one of my mantras is that we only control two things: how we act and how we react. Last March, in the early days of the COVID explosion, I wondered aloud here whether or not Ed and I would be able to take a scheduled mini-vacation to Portsmouth in May. Would my son be able to safely fly here for a week in July (tickets already purchased)? Closer to need, would we even be able to find laundry detergent, toilet paper, hand soap? No one knows, I wrote.
Pithily, I added “The bottom line is: We have to stay in the here and now. The here and now is all we have. 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. There is simply nothing ahead any of us can know with certainty.”
What I didn’t realize then—couldn’t yet know—was how hard it would be to live with the blunt force trauma of that reality day after day. Month after month. As birthdays and holidays passed without parties or family celebrations. As the canceled trip to Portsmouth became the canceled trip to London and Paris (September), and the two weeks in Barbados (this January). Ed and I used to go out to dinner every Thursday night, where all things domestic were set aside, and we talked about what we were reading, thinking, dreaming. Nights of laughter and ideas and great food. I haven’t seen the inside of a restaurant since February 2020. I don’t know what will be left of my town to “come back” to. Whenever.
I Celebrate Therefore I Am
The one thing I had LOTS of time to do during the past year was think. What I thought about most can be loosely summarized as “What is living?” On my daily hikes through the streets of my town, one of the things I noticed was the quantity of Halloween decorations people put up this year, starting in September. (This may seem like a non-sequitur, but stay with me.) There was the usual festival of enormous blow-up ghosts, Frankensteins, and pumpkins at the house with the huge front porch, three blocks over, but there were easily another 50 houses whose tableaus of giant tarantulas, gravestones, and witches covered every square foot of porch/garden/yard. Almost everyone had some ghoulish display. And the day after Halloween, the Christmas decorations emerged!
Watching a woman unpack some 30 boxes, newly-delivered by Amazon, and set up display after display across the vast lawn of her three-storied home—Santa’s sleigh with all the reindeer, a mini-hood of gingerbread houses, Santa’s workshop teeming with elves—I calculated the cost. A good $2,000 and change. I thought about the miles-long line-ups for food handouts. The millions facing loss of employment and unemployment compensation, electricity and heat shut-offs, evictions. A part of me was angry at this ridiculous waste of money/resources. But another part of me understood: If this woman was inclined to donate, she was probably doing so in addition to this lawn show. The “lawn show” was a lifeline for her. A link to a happier time when family and friends could gather, could celebrate without masks, without fear. A return to a pre-pandemic world many of us took for granted.
The Way It Used To Be
I’ve always thought of the “holiday season” as beginning with pumpkins ripening in the fields. A season that embraces not only Halloween, but Thanksgiving, the Solstice, Chanukah, Christmas, and the Festival of Lights, wrapping up on midnight December 31 with a toast to the New Year. In that stretch, Ed and I normally purchase pumpkins from a nearby family farm and carve them. Pies are made. Our children and their various partners/friends arrive to share a Thanksgiving that features both turkey and vegan fare. Later that weekend, we journey to another local farm to pick out a Christmas tree. Back home, we wrangle it into its stand, string the lights, hang the ornaments, and toast this work of art with eggnog fortified by a dash of brandy, while watching some seasonal film like Miracle on 34th Street. In the following weeks, gift wishlists are exchanged. Ed and I shop the local merchants on our town’s “Bag Day.” Wrap and ribbon everything. Send cards. And I bake tins of cookies for far-flung friends. Evenings, we kick back to enjoy The Holiday, Love Actually, and the one that always makes me cry—It’s a Wonderful Life: “No man is a failure who has friends.” I’m not much of a traditionalist, but I cherish the traditions of this season, carved out and personalized over decades.
This September, though, my emotions ranged from indifference to dread as the first Halloween candy hit the grocery shelves. I debated endlessly with myself about whether to drive out to the farm where we usually pick our pumpkins—and wound up getting two from the supermarket a week before the day. We carved them, and they came out well (Ed’s “Trump-kin” was especially amazing), but I did not feel the holiday buzz. The eight trick-or-treaters I doled out Reese’s Cups and Hershey bars to—all of us masked and muffled—seemed to share my dispirited state. They thanked me politely as I wished them a Happy Halloween. Absent were the high-pitched laughter and squeals of candy-joy from years past. It felt like we were all just going through the motions.
The Way It Is
How does one celebrate, get into the festive spirit of the season, when friends and family are absent? When the kids scattered in cities across the country shouldn’t come home, and the annual Solstice Party that gathers the people you’ve built a life with in your community—some of those ties stretching back 30 years—isn’t happening?
I pushed through Thanksgiving. Ed baked a marvelous mini-ham and I roasted a downsized pan of my customary autumn veggies. I made blueberry pancakes for breakfast, but skipped the mimosas my daughter and I would enjoy if she were home. A bottle of champagne is perfect for several people to tip in their orange juice at Turkey Day breakfast—recorked to finish during the boisterous hours of dinner prep, when the kitchen is crowded with cooks. But just for me (Ed doesn’t drink)? It seemed ludicrous and begging for a hangover to empty that bottle (the local liquor mart stopped selling splits five years ago), so like much else, I nixed it this year.
Ed and I played Scrabble. Dug into the pumpkin pie I’d baked. Watched the final episode (13 seasons!) of Poirot because Mind Hunters, though excellent, felt a bit too “dark” for a holiday.
It was a nice day, but it didn’t feel like Thanksgiving. And I was having trouble getting excited about going out on the weekend to pick out a Christmas tree. But we did. A slightly smaller one than usual because I had to wrangle it by myself on and off the car, into the house, and into a tree stand—Ed being but two weeks out of hernia surgery. Won’t take all the ornaments, I thought, but I started stringing the lights and decorating it. “Heavy” ornaments first, and the ones from my childhood—the glass dog, missing a leg and its snout, taking pride of place because nothing, nothing, has been with me longer. Then the “fragiles.” And last, the “regulars.” True, it didn’t take all the ornaments, but I managed more than I’d expected. Gazing at the lit tree in the evening dark, it’s ornaments sparkling, I felt a breath of holiday pass over me. Maybe, maybe… I could do Christmas.
What is Possible
Among the wisest words I’ve heard in my life, this quote from Bertrand Russell stands out: “In all affairs, it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.”
Up to this year, I’ve always considered Russell’s words to mean: Don’t be afraid to question or re-examine your assumptions, even your beliefs. What is true will remain so, and the rest should be jettisoned. It is only now that I understand those words encompass expectations, as well. And traditions come with a lot of expectations—when things will happen, how things will happen, who will be involved. We tend to measure our happiness of such experiences by how closely they fit our expectations. But what to do when those expectations can’t be met? When, as now, they are impossible? What if, as Russell suggests, we were to rethink them? To tie our happiness not to what we can’t have—and so be hopelessly unhappy—but to locate the joy in what is possible.
If those words sound blithe, offhand, believe me, I did not/do not find it easy to accept the loss of so much I cherish—I can be a very determined girl about making things happen. But, it has gotten easier, with mindful practice.
The Shape of Christmas Present
I knew that Christmas Day would be quiet this year. The piles of presents for our far-flung kids reduced to a few gifts for each other. The festive noisy table shrunk to a Zoom chat with the absent family members.
And shopping for gifts in my favorite local stores, where I can touch the fabrics, handle the pottery, and sift the selection.? Not happening this year. Online was the only realistic—and safe—choice. The fact that Louis Kill-Joy is still mismanaging the post office has meant everything is taking muuuuch longer than “normal” to arrive. (Of all the things we took for granted pre-pandemic, anything “normal” was the first to be jettisoned.) So, I printed out pics of things I ordered and wrapped those in small boxes, topped them with ribbons, and sent them off across the land. The printer, naturally, didn’t work from my laptop—printer error, printer error—so Ed and I tried various other computers in the house until we found one that the printer was able to relate to—and then it printed three copies of everything. Ed, in problem-solving mode, ordered a new printer. Staples delivered. And then the old printer started working again. I’ve come to expect this. The time is “out of joint” as the Bard would say, and so is just about everything and everyone in it.
Celebrating What Is
But there have been moments, here and there, when I totally forgot how I wanted things to be and lost myself to the joy of what was at hand. Wrapping a present, listening to Brenda Lee belting out Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree on a Christmas compilation CD Ed made years ago. Or Elvis doo-wopping on Blue Christmas. I mean, how can you not smile when the King is singing “It’s gonna be a BLOO-BLOO-BLOO Christmas without you”?
And so it goes.
As I write this, Christmas is just days away. We are watching our traditional holiday films— It’s a Wonderful Life is on tonight’s view-list, a reminder that not everything has been “lost.” For Christmas dinner, Ed will be making “buttery shrimp” and I’m baking a French Apple pie. We’ll have good conversation—we’ve never yet run out of things to say to each other—and appreciate that we have a home, heat, good food, and most of all, each other. It won’t be a “normal” Christmas, but it can still be a good day, a festive day.
I might even crack open a bottle of champagne at breakfast. And if a portion of that bottle goes flat in the end, well, worse things have happened this year. At every moment we can only do what we can do.
A very Happy New Year to everyone out there. As virtually every holiday card we’ve received notes: 2021 has got to be better. We don’t yet know what the “new normal” will look like, but we can decide to find the happiness in it, too. To gaze at the stars in the infinite night sky and know there is still magic and joy in the universe. And we would be wise to do so, because our time here is not infinite, and our lives too precious to waste mourning what, at any particular moment, cannot be.
“We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give. ” (Winston Churchill)
[Note: After all the “hilarity” of life, detailed in last month’s post, my car was repaired, I got my “pass” sticker, and the yellow jackets gave it up for 2020. But two days after that dust settled, Ed had emergency surgery. He’s home and fine now, but there was a rather harrowing 48 hours in which all this happened, a sleepless two days that coincided with our driveway being paved. Do I know how to live or what? BUT Joe Biden did win, by millions of votes, and if we ever get him inaugurated, democracy has a fighting chance. Maybe by this time next year, we’ll be gathering with family for the holidays, vaccinated, and on the road to the deep physical/emotional recovery this nation so desperately needs. I’ve brought back a post from December 2018 because: 1) I need a break, but more important, 2) it speaks to the moment, perhaps more so now then it did then. Take care. Stay well. Peace to you and yours for the holidays.]
I was driving along in August—98 degrees in the shade, rush-hour traffic inching forward, some Cars tune on the local oldies station—when I noticed a bumper sticker on the Honda to my left: Be kinder than is necessary. Something lifted in my heart. A breeze penetrated the mug. At the next opportunity, I pulled over to the side of the road and jotted down those words on the back of a grocery receipt. Be kinder than is necessary.
To say we live in divisive times is like saying arsenic will kill you. Duh. And there are real issues we must confront attached to these divisions—racism, immigration, misogyny, healthcare, the environment, democracy itself—but that’s in the aggregate. On a molecular level, each of us deals with the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker—our neighbors and fellow community members. Not cardboard demographic representations. Not a frenzied TheRUMP rally mob screaming “Lock her up!” Or a deluge of polls dividing us 60/40, 40/60, 50/50. But real people with real faces. If we want to build a better world, this is an excellent place to start.
Wax and Wane
Homo sapiens are a quirky little species. We are both caring and cantankerous. Principled and sheeplike. Social and self-absorbed. Among our many tendencies is the kindness we demonstrate in moments of major crisis—natural disasters, wars:
Houston resident Jack Schuhmacher rescued numerous people trapped by the rising flood waters of Hurricane Harvey, ferrying them to safety in his 17-foot fishing boat.
Hermine “Miep” Gies, her husband, and three other Dutch citizens risked their lives for more than two years to hide Anne Frank’s family and four other Jews from the Nazis. It was Miep who grabbed Anne’s diary in the mayhem of the arrests, keeping it safe until Anne’s father returned from Auschwitz in 1945.
Sadly, the sense that we’re all in this together tends to go dormant once a crisis wanes. People return to insular mode, making a living and looking after their own turf. Petty concerns predominate and rancorous rivalries erupt. Twitter wars ensue. But the reality remains: We ARE all in this together every day. If anything ultimately dooms us, it will be our failure to recognize the truth of this.
Be kinder than is necessary. But, what is “necessary kindness”? Is it merely good manners—holding the door for someone carrying a child or packages, thanking someone who does the same for us? Is it mouthing the expected platitudes in certain situations? I was so sorry to hear that your father died/ I hope you’ll find another job soon/ Wishing you a speedy recovery. Perhaps the word necessary here serves as a synonym for the minimum response required to not be thought rude or heartless. We are busy, busy people after all, and it’s just not possible to extend ourselves to all the need out there.
Until it’s us. Our sorrow. Our disaster. Our need.
Fortunately, being kinder than is necessary rarely involves the sort of mortal risk Miep took in hiding the Frank family. Sometimes it’s just—literally—going that extra mile.
In my student days, while doing a semester at the University of London, several of us decided to go to Paris for a long weekend via the Hovercraft from Ramsgate to Calais. Taking the train to Ramsgate was easy, but we had no idea where the docks were once we debarked. This was in the days before GPS and Smartphones. You got around mainly by asking the locals “Which way?”
The woman we asked for directions in Ramsgate could have reeled off a list of street names and left/right turns, as most people do. But she didn’t. Instead, she offered to walk us to the ferry landing, despite the fact that she was on her way home after a day of work, despite the fact that the docks were in the opposite direction of where she was heading. “It’s only a mile or so,” she said cheerfully, and off we went. I have never forgotten her.
A Simple Gesture Can Mean A Lot
Sometimes that extra shot of kindness is as simple as picking up your phone.
The summer I got into my VW Bug and moved to Boston, I had just written my first novel. I had an IBM Selectric III, but nothing in the way of connections to editors or publishers. About a month after my arrival, I went for a haircut. During the usual salon banter, the hairdresser, Donna, asked what I did for a living. I explained I was the editor of a business publication for retailers, but what I really loved was writing fiction. Then I told her about my novel.
Now, she could have said that’s nice or I wish you luck or how exciting. But instead she said, “My cousin is an editor at Addison-Wesley. They don’t publish fiction but she might know someone working at another house. I’ll give her a call if you like.” I liked and she made the call right then. Her cousin invited me to have lunch with her in Reading (then-headquarters of A-W), at the end of which she called her old college friend, an assistant editor at Random House. My manuscript went out in the mail the next day.
I received a lovely, enthusiastic note about the book from this woman. And though a senior editor later decided not to go with the manuscript, I was really grateful to my hairdresser, her cousin, and the RH assistant editor. It was my first experience wading into the often muddy waters of publishing, and their kind support kept me going.
Kindness is also about compassion—bending the rules when people need help.
After a health emergency put the kibosh on a trip to London and Sicily—just days before we were scheduled to leave—I was faced with cancelling a slew of theatre tickets or losing a lot of $$$. Our Air B&B reservations and flights were refunded because we had trip insurance for those, but theatre tix always come with the disclaimer that all sales are final, no refunds. I wrote the various box offices anyway, briefly explaining our situation and asking if anything could be done. All but one of the twelve theatres refunded our money, and many wrote words of sympathy, expressing hope that Ed would be better soon. I was deeply moved by their kind notes and willingness to respond in a human way to a human situation.
Paying It Forward: The Ripple Effect
And sometimes kindness with a capital K simply comes down to paying it forward.
Jerry took his first trip to America when he was just 23. Sent by his London employer to represent their firm at a meeting in New York City, he was cabbing to what he desperately hoped was the correct address. Upon sharing his anxiety with the cabbie, he was stunned to hear the man say, “Don’t worry. I’ll wait out front for you while you check it out.”
Jerry couldn’t believe it. After everything he’d heard about the stereotypical New Yorker—self-absorbed, indifferent—he was blown away by this man’s kindness. “I promised myself right then that I would always seek ways to do something nice for Americans visiting the UK.”
He told me this story as I was dining out with two friends in a cozy restaurant off London’s Baker Street. Jerry was a regular—knew the owner, the kitchen staff, loved to mix American-style cocktails for the diners. Overhearing us chatting, he came to our table to ask what part of the States we were from, a conversation that lasted well into the evening. And then he offered to take us to Pinewood Studios and show us around. He worked for Lloyd’s of London in their film insurance wing, and was scheduled to for a meeting at Pinewood in the morning.
We were excited—Pinewood Studios is a legend in British filmmaking. Fiddler on the Roof. The Man Who Would Be King. All of the Bond films. Jerry picked us up from our dorm in Regents Park the next morning and drove us to the studio where we enjoyed a tour of all the major sets and lunch with Pinewood’s director.
Show a Little Faith
When I finally managed to make it through the drive-time traffic last August, I googled Be kinder than is necessary. The full quote, variously attributed, is Be kinder than is necessary because everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.
One of the bummer side-effects of our deeply-divided society is the suspicion and uncertainty it breeds among everyone. Rather than nodding and smiling at people we pass, we are now sizing them up at twenty paces—seeking clues from their clothing, hair, make of car, accent, job, vocabulary—and making snap assessments. The anger out there becomes anger everywhere.
Is this making us happier? Is this solving our deepest, most pressing problems?
Categorizing comes easily to our species, but people as individuals are a lot more complicated than that. Yes, we have a swamp of BIG pressing issues and we need to fight for a more humane, just, sustainable world, but if we can’t show a little faith in each other, can’t open our hearts and stand by one another, what hope do we have?
Kindness—it may be a ripple that expands across the globe. That extra effort. That extra step. The opening of our generous hearts. Because we ARE all in this together. Every day.
1. There’s a mammoth yellow jacket nest beneath our side porch, inches from the door.
2. A massive vertigo attack sent me to the ER at 7:00 a.m. on a Saturday.
3. A tree fell on my car.
4. I got a summons for federal jury duty.
5. The dog ate my homework.
I’ll give you a hint: I don’t have a dog.
As for the yellow jackets swarming round my threshold, they are definitely there, but I’m cagey. The little varmints have only nailed me three times. Mostly they buzz around in intricate flight patterns that would shame the Blue Angels, but they do add an Olympics-level degree of difficulty to making it from car to kitchen, encumbered by bags of groceries.
Less painful, but arguably more annoying is the ant invasion that started the end of March, the same week the dryer died. We’re talking zillions of teensy, weensy ants—“sugar ants”, Google informs me—that (ha-ha) supposedly vanish when you wipe surfaces down with vinegar. More than a gallon of vinegar later, I can tell you they do not succumb to such trickery, but watch patiently from some invisible seat on the sidelines until the vinegar dries and then resume their activities.
What’s so impressive is their mastery of teleportation. Swarming over the kitchen windowsill, above the sink, they can—without any visible trail of migration—surface in the cat’s food bowl on the floor eight feet across the room. Commercial ant traps yielded so-so results (I’m thinking about penning a Consumer Reports study on the various brands), but it wasn’t until the onset of cold weather that the microscopic beasties packed it in. I like to imagine them tucked up tight for the winter in their teensy-tiny ant beds, dreaming of summer and cat food.
I wish the yellow jackets would take a page from the ants and fold their tent, but the cold only seems to make them BIGGER. BOLDER. We are saving the can of organic, eco-friendly wasp and hornet spray until we feel the same.
Whacked Upside the Head
The Vertigo attack—sudden, unexpected, the mother of all nausea-inducing experiences—seems to have been a one-off. The ER doc very skillfully—and with a determination bordering on the manic—twisted my head sharply one way, then the other, using something called the Epley maneuver. And (this is why we believe in science) it worked. But a light-headed sensation, like someone had peeled off the top of my cranium, alternating with a pressure at the base of my skull, dogged me for several months after.
Now, I’m not given to hypochondria. One of my life goals, in fact, is to avoid the prescription meds merry-go-round until I’m at least 100. I confess to the occasional Excedrin—one tab, never two—for a headache. But, I didn’t want to be cavalier about the state of my head. I need that brain. So I called my doc, hoping to get some sort of test that would pinpoint the source of the floatiness/pressure in my noggin. His pearls of wisdom? I quote them here in their entirety: “Maybe you should look into Chinese medicine.”
Okay. Time for a new doctor. Maybe one I could actually see face to face (with masks, of course). Who didn’t respond to my rare medical queries with: “Wouldn’t worry about it. You look fine to me.” So I researched the intersection of local physicians and those my health insurance covers, and found a well-reviewed doc… on maternity leave!
Well, unlike COVID, pregnancy is predictably finite. I signed up for a slot on her return date, and for the first time in several decades, four doctors, and billions piddled away on insurance premiums, I got an M.D. who actually examined me. Who knew about medical stuff. Who ran simple tests that revealed my problems were likely all in my nose. Sinuses.
However headspinning, the vertigo/doctor snafu was a snap compared to the muddle with my car. The one the tree fell on three weeks ago.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. To get the entire picture, we must go back to August when, a week after the vertigo attack, my car was rejected at a local Inspection Station. Massachusetts’ cars must pass an annual test, or the RMV (it’s rumored the V stands for Voldemort, but it’s actually the Registry of Motor Vehicles) grounds your wheels. Do not pass GO.
Now, my car is no teen-age hotrod junker. It’s a 2017 dealer-maintained Subaru Outback with low miles and zero rust—a model of automotive perfection that I will be paying for well into the next century. So why did such a paragon fail to get its little “Passed” sticker?
“Most inspection stations don’t have a camera,” the attendant said proudly. “But we do!” (Now she tells me.) And said camera decided my admittedly rather aged rear license plate wasn’t quite up to the cover of Motor Trend. “Don’t worry,” the woman assured me. “Just take it to the RMV and they’ll give you a new plate. You won’t even have to pay. Then bring it back and we’ll give you your sticker.”
I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but since COVID struck, rare is the one hand who has any frigging clue what the other hand is doing. Bureaucracy is a mean crapshoot in the best of times. Now it’s a black hole of impenetrability. You can’t “just take your old plate to the RMV” because the RMV is CLOSED. It has been CLOSED since March. You’d think someone might have tipped off the inspection station. Nevertheless, as Elizabeth Warren would say, I persisted.
Doing Battle with Bureaucracy
My first attempt was only mildly frustrating. Ninety minutes navigating the state website of links that took me round in circles until, under a completely different topic, I found a phone number. Desperate, I dialed and got…a real person. Not only that, but one who knew what he was talking about. How often does that happen?
I ordered a new plate—note quite “free” as promised—but no biggie at $10. I also received an official certificate, documenting the transaction, and a note stating my new plates would arrive in 4-6 weeks. In the meantime, the certificate would serve to assure the inspection station that I was in compliance. In plain speak: It should have been enough to earn my car a Pass.
Only it didn’t.
The staff at the inspection station just shrugged when I showed them the letter. “We don’t know anything about this,” they said. “We have a camera [I know, I know]. We have to photograph the new plate. We’ll get in trouble if we don’t have the plate. The state’s very strict.”
What the state was, actually, was extremely confused. After my original call with a knowledgeable person, I never found two people who could agree on next steps, or even had a clue as to what next steps might be. I do remember one man screaming at me at 8:30 one morning: They HAVE to give you the sticker. How many times do I need to tell you, they HAVE to give you the sticker. Now I have other customers waiting. [Sound of phone: SLAM!]. Meanwhile I was informed the time until delivery for the new plate had doubled. It seems—I kid you not—that the prisons were just starting to re-open, and the inmates were way behind on their license-plate orders.
I will save you the details of the more than 18 hours of RMV calls (about half of which was spent listening to pre-recorded messages that ended with: There are no agents available at this time) and the two subsequent trips to the inspection station where people became increasingly hostile.
A Triumph of Democracy
One night, unable to fall asleep for all the chaos in my life, a metaphoric light bulb went on: I should call my state rep. The next day I did. OMG, she had everything straightened out in under an hour. The station would give me my sticker now. She emailed me a copy of the official letter verifying this, just in case anyone tried to mess with me. It was a triumph of democracy—Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. My state rep’s name is Lindsay Sabadosa, and she is a DYNAMO! Vote for her. Even if you don’t live in Massachusetts.
So, Lindsay settled my sticker woes on Monday. Tuesday, I had a dental appointment, and Wednesday was the day off for the inspection station manager Lindsay had dealt with. Thursday—I would get my PASSED sticker on Thursday. I was euphoric.
Well, Wednesday I was at my desk, querying agents, when an ENORMOUS gust of wind blew up. Within seconds, an earsplitting CRACK! shook the house. I ran downstairs to discover that a huge limb from our ancient maple tree—about 50 feet long and weighing several hundred pounds—had broken in the gale. And landed smack on my car, smashing the windshield. If there is a pattern in my life, this may be it.
My car’s still in the repair shop as I write BUT, when I called the inspection guy that Lindsay had dealt with, and explained the further delay, I got zero aggro. “Just bring it in when it’s fixed. I don’t even need to be here,” he said. “We’ll give you the sticker and you don’t have to pay for another inspection.” Boy, that Lindsay is GOOD!
You Are Summoned…
While I was dealing with vertigo aftershocks and recalcitrant inspection station folks and confused, sometimes belligerent, RMV staff—still dodging yellow jackets and combating ants on the homefront—while all that was in full swing, I received a jury summons. And not just your usual jury summons, where you toddle down to the county courthouse and maybe hear a drunk driving case that lasts one, two days, but a federal jury summons, as in a United States District Court summons, where for two months you are on call, and may serve more than one trial, and the trials are definitely not about drunk driving. Which means they can go on for “some time.”
As the letter cheerfully informed me, our “group” was the first called since the courts had been closed for COVID. As if COVID was now a thing of the past. As if virus cases wouldn’t spike in the fall (the summons being for November and December), which they definitely have, enough to close all public and private schools in Massachusetts. Enough to say good-bye to any hopes I had for holiday visits from our kids. Enough to make it exceedingly dicey to spend hours in a room with several dozen people, breathing the same air, despite plexi-glass dividers and masks, day after day. Enough to make it very precarious for Ed, who is immunosuppressed. I really didn’t feel like risking his life—or mine—as part of the guinea pig team to see “what happens” when we re-open the courts. Then there’s the glassy-headed post-vertigo “zing” I still experience some mornings, a state in which I would not recommend getting into a car and driving a half-hour down the highway.
So, I was a tad worried freak-out-level anxious, basically pretty much the state most of the country has been in since November 2016, and doubly so since COVID landed. I wrote the court about all this, and got the required medical letter to document the danger to Ed.
Then I had to wait.
Weeks rolled by. Ruth Bader Ginsburg died. Amy Baloney Barrett got skedded for a rush job. A tree fell on my car. It was not an easy time.
And then today, nerves stretched to the max, I dialed the jury-line to learn my fate. And received the good news: I was excused. For the first time in a long space that can only be measured in emotional eons, I drew a free breath.
Hope Is a Light
So where does Thanksgiving fit into all this mayhem? How to be thankful in a holiday season where I won’t see my kids because the COVID uptick makes travel from one part of the country to another unsafe? In a year when 227,000+ Americans have died, and a racist, homophobic SCOTUS candidate—who couldn’t list the five rights guaranteed all Americans under the First Amendment—was confirmed last week in a blitzkrieg attack on democracy? Where the legitimacy of the election, just two days away, is under threat as the president, the Supreme Court, and Putin all place their thumbs on the scale to steal it for TheRUMP?
Though the last eight months have smacked me right upside the head and consumed my energy relentlessly, I’m still here. Ed’s still here. All our kids are still here. We still have our home. We can still put food on the table. That makes us more fortunate than many Americans.
As a nation, and a world, we are still here. We still have a future, something to fight for, things to discover. That gives me hope. I see people in the streets, calling out for the true inclusive justice that has eluded us for far too long. That gives me hope. I see the miles-long lines of Americans at polling stations around the country, insisting on their right to vote, and that gives me hope. Whatever is about to happen to us, I urge you to keep your hope alive.
Hope is a light. Darkness only descends when it is truly extinguished.
A Happy Thanksgiving to you, wherever you find yourself on this journey.
As I was finishing the rough draft of this post, news of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death broke. She devoted her life to defending and expanding true democratic rights for all Americans. Her record on women’s rights and racial justice issues is legend. Her death would be a tragedy in any time, but it comes at a particularly dark moment. If we wish to honor her life, we must fight on for our democracy. (Plan Your Voteresources at end of post.)
Pop Quiz: Who is “He” in the following statements?
1. He completely mishandled the coronavirus pandemic.
2. His country’s economy is in shambles.
3. He positioned special forces to arrest protestors in the days before his re-election.
TheRUMP? (Sound of buzzer) Sorry, no free vacation cruise to Turks and Caicos for you. The subject of these charges is actually Belarus dictator President Lukashenko. But they could just as easily—and honestly—have been penned about America’s own dictator-wannabe.
Frequently described as authoritarian, corrupt, and incompetent (ring any bells?), Lukashenko has ruled over Belarus for more than a quarter century, since the office of president was established in 1994. He claims to have won his recent August 9th election with over 80% of the vote. But everyone knows he stole it—and not for the first time.
Having declared such an amazing (and I’m guessing, statistically improbable) blow-out win, was Lukashenko content to ignore the “rabble” in the street, maybe even toss them a bone—say, less draconian sentences for nonviolent drug-users, or an easing of a law that forces media outlets to report the names of those who submit comments, and their content, to the government? Maybe he could just toss them free rolls of paper towels.
But the thing is, dictators never cede ground. And they tend to view “the people” as their enemy. In the aftermath of his rigged election, Lukashenko waged war on protestors, employing armed security forces to silence his opposition. According to the New York Times, the last prominent protest leader was kidnapped by masked government thugs on September 7.
We would be wise to take note.
The Dizzying Damage Done to Our Democracy
It’s shocking, isn’t it, how much has gone up in flames in such a short time. Four years ago, could we have imagined a president who would speak about grabbing women by their pussies? Who would appoint an Attorney General to do his—often corrupt and illegal—bidding, damn the law? Who would separate children—even infants—from their parents? Who would brag about being able to murder someone on a public street and get away with it—and who would then send unidentified thugs into Black Lives Matter protests to arrest people without explanation or cause, and stuff them into unmarked cars?
A president who would gut EPA protections and renege on the Paris Climate Accords. Who would scrap the Iran Nuclear Deal, initiate our withdrawal from the World Health Organization in the midst of a pandemic, and scuttle Obama’s plans for managing just such a pandemic. A president who would tell the states of our supposedly United States that they were on their own when it came to testing, PPE, and life-saving ventilators. Who would threaten government whistleblowers and fire inspectors general, including the one appointed by Congress to oversee the dispersal of COVID funds, after which he would freely deal to his corporate pals $$$ intended to help American small business owners. A president who would be ridiculed and distrusted by all our allies (because he mocked and betrayed them). A president who would stand at the grave of a soldier killed in Afghanistan, and say to his father (General John Kelly), “I don’t get it. What’s in it for them?”
A president who would threaten to withhold funds from the states who didn’t vote for him. Who would defend a 17-year-old charged with first degree intentional homicide in the fatal shooting of two Black Lives Matter protesters. Who would champion the openly racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Islamic QAnon candidate for a House seat from Georgia, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and generally applaud this internet conspiracy group whom the FBI has labeled a potential domestic terrorist threat. Who would look on the COVID deaths of over 200,000 Americans and say, “It is what it is.”
Yet, here we are. And that’s the short list. The long list is exhausting. The Guardian noted that TheRUMP hit 20,000 false/misleading claims (on the WaPo’s Fact Checker) in a “tsunami of untruths” on July 9, delivering 62 of them on that day alone
The emotional cost, the mental strain, the ruin of lives. The desecration of the environment, the flouting of the rule of law, the disregard for the separation of powers that is intended to provide a system of checks and balances, preventing the concentration of power in any one branch—say, a dictatorial president.
And the brutality, the ugliness, it seeps down. When three-time cancer survivor, Bev Veals, called Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), worried her job-related healthcare would be cut, she was told that if she couldn’t afford care, she couldn’t have it. “Yeah,” a Tillis staffer said, “just like if I want to go to the store and buy a new dress shirt. If I can’t afford that dress shirt, I don’t get to get it.” When Veals protested that everyone needs healthcare, especially people with cancer, the staffer replied, “Sounds like something you’re going to have to figure it out.”
Hogging the Headlines…
Since TheRUMP’s 2017 inauguration, my e-mails have skyrocketed from 150-200 a day to more than 800. As the election draws closer, COVID deaths top 200,000 and the West Coast burns, that number exceeds 1,000 at times. Petitions to save public lands, public schools, endangered species, healthcare. Petitions to stop Arctic drilling, family separations at the border, police violence. Fundraisers for lawsuits to halt TheRUMP’s atrocities—to protect our laws, our rights—and newsletters detailing those atrocities.
This president, it has been duly noted, sucks all the air from the room, wherever he is, even—and maybe especially—when he’s tweeting. “Social media is the way to go,” he told reporters in 2017. “I’ve got over 100 million people watching. [It’s] a fast way of getting the word out.”
But the tweets, like TheRUMP himself, are mercurial, ill-considered (if considered at all), and frequently dangerous. His flirtations with military actions against Iran put the world on nuclear threat watch, and his announcement in December 2018 that the U.S. would withdraw its troops from Syria because “ISIS had been defeated” shocked everyone—“Trump simply doesn’t understand the extent of the Iranian military presence in the region,” an Israeli official said—but no one was more devastated than the Kurds, who had believed the U.S. to be trusted allies and now found themselves threatened with wholesale slaughter by Turkey.
Efforts to sorta partway walk back this off-the-rails policy u-turn resulted in John Bolton seeking some kind of protection for the Kurds from Turkey. It did not go down well with President Erdogan. Despite our Tweeter-in-Chief’s attempt to paint a rosy picture of the situation last November, claiming Erdogan has “a great relationship with the Kurds,” Turkey’s president continues to show his “affection” by setting Kurdish farmers’ fields on fire, shelling their settlements, and shutting off water supplies, despite the ceasefire called for by the UN during the pandemic.
Policy, both foreign and domestic, is lives. The highly intricate task of statecraft deserves more consideration than the character limit of a tweet fired off at 2 a.m. by a psychopath who’s just inhaled three MickeyD burgers. But our fearless leader tweets on, oblivious to the fallout as long as he’s got center stage.
… And Obscuring the Truth
All these tweets and wild pronouncements—You can cure COVID by injecting disinfectants [deadly false!]—serve not only to keep all attention focused on him, but to distract us from the less fizz!pop!bang! but more dangerous dismantling of our democracy and its institutions taking place daily beneath the LOOK AT ME! LISTEN TO ME! headlines.
1. The decimation of the EPA. Since 2017, one environmental protection after another has vanished, wholesale and without consideration of the impact, to boost the profits of fossil fuel companies. Offshore drilling safety regs—gone. Restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions for coal power plants—history. Habitat protections for endangered species—who cares? Prosecution of EPA violations—very few. Increased logging on federal lands, miles of new oil and gas pipelines, drilling in the Arctic? A green light for all!
And now, with wildfires raging over much of the far west, the rule that required oil and gas companies to detect and repair methane leaks has been lifted. Methane, a potent greenhouse gas, is a global warming nightmare. Oddly enough, it’s the EPA themselves who estimate the change in this rule will increase planet-damaging methane in our atmosphere by 850,000 tons in the next decade.
And what happens to all those victims of climate-related disasters—the hurricanes, fires, floods? Whole towns are washed away or burned to the ground. Forests of animals die. I feel fairly certain there is mass trauma in the wake of these tragedies, but … silence.
2. Equally alarming in the midst of our pandemic is the silencing of the CDC, which I first wrote about in June. Since then, things have gone the direction all things Trumpian go: downhill. In July, our Dear Leader shifted control of key COVID info from the CDC to the more White House-friendly Department of Health and Human Services. Hospitals must now report all COVID-related data directly to HHS—vital info the CDC needs for their National Healthcare Safety Network, the country’s most prominent infection tracking system.
This side-lining of the CDC worries scientists and medical experts. “Placing medical data collection outside of the leadership of public health experts could severely weaken the quality and availability of data, burden already overwhelmed hospitals, and add a new challenge to the U.S. pandemic response,” Thomas File Jr., president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, said. Many health experts view these moves to muzzle the CDC as yet another attempt by TheRUMP to squelch any blame for his lackadaisical response to the pandemic. And the 200,000+ Americans who have died as a result.
3. Despite a court order and a 2018 wink-wink, nudge-nudge desist order from the White House, the emotional devastation and lifelong psychological damage that is the ICE (Homeland Security—ha-ha) policy of separating children from their parents at the border and tossing them into locked warehouses, converted big box stores, and privately-run “family” prisons continues, only now it comes with a slice of COVID.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has written a concise, if hair-raising, history of this heinous policy. Efforts to re-unite families by orgs like the ACLU have only enjoyed partial success because: 1) the kids were scattered across more than 100 Office of Refugee Resettlement shelters, and 2) DHS never created any kind of tracking system to make reunification possible. Amnesty International reported that Customs Border Protection separated over 6,000 families in the four months between April and August 2018. Thousands before. Thousands since.
In January of this year, Judge Dana M. Sabraw—the judge who ordered an injunction against taking kids from their parents in 2018—refused to issue new limits on separating families at the border, choosing to let CBP do as they like. Moral indifference? Whispers from TheRUMP’s lapdog AG—you, too, can be replaced? Sweeteners?
4. It’s been called “the third rail,” an issue so electric, so volatile, that the GOP, though they would like to either privatize it for profit or drown it in a bathtub, does not want to talk about it at election time: Social Security. But TheRUMP talks about it. He proposed cutting Social Security Disability Insurance in his 2018 budget—a move that would have hurt some 10 million Americans. He demanded cuts of $1 trillion-plus from Medicare over the next decade and $26 billion from Social Security in his 2020 budget. His 2021 budget again hammers for long-term cuts to Medicare, but now he’s switched tactics on Social Security, seeking to starve a program that provides 50% to 100% of income for half of all senior Americans.
Let’s be clear. Social Security is taken from American workers’ earnings. We pay for it. Almost all elderly Americans receive it. In June 2020, the average benefit amounted to $18,170 a year. Hardly a king’s ransom—TheRUMP wouldn’t cross the street to pick it up. Yet, he wants to kill it, and the first step is the “holiday on payroll tax” (which funds Social Security and Medicare) he ordered this summer to boost his re-election by putting dollars back in voters’ pockets. There’s a catch—of course. The money, $76.50, on a weekly paycheck of $1,000, will have to be paid back in the new year by employees, leading to a doubling of that amount deducted from their paychecks once the “holiday” ends.
The only thing saving Social Security at this point is the Tweetmaster’s complete and utter ignorance of how things actually work. His plan—rolled out by Treasury Secretary Mnuchin—is so nuts, so confusingly impossible to implement, it’s even been criticized by the conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce. TheRUMP says he will scotch the 2021 repayments if re-elected, and end these payroll tax deductions permanently, a move WHO says would run the fund dry by 2023, leaving some 64 million people in the lurch. As it stands, only Congress can eliminate payroll deductions, but a GOP Senate won’t stop him, and with Billy Barr at his side, a re-elected TheRUMP will do what he’s been doing—ride roughshod over the House and the Constitution.
5. TheRUMP’s Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, works tirelessly to further starve our already-underfunded public schools, siphoning off every dollar she can to private and religious education. When the CARES Act money became available, she wasted no time in creating a $180- million voucher program for these non-public institutions from public funds.
Lawmakers from both side of the aisle countered that distribution of the aid was intended to reflect the number of vulnerable, low-income students within a district. Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of the School Superintendents Association (AASA), called the new rule “an opportunistic money grab, using the pandemic environment to advance the privatization agenda.” DeVos ignored them, ordering states to redistribute their CARES $$$ as she instructed. A Washington state federal judge temporarily blocked that order from being executed (Washington Post, 8/23/20), but that didn’t stop DeVos. It took a second federal judge and a U.S. district judge to say “No means NO,” as in: This is against the law.
6. On August 29, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) informed the House and Senate Select Committees on Intelligence they would no longer be given in-person briefings on election security issues. This abrupt and dangerous policy shift prevents members of Congress from being able to ask questions about the ODNI’s findings—especially worrisome in the wake of warnings that interference from Russia is occurring.
Less than two weeks later, Brian Murphy, an intelligence analyst at the Department of Homeland Security, filed a whistleblower complaint, saying he has been pressured to tamp down the threat of Russian interference in the election because it “made the president look bad.” Murphy said he was also demoted for refusing to alter reports on many other subjects including white supremacist groups, and directed to re-spin intelligence assessments on left-wing groups to “ensure they matched up with the public comments by President Trump.”
The True Moral High Ground
In 2008 and 2012, America elected Barack Obama, a man who gave us the Affordable Care Act, who brokered the Iran Nuclear Deal and the Paris Climate Agreement. A president whose tenure included the legalization of gay marriage and the resuscitation of an economy the Bush admin had tanked. In 2016, we elected a heartless pathological white-supremacist thug, characterized perfectly in the title of Rick Wilson’s 2018 book: Everything Trump Touches Dies.
How did we fall so catastrophically far so frighteningly fast?
We failed to turn out. It’s really that simple. Four million 2012 Obama voters sat out the dance entirely, a margin it is believed could have elected Hillary Clinton, especially if you add in the additional 1.5 million former Obama voters who went with Jill Stein (Green Party). In Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, for example, Clinton lost by under a percentage point. In all three states, the votes for Stein would have more than covered her loss and she would have won the election.
Yes, we faced increasing GOP voter suppression in 2016—new voter ID laws that did not favor people of color or college students. Yes, the Supreme Court had hammered a hole in the heart of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, but overarching everything is the undeniable fact: 4,000,000 left-leaning voters failed to show up. And now we have a fascist madman in the White House.
Yes, I know Hillary wasn’t that exciting for many. Too centrist. Too corporate. Too Pantsuit. But—and I say this as a lifelong Progressive who backed Sanders in 2016 and Warren (then Sanders) in 2020—if Hillary had won, she would never have scrapped Obama’s pandemic plan; she would never have destroyed children by taking them from their parents at the border; she would never have told state governors “you’re on your own”, or fired inspectors general so she could give the CARES Act money to her billionaire buddies. And she would never have sued to destroy the ACA. Healthcare was one of her passions.
The true moral high ground in 2020 resides not in sitting out the election until what we regard as the perfect candidate rides into town on her/his steed. The true moral high ground in 2020 is about saving lives. At least 140,000 of the 200,000 lives lost to COVID could have been saved if we had had a coordinated national response dictated by science and not politics, said Dr. Vin Gupta, a Harvard-trained lung specialist who works worldwide with organizations such as WHO, the CDC, Harvard Global Health Institute, and others, to improve public health [The Last Word, 9/22/2020].
The true moral high ground is about justice for ALL Americans and stopping the violence against people of color. Demilitarization of police and serious police reform is NOT going to happen under TheRUMP. We’ll just get more unidentifiable goons, picking up people off the street and stuffing them into unmarked cars, bound for god knows where. Portland was only a test case. A preview of a second term for Donald J. Putin-wannabe.
The true moral high ground is about saving the planet. Literally. There has been some lower court pushback against completely gutting all EPA standards, but with a 6-3 Supreme Court in a second TheRUMP term, all resistance will be crushed.
To anyone wavering about voting in this election because they were hoping for someone more progressive than Joe Biden, I can only say if you sit this one out, millions will suffer. This is not a six of one, half a dozen of the other situation.
Biden co-sponsored the Violence Against Women Act of 1994. He convinced Barack Obama that gay marriage needed to be made legal. He favors expanding the ACA to include everyone. He welcomed the input of Bernie Sanders, and is now running on the Unity Task Force recommendations they both identified and addressed. It’s a pretty impressive document.
In one month, we are facing the referendum of a lifetime: Are we committed to saving our democracy, with its rule of law, separate but co-equal branches of government, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and Internet, the right to protest? Are we determined to achieve racial justice, engage in a sustained effort to save the planet, protect and extend healthcare for everyone, preserve Social Security/Medicare, and promote quality public education from pre-K through college for all children? Are we dedicated to fighting this pandemic with science? Not bleach, not wishful thinking or irresponsible orders to re-open and damn the consequences. Science.
If the answer is yes to any or all of the above, then we must VOTE, and do whatever we can to make sure everyone has access to the ballot box. Join letter-writing campaigns. Call or text voters in swing states. Volunteer to be a poll worker in your community. Chip in $5 or $10, if you can, to groups dedicated to registering new Democrat voters. And PLAN YOUR VOTE.
Links for all of these are listed at the end of this post.
2020 and Beyond: Democracy or Dictatorship?
My husband Ed wore his new VOTE mask recently for a trek about the neighborhood. People he encountered cheered the sentiment. They understood it meant he was supporting Biden. “This mask is a partisan issue, who knew?” Ed said.
But voting is always a partisan issue.
Enfranchisement came slowly for many Americans—women, people of color—and was threatened anew with each advance. The GOP has worked to suppress the vote for decades. Aside from SCOTUS dismembering the Voting Rights Act of 1965, over 17 million voters have been purged from the rolls in conservative-led states, often on the flimsiest of pretexts, but always because if they voted, they would likely vote Democrat. Polling stations have dwindled alarmingly in neighborhoods of color. Presidential appointee, Louis DeJoy, has removed and trashed hundreds of USPS sorting machines and local mailboxes to prevent mail-in ballots from reaching their destination on time. And now TheRUMP is openly declaring that if the election doesn’t appear to be going his way, the Supreme Court—with his newly appointed far-right judge to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg—can decide the question.
To riff on Jonathan Kozol’s brilliant observation about the role of public schools in preserving the status quo (The Night is Dark and I am Far From Home, 1975): It’s not that TheRUMP’s autocratic fascist power grab doesn’t work, but that it works so spectacularly—dismantling our democracy, burning the planet, sacrificing American lives for power—leaving us totally screwed.
While writing my World War II novel, The Sticking Place, I was moved many times by how Britain hung on, alone, for almost two years until, first the Russians, then the United States joined the fight to defeat Hitler. The world owes an unbelievable debt to those Britons. If they had caved…
But no one is coming to save us now—TheRUMP has burned every bridge. We must save ourselves.
VOTE. VOTE. VOTE. Whatever it takes: VOTE.
Because the present regime is killing us.
PLAN Your Vote:
1. nbcnews.com/plan your vote: Everything you need to know about mail-in and early in-person voting, including the first day you can cast your ballot in the 2020 election.
2. FiveThirtyEight: How To Vote In The 2020 Election (A state-by-state guide to voting in the age of COVID-19).
5. Represent Justice: If you or a loved one has been impacted by the justice system, this is a great site. Voting rights for formerly-incarcerated people can be confusing because every state has different policies.
LET’S GET OUT THE VOTE
Help Staff the Polls:
Volunteer to be a poll worker in your community. Sign up with SumOfUs, a global non-profit advocacy organization committed to human rights and curbing the growing power of corporations.
Help Register New Voters:
Rock the Vote offers a one-stop all you need to know to vote site: You can help register new voters here—a key strategy to winning in 2020—and check your own voter registration status, register to vote, apply for an absentee ballot, or find your polling place.
Your donation to March On will help register voters across the country. And no matter where you live, you can directly support the work of organizers, volunteers, and candidates in the six key battleground states that will be a must in delivering a progressive majority in 2020. Just pick a state, sign up, and March On will get you everything you need to make a big difference this November.
Write Letters/Send Texts:
Vote Forward and Daily Kos have teamed up to increase civic participation by sending letters to voters. Studies show this personal connection is one of the most effective ways to get infrequent Democratic voters to the polls.
And each day looks the same to me, the face masks and monotony… (Riffing on Paul Simon)
Facing a seemingly interminable list of stuff to be done, I used to fantasize about something I called “No Time,” an enchanted space of hours tucked into—but not counting toward—the daily 24 rotations around the clock face. During “No Time,” I would indulge my cravings—write without a thought to querying, belt out songs on my guitar, draw, read, decoupage stuff, turn up the music and dance wildly about the house. The magical property of “No Time” was that I could shape it to my whimsy of the moment, with no concern for what had to be done.
Well, as they say, be careful what you wish for. It seldom arrives in the guise you imagined. To paraphrase Gabriel García Márquez, time in the time of coronavirus is distinctly weird. Days sort of flow into one another with little to distinguish one from the next. No trips to the hair salon, no gym sessions, no dental appointments (there is a silver lining in this). The calendar is a clean sheet of 30/31 blank spaces, and every day seems like Saturday, except Saturday which feels like Monday. Oddly, these indistinguishable days pass much too quickly. Like water through a sieve, they hold no shape. I can’t seem to give them meaning or weight.
When the pandemic first descended—as the boxes of cans and bottles piled up [recycling center closed], bags of yard-waste lined the porch [dump closed], and rows of masks and rubber gloves lay drying on a folding rack in the kitchen (were we due in surgery that day?)—I thought Okay, we’re grounded for a while. What can I accomplish that I normally wouldn’t have time for?
The answer may surprise you. It certainly surprised me. I, who have A clean house is the sign of a wasted life magnet on my fridge, decided to deep-clean my house from top to bottom.
Striving for Order in Chaos
Ed and I live in an 1895 Victorian, which gets regular bathroom and kitchen maintenance (we’re not that scurvy), but otherwise mostly survives on “party cleanses.” You know, the kind of cleaning you do when two or three dozen friends are dropping by for the annual holiday bash, and you count on the flow of liquor and dim lighting to disguise the worst of it. Not down-on-your-hands-and-knees clean, but good enough so the health department won’t shut you down. This year, from mid-March through the end of July, I did the hands-and-knees level of cleaning over every square inch of this house. Ed (who generally does the mopping and vacuuming while I write and query agents) would say from time to time, “Babe, why don’t you take a break today?” Good question, but I was consumed. I. Was. Going. To. Clean. The. House. Once. And. For. All!
What was I seeking amid the dustcloths and Murphy’s oil soap, the sponges and Windex? Lightness? A sense of order in these chaotic times? Some kind of meaning in this pandemic nightmare?
COVID time. It’s not quite “the loss of a future that someone had imagined” as one writer tweeted, and it’s not quite the cancellation of the present. It’s more a kind of suspended animation where we’re still here, and moving about (in a limited way), but the motion feels aimless. Like characters in search of a play, our days lack context. We are ungrounded.
Tough Guys Finish Last
When a team of New York Times journalists interviewed scientists and public health experts from around the globe, they were on a mission: What were the root causes of America’s unrivaled failure in combating COVID? Predictably, the dereliction of TheRUMP admin was a central theme, but experts also cited the longstanding tendency of Americans to balk at government mandates. No one tells me what to do. I do what I want. “That aversion to collective action,” the experts said, “helped lead to inadequate state lockdowns and inconsistent adherence to mask-wearing based on partisanship instead of public health.”
The aversion to collective action.
“As an American, I think there is a lot of good to be said about our libertarian tradition,” Dr. Jared Baeten, an epidemiologist and Vice Dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Washington, told the Times. “But this is the consequence — we don’t succeed as well as a collective.”
We don’t succeed as well as a collective. Will you listen to yourself, dude? Succeeding is the point, especially in quelling a pandemic with over 5.5 million confirmed cases and 174,000+ deaths in the U.S., alone. Our Marlboro-smoking, gunslinging, machismo—I go my own way—is killing us. And the weird thing is, we know this. That disorienting lack of context I mentioned above? That’s us needing each other, missing each other, adrift without each other.
I’m not talking about the family members and friends who, for reasons of distance and/or underlying health concerns, have been reduced to talking heads on Zoom. I mean we are mourning the loss of a society. Our society. And craving that society. Because it’s a myth that we operate individually, as hermetically-sealed bubbles, with nothing beyond our own needs, our own desires, our own well-being. We may act like that, but COVID has revealed a different truth.
The Sound of Silence
Baseball. I’m a BIG fan. As the truncated 60-game season kicked off on July 23rd, I caught a Red Sox game on TV. It was an education. When I dream about baseball in the dark, cold days of January, what comes to mind more than anything is the crack of the bat. It is the enduring visceral sound of the sport. At least, that’s what I thought until this season.
I found that first game almost unwatchable. The empty stands were weird, but much eerier was the lack of crowd noise, something most of us would have considered “background sound” in pre-pandemic days. Turns out that being a part of the crowd, immersed in the emotions and noise of your fellow fans—even if only by network proxy—is integral to the pleasure of the experience. Apparently Major League Baseball agrees, because the next game I saw was “alive” with the (recorded) sounds of fans—piped in and adjusted by the audio engineers at the ballpark to reflect the reactions of actual fans captured by an interactive website feature “Cheer at the Ballpark.”
Cheers, applause, boos, chatter. We find comfort in the general people-milling-about-us sounds. We find comfort in the presence of others.
The crowded beaches, bars, and bistros of America’s premature re-opening were/are both exasperating and dangerous, but as much as I rue the fact that we are a nation that lacks the discipline to beat COVID back before venturing out, I’m not entirely pitiless. Not all of those people frolicking in the waves or crowding the boardwalk are QAnon whackjobs. Many, if not most, are simply desperate to feel the world around them again, to be part of that world, connected to others.
Shoulder to Shoulder, We Make a Mighty Noise
In the weeks following the reckless rush to re-open, something far more compelling and consequential than cocktails and shopping would bring us together and sustain community throughout the summer. The brutal murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis cops on May 25, and the resulting call to action by Black Lives Matter, brought people of all races and ethnicities into the streets in more than 2,000 cities across all 50 states. In the midst of skyrocketing COVID spread, an estimated 15-26 million people risked their life, donned their mask, and came together to protest police violence against people of color and demand racial justice. Tear gas, rubber bullets, kidnap and arrest by TheRUMP’s Brownshirt thugs—nothing could stop the need to rally together and denounce systemic racism with our collective voice.
We haven’t seen protests like these since the Civil Rights era. Why not? In the intervening 50 years, presumably, there were just as many people—and arguably more—for whom Civil Rights and racial justice continued to matter deeply. Yes, protests and rallies erupted after the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin by a racist neighborhood-watch bully in Florida, and again following the police murders of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, and Eric Garner in New York City, but not on the sustained scale we’ve witnessed this summer. It took a knockout combination of punches to break through our private bubbles of COVID despair and get us out of our La-Z-Boys:
1. TheRUMP’s overt whipping up of racist hysteria;
2) The fury over his reckless disregard for American lives threatened by and lost to COVID, a disease that has disproportionately killed people of color;
3) Government indifference, even sanctioning, of ever-increasing racist police brutality and homicide—Ahmaud Arbery was murdered by an ex-cop in February and Breonna Taylor by police in March. But their tragic stories largely remained under the radar until George Floyd.
4) The horrific video of George Floyd’s final minutes erupted on screens all over America—his windpipe crushed under a cop’s knee: I can’t breathe—and a nation, homebound by the pandemic, unable to look away, was stunned.
In the isolation of COVID, facing an uncertain future, with our democracy on the ropes, the vicious, racist cruelty of George Floyd’s murder reminded many of us—most of us—that we are a nation, a community, and that standing together, standing up for one another is both necessity and comfort. The headline on a recent PEW survey ran: Amid Protests, Majorities Across Racial and Ethnic Groups Express Support for the Black Lives Matter Movement. One in ten respondents to a Gallup poll reported participating in local actions.
No Life in the Safe Room
For the past decade, as the polar ice caps melt, temperatures soar, the oceans fill with plastic garbage, and the Doomsday Clock moves closer to midnight, the world’s billionaires—many of whom share substantial blame for our global mess—have been preparing “escape havens” to ride out an end-of-the-world scenario they believe will bury the rest of us. They are snapping up silos, bunkers, and millions of acres in what they consider the safest, least-polluted places on the planet—New Zealand is a favorite choice.
Billionaire Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, purchased a luxury estate on a large property in NZ, noting, “If you’re the sort of person that says ‘I’m going to have an alternative plan when Armageddon strikes,’ then you would pick the farthest location and the safest environment.” His $13.8 million home on 477 acres boasts views of snow-capped mountains and is outfitted with a safe room. Other “doomsday” bunker sites tout screening rooms, private pools, and personal gyms. “Our clients are sold on the unique advantage of having a luxury second home that also happens to be a nuclear hardened bunker,” says developer Larry Hall, whose “Survival Condo” in Kansas uses abandoned missile silos constructed in the 1960s by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Realizing that the $$$ they so greedily accrued to the detriment of the rest of us will be worthless, the uber-rich are looking to self-sustaining properties with plenty of acreage to grow their needs. I recall some mention at one of these annual billionaire confabs of the need for hiring private armies, minions to protect these oases from the less well-heeled doomsday survivors seeking water, food, and shelter. The 1% will be their own little world. Perhaps they’ll be “happy.” I often think the kind of endless greed that enriched them—no sense of “enough” or the harm they cause others—is itself an incurable disease. But for the rest of us?
Most of us do not want to do life alone, however much “stuff” we possess. We need the other fans at the ballpark. We need the solidarity of fighting alongside others for a more humane, more just world. We need to share the experience of living. We need each other. We may bicker and battle but at the end of the day, what we crave is community. That was, for me, the brilliance and beauty of the Democratic Convention this past week. Although it was a virtual event, it focused on gathering Americans from across the nation and celebrating our hopes for a brighter, more inclusive future.
During her presidential campaign kickoff speech in January 2019, Kamala Harris said:
In the face of powerful forces trying to sow hate and division among us, the truth is that as Americans we have much more in common than what separates us. Let’s speak that truth…
You know, some say we need to search to find that common ground. Here’s what I say, I say we need to recognize that we are already standing on common ground.
I say we will rise together or we will fall together as one nation, indivisible.
COVID time. If it has anything to teach us, it’s that nothing matters more than life, and to live that precious life fully, we must live it not for ourselves alone, not for the stuff we can accrue, but with and for each other.