Last month, I mentioned that I walked my hood daily during COVID as a healthy alternative to going completely bonkers (for which there is no vaccine), and that I continue to do so even though my local gym has re-opened. Yes, the gym has a range of equipment that exercises all of me, large flatscreen TVs with a zillion channels, regulated comfy year-round temps, and fluffy towels, but after nine years, it’s… boring. Not so the varied streets of my town, where every day brings something new and interesting to my view:
A jumble of tiny painted clay gnomes set beneath a maple tree.
An interweave of hedge branches so intricately constructed, so heartstoppingly beautiful, I paused in mid-stride, certain British nature sculptor Laura Bacon had snuck in and arranged it all moments before.
An eye-popping purple gate leading to a hidden garden.
The May morning everyone’s tulips bloomed, cued by some perfect mystery mix of rain, sun, and good karma.
An eye for the little things, an appreciation for the details. Certainly as a writer, it’s a necessity. But does it contribute something larger, more profound—an essential ingredient to our well-being?
The Measure of Happiness
As a species, we tend to measure our happiness in terms of the BIG splashy moments. The summer we rented a villa in Italy and traipsed through the vineyards, the day we bought the house of our dreams, the year we made CEO, were nominated for Teacher of the Year, won a Pulitzer.
All grand, memorable stuff. The trouble is, such events come rarely in a lifetime, and for many of us, may never come at all. So, do we entrust something as precious as joy to such precarious possibilities?
Joy is much bigger, more significant than this prize or that acquisition. Joy can carry us through the toughest of times, the most difficult struggles. It sustains strength and offers solace, but the secret is you need a steady feed to maintain your energy, your love, your hope. That’s where the “little stuff” comes in—joy is in the details. It’s in the seemingly “ordinary” things we encounter every day, if we can just slow down enough in our pursuit of the big stuff, the grand goals, to notice it, breathe it in.
The burst of color in the garden.
A house someone painted to celebrate the words and scenes of Romeo and Juliet.
A hummingbird fluttering over a cluster of pink asters.
A bowl of water some kind soul left on their lawn for passing dogs in the heat of summer.
Hearing a song that takes us back to some long-ago cherished moment—the people, the place, the emotions.
What is Possible Begins With Joy
If joy feels like a stretch in a moment when greed-fueled climate change is cranking temperatures sky-high around the globe and burning large swaths of the western U.S., while the pandemic continues to rage in Africa, the Middle East, Florida, Texas, and Missouri, maybe we need to view joy through a wider lens.
Yes, the joy we derive from the “little things” feeds our hungry soul, but its reach, like a stone cast in a pond, ripples far beyond ourselves. The joy each of us brings to the table becomes a powerhouse when multiplied by many. A powerhouse of unity that could change the world. This is the message of Contra-Tiempo, a self-described “bold, multilingual Los Angeles-based activist dance theater company creating physically intense and politically astute performance work that moves audiences to imagine what is possible.”
In early July, Ed and I went to see Contra-Tiempo at Jacob’s Pillow. Not a summer’s sojourn in Italy or a penthouse on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, but it was our first visit since the pandemic wiped out live performances last year, and we were itching to go. The show was staged on a large platform outdoors, the trees around hung with colorful tapestries celebrating the rich diversity of cultures across the globe, the green forested slopes of the Berkshires serving as backdrop. And it was one of the few days in the whole of that month when it did not rain in the Northeast. All these “little things” added up to a very joyful afternoon.
As Contra-Tiempo salsa-ed and hip-hopped to Afro-Cuban music in a work titled joyUS justUS, they encouraged us to see our possibilities as agents of social change, to realize that “our power comes from the relationships that we have with each other as human beings.” Sadness, fear, depression, hate—they zap our energy and isolate us. But joy nourishes our compassion and confidence. Joy, Contra-Tiempo reminded us throughout the afternoon, is at the heart of building a better world for all of us.
Community is Everywhere WE Are
One of the delights of life, for me, is discovering the links between people, ideas, events—something strikes you and, suddenly, like a motif, it’s popping up everywhere. Just days after our trip to the Pillow, I was reminded of Contre-Tiempo’s powerful message about the convergence of joy, art, and community in creating a more loving and just world.
July, as I noted, was rain, rain, and then—surprise!—more rain in my neck of the woods. Not a day passed that I didn’t reflect on the insanity of the western half of the U.S. suffering killer heat waves and drought, while we in the Northeast were awash in a gazillion inches of rain. Scrap those deadly oil pipelines wreaking destruction on the planet and build a clean conduit to California—we have enough water to float the Ark! But luck occasionally literally shines down on us, and we managed a lawn concert at Tanglewood on the evening of July 10, the late afternoon sun sparkling on the river that runs beside the backroad to Lenox.
The Tanglewood “parking lot”, being a vast grassy field, was a tad mucky, but the worst mudholes had been roped off. So, shouldering our chairs, the portable table and cooler, the sweatshirts-for-later, Ed and I trekked up the road, across another parking swamp, and waited in line for tix. When, at last, we passed through the gate, the scene was amazing. The vast lawn was filled with people, gathered to celebrate the return of the Boston Symphony Orchestra after the long COVID hiatus.
People of all ages, all cultures, and every walk of life were chatting, picnicking, relaxing—united in the common love that draws them to this spot: Music. Tanglewood is joy. Always. But this evening was especially magic. From the moment the featured soloist, pianist Emmanuel Ax, stepped onto the stage to greet us until Andris Nelsons, the BSO’s music director, took up his baton at the podium, we cheered and clapped and whistled. Wave after wave of applause. For the musicians of the BSO, for the return of live music, for the incredible beauty that is this spot in the Berkshires. But more than that, bigger, deeper, we were cheering the reunion of a community that survived to unite in this space once again.
Community, I think, may be the link between the little moments of joy and the profound power it bestows to move the universe.
The buzz of the BIG stuff—the awards, the promotions, the luxury this and that—wears off more quickly than we imagine beforehand, and the reward for a job well done is … another job. But joy, you can find it everywhere. Even on the crappiest day, the one with a zillion troubles to bulldozer through. Even in the most godforsaken, arid landscape, life rises—exuberant, unstoppable—and with it, joy.
Until I win the Pulitzer for literature, I’ll settle for that.
During my son’s recent visit, we drove up to Vermont. The centerpiece of this daytrip was lunch at my favorite summer eatery—the Marina, in Brattleboro. The restaurant boasts a sizable deck overlooking the Connecticut River. In the soft hazy heat of a June afternoon, you can enjoy a lazy meal to the sound of water lapping and birdsong. The word somnolent comes to mind.
I first dined at the Marina eons ago, scant weeks after moving from the heart of Boston. The restaurant’s deck was smaller then, but the tranquility factor was just as high. Sitting there, I was startled to realize the only noise was me. All around was serene—the agitation, the angst, the tumult was all within me. I love cities. Love the diversity, the wide array of culture, the energy, but in the chaos and rush of the urban, you may never hear your own heartbeat.
A Discordant Jangle of Uncertainty
The noise within: You’ve got a zillion things to do—a zillion things you want to do—but you can’t settle on what to tackle first. Whatever you turn your hand to, you find yourself spinning your wheels, repeating the same steps without making any discernible advances. Busy doing nothing, as a friend once put it, leaves you exhausted but unfulfilled. In this state of paralysis, hours and days melt away as you frantically row but get no closer to land.
The noise within distracts us from what matters most in the moment, leaves us confused and uncertain about our true feelings—Am I doing what I want? What do I want? It blurs our focus and renders us immobile. Should I go this route? But what if I went the other way? What if I miss something vital? The possibilities overwhelm. The problems feel insurmountable. Fear spirals wildly, an endless loop of anxiety. What if I fail? What if I fail because I fear failing? We are swamped in a deluge of despair.
What is Making All That Racket?
The still calm of that long ago afternoon on the Connecticut River revealed the noise within me, but Boston didn’t create that noise. You don’t have to be standing in Times Square to be rendered deaf to your inner voice. We live on Planet Earth, home of Social Media A to Z, the Worldwide Web, and the 24-hour news cycle. An unceasing parade of pundits forecast doom and gloom. Experts—true and false—spout their wisdom(?) freely everywhere. “You should do this.” “You mustn’t think that.” “Everyone knows…” The subtext: Whatever you’re doing, you’re doing it wrong. Like the increasingly contaminated air we breathe that pollutes our lungs, the constant, often contradictory, mumbo jumbo from these talking heads offers lots of anxiety but little affirmation.
The din of the outside world—a cacophony of voices, often strident and discordant—may drown out the most essential voice, our own. Getting away from that din long enough to tune in to our true inner state is the first step toward reducing the noise within. The good news is, we can choose to decrease the time we spend on, take breaks from, or entirely turn off this media circus. We can limit the authority we grant to others, especially strangers.
You don’t have to hide away in a yurt in the Himalayas to hear your own voice. You just need to create space and trust yourself. While it’s wise to take in and weigh new or differing viewpoints, it’s healthy to remember—and value—your own experience, your needs, your hopes. If anyone tells you they know you better than you know yourself, don’t believe them. And if someone says, this is the one right way to do/approach/achieve this, ignore them. In every field, for any endeavor, history proves there are many paths to any goal.
Mute the Noise: Mind Cleansers
During the pandemic, shut out from my usual visits to the gym, I took long walks. The gym has re-opened but I’ve put off signing up, preferring these daily rambles that both empty and “clean” my head, leaving space for new ideas, insights, calm. Some people, I know, swear by meditation, but I get fidgety sitting still. For me, the mind/body catharsis of a good walk works best.
Other mind cleansers I’ve discovered or borrowed and tweaked include:
1. Get ready… Jigsaw puzzles! Yes, those BIG 1000- to 2000-piece babies. Absorbed, focused solely on finding and fitting pieces, it’s my “dessert” at the end of a workday. Unlike the inner push many of us feel to have a finished product—a new chapter on the book, the entire garage cleaned—to show for a day’s effort, jigsaw is all about process. No one expects to complete a jigsaw in an afternoon. There’s no “right” number of pieces to fill in. There’s no success/failure pressure. It just feels great to make whatever progress you can. If we could adopt this attitude about all our endeavors, the sanity quotient would skyrocket around the globe.
Okay, I hear you saying, but what about real deadlines? The kind the boss imposes. Believe me, writers get deadlines, too. All the time. I think it’s possible, though, that more gets done—and better—when we focus more on the work itself and less on watching the clock. Anxiety is not conducive to either creativity or productivity.
2. The stuff that nags. The seemingly endless—and changing—list of troubles and woes we can’t fix at the moment—or maybe ever—but must wait for the answer or leave to fate. This is an old trick—one the experts got right—but it has worked for me (when I’ve taken the time to do it). Make a list of the stuff your mind keeps churning over to no avail. Just brainstorm it without pause or judgment. Then tuck that list in a folder or a drawer—I tape mine to the far side of my file cabinet where I can’t see it—and let those suckers go. Get on with life. You might get a shock from revisiting this list in a month. How many items have resolved themselves or simply don’t matter anymore? And how much energy have you freed up in the meantime? Repeat as often as necessary.
3. Of course, there are BIG valid worries aplenty in our world. Our climate is in chaos—June saw 115 degrees in Las Vegas. Geo-politics are trending toward the fascist. Here in the States, we’ve watched the rise of violent militaristic groups and white supremacy. Voting rights are on the chopping block. Whole lotta noise out there.
I confess to struggling with these fears—I like to get out in front of troubles and act to prevent them. But when we’re talking about problems of this scale, it’s just not possible for any one person to eradicate or correct them. They are systemic and well-funded by Big Money. Allowing them to endlessly rattle around in our brain drains us of hope and energy. Worrying doesn’t empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength, writer and Dutch watchmaker Corrie Ten Boom cautioned. And she walked the talk on that one. Cornelia “Corrie” ten Boom and her family hid many Jews in their home during World War II, aiding them in escaping the Nazis.
Like Corrie, what each of us can do is act from where we are. We can make phone calls, write letters, register voters, join local environmental groups, protest, and donate. Every dollar helps. Every voice raised swells the whole. As Corrie Ten Boom’s life shows, action gives strength. Empowers rather than depletes us.
4. Once you’ve freed up some mental real estate, you can direct your energy. Choose your focus. What are the basic areas where you want to expend your time and effort? My list includes: Writing (novels/short fiction/blogging), playing guitar, gardening, house projects, reading, walking and, of course, family/friends. These are things I strive to do with great frequency because they matter to me—in the case of writing, almost daily.
What my list does is provide a road map, a general direction, when I start to feel lost or overwhelmed. Say, if I have six hours today, I might spend two on my current work-in-progress, and one hour each on blogging, walking/guitar, and gardening. The sixth hour? Maybe I’ll throw those boxes of clothing for the Salvation Army into the car. Ed and I will drop them off, then enjoy a summer lunch at a favorite café.
I don’t do these things with a stopwatch. It’s just a loose guideline. If I should get bitten by the neighbor’s dog—which happened two weeks ago—and have to spend my morning in the ER, c’est la vie. No self-recrimination. As John Lennon wrote: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
5. Mental health days. Take them regularly. Play is as essential to our well-being as the loftiest purpose. Got a full-time job? Kids to care for? Ask a spouse/partner/relative/friend to step in for an afternoon. Even a daily mental health hour—like the walks I took during COVID and continue to enjoy—can reset your head.
Your True Voice: Let it Rip
“The sky is falling in!” Henny-Penny cries in the classic children’s fable, after an acorn falls from the tree above and bonks her on the head. While it’s never pleasant to get hit on the head, I think if you look up, you’ll find the sky is still there. It’s always been there. It will always be there—at least in terms of any timeline that concerns us.
The noise within, maybe it’s just a whole lot of acorns pelting us from one direction and another. If we let them take seed and sprout, we’ve got a forest so dense, it muffles our true voice. But we can choose to cast those babies aside one by one and keep focused on what really matters to us. Whether that’s work or play, if it doesn’t hold some kind of real satisfaction, I don’t want to waste myself on it.
I hope you’ve found something in these observations and ideas that will help vanquish the noise within. I also hope you’ll take a moment to comment and share any “tricks” you use to turn down that din. Our possibilities are too wondrous and our hours too precious to let our true voice be muffled in the roar of the crowd.
What people call serendipity sometimes is just having your eyes open. (Jose Manuel Barroso)
[Note: Changes. We’ve had a decade’s worth in a year it seems. Maybe a century’s. Much of it troubling, even scary. But as we move into this familiar-yet-different, post (sort of)-COVID landscape, it’s worth remembering: Change is also possibility. Ch-ch-ch-changes, turn and face the strange, David Bowie advised. So, I’m re-posting this 2018 column to remind myself, you, all of us, that happiness, opportunity, love—they often arrive in different containers than what we first imagined. Enjoy.]
Since college days, my life has been filled with cats. There’s Phoebe, a tortoiseshell kitty who napped atop my turntable; Starbaby, a calico who cleaned out the bottom of my yogurt cups, then lined up the empties in the bathroom; Maggie, a stray I “adopted” from the Boston pizzeria that fed her; Tia Maria an opinionated, affectionate gray with a “hint of beige”—also mother of Brutus and Jasmine, both brown tigers. And Francesca, a tiny, gray long-haired kitten who was terrified of most everything, but loved Brutus and followed him everywhere.
Most of these cats had been rescued from one kind of immediate-need situation or other. I didn’t set out to choose them. More like our paths crossed serendipitously and I’m a big sucker. But when Brutus died at age 17 and Frankie followed four months later, I found myself catless for the first time in 27 years. After the worst of the grief subsided, I knew what I wanted. I wanted an orange kitten. I had always loved that color (too many “Morris the Cat” ads, perhaps), and now I could take myself down to the local animal rescue shelter and pick one out.
Most of the cats at the shelter were, like me, no longer kids. One heartbreaking duo, ages 12 and 14, had belonged to a woman who had died at the age of 93 (may we all get there!). I considered them because, obviously, like all aging orphans, they were not going to be most people’s first picks. But then I thought maybe they weren’t really up to life in a house with two teenagers (mine).
“If you’re interested in a kitten, we have four brothers here, eight weeks old,” the shelter attendant said.
And there they were, four little kitties romping about a boxy cage, tumbling over one other, each more heartbreakingly cute than the other. And none of them orange. Not even close. Not even a speck.
You know how this story goes. I chose a little gray guy, white-tipped tail, both spunky and sweet. I named him Mercutio on the spot.
Recognizing a pushover when she saw one, the attendant added, “It’s two-for-one month.”
Well, I had my daughter, Lauren, in tow, and between the two of them there was no way I was leaving that shelter with only one cat. I picked out a frisky black-and-white dude and christened him Tybalt.
So, no orange kitty. And yet, here I am 14 years later with gray Mercutio (Coosh) and black-and-white Tybalt (Tibby), and I know when they leave this world, as all things must, I will feel the kind of pain that just about does you in. Tibby is playful and good-hearted and would let you rub his belly forever. Coosh cuddles up on the bed beside me as I read each night to the strains of Mozart (he’s a big fan).
Two things here strike me: 1) It is in our nature to want particular things, to have definite plans, to map out pathways, goals, and 2) It is in the nature of life to divert most of these desires and plans.
The question is: How do we handle these detours and diversions?
When the Bottom Drops Out
Just when I think I have learned the way to live, life changes. (Hugh Prather)
Okay, it’s pretty easy to punt one’s desire for an orange kitten. But how do we deal with it when we love what we’re doing, and then the bottom drops out. The company closes. The funding evaporates. Our plans go up in smoke.
When my kids moved into the later elementary years, I enrolled in a competitive M.Ed. program at a local university. They only took ten candidates, so I spent the year prior to application substitute teaching and taking undergraduate courses like math for teachers. I was one of 50 applicant finalists interviewed, and I got in. But that was just the beginning. The program was a one-year intensive, and I do mean intensive. I did my practicum in the second semester while carrying a full load of classes and cooking/cleaning/ferrying my two kids to appointments, lessons, and friends. I did my coursework in the wee hours of the morning. I dreamed of sleep.
But then I got hired and taught six-year-olds for several years. First grade—teachers either love it or loathe it. I loved it. Those little guys are my chosen people. Whether we were immersing ourselves to the elbows in papier maché to make tectonic plates that became mountains when shoved together, or compiling lists of words where oa makes the long o sound: coat, goat, boat, float—we were into it. We grooved on observing and recording the life cycle of frogs. Bring a tank of tadpoles into first grade and you’ve got instant joy. Yes, we were happy campers.
And then the Iraq war happened and with it, deep budget cuts in federal aid to public schools. With only two years in the classroom, I was a prime target for staff reduction. This was a serious bummer. I loved teaching. After two years, I felt I was really hitting my stride.
So, what to do? Schools across the state were cutting staff. Getting another teaching job looked about as likely as a lottery win. The director of my M.Ed. program hired me to supervise student teachers in their practicum. I liked the work, but it was part-time for spring semesters only.
In the meantime, my daughter had graduated to studying with a new violin teacher, a faculty member of the music department at yet another local college (we’ve got tons of them) and an international recording artist. As we chatted at the first lesson, it somehow came up that he had come to England from Germany in 1939. Alone. Carrying nothing but his violin and several of his father’s paintings. An 11-year-old kid fleeing the Nazis. My heart turned over. I had to write his story.
I had done a cover feature for the local paper’s weekend magazine several years before, so I called the editor and she was enthusiastic. Over the fall of that year, I interviewed Philipp about his Jewish family’s life under the Nazis, his year as a refugee “orphan” attending a boarding school in the Midlands, and his family’s subsequent reunification in America. The feature ran just days before my M.Ed. director called to ask if I would be supervising the new interns for the upcoming semester.
Two roads diverged … in the nanoseconds before I replied, I thought I could make my life writing. I had earned a living from writing before as editor and main content contributor for a women’s retail monthly. I had completed two novels and was writing a third.
“I’ve decided to try my hand at freelance writing,” I said. And that was what I did, pitching pieces and writing for magazines. It was the best career “move” I ever made.
When New Facts Contradict Old Beliefs
Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change. (Stephen Hawking)
In the early ‘70s, when Nixon’s Watergate scandal was ramping up to tsunami level, the deeply conservative rep from my Michigan district made national headlines with these words: Don’t confuse me with the facts.
Sometimes, when we’ve invested a lot—years, dollars, hope, energy—we’re tempted to don blinders and ear plugs against anything that threatens our status quo and calls for a rethink.
Charles Darwin was a creationist when he first visited the Galapagos Islands as part of the HMS Beagle expedition to chart the coastline of South America. In fact, his father had sent him to Christ’s College, Cambridge to earn a B.A., as the first step to becoming an Anglican parson.
As a creationist, Darwin believed the particular adaptations of many species were simply proofs of divine design—that each species had been created for its special place in nature. Fixed. Immutable. What he observed in the Galapagos challenged everything he thought he knew.
Faced with a conundrum—either sweep under the proverbial rug all questions raised by the variations among tortoises and mockingbirds he’d witnessed in the Galapagos OR investigate—Darwin investigated. His Journal of Researches suggests it was a slow investigation, and likely painful entertaining the loss of old notions, but he could not turn away from the search for what is—for truth. Twenty years of conversations with zoologists and ornithologists followed that visit to the Galapagos. Two decades of exhaustive research. When at last he published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859, Darwin was a true believer in evolution.
In his article for smithsonianmag.com, Frank J. Sulloway wonders aloud why Darwin was the only person to embrace evolution out of all those exposed to the evidence in the Galapagos. “In the end,” Sulloway writes, “it is perhaps a question of courageous willingness to consider new and unconventional ways of thinking.”
When you Least Expect it: Recognizing the Gift in the Moment Before You
We all have big changes in our lives that are more or less a second chance. (Harrison Ford)
In the summer after my junior year of college, I did a semester in London, studying Shakespeare and contemporary British theatre and poetry. I saw 27 plays in six weeks. I lived in a dorm on the edge of Regent’s Park. I reveled in the British Museum, the Tate and National Galleries, the Victoria and Albert, and Kew Gardens. I browsed the wealth of Charing Cross bookshops and enjoyed the camaraderie of the pubs, the remarkable kindness and generosity of the British people. In short, I fell in love with the city. London became and has remained the home of my heart. At the end of that summer, I hated to leave but I had two terms left to finish my degree. I vowed I would someday return for good.
Fast forward to 2007. Knowing that my marriage would bite the dust when my youngest finished high school, I was combing real estate ads for flats in the greater London area. I was going to make the move. Realize my long-cherished dream. Nothing would stop me.
And then, on a Friday afternoon in July, Ed happened. To riff on Casablanca: Of all the coffee shops, in all the towns, in all the world, he walked into mine. That day, as he was leaving, he tapped me on the shoulder and wished me a good weekend. I vaguely recognized him—one of the regulars who was often there when I arrived mid-morning to work on one freelance assignment or another.
Over the next two months, Ed and I started talking. I began arriving earlier. He stayed later. We ran the conversational gamut from silly to serious with total ease. Even our silences were comfortable. And we shared many passions. Travel, books, baseball, progressive politics, cooking, dancing, a fascination with language generally and word-play specifically. A love of laughter. We were both freelance writers and editors. He was reading a book on Bletchley Park in World War II. I was writing a book centered on Bletchley Park in World War II. We began going out to lunch and taking long walks together. In between, we e-mailed constantly.
The time for filing my divorce was rapidly approaching. With it, the need to start putting things in place to make London happen. From the viewpoint of my plans, it was a most inconvenient time to fall in love, But fall I did. Over my head. Out of my mind. Passionately, joyfully, crazy in love.
London aside, the relationship was not without risks (is there ever a seismic move in life without risks?). Ed was on a transplant list at the time, waiting for a new liver to replace his rapidly failing one. Would a donor liver be available in time to save him? Was I giving up my London dream for a situation that might quickly devolve into a nightmare of hospitals and end in tragedy?
I remember standing in my driveway on a warm September night, summoning all the reasons that following my heart might be foolish. But I kept coming back to the simple truth: I loved him. And then I thought the only true foolishness would be to give up a man who was perfect for me in every way. Who made my heart sing. The liver situation was a gamble, yes, but everything in life is a roll of the dice. A seemingly perfectly healthy person can suddenly drop dead of a heart attack or a ruptured aneurysm. There are no guarantees. But I knew what I had in that moment. I had Ed and he was the love of my life. Eleven years on, and one successful liver transplant later, he still is.
And now, we visit London annually. He has become quite a fan.
At one point or another in my life, I’ve wanted to be one of the popular kids, have string-straight hair like Mod Squad’s Peggy Lipton, and move to the desert. None of these things happened, thank god, because as it turns out there’s far more freedom outside the clique, I’ve come to love my wild curls, and I need lots of green in my environment.
We don’t always wind up at the place we started out for. The road curves. Circumstances change. New facts emerge. Unexpected opportunities erupt.
Yes, we don’t always get what we want, but that’s not the end of the world. Sometimes it’s just the beginning.
Let me say up top I’m not a big fan of TV commercials. I usually hit “mute” and bask in the several minutes silence before the news/baseball/whatever resumes. BUT the Progressive Insurance holiday ad featuring the agency’s icon “Flo” and her PI family in a 16-way Zoom confab—that one I watched every time. Too funny.
And too true.
We had our own multi-multi Zoomfest over Christmas: Ed, me, our four adult kids and their partners for a total of nine people on six screens.
All those “memorable” Zoom moments when one or several screens freeze and you’re not sure if the frozen ones can hear or see you? We had those on steroids. Also, rounds and rounds of the joyous confusion where everyone talks at once, followed by total silence. Major awkward pause. Apologetic clearing of throats. Everyone glances around their little boxes. Then everyone resumes chattering—all at the same time. It’s nice to see the faces…
And then there are the Zoom conferences and forums put on by various orgs. What Zoom meetings lack in confusion, they make up for in tedium. To be fair, I’ve only attended one, a get-out-the-vote postcard writing “party” hosted by National Nurses United for then-Senate candidates Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff—but one was enough. I stayed for the first 18 minutes, left the link open, and went off to do something more exciting—as I recall, it was a load of laundry.
It was a great cause, and the organizers were trying to create a festive atmosphere. Heads popped in—Hi everyone!—and out on three different screens. There was a sifting of papers. A fiddling with computers. Christmas decorations floated near the top of one screen. Disconnected chatter ensued, relieved by much hemming and hawing, as the organizers attempted to “get the party started.” The real action seemed to be the participant comments scrolling down the right side of the screen. So good to be here. I got my postcard packet yesterday. Is it too late to get extras?
Well, how much can you really say about crafting a handwritten message that must fit in a 3” x 3” space? Write very small? Okay, party over.
The New Eating Out: Eating In
Ed and I enjoy eating out. From the rooftop bistro of the local brewery to the “eclectic locavore” cuisine of our favorite “dress-up” restaurant. And we are not above sharing a footlong and fries at the ice-cream stand on a hot summer night. We also both cook, and if it’s not too bragga-dacious to say, we cook rather well. Eat out. Cook in. I’m good with either. What I like less, and what has been the only dining-out option the past year, is “take away.” The COVID option.
Case in point: On my birthday last month, Ed and I decided to play hooky all day and skip the kitchen duties. Solution: Take-away from a favorite Indian restaurant. Mangalorean Shrimp Curry and Chicken Vindaloo. Dreams of coconut gravy with ginger and tomato. Fantasies of tangy hot-and-sour chili vinegar.
Reality? Lukewarm mush in aluminum plates that needed: 1) re-plating, and 2) reheating. A jumble of condiments in teensy plastic containers. All devoured in the usual dinner “spot” (on the sofa, watching MSNBC, The Crown, Endeavour, or a movie), while dressed in jeans and house slippers.
What do restaurants and cafes have that even the best take-away can never duplicate? The theatre of it all: The sizzle of fajitas. The buzz of conversation from the bar. A world filled with other people that somehow creates an intimate space for lively, funny, thought-provoking chatter with your dinner companion. At the end of such an evening, you feel you’ve had an experience. Bonus: Someone brings the dishes, clears the dishes, cleans the dishes.
At home, you just rebox any leftovers and rinse the aluminum plates for the recycle.
Surf ‘til You Drop?
I’m not a shopaholic. In fact, I rarely go shopping as an activity in itself. Of course, “shopping” during COVID has largely meant surfing Amazon or other online purveyors for everything from socks to fancy espresso makers. In the first six months of the pandemic, the fleets of Amazon, UPS, and FedEx trucks were virtually the only traffic on the local roads. Piles of boxes tumbled across the front porch of nearly every house I passed in my daily walk. What were all those people ordering? And more to the point, where were they stashing it all? As the comic Steven Wright used to quip: You can’t have everything. Where would you put it? In the digital shopping mania of COVID, it seems many of us were endeavoring to answer that question.
I must confess, I have done virtually nothing to enrich Jeff Bezos in the past 14 months. My pandemic purchases have fallen far short of a “spree”: two pairs of jeans from the Gap, a Ruth Bader Ginsburg facemask, and some holiday gifts for family. Amazon may be the world’s largest bookseller, but it is not my local bookstore with its overflowing shelves and jumbled stacks of titles, all waiting for me to turn pages, sample passages, digest jacket copy. For the same reason I gravitate toward print books and eschew Kindle reads, I prefer the tactile delights of real-life commerce, Main Street or the mall.
Surfing through endless digital pages of consumer goods is no substitute for clothing or shoe stores, jewelry shops, gift bazaars, or kitchenware emporiums. The sensory pleasures of browsing shelves and display cases, feeling fabrics, hefting pots—it cannot be duplicated by an online image in a 1” x 2” box.
With Real Life shopping, you can pause for a latte or a glass of wine at the local café. Enjoy the passing scene. Chill with a good read. Shopping online, you’re lucky to have this morning’s reheated coffee (rapidly cooling) within reach.
My only Real Life shopping the past 14 months has been the weekly trek to the grocery store, something of an endurance feat as the narrow aisles are packed with employees filling bags for the store’s home delivery service. I understand the convenience—and I’m sure, in some cases, necessity—but I want to browse the selection of red peppers and cucumbers, see the freshness (or otherwise) of the seafood, read labels, compare brands.
Is it Live or is it … (sigh) Virtual?
As big fans of dance, Ed and I have been regular attendees at Jacob’s Pillow Summer Dance Festival in the Berkshires. The Pillow hosts some of the best dance troupes from around the globe. Everything from audacious tap-master Michelle Dorrance (Dorrance Dance) to the Ballet Hispánico. From Hubbard Street Dance Chicago to the Royal Danish Ballet.
Obviously, none of this happened last summer. Instead, the Pillow has been hosting “virtual” dance performances. A sample invite from my email:
The Pillow Lab is a continuing series of online short films begun last year, which capture works in process by artists during their on-site residencies at Jacob’s Pillow. Join us for the screening of our newest film… and live-chat with flamenco dancer Nélida Tirado and her collaborators as well as audiences from around the world…
So, instead of an evening or matinee live dance performance with all its grace, athleticism, and dazzling brilliance—an event which even in a building that could use more fans on an August day, leaves you energized, inspired, transformed—we have only videos of six-inch-high dancers on our tablets and laptops. True, you can hook up your computer to the TV and double the size of these flamenco virtuosos and ballet legends, but you can’t capture the electric, pulsating buzz of the real thing, the synergy between performer and audience.
The Pillow notes “a private virtual reception” will follow the performance: These gatherings provide a unique platform to share your reactions, feedback, and questions with the creative team. Oh joy, more viewer comments scrolling down the side of the screen…
One is the Loneliest Number
In no way do I fault The Pillow or other arts orgs for doing all they can to survive the COVID shutdown. The arts are already underfunded in the States, their primal role in feeding our souls and nurturing our humanity underappreciated. A virtual performance is certainly better than no performance at all to those of us starving for live art—dance, music, theatre. But listening to a radio broadcast of the Boston Symphony Orchestra will never be like sitting on the lawn at Tanglewood on a star-lit summer night, the genius of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms drifting across a moment in time you’re sharing with hundreds of others. And a taped production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet will never be like watching actors perform that miracle of a play from a gallery seat in The Globe in London.
It has been posited that communal storytelling began almost as soon as humans could speak. Fables to warn of dangers, myths to explain the mysterious, tales to mark an occasion, celebrate a victory. Wherever a people gathered, storytellers were sure to emerge, and audiences devoured it all. Without an audience, the storyteller, the playwright, the troubadour did not exist. Without an audience—to listen and remember—Homer, Shakespeare, Mozart would likely have died with their age.
Maybe the most significant aspect of live performance is the community it forges through a shared experience. Now we have video streaming, but the virtual is experienced by the individual. The lonely I instead of the we. Ephemeral, it tends to get lost in the “next thing.”
Hold Onto Your Seat, We’re Traveling by Armchair?!
Collins Dictionary defines an armchair traveler as “someone who finds out what a place or location is like by watching travel programs on television, looking at internet websites about travel, or reading books about travel.” I can only add “and viewing virtual tours.”
Perhaps nothing has been so altered by the pandemic as travel. With each nation compiling its own specific no-fly zones, both for its citizens and those of other countries, the result is a jigsaw even Einstein would be hard-pressed to untangle. Thus (drum roll) … virtual travel! But we don’t need the brains behind the Theory of Relativity to drop the penny on this one: If you don’t leave your armchair, you ain’t really going anywhere.
Nevertheless, when has truth stopped anyone from making a buck? Amazon.com offers something called Amazon Explore. For $69, you can “hear the legends and tales of the Spanish Inquisition in Madrid” (60 minute session). Aside from flirting with redundancy—legends and tales (Is that like gravy and sauce, Pepsi and Coke?)—you get to “see” a couple of palaces and the Plaza Mayor, once the site of torture and execution.
Also running 60 minutes, but far cheaper at ten bucks, is a virtual tour through the “Tango-infused La Boca neighborhood of Buenos Aires.” On this tour, or “experience” as it’s called in the Web ad, “we will insert ourselves [ouch!] in the heart of La Boca… walk through Caminito street and … show you inside what was formerly a tenement for immigrants, today turned into a shopping destination.” Okay…
For no dollars at all, thetravelintern.com offers a 3-minute virtual tour (don’t blink!) through “some of Japan’s most popular sights—Kyoto’s bamboo forest, Nara Deer Park, and even a sumo exhibition!”
Yes, you can find out about the climate of a country or the architecture of its towns from a TV program. You can peruse the list of a city’s museums, art galleries, and eateries online. You can read about the history and peoples of a region. And you can also do all of these “virtually”—but you can never discover what a place is like unless you go there and walk its streets, talk to its people, eat the local food, and take in what it has thought worth preserving. No video, book, or website can ever give you the feel of sitting in a café on the cascading hillside of Santorini, overlooking the Aegean Sea with its underwater caldera, a crater from a volcano that erupted 3,700 years ago and left today’s beaches black with lava pebbles. No virtual tour can duplicate the awe of the Alhambra, the 13th century royal residence and court of the Nasrid Kingdom in what is today Granada, Andalusia, Spain—an architectural gem the Moorish poets called “a pearl set in emeralds.” And an English pub is a British cultural institution you must experience firsthand, as unlike a Parisian café as ale is to wine.
A Tweet Ain’t No Feet in the Street
One of the most flummoxing notions to emerge during COVID—ranking just below TheRUMP’s touting of bleach as a cure—has been the idea that virtual protest is anything like… well, protest. I mean, the whole history of protest has been putting our bodies where our values are. Literally walking the talk. In the streets.
The year-long Montgomery bus boycott (1955/56), inspired by Rosa Park’s refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger, required that Black citizens—a sizeable share of the city’s bus riders—actively not ride the public buses. Instead, some 40,000 Black men and women walked to work and back every day, in all kinds of weather, for a year. It was a highly visible, striking image that television news cameras broadcast and the bus company could not ignore. All the likes in the world on Facebook pale in comparison. Feet in the street.
It took hundreds of protests and hundreds of thousands of protesters—some nine years of feet in street—to stop the Vietnam War. A generation of Americans came of age in that unflagging effort and was forever shaped by it. Their numbers continue to be well-represented in Real Life actions today.
Could four Black students protesting segregation in Greensboro, North Carolina (1960) have built a national movement with tweets alone? It took derrieres on lunch-counter stools at the local Woolworth’s—where the official policy was to refuse service to anyone who wasn’t white—to achieve that. It was the first of the legendary sit-ins, but not the last. Within four days, 300+ students had joined in, bringing business to a halt at Woolworth’s and other local racist venues. Eight weeks later, the fight for de-segregation had spread to 55 cities in 13 states.
The 1963 March on Washington—a quarter million people at the Lincoln Memorial. The 1965 March to Montgomery with its iconic crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Can you imagine these milestones in history as virtual online events? Without hundreds of thousands of feet in the street this past year, it’s highly doubtful that Derek Chauvin would ever have been convicted of George Floyd’s murder. Real people on the streets in real time make real change.
I began this post with Zoom, that substitute for hugging-your-kids-for-which-there-is-no-substitute. The highlight of my COVID Zoom experiences was a family wedding. Despite a number of pauses early in the proceedings to restore the sound, it was a sunny day, in a lovely setting. The teary toasts to the radiant bride and groom, the reading of a powerful poem, the performance of a song—all were beautiful, brilliant, moving—but I couldn’t hug the bride and groom, couldn’t taste the cake. Ed and I were just two heads in a tiny square amid a sea of other tiny heads in tiny squares, lifting the beverage of our choice to toast the newlyweds.
If this post’s title “Do Androids Dream of a Virtual Life?” tripped a familiar switch in your brain, it’s a riff on Philip K. Dick’s immortal novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the basis for the blockbuster 1982 film Blade Runner.
I feel pretty sure Philip K. Dick understood and would agree: There ain’t nothing like the real thing.
You know how people (used to) say: “That seems like only yesterday.” Well, my last birthday, April 2020, seems like a century ago. Or maybe something that occurred in the Pleistocene.
As regular readers of this blog may recall, April is the month I do a little tally of the lessons life has imparted—or dumped on me—in the preceding year. Often, they are variations on one of my basic life philosophies: One disaster at a time. Never ask what else could go wrong.
Well, our year of COVID dynamited such neat aphorisms. Blew them sky high. One disaster at a time? Troubles came so thick and fast, I felt like some manic plate spinner, unable to pause for breath, threats of a total crash looming left, right, and center at every moment. Never ask what else could go wrong? I didn’t have time to ask. An avalanche of problems/woes/insanity erupted in the opening months of 2020 and just kept coming.
A wee sampling of the “highlights”: My social security history—you know, the file that tracks your lifetime earnings—mysteriously “disappeared” from the SSA system. A full-on Vertigo attack literally hit me upside the head and sent me to the ER. A 50-foottree limb fell on my car. Ed had emergency hernia surgery. A medical billing snafu (six months and counting!) has produced mountains of documentation—but no solution to date. And the state website for COVID-vaccine appointments? It crashed on the first day I was eligible to sign up, and remained inoperable for some weeks.
Plus, my hair, which has not been cut since December 11, 2019, was well past my shoulders, heading for mid-back. Untangling its curly mass in the shower each day was seriously eating into valuable problem-solving time. (And clogging the drain.)
Troubles are always with us, as some sage has surely noted. The thing about COVID, though—as you’ve no doubt noticed—is that solving those troubles has been agonizingly s-l-o-w because nothing has worked as it “should have”—a phrase I have now scrubbed from my vocabulary.
The car the 50-foot tree limb smashed? It remained in the auto repair shop for more than a month. In response to my polite queries (okay, my teeth may have been slightly “gritted”) about the delay, I was told: “You didn’t have an appointment.”
Didn’t have an appointment? Didn’t have an appointment?! No $#%! Sherlock. I didn’t have an appointment because I didn’t know a tree would fall on my car until it did.
I didn’t actually utter those words because I understood: 1) nobody cared, and 2) nobody cared.
Necessity is the Mother of Invention Patience
The great lesson of 2020 turned out to be patience. As in, I had to develop some, okay, a ton of it, because everything that went wrong took ten times the usual time to get right, and some stuff never did, so I’m out a few hundred $$$ and change; but more—much more—critically, days and days of life that might have been devoted to something joy-inducing: writing fiction, beating Ed at Scrabble, watching “The Crown”, were consumed in listening to looonnnggg yawn-provoking/hair-rending, taped updates on “How the coronavirus is affecting our services now” at every number I dialed.
And I dialed a lot of numbers a lot of times, searching for someone, anyone, who could correct incorrect medical billing—an ongoing mission that has introduced me to a lengthy list of customer service reps—never the same folks twice—all contradicting one another. Or someone who could assist me in getting the required new license plate so that I could:
1) get the required annual state inspection sticker for my car, which
(2) had passed inspection, except for the required new license plate, which
(3) I couldn’t obtain for months and months because COVID prevented the state’s prisoners from producing them(!!!).
The day this was finally resolved—that was the day the tree fell on my car. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Truly, never ask what else could do wrong.
Sometimes, there wasn’t even the hope of expediting the untangling of a snafu by phoning someone 687 trillion times because there was no one to call. The holiday gifts I ordered in October for far-flung family members? I was curtly informed in emails from Amazon, Etsy, and other online vendors that “due to anticipated postal delivery problems” (understatement of the century!), these items would not arrive before Christmas.
Undaunted, I printed and wrapped photos of these gifts so that our kids, scattered across the country, would still have something to open on “the day” (Good Mommy!). These beribboned “sneak peaks” at presents-yet-to-come, I mailed off in early December. And then the checking of postal tracking numbers, via computer, began. And continued. And continued…
One of the four packages arrived on Christmas Eve. Yes! The others, according to the USPS website, were enjoying a tour of the country that we in COVID lockdown would envy. A package mailed from Mass and bound for New York, traveled first to Virginia, then North Carolina (Come back, come back, I wailed into my computer, helpless) before returning to the Northeast. Another went to New Jersey by way of Missouri. A third appears to have sat at a transfer station 18 miles away for six weeks.
Christmas came and went. Ditto New Year’s. In mid-January, the actual gift items started arriving—I packed them up, mailed them off, and began playing the tracking game again…
You are Number 36,784 in Line
As mind-numbingly maddening as Post Office Roulette was, it turned out to be excellent prep for nailing an appointment for the COVID vaccine. Winter melted slowly into Spring as I surfed back and forth, hourly, across six locations, seeking an appointment. Moderna. Pfizer. J&J. I didn’t care. Molasses would have sufficed had it been on offer and I could have snared a slot. My favorite—not!—were the sites that promised “book your appointment now”, then took all my info, only to report You are number 36,784 in line or There are no appointments at this time. Mind you, these were state- and local-sponsored, official websites, not some QAnon, drink-the-kool-aid, give us your credit card details (wink, wink) link on Facebook.
Meanwhile, nothing was getting written—my various works-in-progress languished as a tsunami of dust gathered around my ankles and mounds of other stuff that really needed doing piled deliriously high.
Hour after hour, day upon day, I clicked and clicked, checking and re-checking. Much of the time, I felt like my cat Tibby who, in the worst cold of winter, sits at the foot of the stairwell, wailing loudly will this never end!
But as we all know, what cannot be changed must be endured. One Friday in March, I was running my usual checks when I saw it: New appointments released at 6:00 tonight. Previous experience had taught me that the person who waits until the listed time, clicks on only to discover a small-country’s population is already in queue. So, I checked every 30 minutes through the morning, then every 10 minutes in the afternoon. The last hour, I refreshed the page every minute. At precisely 6 p.m., a message came up: Choose your pair of dates from the list.
Thrilled, dubious, afraid to hope—I had seen this message a few times before, and it always turned out that the link didn’t work, or the moment I clicked was the moment We have no more appointments available at this time.
But it did work. I got my chosen dates. I got a confirmation a minute later in my Inbox. I had real appointment codes, a time, a place. And when I went, I got my first vaccine. YES! Patience triumphs!
The. Only. Thing. That. Matters.
I’d like to say I’ve mastered the lesson of patience or that patience has paid off in every circumstance, but that would be … apocryphal. The medical billing snafu is still… a snafu, which I’m seriously considering writing off as the cost of living in a country without universal healthcare. I mean, life is short, so how do you want to spend it?
I have learned however to carry my phone everywhere I go(and I do mean everywhere), along with a pen and all the relevant papers, receipts, etc. of whatever crisis I’m dealing with at the moment—I won’t let a trip to the loo cause me to miss the one chance I have to actually talk to someone who knows what they’re doing. (Does this person exist?)
Up top I mentioned two of my basic life philosophies: One disaster at a time. Never ask what else could go wrong. There’s a third one, courtesy of Winston Churchill: If you’re going through hell, keep going.
Patience, as it turns out, was just a prelude to the real lesson of 2020, the deeper, do-or-die lesson: Resilience.
I’ve always thought of myself as resilient—most of us probably have. Able to manage. Be flexible. Bounce back. Move on. But most of us—the lucky ones in lucky countries anyway—have never had to deal with anything remotely like COVID.
This year of COVID has made me see that as helpful and healthful as patience is—and damn near impossible to muster 24/7—what’s really needed is resilience. That finding oneself in hell, one keeps going. In the final analysis, it may be: The. Only. Thing. That. Matters.
As weeks turned to months, then a year of the COVID nightmare, and 5,000 deaths grew to 543,000—and counting—my thoughts often turned to Anne Frank, the young German-Dutch Jewish girl, who had the miserable luck to be born in a time of unparalleled fascism and mass brutality. Anne Frank has always been my gold standard of courage and resilience.
Anne spent 761days hiding from the Nazis in an attic, never once knowing how it would turn out (and it did not turn out well—Anne was deported to Auschwitz then Bergen-Belsen where she died just two months before British and Canadian troops liberated the camp).
What would she have given for a walk in the sunshine, even if just to the grocery store? Even with the required mask? Or for a day of hiking in the woods or mountains? For a chance to turn up the music and dance? For another decade of life?
Seven-hundred, sixty-one days. When I feel myself starting to cave to the petty annoyances of the last year, the lost hours and opportunities, the irritating-but-not-fatal troubles, Anne Frank pops up: You’ve got this, she assures me. You can make it. And I realize rare is the full life span in history that does not encompass some disaster, natural or human-made.
In previous birthday posts, I framed the year’s lessons as benchmarks in my eternal quest for grace, defined as the ability to remain calm and carry on no matter what—the possession of which would enable me to transcend all things petty, leaving me unshakably calm.
Perhaps resilience is that grace.
Yesterday, I made an appointment for a haircut April 20, two weeks to the day after my second vaccine.
And the ear-splitting, mind-shattering bang, bang, bang of multiple hammers that has jarred me out of much-needed sleep at 7:00 a.m. every morning since November (construction on the lot across the backyard)? That hammering stopped this week.