Monday, September 14, 2020

A Day's Gift

I woke up this morning after an incredible night’s sleep. It was 10 a.m., so I’d just missed a gathering of friends, but instead of feeling disappointment, I only felt amazement: I had SLEPT! Sleep has always been elusive for me, but with Covid, I tend to sleep only every other night for a few hours.

I woke up to glorious, glorious sun in Anchorage. Sparkling cloudless skies. And I had an adventure planned: Tim and I were going to get an ice cream pop.

The adult daughter had visited us for the whole month of August – a whole month to outlast quarantine! – and we’d covered almost all the wished-for-and-missed food. With Forest Fair and State Fair cancellations, it seemed we’d never be able to have those chocolate-dipped Original Gourmet Ice Cream Bars again. So I searched and searched … and discovered they’d be at the “Friday Fling” in Palmer, 45 miles away.
I cannot tell you how delicious that ice cream bar was. Vanilla ice cream with delicious chocolate, all covered with Oreo cookie crumbs. I think it was the best one they’d ever made. We sat in the sun far away from anyone else, unmasked and in ice cream delirium.

As soon as we arrived home, the phone rang. Sophie just had to tell us that she’d had a great victory at work, wonderful choices presented themselves, and she was happy (but jealous about our ice cream). My mother used to say she could hear a “ring” in my voice on the telephone when I was happy; Mom, I now know what you meant.

Afterwards, I had to get to the library to pick up three books on hold before they were closed for the weekend. (Desperation lurks if I perceive I may run out of books.) So off I biked. When I turned in my library card to the always-helpful Sophie (a different one), she returned with five books! Two more had come in off long-time holds. A bonanza of library books!

As I biked home in the sunshine, it hit like a ton of bricks: a feeling of unadulterated joy. I can’t even describe it: it’s like sunshine lit up my soul with energy and happiness. It was a miracle. I was like the bike scene in E.T.
A miracle because it had been such a very long time. So long that I’d decided joy was no longer happening, that I wasn’t even marking its absence because it was just a non-event. Not sadness, not depression, just not-joy.

So what was it? Sleep? Sunshine? An ice cream bar? A bike basket full of books? A happy daughter? Living in a place where the air is clear and I can simply hop on a bike to ride to the library? A husband who may not think a 45-mile drive to get an ice cream is an “adventure,” but who happily does it with me nevertheless? (and who laughed as he pointed out that he only shows up as #6 or #7)

I am living a very fortunate life, free of violence, fire, smoke, financial collapse, hunger. I know that. All I “suffered” today were irritations:

  • the unmasked lady on the ice cream line who kept coming closer and closer to us

  • the next-door neighbors who added a sixth parked vehicle to the junkyard they call a backyard

  • the creeping crud that invaded my house plants

I could go on, fully aware that those are just irritationsnot hardships or catastrophes – but most times, I guess, even irritations get in the way of joy. Something gets in the way.

But somehow, SOMEHOW, joy crept in. I don’t know why. I wish I did so I could know how to hold onto it, how to usher it in when it’s absent.

But joy is not a function of reason. There is no formula that dictates sunshine + ice cream + library books = Joy. There is no chemical equation – no necessary and sufficient causes – that make joy the inevitable result of anything.


This joy was just a gift. Maybe it will be gone when I have a sleepless night tonight or if it rains. It will certainly fade when I read the news and hear about another political crime, racist murder, and/or environmental disaster.

But I’ve written it down; I’ve now documented it: Today, I felt Joy.

Joy exists.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

The Covid Choke

You’re going along, doing the grocery store pickups, seeing friends six feet separated, Zoom-ing. You might even say to yourself, I have a rhythm, I’ve worked this out, I’ve drawn on inner resources. But then – all of a sudden – it hits: the deep Doom feeling, the big Dread. It’s a Covid Choke. Do you have a better word?

My latest one came in a dream. In the dream, I was living the “old” life: I was facing … complexity. Things were happening, a lot was simply …  occurring. I was faced with decisions about paths to take, things to decide and take responsibility for, things to figure out. Things to go and do and experience. Choices to make.

It was such a rich life, a full life. There was theater and movies and travel and potlucks and lunches out and visits. It was just so FULL. Not busy and fast and rushed, but FULL.

So then I woke up, Covid-Choked by Doom and Dread. Would this go on FOREVER?!?  Would we always have to trade our rich lives for this sort of minimal life?

[Okay, we’d watched The Old Guard on Netflix, so part of the nightmare involved that horrendous iron cage the woman was put in for ETERNITY.] 

Let me repeat again because it bears endless repeating: my Covid is on a secure boat in a relatively undisturbed sea. I am not facing financial ruin, educating a child at home, dealing with death or serious illness. I am LUCKY! My heart and donations go out to the seriously challenged members of our world and the Food Bank of Alaska.

But I still choke. Occasionally. Still feel the punch to the gut, the horror of never-agains, the catastrophe of what ifs. The darkness that descends, scares the shit out of me, and then … dissipates. Because life goes on and this is what we have.

Yes, I’ve been artistically inspired and discovered new things. Yes, I’m navigating new technologies. Yes, I’ve learned to manage a household with inconsistent resources. Yes, I’ve learned how to visit with friends in physically-distant ways. Yes, the library reopened so I can consume books again. Yes, I actually liked Hamilton on TV better than Hamilton on Broadway (I could tell all the guys apart.) I haven’t gone blank or morose or bitter.

But it’s all taking place on the same stage. I’m watching every play being conducted with the same set, the same lighting, the same direction. I get outside, I explore in Nature. She’s still here, but – heresy! – she’s still trees and mountains and trails and creeks, and while those might be astounding, they can’t cover up the holes in the human-made, cultural universe. Everything has to fall within the same guidelines so no wonder everything feels sort of same-same, bland, no surprises. As one friend put it, it’s missing … dimension.

Maybe that full, rich, vivid dream came because the adult daughter is with us for a month. She can work remotely, so she was able to stay beyond the quarantine period to achieve “normalcy.” She faced airline travel, three Covid tests, and isolation and masking in our house to get to spend quality time with us. So as we approached “normal,” I guess I was left to dream of what the Real Normal used to be like. The rich, complex, full, tangled Real Normal with things HAPPENING. In person.

So of course I’d wake up to a Covid Choke.

And then, when I went out, I put on my mask. Choking doesn’t mean anyone gets to throw a tantrum.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Male Menace

Surprise, surprise: a man just called me a “fucking bitch” on the street today.

We were both on bicycles. I was going across the street, and he was going perpendicular to me; but we were both on the curb at the same time. I was headed down the little curb-cut across the street, but I was in his way and he wanted to go across my path. He had to swerve. So he yelled, “Up yours, you fucking bitch.”

Wow, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and I have this in common, too.

I’m sure any other woman and I have this in common, too.

I just finished reading Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. We may all know the big ones (drugs not tested on female subjects, female prescriptions not covered by health insurance, etc.) but Caroline Criado Perez uncovers hundreds more. Glaring examples of how science, government, and corporations cater to the Default Male.

In one section, she looks at all the behaviors that men do that “make – and are often calculated to make – [women] feel uncomfortable … that add up to a feeling of sexual menace.” Mostly, these don’t happen when women are accompanied by men, “So men who didn’t do it and didn’t experience it simply didn’t know it was going on. … Another gender data gap.”

So, for example, you can use Google maps to get directions that are the fastest, that use the least mileage; but can you get one that shows the “safest” route? Men don’t see it, don’t collect it, don’t care to make that information useful to women. It took women to create Safecity, which crowd-sources personal stories of sexual harassment in public spaces to create a map indicating trends at a local level, mostly in India, but around the world.
A couple weeks ago, before Anchorage had a mask mandate, Tim and I went to Baskin Robbins for ice cream. Baskin Robbins has plexiglass to keep the staff separate and decals on the floor to keep the customers separate. It’s hard when everyone wants to look at the ice creams to see the selection, so I stayed way back, waiting my turn. I was the only one in a mask. (Tim was in the car, still futzing with trying to tie his on.)

One unmasked man kept moving over towards me. We weren’t near the counter, so there was no reason to. I moved away. He moved closer. I moved away. Finally, I told him, “I keep moving away, you keep moving closer. Please keep your distance.” He walked right up to me, stood in front of me, swelled his body, and STARED. I stared back and walked out.

I passed a now-masked Tim just coming in and told him we were leaving.

Yes, yes, Covid-19 has added a new agenda to the world, but he was an asshole looking for an excuse. And yes, I’m a reasonably assertive woman who can hold her own. And no, I don’t think I attract any particular negative energy in the universe. And no, I’m not a “victim.” And no, I was not going to get the young, teenaged, ice cream scooping staff involved in this. And yes, I’ve gone through multiple after-the-fact responses I could have made but didn’t and wish I had.

So this is what I’m doing. I’m reporting these instances of female-targeted male aggression to my husband. To my brother. To men around me. They’re all nice men, men who treat women with dignity, but I don’t think they know how common “fucking bitch” behavior is. And they need to know this. Not to protect me, but to know.

Actually, I experience it less often during Covid-19 because I’m not near other people, but obviously, it still lurks.

I don’t even have to ask any woman: you know what I’m talking about. I will take any and all suggestions for responses. Ones that illuminate, educate, humiliate preferred.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

The Making of a Recluse

Uh, oh. It’s happened. I’m a recluse. A hermit. I’m no good around people.

It’s always been brewing. You can’t be a writer and a distance runner and not be comfortable with solitude. And if your other pursuits are reading and art and lap swimming, you’re not quite a party animal.

So when Covid-19 and self-isolation first hit, it was almost business as usual. I remained absorbed in my projects, my reading, my quiet contemplation. My well-developed art of doing nothing. My mother used to say I needed five hours of alone time a day in order to be good around people. Even though Covid-19 gave me lots of Tim Time, we’ve learned to be alone in our house: I go downstairs; he stays upstairs. And Tim’s not a chatty guy.

Withdrawal crept up on me gradually. Most of my human interactions involved doing things with other people. I’m good at finding things to do, and other people make it more enjoyable. Want to see the quilt show with me? Want to go to the movies? Want to come over for dinner?

When things-to-do shut down, things quieted. Then there was Zoom.

Lovely Thursday and Friday morning gatherings became Zoom gatherings, as did book club. For a while, that was a New Thing and it worked. We could stay in touch. But after a while, the faces in the gallery became facsimiles of people, mug shots. Staring at mine was disconcerting at best, excruciating at worst. I took to turning off video. That helped, but it’s still video conferencing – for meetings! – not relaxed human conversation and play. (Except my weekly sibling Zoom call: siblings can still tease, play, and goof on Zoom. It’s innate.)

Staring at a screen is now torture. I’ve gone way past Zoom fatigue; I’m in Zoom abhorrence.

Fortunately, there are now social distancing meetups. My art group was my first, and it was glorious. We sat in a very wide circle on the unoccupied university lawn and heard real human voices with real human bodies. Then my book club did it, too. Hooray!
We have visited with friends sitting six feet apart outside. I have walked and biked with friends six feet apart. So why am I now a recluse? Why now do I feel socially awkward, like a misfit who would do socially inappropriate things in public?

I often do socially inappropriate things in public. (Ask my daughter.) It’s a battle I’m constantly fighting because there have always been rules my mouth and I just don’t get. Until I get home and review all the mistakes I’m sure I’ve made.

Now, some people might say, “Oh, Barbara, recluse isn’t you! You’re such an extrovert.” Actually, introverts are mistaken for extroverts because we overcompensate when in public – we can be ebullient in public! – even socially inappropriate – but then we have to recover in private.
The thing is, if we don’t have a “public” for months on end, we forget whatever social skills we might have had. Or we become convinced we’ve forgotten. It’s not exactly fear, more like reluctance or resistance. Or fear. It’s not the fear of catching the virus; I protect myself enough for that.

It’s simply the fact that I’m out of practice with being around people. For communicating. It even makes writing difficult – even this blog – because I’ve become so well-separated from communication. And it actually started with texting-instead-of-phoning; we’ve all been on elaborate back-and-forth texts that could have been resolved with one phone call … but the phone call doesn’t happen. Now Covid-19 has introduced even newer walls in our lives, but they don’t get dispelled with conversations, time together, empathic listening. Like I’m a bumper car banging around – bumping, not touching.
Lately, I’ve seen articles on “How to be Alone,” advising people how to use Covid-19 time as an “opportunity not to escape solitude but to lean into it.” But nothing about the people who’ve leaned in so far they’ve tipped over.

I think I’ve tipped over. Sometimes I actually hide. Tell me, am I the only one this is happening to? Hello? Helllllooooo???

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Eager for the Revolution

I’m apologizing in advance. This post is about Me, in a time when Me needs to shut up and let others do the talking. But if my voice can add volume to the uproar and support to the weary, here I go.

I’m in my Third Third, and I have been waiting for the revolution since 1968. Or maybe it was 1964 when the three Freedom Riders were killed in Mississippi. I was sure it would happen in 1968 as assassination after assassination shook us to our core. I thought once you get horrified, once you SEE; you fix things.

But with every single new outrage – and we have had lots of outrages since 1964 – I thought, “This is SO HORRIFIC, so INHUMANE, this will be the straw that broke the camel’s back. This will spark the change.”

But it just kept on happening. Last week, I would have just chronicled all my furies, thrown my rage and MAD CAPITALIZATION around, and succumbed to the despair that nothing changes, injustice wins, hope is lost, racism is forever. I wasn’t going to see it end in my lifetime. That’s what I was going to say.

But maybe, maybe, this is a bit different. (Can it be? Can it be?) Maybe, maybe, eyes are opening. (Can it be? Can it be?) Maybe, maybe people are willing to see – can’t avoid seeing? – that racism is poisoning our society. That people of color have had to walk a much harder and more dangerous life. A MUCH harder and way more dangerous life.

When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, America was “appalled” at the poverty exposed. Mostly white police blocked an escape route out for the mostly black refugees; they didn’t want them in their suburb. It took a recent book to expose the exploitation of Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman whose cells were used to develop a polio vaccine, advances in medicine, potential anti-cancer drugs … making lots of money for pharmaceutical companies but her family can’t even afford health insurance. And people are only now noticing that people of color receive unequal health services because they’re over-represented in Covid-19 cases? Only now??? 

Uh, oh. My optimism is precarious; it’s starting to give way. I wake up and tell Tim I’ve had another angry dream. He looks at me, “And that’s a surprise?” I want Martin Luther King’s dream, dammit!

Unarmed Eric Garner can’t breathe in New York in 2014, but unarmed George Floyd still can’t breathe and is murdered in Minneapolis in 2020. In between, there were unarmed Michael Brown and unarmed Freddie Gray and too many others. Can this be any clearer?

But to me, the thing that really shows the ugliness and racism that lurks and poisons is Amy Cooper. A regular white woman who doesn’t want to put her dog on a leash in a park KNOWS that she can call the police and shout “African American man” and get results. She can scare the shit out of him and potentially get him arrested or killed.

Isn’t that just the ugly truth of our society?
In 1964, people died trying to help black Americans vote. In 2020, Republicans decide people should die voting in Wisconsin. In 1965, police broke up a peaceful march in Selma with nightsticks and tear gas. In 2020, police tear-gassed a peaceful protest in Washington, D.C. so the President could get a photo op with a Bible in front of a church. In our third thirds, we’ve witnessed the sheer tenacity of injustice. It’s the story of our lives.

Can I even face getting my hopes up again?

White men with automatic rifles stand in front of the Michigan state Capitol; no police break up their protest. Yet African American protesters carrying signs and “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” get tear-gassed. Journalists with visible microphones and cameras are deliberately attacked.

No wonder people are angry! I’ve been waiting decades to see justice done, to see racism faced, to see privilege acknowledged, to see wrongs righted … and I haven’t even been paying that price. A whole host of our population has been waiting – and paying the price – for hundreds of years. I’m angry that this is the world we’re giving our children.

This America that we value is just a popular and enduring myth. It’s only aspirational until – finally – we face ourselves and our institutions and make it a reality. Is this the time? Is it finally NOW? Finally? In our lifetimes?

We have work to do.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Beware: Exciting Project Ahead

You may be wondering where I’ve been. Well, of course I’m still hunkered down at home, but that’s where I fell down the rabbit hole.

I promised myself – as I heard tales of people learning Italian or finishing novels or writing sonatas during Covid-19 – that I was not going to be one of those people.

I most certainly was NOT going to organize my unsorted photos. I’d flunked that before.

This all started with the daughter – who used to have a chef at work preparing her meals – phoning to ask for some recipe favorites from home. I felt so … flattered. I eagerly pulled recipes from my cookbooks, magazines, index cards, folders, and scraps of paper and sent them on.

But as I scanned a few cookbook pages, I discovered other recipes – long forgotten ones – that had “delicious” marked on them. In my ratings hierarchy, “delicious” is the top. Those recipes get added to what I call The Repertoire. Yet these had been forgotten, buried in the pages of the cookbooks, lost in recipe clutter.

In this Covid Spring, I’m ordering grocery pickup like a military logistics person: how can I use every bit of produce so it doesn’t go to waste? I go through my cookbooks, maximize my ingredients. When I see an unknown, unremembered “delicious” – marked in my own handwriting so that other Barbara must have really made it – I try it again. It’s still delicious!

I am not and have never been a foodie. When I take my urban infusion months, I don’t visit fancy restaurants; I eat street food. I don’t know the names of famous chefs or 5-star restaurants. My fascination with food starts and stops with The Great British Baking Show.

But it’s Covid Spring and I’m reading cookbooks page by page.

I’m also getting my daily email from Shutterfly to make a photo book with big discounts and free shipping if you order by Tuesday. That’s not going to happen, but maybe I could eventually make a photo book of our favorite recipes. Maybe I could scan in those original, oil-stained pages – unbury them. Maybe I could do this over a year or so and catch whatever discount was in play.

So I start.

Soon I’m immersed in recipes. I’ve broken the bindings of two cookbooks from scanning. I have little slips of paper with headings: Holidays, Soups, Salads, Appetizers and page numbers. Or magazine pages, torn out. Or more slips of paper.

I’m artfully arranging pages, designing headings and comments and stories. This is so creatively absorbing, I can’t blog. I can’t garden. I can’t watch Netflix. I am a recipe-aholic. It’s delightful.

Then I get an idea: add photos of our family eating some of the dishes.

That’s when I pull out the huge carton of unsorted photos. That’s the door to the abyss.

The floor of my office is covered in photo envelopes and little tags: 1999, 2000, 2001, etc. Instead of just looking for food photos – which I found – I became obsessed with … ORGANIZING.
Organizing is a curse. I emailed my siblings: what year did we go to Victoria? What year was the first Girl Scout Encampment? I’m not only dealing with photo clutter, now I’m dealing with the terrible confirmation of memory loss.

It gets worse. For the Salad section, I wanted the photo our family calls “Sophie Salad.” She is an infant, and we have put her in our giant wooden salad bowl. I go right to the album, and the spot where that photo has always been is BLANK! Yes, I remember I’d pulled it to make her yearbook collage in high school, but didn’t I put it back?!?

I tear the house apart. Ultimately, I go through every single photo envelope looking at negatives. Negatives! Hundreds and hundreds of negatives. This is not a rabbit hole; this is solitary confinement in the cuckoo’s nest.

But I found it!

This is a Pyrrhic victory. I have won the battle, but lost the war. My enthusiasm for the great recipe photo book has waned. I don’t even want to cook any more. I can’t face the piles of photos and tags strewn across the floor. I should just pack them up, clear them out, and de-clutter my brain.

So now I’m gardening.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Einstein was right.

Einstein was right. Covid-19 proves it.

In his theory of special relativity, he looked at “space-time.” That’s where the three dimensions of space are linked with the dimension of time in the space-time continuum. So, we don’t just live in a place and we don’t just live in a certain time; we occupy “space-time.” Then, in his theory of general relativity, he realized that gravity could cause distortion in space-time, that it would warp space-time. Think of it as the weight of something pressing down like a marble on a blanket of space-time.

I study Time. I read physics books about it, science fiction about it, watch movies about it. But on some level, it’s non-intuitive. You just can’t wrap your head around it.

Until Covid-19.

My days used to begin, proceed, and end in a very linear path. (That’s called the Arrow of Time.) I woke up, did things, and ultimately went to bed. Many times, with my always-disrupted sleep cycle, things re-started somewhere around 11 p.m., but they still moved. Linearly. One minute after another.

Until Covid-19.

I still wake up (thank goodness!), and I still walk downstairs to my computer. Somewhere around the ninth or tenth news story – or maybe it’s the fourth or fifth review of the peak Covid-19 projections by state or the map of cases around the world or does the size of the dose of the virus make a difference and what about serum antibodies – time starts to leak. Or warp.

For a while, when I was researching the best prototype of face mask to sew – elastic or fabric ties or T-shirt ropes? with or without a pocket for a filter? pleated or form-fitting? – time actually disrupted. Ruptured, the physicists call it, and it’s what a black hole does.

When two black holes collide, they send gravitational waves rippling through space-time. I think the black hole of Covid-19 news updates collides with the black hole of Facebook and distorts my space-time. You probably know this scientific phenomenon as a “time sink.”

Because next thing I know, when I go upstairs – when I move my gravity-weighted body upstairs – it’s like a whole different day. I’m not quite sure where the day went.

Because I’ve bent space-time.

So maybe I’ll do something noteworthy, like go skiing. That used to be one thing in a day of many things. Now, I’ll come back from skiing, take a shower, and the whole day is gone!

That’s what happens when there’s an actual event – skiing. Many days, I’ll come upstairs and … the whole day disappears! I have so warped time that it just … folded in on itself. I am living in a Star Trek wormhole.

I’ve tried looking at the clock to see if it’s still moving at a regular pace (which is sort of pointless because Einstein said it was all relative anyway), but when I look away; whole hours pass.

In fact, some days Thursday happens before I’ve ever had Tuesday and Wednesday!

I’ve been narrowing it down a little. If I have a Zoom conversation at 10 a.m., Time holds steady for a while: Zoom keeps track and does a 40-minute countdown. But around 11 a.m., it suddenly becomes 3 p.m. The wormhole must be in there somewhere.
There’s external evidence, too. Before Covid-19, we ran the dishwasher maybe once a week. Now, we eat the same number of meals – even re-use mugs and dishes – and the dishwasher needs running every other day. Having soup each night just adds a few soup bowls; that shouldn’t explain it. Time is warping.

Passover was eight days. I don’t think so. I’ve never finished eight days with leftover chocolate macaroons, but there they are. I even loaded up and had three yesterday. (Was that yesterday?)

I can induce a total time warp. I can actually cause a black hole collision and a total rupture of time by simply pulling out a jigsaw puzzle. Time stops for jigsaw puzzles … but then it suddenly accelerates when you look up at the clock.
I wonder if Einstein did jigsaw puzzles.

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