Diary 17

Saturday, April 4th

Today will go down in my memory (and perhaps in the memories of others) as the day when the White House experts declared that wearing surgical masks was something that we should all do. Seconds later, in front of those experts, Trump stepped forward and said that he wasn’t going to do it.

I think that sums up the confusion, the misinformation, the arrogance and the criminal cluelessness of this administration, to date.

Since there are no surgical masks to be had, my wife continued to make ours out of colorful materials. They look rather fine, and only await some elastic, which is an item that also seems to be on the endangered list since our local shop is closed. The stitching process was held up temporarily because the sewing machine, long unused, refused to function. This led to me breaking out the toolkit and getting to work. I mean, what else was I going to do? I’ve never dismantled a sewing machine before, and goodness, those things are complicated. Lots of little, delicate brass gears and nickel-plated thingies, and items that I swear have no name and no use, but are in there anyway. I think, after this go-round, that MacGuyver has serious competition. I was flushed with my success. Perhaps now I can jury-rig a ventilator? 

One of our very dear friends in Holland saw from yesterday’s post that we were making masks and asked if they were for a festive occasion or perhaps a theatrical event? I felt surprisingly sad when had to say that, no, these were not really designed as creative expressions of joyous spontaneity.

And perhaps that was the hint I needed. Creativity is usually the antidote to gloom, despair and malaise. What we may need to do for ourselves right now is to take joy in a creative task. Start small, I’d suggest. Rearrange your living space a little. Repaint a wall or some piece of furniture. Draw just for the heck of it. Repot that plant you’ve been scowling at for a couple of weeks. If you can get out, do something in the garden. The pictures are of what some local kids did with their sidewalk, if you need inspiration. Or – and this is my particular favorite – write an old-fashioned hand-written missive to someone, and draw funny doodles in the margins, on the envelope, and wherever you can. Go on.  You know you can do this. 

And you’ll be amazed how good it feels.

Diary 16

Friday, April 3rd.

Another day, another lovely Zoom call from old friends, with plenty of hilarity.  I think we’re all so relieved and happy to see each other that laughter at every joke comes exceptionally easily. 

But then, perhaps we needed it more today. We made the not-so-great decision to head to a grocery that has lots of good fresh vegetables, and it wasn’t really an edifying event.  The aisles were too small for people to maintain the 6 foot distance, and because people were buying more and there were no baggers, the lines were very long at the check-out, backing up into the store itself. I’m not sure why so many people are shopping. Logically, the population is the same and we’re all eating about the same, so there should be no change.  I can only assume that we all decided to go shopping for a whole week’s worth of stuff at the same time.  But I’ve yet to find the ‘down’ times. The emptier the store, the lower the risk, I’d guess?

Meanwhile it turns out that some parts of the US, the South especially, seem to be ignoring the whole stay-at-home order. Places like Mississippi and Alabama seem to have governors who simply don’t think it’s a good idea to tell the population what they need to know. Since these states have some of the higher levels of poverty one shudders to think what the outcome will be. Still, perhaps we can snag their ventilators now, as they don’t seem to think they’ll need them? (Sorry for the cynicism).

Some of the days ahead will be grim.  Our favorite restaurants and stores may not ever reopen. With rents to pay and employees to look after they may simply go broke. People will suffer. Some of those people will be our nearest and dearest.

Once again, scanning the social media, I see a vast amount of fear. We are right to be afraid. We are right to take steps to protect ourselves. And we are wrong if we let that fear take us over. We can do our bit by remaining calm, by not panic buying, and by allowing our calmness to affect others. That’s a different type of infection; an infection of caring, compassion and of patience. 

Diary 15

Thursday, April 2nd

Today’s highlights included a virtual dinner of great hilarity with our Canadian friends. We always laugh when we get together - and laughter is truly what’s needed these days.

It was also a day when my wife decided she’d make face masks, since we can’t seem to find any in the stores that can be delivered before the end of the month. I’m looking forward with eager anticipation to the floral item she’s chosen for me. I hope it’ll go well with the rest of my ensemble.

Another aspect of this whole drama emerged when my wife checked our grocery orders. On Tuesday she’d placed an order at a local store and after a frustrating half hour discovered that the groceries had a delivery date of Friday.  Oh well.  We can wait, I thought.  Then today she checked again only to discover that Friday meant Friday April 17th.  An 18 day wait seemed a little excessive. We canceled our order.

But when I first heard this my initial reaction was to want to shout ‘ridiculous!’ Following closely on this was the thought, “I don’t want to have to live like this!”  But then I recognized what a shabby and horribly entitled response I was having. Really? I can’t wait a few days for my favorite fruit and veg? Of course I can.  There are people out there giving their lives in this fight, and I feel I can complain? No. I have no grounds for that.

Diary 14

Wednesday April 1st

I felt a strange sense of disconnection with the usual silliness that one expects of April 1st. Although I have to say that the squirrels, who resolutely ate or dug up my carefully planted bulbs, seem to have reburied some of them in odd places.  The result is a delicious tulip in the middle of the otherwise barren vegetable patch. The joke is on me, I suppose; I’m not complaining.

Another quiet and calm day unfolded. A brief, socially-distanced chat with our friend and neighbor lightened the mood. He’s facing his second cancer surgery in a few days, and although respectful of the covid-19 rules he is not about to give in to fear and panic. He’s cheerful and optimistic – in direct contrast to so much of what I see on social media.

So today I’ll make a plea: Don’t whip yourselves up with fear, people. It doesn’t do any good, and it makes everyone feel worse. Respect the heroic work being done by so many, and see if you can help. If not (and that seems to be true for many of us) then accept that we may be doing something good just by staying positive. Be calm and try to bring calm to others.

Diary 13

Tuesday, March 31st

Today this gentleman came down our street. The mellifluous and restrained tones of his sousaphone preceded him, and brought a few of us out onto our porches in appreciation.  He didn’t say anything, neither did his companion, but we got the message. Life is as it is and there’s a music in us and in Nature that reminds us to smile. Who could look at that decorated instrument and not smile?

In a day when there were no other visitors to our home - except the mailman sprinting along, looking hunted - this contribution was doubly precious.

Diary 12

Monday, March 30th

One of the things that we’re all up against right now is the lack of reliable information. So let’s just think about that for a moment.

Humans create an identity for themselves in many ways; these are not trivial.  Let’s list them: we see ourselves as people with preferences; with friends and connections; with jobs; and within a culture or society that we hope is more or less stable. We also have belief systems, whether they be political or religious.

The current situation has undermined all of these seriously.

We may know who we are when we wake up each morning, but because we can no longer do much shopping we have had to curtail our preferences in ways that, for many people, are important. For many people getting up, choosing clothes, getting ready for the outside world, and then getting into one’s car to go and do things - all these represent rather important rituals of self-recognition.

We are locked down, so we cannot structure our days in the same ways we did before all this. We cannot go out to our usual activities.

We cannot see our friends or connections easily. Electronic media is a great help, but it isn’t quite the same. 

Many of us now have no jobs to go to. This is a heavy below for most of us in the USA, where jobs are part of our identity. Since this also means that some people have less money than before (who am I kidding? – we ALL have less money than before), the hit to self-esteem can be huge.

As for the benefits of a stable culture, that seems to be teetering. Surely it has not yet collapsed, but the sense is of some folks in some parts of the US doing one thing and those in another part of the US doing something very different in response to this virus. This is a direct result of a leadership vacuum. No one in power is taking responsibility. The President may hold briefings every day, but they are wildly contradictory (and anyway, most people don’t believe him).

Belief in a political or religious structure that makes sense is, consequently, not very strong, with allowances made for small pockets of those who think they have ‘the answer’.

The virus has stripped away many of the comforting illusions of our time.  No wonder so many people are scared.

What we can do, though, is replace the things we’ve lost with a sense of the basic decency, even the heroism, of so many of our fellow citizens. The people who continue to work in dangerous situations (doctors, nurses, even those running food stores), and do so knowing that they are at risk, are an inspiration to us all. Let us not give in to fear and panic based on the latest sketchy information from demonstrably unreliable social media. That’s such a helpless way to use our energies. Let’s recognize the nobility of our fellow humans, and face this challenge with courage and intelligence. 

And above all else, let us mobilize our patience and our love.

Diary 11

Sunday March 29th

Posting pictures of one’s favorite home-prepared dinner on social media, which is what I found myself doing today, is not truly frivolous. It was my way of saying, take care of yourselves, people. It was a gentle exhortation to get creative in the kitchen, to make something that gives pleasure, to raise the spirits. For those who live alone I’m sure that’s challenge, which is why we arranged to do a virtual dinner with our friends and ‘share’ said meal. It wasn’t as good as all being round the same table, of course, but one does what one can and it was good.

The conversation, of course, could not stay away from the corona virus. The president has said that 100,000 deaths would be a really good outcome, and I’m reminded that the Vietnam war claimed about half that number of US lives, spread out over a span of years. I wonder what planet this president thinks he’s living on. He has now removed restrictions on industrial pollution. I’m not sure how that helps, either.

A friend of mine from way back says he wishes, now, he’d been more reckless in his life. All that careful attending to laws and making sure one had a job and a salary and a pension – it all seems rather pointless now, he says. I certainly have sympathy with that feeling.  My efforts to do my taxes yesterday feel like an attempt to do decorous flower arrangements while a forest fire roars towards us.

The thing to remember above all is that most of those who are sick will live, many will not get sick at all, and the world will not be gutted of inhabitants.  This is not 1350 and this is not the Black Death. There will be substantial suffering, however, and we will know, once again, that we cannot rely on our governments to act appropriately or promptly to help us. 

It’s up to us to help us.  But then, it always has been.

Diary 10

Saturday March 28th

There really was no reason for me to avoid it any longer, so I tried to focus and do my taxes. Actually, that’s a misnomer, because I’d already amassed the various documents and handed them in an untidy bundle to my tax preparer. One might think that two people such as my wife and I, both with fairly simple jobs and not much in the way of expenses to write off, might have a straightforward tax situation. So why the tax preparer?  Um… to keep us sane, I think is the most straightforward answer. The dear lady thus charged with maintaining our mental equilibrium got to work. Phone calls flew to and fro. Documents arrived by email and were scrutinized. And so on. 

The completed paperwork came, I noticed, to 63 pages. 

If I were running a multi-national corporation with government tax incentives and who knows what else then perhaps I would understand this. As it is, I don’t. I’m just grateful for the people who can steer me through this. I thought the ‘new’ tax laws enacted by our current administration were supposed to make things simpler?  Can’t say that happened.

I’ll point out the obvious, here. I actually want to get this tax stuff right.  I want to pay my share. I’m trying to be a decent citizen. I’m not working the loopholes like Jeff Bezos so I pay absolutely nothing at all. I wonder how long his tax print-out is? How do people manage who can’t spare the extra money to pay a patient, careful, and almost saint-like tax preparer such as I have?

Perhaps it’s this new, pared-down simpler life of social distancing that throws all of this into such sharp relief for me. And, in a world where places like Australia have now limited social gatherings to just two people, it must seem like I’m whining. I don’t think I am. I’m reflecting on how complicated the pre-corona world had become, and how that seems strange now. Perhaps, when this is all over, we will re-think this and other aspects of how we live.

Diary 9

Friday 27th March

I’ve continued with my program of re-reading. What I’ve noticed is that now I have so much more open time I tend to read more slowly and with greater pleasure than before. No longer is it a case of just-got-to-finish-this-paragraph before I have to run an errand, pick up a kid from school, or anything else that one can imagine from our days before the virus struck. I can take more breaks, think about what I’ve just read, savor it. The result has been that it’s as though I’m reading a whole new book. Middlemarch, my current read, is far funnier than I ever recall it being in the past. It is positively wicked, the way George Eliot addresses the reader in a ‘masculine’ voice, while all the time knowing that the majority of readers would always be women….

To be fair, I’m a great believer in re-reading. So much of my time used to be spent reading swiftly for meaning, to get the main ideas, so I didn’t drown under the weight of words. Obviously that’s not a great scheme when reading actual literature, the good stuff, but the old habit persisted. I feel richer, now.

I’m also aware of the strange nature of privilege. I can write about my enforced leisure as I have here, and yet be aware that many people are frightened, stressed, despairing, overwhelmed and sad. People are dead who died alone, because relatives were not permitted to be with them in their last hours. Funerals have been anonymous, with nowhere for mourners to weep, or get supporting hugs.  None of the usual rituals that help to manage loss are available. We don’t even see the funerals on TV. It’s as though the dead have evaporated. Those who are affected in this way are stressed in case they might be next, in case they’ve passed on the virus, in case they can’t pay for food, let alone funerals and medical expenses.

People are being broken. And we aren’t seeing that, because there’s no media coverage.

If you’re lucky enough to be well, if your family has not been hit with the virus, if you have adequate food and shelter, be grateful.  Be very very grateful.

Diary 8

Thursday 26th March

Today we realized we had none of our favorite tea left (Trader Joe’s Irish Breakfast Tea, a total wake up game-changing morning drink) and that nothing else would do. We’d tried various other brands but, well, you know how it is. So I set off to TJ’s. 

I drove past the local park where only a few days ago I’d taken the grandchildren, and a big illuminated sign told me the park was closed, and that the Police would take notice of anyone using it. I felt a pang of nostalgia for all the times I’d stood under the climbing frame, lifting them down when they got scared or stuck. It felt good to be able to do that; I know that now they don’t need me. Just a few weeks ago they were showing off their latest daring moves, fear a thing of the past.

At TJ’s the line of dutiful citizens, spaced 6 feet apart, was rather daunting. Luckily I was directed to the Seniors’ line; much shorter and rather jolly. Most folks of that vintage (ahem, my vintage) are getting to be a bit hard of hearing, and so we bantered cheerfully across the six foot divides at quite a high volume. I think the other folks rather enjoyed it. Finally, we said, we’re getting a benefit. We’re not invisible!

I was reminded of my late mother-in-law who, even at 95, refused to admit she was a senior. She’d rather have waited in the longer line, in the cold, than admit her true age. This occasionally made for problems at the liquor store.

Quick sprint around TJ’s and yes, there was plenty of toilet paper, and yes, there was no shortage of anything. Still, I did grab an extra packet of tea, just in case. It turns out that we can no longer use our own bags for fear of cross infections and so we must use the store’s paper bags. It took quite a while to get people into the habit of using their own bags, and now…. Oh well.

On the return trip I noticed that the local garage for cheap gas was open. Last week, $2.40 a gallon. Today $1.97. It would be tempting if I had somewhere to go, or any hope of having a pleasant time when I got there.

In the larger picture I made a promise to myself today to spend less time on-line. I’ve tended to get sucked in to just taking another look at….  It is consoling, I suppose, although it can raise one’s ire and panic when the topic is the news. I don’t need to feel upset as well as under house arrest.