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Saturday, April 4, 2020

How do you open your mail?

How do you open your mail?

This is a loaded question. Answering this question will prove to be an insight into how you’re dealing with Covid-19: are you current on every little bit of virus news? Are you fastidious in your virus avoidance? Have you become a little bit crazy?

I used to just go out to the mailbox, retrieve my mail, bring it into the house, open envelopes with a letter opener, and recycle the envelope and junk mail.

But that was Before.

My siblings and I have been Zooming regularly. Massachusetts, San Francisco, Berlin, and Anchorage are a lot better connected now. (In Germany, they call hoarding “hamstering.”) We share news blips and hints that usually send one or another of us into a tailspin. Like this...

My brother said, “We have post-it notes on the table downstairs near the garage door: Monday, Tuesday, each day. Mail is put next to that day’s post-it, and we have to wait four days until we can open it. I’m staring longingly at my New Yorker right now.”


Oh, no! We’re not supposed to open our mail?!? Our mail is carrying virus?!?

So I read up on it. Apparently, Covid-19 can last on paper products and cardboard for 24 hours. And someone saw a mailman with … bare hands! So now, we retrieve the mail with gloves and leave it outside on the front doorstep for a day.

About the same time, while I was still in quarantine because I’d returned from out-of-state, I was desperate for books. The library had closed with my holds inside, and I could only catch a couple books before Title Wave bookstore closed. So I put out a call for books.

Betsey came by with a book. I told her through the window to just leave it outside on the doorstep. It was a paperback and needed 24 hours to de-viralize. Connie came by with jig saw puzzles. Mary came by with a great assortment of books and spotted the jigsaw puzzles; could she borrow a couple?

“Sure, they’ve been out 24 hours. They’re cardboard and they’re safe now. I’ll put you in the jigsaw puzzle rotation.”

Then Julie came by with a book and Judiths came by with more jigsaw puzzles. (There are two Judiths in the jigsaw puzzle rotation.) I had to stage them so the de-viralized books and puzzles wouldn’t touch the newly-deposited books and puzzles. And yes, I wipe down the hard cover books with wipes. Things were piling up.

My front doorstep is a Trading Post. I manage it from behind glass.

Meanwhile, I had not received my primary ballot and couldn’t download the one from the Internet because our printer is on the fritz. So Connie (a different Connie, not jigsaw-puzzle-Connie) printed the ballot and Diane delivered it to the front door while I was out skiing. She texted, “You have a bunch of stuff on your doorstep! People left books etc.”

I explained this was all very deliberate, that they were awaiting decontamination. The difficulty was that she’d put the ballot in a plastic bag – which can hold the virus for nine days – so was the paper ballot still free after 24 hours or did I have to get it out of the plastic bag first?

These are the Big Questions of life right now.

I’m the same person who doesn’t understand the people who seem to be disinfecting their house A LOT. Tim and I are the only ones here, we rarely go out, but we wash our hands as soon as we enter the house; so why would we have to sanitize our surfaces every day? We’re the only ones touching our doorknobs.

But this just means we’re all going a little bit nuts in our very own personal ways. For me, it’s mail, books, and jigsaw puzzles. For you, it may be doorknobs.

Or laundry. Or someone petting your dog. Or faucets. Or groceries.

Uh, oh – groceries – that’s another one of mine. Lots of ways to go a little bit nuts here.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Philadelphia, here I was...

Just before I left for my annual “urban infusion” month – this time my New Thing would be Philadelphia – my friend Barbara asked, “Do you ever get nervous? Arriving in a place all by yourself?”

Nervous? Not at all. I get catatonic. I vibrate with anxiety. I shake and quake and wonder why I put myself in this position, no one had a gun to my head. Whoever thought it would be “fun” to explore a new Big City on my own?

And that was before I was walking into a virus.

When Barbara and I had our conversation, my big fear was not the train from the airport to Center City, Philadelphia – I already had that covered in my head – it was getting from the train station to the VRBO apartment. Should I try Lyft?
Oh, no! remember how the Lyft guy couldn’t find where you were in Toronto? Three Lyft drivers abandoned you because you weren’t where it said you were?
And what about the VRBO place? Remember the apartment in New York where you walked in and all the mailboxes were vandalized or rusted? Even Barbara said that would be too much for her. Or the place in London; when it got dark, you realized you didn’t know where the light switches were? I called that being unglued and unstuck.
So why do I do this? I do it because it’s fun … ultimately. I think of all those British movies, the ones where a cup of tea cures every ill. They say things like “needs must.” If something has to be done, and you don’t like it, it doesn’t matter: “needs must.” The daunting things have to happen for the fun things to happen later.

And I had LOTS of fun things planned: art workshops, tours, author programs, films, lectures – I voraciously feast on culture. I get LOTS of tickets. For Philadelphia, I had a ticket to hear Hilary Mantel launch the third book in her trilogy, a ticket to the Cashore Marionettes, a ticket for a free book binding workshop, Opening Night of the Jewish Film Festival. I was loaded!

But by the night before my flight, the virus was looming. I was walking into an unknown apartment with no vast pantry of food supplies, no trove of Alaskan camping food or fish in the freezer. What if I were stuck there for 14 days? What if I were stuck all by myself without things that occupy me: books, to-dos, art supplies, clutter? What if I felt as bad as I did after my recent bout with pneumonia?

So I had a Plan B: I would phone my sister Elizabeth and head to her home in Massachusetts. I could do this Philadelphia thing.

Well, of course, NOW we all know how stupid that was.

My usual first step in my Big City adventures is to get a transit pass and head to the public library and get a library card. At the Free Library of Philadelphia, I started a conversation with a librarian: “Which room will the author visit be in?” “I think that’s canceled.” Sure enough, their website marked it as canceled. An hour into my month.


Thus began the onslaught of emails. First were the ones describing how much they were cleaning and sterilizing and providing hand sanitizer. Then came the “wait and see” emails, things were happening. Then the cancellations and closures, but you all have seen this progression, too.

Within two days, every single event I had planned was canceled … and I was stuck in a strange city where I knew no one. I tried to go to a museum, but anxiety stuck in my throat and I thought, “What am I doing?!?”

I called my sister. She came and got me. She rescued me. I am home now in 14-day self-quarantine because I came back into Alaska from out of state. Delta got me home with no change fees, my VRBO landlady refunded my rent, my daughter is in lock-down in San Francisco, and Tim is right here with me. I could kiss the ground.

Right now, I “needs must” stay away from people, wash my hands for 20 seconds, wipe all strange surfaces. I “needs must” reach out to other people in Zoom-y ways, buy take-out to keep restaurants alive, and not touch my face.

This is way more anxiety-producing than arriving in a strange city all by myself, but you’re all arriving in this strange city, too. This time, we’re all traveling together.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Monopoly of the Third Third

Did your Monopoly game have wooden houses and hotels or plastic ones? And are they green and red?

Did your Monopoly have a cannon as a token piece to move around the board? Or an iron? A wheelbarrow? A thimble? And pewter ones, not golden?

Did your Monopoly have yellow Community Chest cards? Were Mediterranean and Baltic purple?

Alas, the Monopoly of our First Third is no more, and not just because of all those variations (Boston-opoly, Big Bang Theory Monopoly, National Parks Monopoly, etc etc etc). Not only is Monopoly now cashless – with plastic debit cards! – but the newest involves voice banking. You press your token’s button and say, “Buy Park Place,” and your bank account is adjusted.

So, I asked, “How do kids learn how to make change without paper money?”

No one uses cash anymore? Oh.

One sister may have the Monopoly game we grew up with, but the box fell apart after all the masking tape holding it together dried up and fell off. Now it’s somewhere in a giant Macy’s gift box.

My Monopoly is a “deluxe” edition: my tokens are golden-colored and I have a steam locomotive, but my houses and hotels are still wooden. I think I requested it as a birthday present one year, but it suffered from two-on-one-itis and fell out of favor. (two-on-one-itis: when the other two greedy, cackling players gang up, make a deal, and leave you with nothing but going round and round until eventual bankruptcy).

During my month in London, I discovered a whole museum exhibition on board games. Monopoly was created in 1904 by Elizabeth Magie as The Landlord’s Game and was designed to illustrate the evils of exploitative landowners (yes, the ones who cackle when you land on their property). It was produced in the U.S. beginning in 1935.

More recently, my friend Steve blogged about playing Monopoly with his granddaughter, and he discovered the cashless version. So that’s what sparked my latest Monopoly investigations.

For example, during World War II, MI6 made a special Monopoly for POWs held by the Nazis. It had maps and compasses and real money hidden inside to help with escape attempts. Wow! And Neiman Marcus once sold a completely chocolate Monopoly – even chocolate money and deeds – for $600.

You can really go down an Internet rabbit hole about Monopoly: “speed dies” and documentaries, world championships and strategic analyses of which properties to buy. Even Monopoly metaphors: Don’t we all know what a “Get Out of Jail Free card” means? Or “Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.” It’s part of our language.


I once thought the most drastic change to Monopoly was when I first played with friends and they did that Free Parking jackpot thing: all the tax revenues get put there for the lucky lander. Well, the Free Parking jackpot has nothing on these variations:
  • Collecting $2 million at GO, not $200
  • Airports instead of railroads
  • Houses, hotels – and skyscrapers
  • Buying brands (not properties) 
I guess if you’ve been around since 1935 – not us! – you need a few makeovers now and then. Think of it this way: Monopoly is actually a great Third Third role model, creatively reinventing itself over and over again.

Yes, but the Monopoly my Third Third remembers will always be that Monopoly of my First Third. And yours?

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Why I Light this Candle

Monday night was my father’s yahrzeit, and I lit a candle.

He died in 1980 on the 23rd day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, February 10th by the American/Gregorian calendar. Since the Hebrew calendar follows a lunar month, the date shifts around every year, and I have to check each year to find out when Shevat 23 lands.

The candle is a special candle that burns for about 26 hours. I light it at sundown the night before his yahrzeit and I say Kaddish, a Hebrew prayer of mourning. Then I take a photo and send it to my siblings and my daughter.
My brother replied: “Saying kaddish? Praying? Do you guys do that? Is the religious aspect of Judaism important to you all? Do you believe in the Jewish God? Or any god?”

These are all good questions. I only started lighting the candle a couple years ago, so why exactly do I do it?

First, there’s the God part. I have a physicist’s view of the universe. Einstein and Hawking and Feynman and Thorne are my source material, and while I marvel at the amazing answers science has been able to provide, I am in awe of the unanswered questions. The mystery is what thrills me, the unknowable (so far). That mystery is what I might feel God-like (or physicist-like?) about.


So that really doesn’t have anything to do with “belief.” Or “higher powers” or the usual ideas about God. Prayer is a melody, not a request or a hope. It doesn’t do anything.

So if I’m not lighting the candle for God; am I doing it for Dad? Well, Dad is dead, and he has no idea I’m lighting any candle. I also tend to skip the part about telling stories about him, remembering him, reflecting on him. My Dad had a difficult childhood with ideas of parenting I have since rejected, but I made my peace with him. So I don’t think I’m lighting the candle specifically for my Dad (even though it’s his yahrzeit).

I am lighting the candle because I am part of a line. Other people lit candles for parents and grandparents and I am a daughter and it’s my turn in the line.

I didn’t really understand this line until I had a daughter. She was named for my grandmother, but she extended my line into the future. That’s a really earth-shaking realization – a total transformation of reality – and once you’re extended into the future, your link to the past is cemented, too. In our Third Thirds, it all seems so much clearer. That past comes with tradition, history, and ritual. In my pick-and-choose way, I pick the candle ritual.

In my case, the tradition is Judaism. This is what I believe: whatever you are, however you identify yourself, you have to be it wholeheartedly. You have to affirm it, learn about it, be proud of it, espouse it. At the same time, you have to enjoy that everyone else is affirming, espousing, and proud of what they are. If we don’t do that, we all become just white bread.

Ursula K. LeGuin wrote a fascinating book called The Lathe of Heaven. The protagonist has “effective” dreams, meaning they actually alter reality. A psychiatrist tries to steer his dreams to solve world problems, such as racism. But as dreams work, George dreams that everyone is now gray … and his girlfriend no longer exists. Being black was such a powerful part of her identity, she couldn’t exist in a gray world.

A gray world, a white bread world, is a world I don’t want to live in. I want big, vibrant African-Americans; big, vibrant Puerto Ricans; big, vibrant Norwegians (recognizing that might not be their style…), etc. etc. And my contribution to this is as a Jew.

So this is why I light the yahrzeit candle: I am reaffirming my place in the Jewish line of my grandparents, my father, my family, and my daughter. I am honoring them and our tradition, and I am being who I am. That’s all.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The Illness Lesson

In a very smart move for our emotional health, Tim and I scheduled our annual trip to sunshine. This time, we were headed to Puerto Rico to add our dollars to their hurricane- and earthquake-ravaged economy. For its part, Puerto Rico would add its many hours of daylight to our psyches.


So why did I pick a three-leg return flight with an 8-hour layover in Philadelphia?!?

It could be any number of stupid reasons:
  • It was the one that “popped up” on the website
  • It was cheaper or took less miles
  • I thought, “Oh, we can take the SEPTA train into Center City and see a museum. I can check out Philadelphia for an urban infusion month. It’ll be like two vacations in one.” Was I delirious??
So after we were blissfully relaxed in Puerto Rico, we had to be at the San Juan airport at 4:30 a.m. for our 4½-hour flight to Philadelphia. An irritating little cough started on the plane, the kind that just tickles and doesn’t go away. A “non-productive” cough. We got off in drizzly, gray Philadelphia, got onto the train, made it easily to the Museum of the American Revolution. But somewhere around Washington’s Tent (the actual!), I was flagging. Sagging. We bought cough drops.
And then we had to get back on a plane for another six hours to Seattle. By now, the whole plane was coughing. I kept thinking of Japan, of people kindly wearing masks so they wouldn’t infect others. And then, at a pivotal point in my misery, I thought, What would I pay to not be on this flight?

Later, Sophie would tell me that she’s figured she’d pay $200 to get out of a horrible itinerary, but when she’s purchasing her ticket, she’s pleased with herself for “saving” $200. Note to self: I’m not 25 anymore. A penny saved may be a torture created.

In Seattle, I paid $1 a pill for Advil (because I’d checked medications so I wouldn’t have to carry them around Philadelphia museums…) Way back when we were taking Lamaze classes many years ago, I thought, “I’m a distance runner. I can handle anything if I know there’s an end in sight to pain.” Then the instructor gave us clothespins to clamp on our ears, and I thought my head would spin off from the pain. That flight was like those clothespins.
I am a wuss. This is only the second time I’ve been sick. The other time was when I caught bronchitis 25 years ago. Mostly, I think sick people failed to get their flu shots or … lack some moral fiber. Yes, I know that is totally ungenerous and lacking in compassion. It’s a serious deficiency in my human development, but I guess my current state is a reflection of my own lack of moral fiber.

Twenty-five hours from when we started in San Juan, we made it home. Since then – many days – I’ve been on the couch. My cough is now very “productive” and my body aches so much even my skin aches. If my hair flops from one side to the other, my scalp hurts.

Puerto Rico is a distant memory. I’ll have to reflect on it later. I’m not sure I remember it. So what have I learned?
  • I am very, very lucky to have a home that comes with a husband, a couch, a heating pad, a big blanket, Netflix, many library books, a teakettle, and a medicine cabinet.
  • I shouldn’t plan something that requires marathon strength. Planning should default to a higher comfort level; save the marathon strength for an unanticipated emergency.
  • I am very, very lucky to have a home that comes with a husband, a couch, a heating pad, a big blanket, Netflix, many library books, a teakettle, and a medicine cabinet.
  • Don’t put the Advil in the checked baggage.
  • I am very, very lucky to have a home that comes with a husband, a couch, a heating pad, a big blanket, Netflix, many library books, a teakettle, and a medicine cabinet.
So I guess I got more out of a trip to Puerto Rico than I thought.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Resolution Rebellion

I refused to make any New Year’s Resolutions. I don’t know if it’s cynicism or laziness, but I just wouldn’t. In my Third Third, I’ve been through 60+ attempts to codify being a Better Barbara. No, 120+ attempts: I have the Jewish New Year, too. And while there’s something gratifying about envisioning ways to be a Better Barbara, this year’s Barbara just rebelled.

Resolutions are the skirmish in my war of “feel like it” versus discipline, my continuing Third Third battle. At first, when I subtracted shoulds from my life – no more waking up to go to work, no more external demands on my time – I unleashed tremendous energy for my wants. But eventually, that tremendous energy faded and to-dos reasserted themselves.

Three years ago, I wrote here that I was excited about my new brand of resolution: baby steps. I was, for example, going to do just 50 sets of squats in the whole year. And it was also here, that I reaffirmed, “if nothing changes, nothing changes.”


So why haven’t I changed? Have I become a stick-in-the-mud in my Third Third, an old fogy? Am I [horrors!] set in my ways???

I can actually think about doing squats – like right now – and not stand up and do them. It’s not that I hate doing squats; it’s not that they’re painful or uncomfortable or even just unpleasant. It’s just that I don’t feel like doing them.


I’d set a Goodreads goal of reading 75 books in 2019. I ended up reading 102. Wow! Hooray! But that’s because reading is a socially acceptable way to do just what I want and dodge shoulds at the same time.

Another resolution – writing thank you notes – actually worked. I designed pretty note cards out of pressed, dried leaves, and I was actually excited to mail them out. Now why did that one work? It combined creativity (the art for the cards was a New Thing) with feeling kind with being do-able. A big win! I’ve pressed more leaves.

Once, Tim and I made resolutions as if it were a year later and we were looking back on the year. So we’d say things like, “It’s 2021, and we’re glad we took a road trip through the South in 2020.” We didn’t look at the resolution as a plan but as an accomplishment. We didn’t have the stress of a to-do but rather the satisfaction of a done. That actually worked, too.

This is what I would like to look back on 2020 and see: that I tackled a big challenge and did it. Not the little challenges of getting a meal on the table or a mile swum. Not even the challenge of arranging another urban infusion month in a big city, but a Big Challenge. Something tough but not too scary; one Chilkoot Trail is enough.

I have to make sure I outfox my grand pianos, the weights that plague me psychologically, so it has to feel rewarding. It has to touch some deeper chord in me, keep me mentally healthy. It has to be a should wrapped in want clothing.


Stop, stop, STOP! It’s a few weeks later and I just re-read that last line. (I also just re-read the Big Challenge I’d set for myself – and deleted it.) Why do I even have a should that has to be disguised to be palatable? Is there some hierarchy of value that puts shoulds at the top? Am I assigning medicine to myself that I have to force myself to take?

I am not a discipline writer; I am a feel-like-writing writer. I am a feel-like-painting painter. I am a feel-like-skiing skier and a feel-like-swimming swimmer. When those activities feel good, I’m happy. But making a disciplined rule or schedule for them just ices my soul.

Yes, I know that sets the stage for ordinary, for failure to master, for no improvement. Chasing whim sets the stage for “flaky.” I once decided that my goal in cross-country skiing was explicitly to remain mediocre, that after a lifetime of aiming for excellence, I wanted one activity that would just stop at mediocre. A friend called it remaining “happy intermediate.”

I think, in my Third Third, Happy Intermediate is a nice goal for a lot of things. So this will have to be my resolution:
    Happy Intermediate is, by definition, happy. Enjoy it.
That’s all.


Sunday, January 5, 2020

Is it hoarding if you're organized?

This is such an anti-resolution post.

First, it’s not what I intended to write about resolutions in our Third Third. I’ll have to get to that later. And second, it flies in the face of all the de-cluttering I’ve resolved to do.

It started with an assignment to create a Volunteer Survey for OLÉ, our mostly all-volunteer nonprofit. There are always tasks to be done and maybe there are willing volunteers out there. How to find them and appeal to them?

I’ve done a lot with volunteers – recruiting, coordinating, and being one – and I have a lot of thoughts on how to value them, recognize them, incorporate them. I was once even the keynote speaker at the Golden Heart Awards.

But what I remembered was creating a Volunteer Survey for Denali Elementary School. It was a really good survey, so my first stop was my computer.

I searched in all my folders: Volunteering, Denali K-8, School District. I used the little Mac searchlight (spotlight?) thing over and over again. (I imagined her saying, “Enough already! It’s not here.” And besides, even if I found it, I bet its Microsoft Word would have that funny black “exec” icon that means my current Microsoft Word can’t read it.
[Aside: is there a cure for that??? Do I just watch my files slip slowly into oblivion? Is that Microsoft’s way of forcing me to de-clutter?]

I can clearly visualize the survey: I’d done it on letter-size paper, but folded it the long way, so it opened vertically. With columns and little check boxes. We printed it on hot pink paper.


That moved me to the file cabinets in the laundry room. I searched high and low. Didn’t I have a file on Volunteerism? Or was it subsumed under Civic Engagement? Or School District? Or even Speeches? I’m sure Volunteerism is somewhere. Where?!?

So then I went to my friend, Margie, who had been on the Denali Committee with me. I described the survey, the hot pink color. I hoped she had better files than I did. And this is what she said:
Oh I am sorry Barbara! I would usually have this sort of thing but I finally got rid of all my Denali paper, even, gasp, the state raffle paperwork and all the losing tickets, some time ago. Don’t you hate redoing something when you are sure you did a better job the first time? Good luck, Margie
She saved losing tickets???

But yes, she hit the nail on the head: I was sure I did a better job the first time. It’s the same feeling when I end up deleting something in error and have to re-create. It’s like a bad copy of a copy.

So this morning, I attacked the file cabinets again. If it wasn’t in my files, maybe it was in my “Sophie Files.” I have all the fascinating things she created: the Kindergarten folder, the 1st Grade folder, the 2nd Grade folder, etc. etc. all the way to Graduation. I keep meaning to have her go through them and de-clutter, but she doesn’t even know they exist. They’re my little secret stash of clutter.


And then, in the 1st Grade folder, in between her How Plants Make Food report, How to Tell Time handmade book, and certificate for TV-Turnoff Week 1999, was the Survey!


Oh, yikes! I feel like I’ve just outed myself as a hoarder! Am I still a hoarder if my files are neatly arranged and have plastic tabs identifying them?

But it doesn’t matter: I have the Survey! And yes, it is good. It asks whether someone “vants to work alone” or is a cheerful worker bee: “Give me a copy machine and I’ll stand in front of it.” Do they want short and sweet projects, to run the show or follow directions, to make fun or make money?

I told Margie I’d found it, and she replied, “This is the kind of thing that keeps one from throwing anything out.”

Moral of this story: A successful Find is a de-cluttering Setback. But a successful Find is a Jump-Up-and-Down-Happy-Dance with a Smile on your Face and a Hooray in Your Heart!

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