Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Silver Linings

As the pandemic winds down – or so we think – leaving many dead, many long-sick, the rich richer and the poor poorer, and me with my social skills fractured; I have to admit to a silver lining. Doesn’t that sound callous? I think so. But some people might call it “looking on the bright side,” which is yet another example of my social confusion.

Anyhow, way back at the beginning, when I was in Philadelphia for my “urban infusion” month interrupted by Covid, my sister Elizabeth rescued me. She drove down from Massachusetts and retrieved me. As the reality of pandemic hit us, Elizabeth was especially nervous because she lives alone. I promised her that I would not let her feel unsupported; I would check in on her every week.

And I have.

And I even went the extra step: I included my brother, Larry.

My brother once said powerful glue held all of us together. And then, ten years ago, I stopped speaking to him. Oh, he was still cc’d on sibling emails, but no visits, no phone calls, no private emails, no contact. The glue was dissolved. The siblings were in disarray.

So disruptive was this wound that we kept it from my mother. My mother died feeling that her legacy – four kids who would stick together no matter what – was intact. It wasn’t. I spoke to my brother for the first time at her funeral. In between, I’d manage the “I can’t get away” excuse when the family gathered.

So what did he do? Never mind. To me, it was very, very big.

But I’d made a promise to Elizabeth and now it was Covid time, and there was Zoom. So the siblings – all four of us – started Zooming every Sunday: noon Alaska time, 1:00 California time, 4:00 Massachusetts time, and 10 p.m. Berlin time.


Every Sunday. Except when that was impossible, so then it was Monday. One friend called it “sacrosanct.” Yup. Every Sunday.

For two or more hours.

I suffer Zoom fatigue. No, I suffer Zoom hate. I can’t stand looking at faces in little boxes, sitting erect in front of my computer, having people talk over each other, etc etc. I have a Zoom limit of an hour (if I’m generous).

But I can Zoom with my siblings for HOURS. This is what we do: we laugh, we tease, we agree or disagree, we try not to give advice, we get tired, we prattle on meaninglessly, we comfort, we talk movies and books, we listen.

At one point, Larry held up a stapler. Immediately, Elizabeth held one up, too. “I got it from Mom; she got it from her office.” Someone else got theirs the same way. I held up mine: “I got it when I was little and it turns out it had a lifetime guarantee, so I got a new one about twenty years ago.” “Who gives a lifetime guarantee on staplers?” And off we went, proving to Larry that we could talk about anything.

Anytime Allison’s eyes start looking down, we know she’s researching something. She’s relentless. So sometimes, when we see that, we all “stop video.” She looks up to see us all gone. “Where is everybody?”

Once one of us pulled out the masks we got on a family vacation in New England. Back then, we had spent an uproarious time in the general store trying on masks, hooting and freaking out. Amazingly, now, each of us then disappeared off-screen and returned with our own masks – even in the same general store bags. We spent an hour, carrying on in masks, disguises, costumes.

After several months, I told my brother I forgave him.

I started with the sibling Zooms as a gift to Allison and Elizabeth, knowing that they needed all of us together, but I was wrong. These sibling Zooms are a gift to me.

Yes, I know all those sayings like, “Anger does more damage to the vessel in which it is stored than the object on which it is poured,” but I’d felt wronged.

How wrong I was. I might have called this post Pearl of Wisdom #3 except that I’m too slow a learner. I don’t feel very wise. I feel foolish and stubborn. I needed a 2x4 to the head; I needed a pandemic!

Life is short. Love is long. I love my siblings, all of them. Thank you, Covid. Thank you, Zoom.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

The Quest for New-ness #5

When I first started this blog, I was really intent on my Quest for New-ness. On my website, my New Thing label has 84 posts, more than any other. I described it this way:

If I don’t want to get stale in my Third Third, I need newness. I need jolts and shake-ups. Actually, my whole life has been about wanting and liking jolts and shake-ups, but the difference is that now I feel I need them to ward off any encroaching stagnation.

And that was even before the relentless staleness of Covid-19.

So here I am after days weeks months of same-old-same-old. But then we got vaccinated and Tim announced, “Off to Maui!” which jolted me so badly I had to hide for a while. But I emerged, boarded the plane, and traded Alaska snow and cold for Maui sun and heat.

This is the thing about sun and heat: you can lie down in it, you walk around in shorts and tank tops in it, you put sunscreen on in it. You maybe stay indoors during the hottest part of it, but mostly you are breathing air-that-has-not-been-in-four-walls – outside air! You do that for most of the day. It’s kind of miraculous.

But you still have to eat, you still have to acquire food and do something with it – cook it or order it or look at a menu about it. You still have to take showers and wash your hair. You still have to brush your teeth. You still have to put dirty clothes in the dirty-laundry bag.

You still have to wake up and go to sleep. You still have to decide what you’re going to do today: hike or beach or pool? You still have to get in a car that you’ll drive to wherever you might want to sightsee. The car will still need gas. If you read a book, you still have to open it and turn the pages.

Do you see where I’m going here? Most of our days repeat most of our days no matter where we are. And if you’re suffering from too much routine and the psychologists report an emotional state of “languishing,” then you just might not be getting the New-ness your spirit requires.

I grew up on Long Island, so I grew up on water. Beaches and pools. During those sticky, humid days, water was our sanity, our pleasure, and our thrill. I would body surf till my scalp was covered in sand, till I carried loads of sand in my swimsuit. The town pool was daily until my friends got driver’s licenses, then the beach became a daily after work option. I am better in water than on land.

And on Maui, the water is delightful. You can swim in it and play around in it, but it’s very shallow. The thing you can’t do is body surf in it. You just can’t grab a wave and let it take your body over a four-inch surf. That must be why everyone is holding a boogie board, which I don’t quite get: is it like a toy? A baby surfboard?

One of the new things on this trip was staying in a condo. We’d never done that. In this condo was a supply closet with beach chairs and beach mats, umbrellas and towels, flippers and wet suits. And boogie boards. It was like a personal summertime R.E.I.

So we took the boogie boards to the beach. Let me tell you about boogie boarding!

I stood out there, holding the board in front of me. I know my waves; I picked a good one at the right time, threw myself forward on the board.

And I flew!       I was a bullet, flying through the water or the air or whatever it was! 

I was on top of the whole world 

until the wave disappeared below me and dropped me down – free fall! – to the next wave which caught me and took me to shore

where the next wave positively drove me up the beach on two inches of water and sand.

Aaaiiieeee! It was incredible!

When the water went out, the board was buried in sand and I had to dig it out.

I woke up.

That’s it: my fog lifted and light emerged. It wasn’t the adrenaline rush of risk (I gave up terror after the Chilkoot Trail), and no fear was involved in this at all: we’re talking shallow shore breaks. It was the sheer delight of New-ness. A brand-new experience had entered my life, charged new neurons, ignored the same-old-same-old.

Finally, an 85th New Thing!

Sunday, April 4, 2021

The Elusiveness of Normal

I’m not sure I can be normal again.

I’m fully vaccinated, about to leave 29° snow behind for a vacation in Maui, and these are my thoughts: Should I take some calming medication before sitting on a crowded airplane with a mask on for five hours? This is a plane where everyone has had to have a negative Covid test within 72 hours, but that’s not it.

I’m not scared of Covid; I’m scared of realizing that normal is no longer possible.

I look back at the past year; I’ve made a family recipe art book, tackled art projects, organized an online theater-watching group, read a bazillion books. I even was incredibly excited about getting a chocolate-dipped ice cream pop!

But now, I wake up adrift. Plans don’t excite me. I’m sick of snow, sick of skiing, sick of Netflix, sick of cooking, sick of grocery store pickup ordering, sick of my computer. I started posting poetry on signs on my yard, and now I’m sick of poetry. Sometimes I actually don’t feel like reading, which is truly cataclysmic. Vaccination has been like spotting a finish line and totally sagging before you cross it.


We just restarted our athletic club membership so I could swim again … and I haven’t gone. I’m not worried about catching Covid at the club, not worried about germs. I’m worried that swimming won’t feel good.

Early on in my Third Third, I discovered the Big Three that were necessary for a happy Third Third:

Without teaching at the Alaska Literacy Program, without in-person classes with OLÉ, my days have become sort of adrift. My ability to adapt has petered out. The only schedule I have is on the computer: a writing class, author interviews, recorded theater. Only occasionally am I “of use.” My community is on Zoom.

Our daughter quit her first job, one she had loved. For the last year, I characterized our phone calls as her trying to convince herself she was happy with her job. She faced workplace issues complicated by working remotely, and she was valiant in framing things positively, but her heart was no longer in it. It became just too hard and she quit. Hooray! She radiates happiness now. I’m a big supporter of eliminating negative conditions quickly and decisively.

But the ones I’m in – the ones we’re all in – just aren’t quickly and decisively going away, and I’m losing the ability to convince myself that “X will be fun; let’s do X!” Or even “I feel like doing X.” Or even “X has to be done, suck it up and do it.” I don’t suck it up anymore; I just drift.

I know that my negative conditions don’t include illness or death, job loss, or eviction – as many people’s do – and I’m grateful for that. I know that the snow I’m sick of covers a yard I may appreciate when the snow melts. For goodness sake, I’m heading to Maui! (stop whining!) But I also know that the Big Three for a happy Third Third have been disrupted, and it will take time to re-create the Third Third that works for me.

We’ve had our first fully-vaccinated guests for dinner, been guests for the first time in someone else’s fully-vaccinated home. Both those times felt just like the old normal once we were in them. Really. But they took some psychic lifting to actually do them. They’re still not a new normal.

We may have landed in this pandemic suddenly, but I think we’re going to have to lift ourselves out of it with baby steps.


Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Collateral Damage

My inanimate objects are suffering from Covid-19, and it’s not just my car. The latest victim: my beanbag chairs.

Yes, yes, I know: nobody has beanbag chairs anymore. Nobody in their Third Third. Nobody who has trouble getting up once they’ve gotten down. I have that trouble, too. But when the TV proved too hard to see all the way from the couch, it was easier to drag the beanbags out into the middle of the floor, closer to the TV. 

(Why do they insist on using text messages on detective shows? You have to race for the pause button and get right up to the TV to see what crucial bit of information the detective has just received.) 

But now – compliments of Netflix and Prime and Hulu, Disney+ and HBO Max and PBS Passport – the beanbags are pretty squashed and flattened. I’m not sitting on beans anymore; I’m sitting on floor.

I sewed my first giant-size beanbag chairs back when I had my first apartment. They have a muslin lining so I can wash the outside, and there have been many iterations of the outside as they wore out, were faded by the sun, or just got tired. Now the outsides are fine; it’s the insides that have Covid.

The issue is the filling: Styrofoam pellets. They start out round and roly-poly, but they flatten. Then you have to add more. That was easier in the ’70s. Since then, it’s been a challenge.

I filled my first beanbag chair in Berkeley, California. I’d driven there in my little Datsun and stuffed it full, really FULL. It was like an early version of air bags, I guess, but as if they’d already exploded. I ended up spending the night, and when my friend Jenny saw the car the next morning, she marveled that no junkies had broken in thinking it was some incredible bounty of drugs.

When I lived in San Francisco and my brother worked the early a.m. shift as a trolley coach driver, he used to show up at my place, settle in the beanbag chair in the sun, and fall asleep. So when he turned 50, I made him a beanbag chair and flew down to San Francisco in September 2001 with a bag and liner. I called all around and discovered a plastics place for the pellets.

The thing about filling beanbag chairs is that Styrofoam pellets have static. They stick to the plastic bag you’re emptying, to your hair, your clothes, to the bag you’re putting them in. We looked like a popcorn popper had run amuck with us inside it.

Once the bag was filled, planes flew into the World Trade Centers and my sister-in-law buried herself in the beanbag chair in front of the television. It was comforting: beanbag chairs hug back. She liked it. She said, “This is nice. You’ll have to make one for your brother some day.”

But now I have Netflix-flattened beanbag chairs, which means a Quest, a Quest for Pellets. I’ve been led on wild goose chases to Fred Meyer, Walmart, a bigger Walmart, a different Fred Meyer. Salespeople say, “Oh, yes, that’s in Crafts.” Crafts say, “We haven’t had them in years.” Salespeople in the front of the store have seen the pellets in the back of the store, but that is only a figment of their imagination. This happens in every store.

The Quest moves online, where – no, no, no! I’ve done this before! – I lose myself in the customer reviews of pellets.

This is too much complexity for my Covid brain. The floor is just fine.

Friday, January 22, 2021

My Car/My Covid Self

My car and I are experiencing Covid in parallel. Not “together” because mostly, I don’t go anywhere so I don’t drive anywhere, but we’re still tied up with each other, both liberating and traumatizing each other.

Sophie tells us that the Covid experience is markedly different if (1) you have a backyard and (2) you have a car. I am incredibly grateful to have both. So my car meant I could Get Out and About. I was free! Thank you, car.


I’ve already explained here that this is a car with gizmos, that it has “features” that are supposed to enhance my driving experience. That’s what happens when you replace a 1998 car with a 2017 car.

One of the “features” of this car is that it goes dead. When I go away for a month, it is dead when I return. But with Covid, the car was going dead every other time I got in it. We were Tim was constantly jumping it.

When I take my car into the repair shop, I tell them I am a woman who mostly drives alone, so it’s up to them to make sure my car will NEVER break down, never leave me vulnerable in some dark, deserted place. That works. I have only had very reliable cars.

Until mine started going dead. A lot. Mostly, it went dead in the garage, but then it went dead at the grocery store.

Barbara/Car Covid Parallel: Both of us are having trouble leaving the house. No matter how much we may want to be part of the world, we’re retreating. We just don’t go.

Apparently, according to the battery man, I have to drive my car enough for it to recharge the battery. Driving it once a week, maybe to the grocery store five minutes away for pickup is not enough. I have to drive it at least eleven miles.

Barbara/Car Covid Parallel: It seems that neither of us is getting enough exercise.

So I take a Big Excursion to Target, which is only 7.3 miles away, but I stop at the library and keep the car running during curbside pickup, so I think that counts. I happily find birthday cards for my sister … and in the parking lot, my car is dead as a doornail. It is dark, cold, and far from home.

Barbara/Car Covid Parallel: We are both traumatized, paralyzed with anxiety.

I ask the friendly Channel 2 News anchorman who has unluckily parked next to me if he would jump my car. I pull out my handy dandy jumper cable case with the instructions on the outside.

Nothing doing. I phone Tim and stand in the now-vacant space next to my car, waving away all the other people who want that space and who think I am an asshole. I explain and one guy offers to jump it.

 “No, thank you, my husband is on his way.” (I want my husband!)

Tim conquers 7.3 miles of rush-hour and bad weather, arrives, hooks up the cables, and sits with his engine running, giving my car an infusion of energy. I vibrate.

Barbara/Car Covid Parallel: Little by little, both of us calm down and can now direct our nervous energy toward Getting Home. We can start. The clock in the car is now two hours behind. I am not sure what day it is; my car is not sure what time it is.

Once home, Tim says, “Tomorrow we can take your car in.”

Barbara/Car Covid Parallel: Now that we are safe in the garage and safe at home – kissing the ground! – we are not leaving.

Days go by, and I eventually take the car into my trusty Subaru mechanic. J-T tells me that these newer cars have so many security features and special electronics, that they are always draining energy. The little red light that’s always blinking is the sign that the car is monitoring itself. If you don’t drive it enough, it won’t recharge enough to be able to start up.

Barbara/Car Covid Parallel: I am constantly ruminating over every little issue, monitoring my mental health and my awkward social interactions. Now I know that my car is doing the same thing! Are my fluid levels good, what about my tire pressure? Did I embarrass myself on that Zoom call, how can I feel purposeful again?

But J-T has a solution: he installs a little Battery Minder in my car. Kept plugged in, it sends a little trickle of energy to my car while it sleeps. My well-rested car is now happy and eager to start up and go.

I need a Battery Minder.

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