Wednesday, June 3, 2020

What We've Learned

      I'm taking a course this summer through our senior learning center -- via Zoom, naturally -- that focuses on President Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.

     The instructor set the stage by reviewing what was happening in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and how the world was so very different then. Participants in the class were encouraged to offer their own memories of the times -- including a woman who grew up in Boston as an ardent Kennedy supporter and a man who spent several years in the National Guard facing off against war protesters.

     We all acknowledged a few things about those days. For example, despite the general impression that the 1950s were a time of prosperity and conformity, and the 1960s a time of idealism and freedom, people who lived through that era actually had different experiences and held different points of view. Not everybody was a hippie. Not everyone attended a protest march. Not everyone took part in the sexual revolution.

     We also realized that people's memories are colored by later experiences. What we remember may not be how things actually happened. And we were young. We were more idealistic, more hopeful. The world was in front of us.

     So what have we learned in the past 50 years?

     For one thing, we all probably thought that we'd live forever, that we would always be young, that nothing would change. But life can and does move on. All things are temporary. Friends come and go; children grow up; jobs that once held meaning now seem irrelevant.

     We had friends in school who drifted away after we graduated. I remember going through the ritual of becoming "blood brothers" with my best friend in sixth grade. Friends forever. And we were . . . at least through high school. But we went to different colleges, followed different careers. We caught up at our 25th high-school reunion; but we haven't seen each other since.

     We've had friends from work who seemed important to us . . . until we weren't working there anymore. I'm reminded of the line from Fleetwood Mac: "Players only love you when they're playing."

     Now we know. Certain people are important in our lives . . . until they aren't. Maybe today that drives us to redouble our efforts to keep up with old friends. Or, maybe now that we're older, we don't feel as if we need as many friends. We no longer need to be "popular" or "cool" -- do we? Maybe it's enough to be with family, or just one or two best friends. Does life get smaller as we get older?

      We had dreams as kids. Did we go on to live those dreams? Develop new ones? How much did we compromise in order to keep a job, raise a family, or maybe live a life that our parents dreamed for us, rather than the one we dreamed for ourselves?

     We also know about the choices we've made, both the good and the bad. They've affected our careers, our relationships . . . and often our health. I think back to the days when I smoked cigarettes, at first because it was cool, and then because I was addicted. Now my reaction is: How could I have been so stupid?

     I've gotten away with it, so far. But sometimes I wonder if the stupidity of my 20s will end up killing me in my 70s.

     What I do know is that my old ankle injury from a car accident, and the knee injury from playing tennis, are coming back to haunt me. We do not all age at the same rate. Maybe it's our genes, or maybe our lifestyle, but some of us are healthy well into our 80s; while others are limping around in our 60s. But I'd venture to say that most of us have something going on to remind us that the body doesn't last forever.

     We also know that life offers no guarantees. Sometimes, when you least expect it, things can go terribly wrong. One day you're healthy, the next you're in the hospital. One day your friend, or your spouse, is alive. Then they're gone.

     Perhaps, by now, we've been cured of our addiction to ambition. Does it really matter so much that we did or didn't get that promotion, that our kids did or didn't get accepted to their first-choice college, that we maybe should have jumped at that opportunity to start our own business, or live overseas, or have another child? We know that life is not a race, it's a journey. We've moved past the disappointments. There will be good times, and bad times, and "this too shall pass."

     We also know -- as revealed in our memories of the '60s -- that people live under different circumstances and experience events in various ways. Perhaps we become more tolerant as we age, more understanding of those who have different points of view. We can "agree to disagree" with friends or family members, and maybe understand why they've chosen an unusual lifestyle, or hold onto ideals that don't make sense to us.

     Finally, I hope we can appreciate what poet Robert Frost wrote: "But I have promises to keep / and miles to go before I sleep." No matter what our age, we can make new friends, try new things, contribute to society, find meaning in family, and seek out joy in unexpected places.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Scare in the Night

     I heard about this incident when I was in Florida in January. It happened to someone I've known for years. I don't see them much anymore, but we still keep in touch.

     They have a 30-year-old son who still lives at home. He had some learning disabilities growing up, but nevertheless managed to graduate from high school. He went to community college, took some photography courses, culinary courses, health classes. Meanwhile he worked on and off, mostly at restaurants.

     Last year he started to exhibit some mental-health issues. At one point, he got into an argument with some other young men -- nothing physical, just verbal -- and he decided that these guys were coming after him for revenge. Whenever a car came down the street he would peer out the windows, wondering if someone was casing out the house.

     At first his parents were wary, on the lookout. But nothing happened. There was nobody. So the parents tried to downplay the whole thing. But the son couldn't let it go and seemed to be getting more paranoid as time went on. He stayed at home more and more, afraid to go out, because he thought people were following him.

     His parents arranged for him to get some therapy. He was prescribed some medications. He took them most of the time, but complained they made him sleepy and lethargic, so he occasionally skipped his doses.

     Then one day, he woke up in the middle of the night. He thought he heard noises somewhere in the kitchen or living room. He convinced himself that someone had broken into the house. He panicked. He thought intruders had come to attack his family; but he was too afraid to go out of his room. Then he decided they were after him, going to kill him. So he decided to do it first.

     He had some kind of knife in his room, and he started to cut himself on his arms. He bloodied himself but didn't do any major damage. Then he stopped. He smoked a cigarette in an attempt to calm himself down.

     Next thing he knew, his mattress was smoking. Apparently, he had dropped his lit cigarette on the bed. And now it was on fire.

     His dad woke up -- maybe from the noise his son was making, maybe from smelling the smoke. He got out of bed, quickly checked around the house. It was dark and empty. There were no intruders. Then he saw the smoke coming out of his son's room.

     The dad got his son out, along with the rest of the family. He called 911. The fire department showed up in a few minutes. The fire was mostly contained in the son's bedroom, but between the fire damage, the smoke damage and the water damage, the house was a complete mess.

     The family suffered some smoke inhalation, and some emotional trauma. But no one was burned; everyone's okay. But they had to find someplace else to stay for the time being, and wait for the insurance company to assess the damage and then begin the long process of repairing the house.

     The son was sent to a mental-health facility where he spent a few weeks undergoing more intensive therapy. He understood what he had done, and was remorseful, but also knew that he couldn't always control himself.

     Now he's back out, living not with his family but in an apartment in a home. He is still under the care of a psychologist, with more careful monitoring. The family is in the process of putting their lives back together, which has only been delayed by the Covid-19 epidemic. But the prognosis is good, for both the young man and the larger family.

     Fortunately, there was no gun in the house. What do you suppose might have happened if there was?

Saturday, May 23, 2020

When Can We Reopen?

     My wife B is going more crazy than I am during the Coronavirus pandemic. She has less tolerance for staying home and doing, essentially, nothing.

     So B, who is more of a bleeding heart liberal than I am, is arguing in favor of reopening the economy. She says people should be able to go to the store if they wear masks, meet up with friends if they keep a six foot distance, attend concerts if they're held outdoors. She of course is worried about the virus. But she is also worried about the people who are losing their jobs or losing their businesses, who can't pay their rent and who may soon be out on the streets.

     It's easy for us to stay at home, she says, because we still get our Social Security, our pension checks and annuities. But what about Manuel? He works for our landscaping company. He was "furloughed" back in March. The company sent out an email to customers inviting them to send a donation to Manuel -- but it doesn't sound like the landscaping company is paying him, or if it is, it's a fraction of his usual salary. We sent in $50; but no matter how many customers joined us, it's not going to last very long. Manuel has a wife and a child. How long before they have to give up their car? How long before they get evicted from their apartment?

     Or what about the restaurants in town that employ waiters and cooks and dishwashers? These people are now on unemployment, with an extra boost from the federal government, but all that's going to end before long. And what about the people who own and run the restaurants and small shops? These shops often represent lots of dreams and years of hard work, and now a lot of that is going down the drain because the only thing they are allowed to provide is curbside pickup -- and business is down by 50% to 80%.

     The reopen vs. stay-closed debate has been framed as a political argument. Republicans want to reopen . . . because they are greedy. Democrats want to stay closed . . . because they like the government to tell them what to do.

     For example, in Why Are Liberals More Afraid of the Coronavirus Than Conservatives? Ezra Klein analyzes some of the psychological differences between liberals and conservatives. He points out, quite correctly I think, that conservatives tend to be more skeptical of change and less welcoming to outsiders, while liberals are more comfortable with novelty, disruption and diversity. But by that reasoning conservatives should be more fearful of the Coronavirus than liberals. The author twists himself in knots trying to provide an explanation, but it doesn't make sense -- because the difference is due more to an individual's personal experience. Not everything is political.

     I myself think we should continue to self-isolate . . . not because I'm liberal or conservative but because I'm a bit of a hypochondriac. B, who is more liberal than I am, wants to go out . . . because she's antsy and doesn't think it can happen to her.

     It's not just us. Look at Sweden. If Sweden is as socialistic as it's supposed to be, why is it one of the few countries that didn't issue stay-at-home orders at all?

     No, I think the question of reopening is more a function of personality, and personal circumstances. Some people simply have to stay busy. It drives them crazy to sit around at home all day. They can't do it! They have to get in the car, go to a store, meet up with a friend. Others can sit at home, read a book, watch TV, they are comfortable with their own company.

     Also, B has never been sick a day in her life. She has no conception -- and thus very little fear -- of what's it's like to feel so horrible that you can't get out of bed, to be lying helpless in a hospital, to be unable to breathe and choking on some claustrophobic machine. I don't even think she's ever had an MRI.

     People who want to reopen just think it won't happen to them. Perhaps they care more about the new unemployed. They also likely have more at stake in the economy. If you're over 65 and especially if you have an underlying medical condition you should be worried about Covid-19. But if you're in your 20s or 30s, and you're perfectly healthy, but you have car payments and a college loan and rent due at the end of the month, you might think it's worth the pretty minimal risk of disease in order to keep your family together. After all, they might reason, you're more likely to be injured in a traffic accident on the way to work than fall victim to Covid-19.

     As the summer unfolds, no matter what our personal beliefs, we will all be going out more, seeing more people. So take a look at The Risks -- Know Them -- Avoid Them by Erin Bromage, biology professor at the University of Massachusetts. He has better advice than I could ever give about how to understand the virus, how it spreads, and how to protect ourselves as we do reopen.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Does Anyone Like Us?

     I remember my Aunt Hanna. She was a widow with no children, who lived by herself in a small apartment. She came over to our house to visit as often as she could -- not because she liked us kids, in fact I think we annoyed her -- but because she was lonely and my mother was one of her few friends.

     Feelings of loneliness and social isolation have been around for a long time. Even under normal, non-Covid circumstances, surveys say that somewhere between 20% and 30% of us admit that we lack regular companionship and feel lonely on a regular basis.

     This is a particular problem for older people. According to the U. S. Census, less than 10% of Americans in their 30s and 40s live alone. But 18% of 60-year-olds and 25% of 75-year-olds live all by themselves.

     Now I know that living alone does not necessarily mean you're lonely -- and conversely, you can be lonely even if you live with a large family or in a group home -- but being forced into isolation during this time of Coronavirus can bring on loneliness even for those who are most socially engaged. It's especially true for people with hearing loss and mobility issues, and for people -- like me -- who don't always like their own company, who tend to brood about their regrets and past mistakes.

    Loneliness is different from solitude. Solitude is a voluntary and enjoyable experience that can lead to creativity, spirituality and self-growth. Loneliness is more a state of mind, a feeling of being unwanted and unloved. It can be a chronic problem that leads to feelings of emptiness and pointlessness.

     "Loneliness leads to poorer mental and physical health," according to the New York Times. Lonely people feel helpless and abandoned, separated from the community and discriminated against by other people. Loneliness is  associated with higher stress levels, as well as depression and dementia. It can adversely affect the immune system and the cardiovascular system.

     Fortunately, there are a number of "interventions" to improve our social well-being. It's a "treatable rather than an irreversible condition," as the literature says. Strategies to ward off loneliness include keeping busy, sharing feelings, involving yourself in activities, helping others, joining interest groups, staying in contact with family and friends.

     Of course, a lot of these "interventions" are easier said than done, especially these days when we're prohibited from gathering in groups, and the opportunities for meeting new people are limited.

     But here are a few practical ideas that we've found useful. Maybe you have some other ideas.

     We've found that we've been able to Zoom or Facetime with our kids. During normal times, they are often too busy with work and their own kids to have much time for us. They only afford us a quick phone call, or the dreaded text. But now they are as bored as we are, and happy to spend 30 or 40 minutes sitting with their phone or computer and entertaining the folks.

     We've also found it easier to keep in touch with old friends who, again, are looking for things to do to fill their hours. They're not rushing off to play pickleball or to try out a new restaurant, and so they're happy to spend time with us. We've also reignited some old friendships for the same reason.

     Ditto with family. I'm talking with my sister in Phoenix every week now, when before it was more like once in a month or two. I've also been in touch with three long-lost cousins -- first by email, then by phone -- to catch up on their lives, find out what their children are doing, and laugh about some old escapades we stumbled into when we were kids.

     We've also joined up with a few new groups in town. For example, we belong to our local independent movie theater. But we don't really know anyone there. When the theater management arranged a Zoom meeting for members, we ordinarily would not have attended. No one knows us. But now? What the heck. We've got nothing better to do. So we met a dozen fellow theater-goers -- and now when the theater does reopen we will have someone to talk to.

     Our regular volunteer activities are curtailed. But again, we've paid attention to some emails that we would normally have ignored. And now we have an opportunity to help with some online ESL training.

     One thing we have not tried is online chat, such as quarantinechat, which offers people the opportunity to find like-minded strangers -- kind of like a dating app, but just to give people a chance to talk with a friendly voice. But we may very well get to that before this is all over.

     Finally, we live in town. People walk past our house all the time. Normally we ignore them. But B put a teddy bear in our window and a sign out front that says, "Wave to the teddy bear." Now people stop and smile, and sometimes, if we're out in the yard, we end up talking to them and sharing stories -- always keeping our six-foot distance. We've met several neighbors just standing out in our front yard, talking and joking about our current absurd situation.

     Covid-19 is no fun, and neither is self-isolating and social distancing. But there is a silver lining. And maybe when things get back to normal, we'll have a few new friends, closer ties to our town . . . and fewer times when we're sitting at home feeling like no one likes us.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

An Anniversary We'd Like to Forget - But Shouldn't

     "What I don't like about books and movies set during World War II," B said to me the other day, "is that they remind you how bad things can get."

     On Sunday night we were watching a PBS Masterpiece Theater series called The World on Fire which takes place in Europe starting in 1939. The Germans invade Poland. The young English attache marries a Polish girl to get her out of the country -- although he has a girlfriend at home. When the Polish girl meets him at the train station for their getaway, she instead thrusts her younger brother on the train and implores the man to take care of him. There's a soap opera quality to the series -- the girlfriend back in England turns out to be pregnant -- but there's also plenty of killing, torture and intimidation to remind the viewer that it's a soap opera set against a very dark background.

     We recently watched a Netflix show called The Restaurant, which takes place in Stockholm as World War II is ending. The restaurant had collaborated with the Germans during the occupation, and now was having problems adapting to the modern post-war world.

     We also just finished reading Erik Larson's new book The Splendid and the Vile (currently #2 on the New York Times bestseller list) about Winston Churchill leading the fight against Hitler through the Battle of Britain in 1940 and 1941.

     Then I was talking to a friend of mine who said I also had to read In Harm's Way by Doug Stanton, a great tale about the sinking of the U. S. S. Indianapolis in 1945, after it had delivered the atom bomb to a South Pacific airbase, in preparation for the bombing of Hiroshima.

     Why all the sudden interest in World War II? I wondered. Maybe it's just coincidence. But then I realized that last Saturday, May 8, was the 75th anniversary of VE Day, the day the Germans surrendered.

     Soon we'll see the 75th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, on August 6, which together with the one on Nagasaki brought the war to a quick close. The Japanese surrendered on August 15, 1945, known as VJ Day.

     An estimated 200,000 Japanese, mostly civilians, died as a direct result of the two atomic bombs. Thousands more suffered injuries and met early deaths as a result of radiation poisoning, leukemia and other cancers.

     At the time no one was certain that the atom bombs would even work. So there was a backup plan, called Operation Downfall, to invade Japan and force the end of the war. The American military estimated an invasion would have cost as many as 4 million Allied casualties, including 500,000, or even 800,000 dead.

     I'm not saying that COVID-19 is a tragedy on a scale anywhere near World War II -- although perhaps a disease affects the "home front" more than a war does. And I'm not saying we're lucky that our problems are minuscule compared to what the world faced in the early 1940s . . . because, who knows?

     But I agree with B. Looking back at World War II reminds us just how bad things can get. And so it's up to us to make sure that they don't.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Comic Relief

     I don't mean to offend anyone with the following joke. It's meant as nothing but comic relief. And just so you know, I don't have anything in particular against lawyers. I have friends and relatives who are lawyers, and most of them are perfectly nice people.

     But even with the best of them -- no matter if they are young or old, man or women, liberal or conservative -- you can see when they go into "lawyer mode." They click into an alternate personality that is more suspicious, more skeptical, more self-righteous, less tolerant, less understanding.

     I'm just confessing my bias . . . and I'll be the first to say that you want a lawyer on your side if you're doing a big business deal, or in a contest with another party, especially if it's a larger more powerful organization, or of course if you're facing legal charges. And, besides, Better Call Saul is one of my favorite TV shows!

     So with that as the fine print, here's the joke.

     A lawyer with a wife and eight children had to move out of their rented house because the lease wasn't going to be renewed. The owner wanted to move back into the house himself.

     The lawyer went hunting for a new place but was having a lot of trouble. When he told people he had eight children, no one would rent a home to him because they thought the children would destroy the place.

     He couldn't say he had no children, because he couldn't lie. Lawyers take pride in saying they do not lie.

     So he sent his wife for a walk in the cemetery with seven of their children. He took the remaining one with him to see rental homes with a real-estate agent. He loved one of the homes, and the price was right. Then the agent asked, "How many children do you have?"

     The lawyer answered truthfully: "Eight."

     "Oh, where are the others?" asked the agent.

     With his best and saddest courtroom look, the lawyer replied, "They are in the cemetery with their mother."

     Funny, huh? So the lawyerly lesson is: It's not necessary to lie, only to choose the right words. Oh, and remember in this political year, most politicians are lawyers.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

The Latest from Here

     I have a summary of the most recent Coronavirus news, from where I sit in a modest-size suburb in a large Northeastern state. I'm guessing our situation is at least somewhat similar to the one in your part of the world.

     We just got a notice this morning from our county health commissioner. There were 22 more COVID-19 deaths over the past few days. All of the victims had underlying health conditions. All but four were age 75 or older and residents of long-term care facilities. This confirms recent data showing that elderly residents of long-term care facilities are especially vulnerable to the disease.

     "We're going through a really bad phase right now in our nursing homes," said the director of the county health department. "We are hopefully near the peak of it, we are seeing more staff returning as they recover, and we are seeing more residents recovering in the nursing homes as well."

      At least 66 congregate living facilities in the county -- more than three quarters of the total -- have had outbreaks. "When this wave is over," the director continued, "I don't think we will have large outbreaks again because so many of the staff and residents will likely have some immunity."

     There were 85 new Coronavirus cases reported in the county yesterday. Of those, 56 were residents or employees of long-term care facilities, while only four cases were attributed to community spread.

     Altogether, our county has had 3,505 residents test positive for the virus since the epidemic began. There have been 280 deaths -- 80 percent of them long-term-care residents.

     Some 920 people have recovered and been released from isolation. But 192 patients remain hospitalized, 24 of them currently on ventilators and in critical condition.

     At the same time, the governor has announced a partial reopening of the state. On May 8, 24 of the more rural counties in Pennsylvania will be partially released from the state-wide lockdown. Stay-at-home orders will be lifted, but gatherings of more than 25 people will still be prohibited. So gyms, spas, theaters and casinos will remain closed. Organized team sports are not permitted. Retail stores may reopen with curbside and delivery the "preferred method of operation." Restaurants will still be limited to carryout or delivery.

     I live near Philadelphia, not one of the rural counties, so the stay-at-home orders remain. I'm not even sure what "stay-at-home" means exactly. B and I took a walk into our little town yesterday. Pretty much everything is closed down, except a few restaurants offering curbside take-out. We saw a few fellow walkers on the street. About half were wearing masks. (We were not -- we didn't get anywhere near six feet to anyone.)

     Regarding the partial lifting, the Pennsylvania health secretary said, "All the information we have suggests that if we release the mitigation efforts too soon in areas that are very affected by COVID-19, areas that still have significant community transmission, then we'll just go right back to that exponential rise, and it could even be higher than the rise before."

     Looking ahead, there is no decision yet on whether or not the schools in Pennsylvania, which have been closed since mid-March, will reopen in the fall. Officials from the Department of Education say there are no plans to keep schools closed, but "any future decisions regarding school openings will be grounded in the health and safety of our students." A hybrid attendance approach may be utilized to allow for social distancing, with a combination of in-person and remote instruction.

     Finally, a notice came out two days ago that Pennsylvania is preparing for a second wave of Coronavirus in the fall, citing federal officials including Dr. Anthony Fauci, who have been warning of the prospect of a resurgence of the virus in the fall. "I'm almost certain it will come back," said Dr. Fauci, "because the virus is so transmissible and it's globally spread."

     State officials are expanding testing capabilities, developing contact tracing systems to target potential outbreaks, and making sure hospitals and other medical facilities are prepared in case of a new outbreak.

     I guess, like all of us. they are preparing for the worst and hoping for the best. Good luck to all of you, and godspeed.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

They Say It Better

     Last time we went on vacation my wife B and I went shopping in one of those tourist malls.

     We wandered around several shops with their aromatic soaps and candles, their throw pillows, scatter rugs, t-shirts and inspirational cards and books.

     Surprisingly, I found some pretty good quotes and life lessons scattered among the various displays of goods and wares.

     Which one is your favorite saying?

     Normally mine would be along the lines of "something to look forward to."

     But these days I'm more relaxed, content to let the time go by, and I'm more inclined toward the "sand in your toes" or "enjoy the ride" philosophy.

     Soon enough we'll be back out in the world, seeing old friends, meeting new people, engaging in our regular activities and embarking on new adventures.

     But for now, let's just relax and enjoy the day . . .

     And not lose our perspective or self-confidence.

          But don't rely on me. The gift shops say it better.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Is It Time?

     My wife B hates to talk about her health or her kids. Her health is good, so there's nothing for her to talk about. She gets along with her kids just fine, but she just thinks there ought to be more interesting things for adults to discuss, like what books we've read, what movies we've seen, where we've traveled, what unusual experiences we've had, what kind of spiritual issues are concerning us these days.

     Okay, there's one exception. She does love to talk about her grandchildren (don't we all!). But otherwise she just doesn't want to be one of those old ladies who sits around and brags (or complains) about her kids, or reviews ad nauseam her latest back pain, blood pressure medication, sleep disorder, memory lapse or surgical procedure.

     However, now things have changed very quickly. Her health is still good (well, just a touch of arthritis), but like the rest of us she is worried about the Coronavirus, anxious about getting back out into the world, focusing too much on her aches and pains, and sick and tired of self-isolating at home.

Gnome ... thinking
     So, like the rest of us . . .

     Carol Cassara of A Healing Spirit, says the hardest thing about this period of time is that we don't know what lies ahead, and the unknown often produces anxiety. In her post How Do We Prepare for Walking into the Unknown? she offers eight ways to move forward into our new environment -- with less stress and more confidence.

     Rebecca Olkowski with admits she's going a little batty, just like Carol would predict, especially since she's temporarily stuck living in a rented room in a house. So as she tells us in When You Have to Stay at Home, Go Searching for Gnomes, she decided to check out the various trolls populating her LA neighborhood. The gnomes, she notes, could care less about the pandemic and are content to spend their time sitting in gardens, laughing at all us humans.

     Jennifer of Untold and Begin admits that she's been in a funk, and it's been taking a toll on her creativity. While she watched other bloggers post about baking, crafting, gardening and writing, she was finding it hard to do anything creative. That is, until she found some yarn and a crochet needle. Check out Time to Reignite Our Creativity to see how far she's progressed.

Libby ... chilling
     Laurie Stone of Musings, Rants & Scribbles also feels the turmoil in the air. There's simply too much happening too fast, she says. The planet seems scarier and more chaotic than ever. Yet there's one member of her family who always seems . . . well, chill. That's her terrier Libby. In How to Stay Chill in This Insane World she offers some coping skills that Libby has taught her.

     Consumer journalist Rita Robison has a different concern. April is Rosacea Awareness Month, so in Understanding Rosacea: It's More Than Just a Red Face she discusses the skin condition that plagues some 16 million Americans. (I, myself, have a touch of rosacea; and more than a touch of arthritis.) She covers the causes, the symptoms and the treatments, and she also offers several other websites where you can get more information.

     Finally, Meryl Baer of Six Decades and Counting says in her corner of the world residents feel that it's time to emerge, slowly and carefully, from weeks of quarantine. In Looking Ahead she notes that the longer days, the spring flowers and the warmth of the sun make it easy to feel optimistic. So folks are now looking forward to simple pleasures like walking the beach, tending the garden, patronizing the ice-cream store . . . and life after quarantine.

     I can't say whether it's time to start venturing out. People will ultimately have to make their own decisions, based on their tolerance for risk and perhaps their tolerance for their spouse, roommate, children, whatever. As for what lies ahead in our new environment -- who knows? But B and I still have some reserves. We can last a while longer. However, last night at dinner the subject of the kids did come up . . . and then we started complaining about our arthritis.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

A Day in the Life of a Coronaretiree

     Look I know this is serious business. But if we don't laugh, we cry. And besides, my life these days is pretty laughable . . .

     7:00 a.m. Wake up

     7:15         Sit up

     7:30         Stand up

     7:30         Bathroom, get dressed (same clothes as yesterday)

     7:45         Make instant coffee (too lazy for real), talk to wife

     8 - 9         Read downstairs book "The Splendid and the Vile"

     9 - 10:30  Stare at computer screen (I think I checked my email)

     10: 30      Eat bowl of cereal

     10:45       Do online crossword puzzle

     11:00       Online psychology course

     12 noon   Walk around the block

     1 p.m..     Shower

     1:15         Back exercises with podcast "You Must Remember This"

     2:00         Another online crossword puzzle

     2:30         Go to Netflix, watch "Ozark"

     4:00         Kitchen for snack, look at carrots, eat potato chips

     4:00         Turn on TV, check weather and news, talk to wife

     4:30         Facetime with one of the kids

     Just so you don't think that my wife B is as much of a sloth as I am, I should tell you that her life is more interesting. She talks on the phone to at least one friend a day. She has figured out how to use Zoom and has been attending two or three volunteer meetings per week. She did a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle. And while I hate to admit it, we've been eating better than ever because B has more time to cook. And she likes to cook. We have access to two grocery stores that offer curbside pickup, so with a few exceptions we've been able to get whatever we need. We've enjoyed lots of good pasta dishes, chicken, salads, vegetables, even some fresh fish. She's also been baking -- brownies, peach cobbler, cupcakes. Yesterday she made a Pavlova with whipped cream, strawberries and blueberries.

     You'll notice that my daily activities do not include stepping on the scale! Anyway . . .

     5 p.m.      Back down the online rabbit hole

     6:15         Dinner

     7 - 9         Watch "Babylon Berlin" with wife

     9:30         Go upstairs, wash, brush teeth, stretch

     10 p.m.    Sit in chair, read upstairs book "My Dark Vanessa"

     10:30       Move to bed, read more book

     11 p.m.     Turn out light, go to sleep

     Tomorrow:  Get up and do it again

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Something to Look Forward To

     Now that we have a lot of time on our hands, maybe we should reassess where we're going with our lives. A couple of questions come to mind: How does Coronavirus fit into our retirement plan? Is retirement so very different from self-isolating? And in these days when everything seems the same, is there anything we can look forward to?

     I retired pretty early in life, with a package from my company and only a vague plan of what I would do next. I wasn't ready to move to Florida to play golf or go fishing. I felt as if I still had something to contribute. I would even have taken another job, if one had fallen into my lap, but as you and I know, things don't usually just fall into your lap.

     So I never got another full-time job. I did, however, put a lot of effort into finding consulting jobs, freelance work, temporary assignments. There was always something different to look forward to, someone new to meet.

     I went on to establish a relationship with a woman who is now my wife. And we downsized and retired to Pennsylvania. We made new friends, developed new activities. We always had something coming up, something to do next.

    Now with Social Security and Medicare and an IRA, I've retired more thoroughly. We've settled down into our new life, a new routine. To be honest, our life has gotten pretty quiet. We don't go to work. We don't do a lot of traveling, and fortunately, we got home from our winter trip before the epidemic hit, so we don't have to cut short or cancel a vacation. So why should self-isolation pose a problem?

Everything's the same
     Because every day is the same. We have nothing to look forward to. There is nothing on the horizon.

     Even now, with my quieter life, I'd usually be going over to the senior center to play table tennis every Monday, and sometimes on Wednesdays. Whenever I'm sitting around, bored on a Sunday afternoon, I think, yeah, but tomorrow I've got ping pong.

     Right about now I'd also be looking forward to starting golf season. My golf league was supposed to play its opening round next Wednesday. Instead, play has been suspended indefinitely. So there's no golf on the horizon.

     B and I are supposed to be hosting two classes at our retirement learning center: Great Decisions in Foreign Policy on Tuesdays, and the Socrates Cafe on Thursdays. But we only had one Socrates session and two Great Decisions classes before everything was canceled. So now we're home on Tuesday and Thursday -- and we can't tell the difference between the two.

     It's not that are days our unpleasant. It's that every day is the same. We have nothing to look forward to.

      Now I know we have it pretty good, all things considered. We live in a nice home. We can go outside for a walk. We have Netflix and Amazon prime. (We're watching Babylon Berlin, a sometimes-confusing but always intriguing drama set in pre-war Berlin.) But I don't always know what day it is. Weekends are the same as weekdays. There's nothing to go out for. Nothing to dress up for. Nobody to talk to. Nobody to joke around with. We can't even break up the monotony by going out to dinner.

     We did set up a Zoom birthday party for a relative last weekend. We thought that was very clever. But it didn't measure up to a real party.

     We've Face-timed with children and grandchildren. It's better than just hearing a voice on the phone. But we want to see them live and in person!

     We did have two things to look forward to: a weekend trip to our old hometown and a meet-up with my son to see the U. S. Open in June. But both have been canceled. And we haven't even started to make other vacation plans, because nobody is ready to make reservations. See what I mean? Nothing to look forward to.

     It's not that things are so bad. And we so appreciate the front-line workers who are literally risking their lives to keep the country running. Food and gasoline are getting through. We can buy stuff online. Police and fire are still on duty. And of course the medical world is performing heroics in helping victims, treating people, trying to reassure the rest of us.

     All the experts tell us to make a plan for retirement, to update our plans, to reassess our lives and make sure we don't drift off. We're supposed to stay on track and adjust when necessary.

     But Coronavirus wasn't in the plan. I have two friends who winter in Florida and usually come back north in March. For them, self-isolation means that they are stuck there for foreseeable future.

     Our neighbor had their daughter and her three kids move in with them for the duration. The daughter's husband is a physicians assistant working in a hospital in New Jersey. He doesn't want to come home at night and possibly expose his family to the virus, so he sent them to her parents' house. I admire his dedication, and his responsible approach as well. But now there are six people jammed into a townhouse that is set up for two retirees.

     Well, I can guess what my Florida friends are looking forward to . . . getting back home. And I know for sure what our neighbors, no matter how much they love their grands, are looking forward to . . . the day when the kids leave!

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Do We Pay the Rent?

     Have you heard about the "Keep Your Rent Movement" that's cropped up along with the Coronavirus?

     Many tenants in the U. S. and Canada, especially in the larger more-expensive cities like New York, L.A., Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, have decided that they shouldn't have to pay rent as long as the Coronavirus pandemic keeps people self-isolating and out of work, or on reduced hours working from home.

     They argue that landlords are getting a break because many of them are benefiting from deferrals on their mortgage. So if landlords don't have to pay their mortgage, why should tenants have to pay rent?

     Besides, greedy landlords have been taking advantage of housing shortages in recent years by raising rents well beyond the rate of inflation. Meanwhile, renters have not enjoyed similar increases in pay -- and now they're being squeezed even more because they've been let go, fired or furloughed. They're on reduced wages, or perhaps on no wages at all!

     As one protester wrote: "Why are rental property owners the only class whose income in guaranteed during this chaos? You landlord cannibals need to PAUSE THE RENT without future collection while the people of L. A. count the bodies . . ."

     If tenants are sick and self-isolating, the argument continues, the last thing they should have to worry about is how they're going to pay rent. Besides, no one wants people infected with Coronavirus out on the streets looking for a new apartment, moving in with elderly parents, or squeezing into tight quarters by bunking in with friends.

     In addition, governments have passed legislation banning evictions during this period. For example, the mayor of Los Angeles announced: "During this crisis I know many Angelenos are worried about paying rent. If you are able to  pay, you should continue to do so. But for those who aren't able to pay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, your City has your back. No one should be evicted for this emergency."

     So, the Keep Your Rent people figure, if the government is protecting them from being evicted, why should they pay their rent anyway? People joining or supporting the Keep Your Rent Movement are hanging white sheets out their windows or off their balconies to show their solidarity.

     Of course, the greedy landlords have something to say about this movement. Even if their mortgage payment is deferred, they argue, they'll still have to pay it in the end. And in the meantime they have real-estate taxes to pay, condo or association fees, insurance, maintenance and utilities like heat and air conditioning.

     Also, not all landlords are big, greedy corporations. Almost half of rentals in the U. S. are made by individuals who rent 1 - 4 units, not as a get-rich-quick scheme but as a sideline to supplement their income. And they know that their tenants, even if they lose their jobs, will be receiving unemployment plus extra money from the government -- and their expenses other than rent will be going down, since they can't go to restaurants and won't be doing any traveling.

     Besides, the renters signed a lease. They agreed to pay a certain amount of money in order to take over this property and live in it for a period of time. They made a promise. Is it right, is it ethical, to just welsh on their part of the deal? Why is it any more acceptable for people to steal lodgings from a landlord than to steal food from a grocery store?

     Me, personally? What do I think? I of course sympathize with tenants who  through no fault of their own are forced to choose whether to pay rent, or pay for groceries. But in the past I was one of those small-time landlords, and I know some people will take advantage. I can remember driving over to the condo I rented to a young couple and collecting the rent in cash, month after month, because their check had bounced several times . . . and how often the cash was $50 or $100 short because . . . well, they both had jobs but they also had a hundred excuses. Boy, was I glad when they moved out! And I was even happier when I finally sold the unit and retired as a landlord.

     So who's side are you on? Are landlords being cold-hearted by insisting on collecting the rent? Or are you hanging a sheet out your window in solidarity with the folks who are on strike to Keep Your Rent?

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

I Almost Had a Heart Attack!

     I thought that this was a time to revisit an old post from a few years ago, one that will show the days of Coronavirus are not the only trying times we have had to live through. Sometimes we are faced with an even more urgent, potentially explosive problem that arrives completely unexpectedly.

     Where I live the golf season stars in April -- or it does in normal times. My friends and I usually play at one of our local public courses, but this particular spring we decided to open the season by traveling up the parkway and playing at a really nice links course in the country.

     The course was about 40 miles north, or close to an hour's drive. So my friend -- the friend I call Peter -- and I decided to carpool. Now if you knew Peter, you'd know he's a little . . . well, how do I put this? We all love him; he's fun to be around; he's really a great guy who'd do you any favor in a minute. But he's a little . . . unpredictable.

     Just one quick story about Peter. A few years ago, when he was getting a divorce, he decided to take a vacation to Australia. He went by himself. He arrived at the airport and picked up his rental car. Did he want the insurance? Usually you answer "no" to that question, because it's expensive and a rental car is often covered by your credit card or regular auto policy. But Peter wasn't even thinking about that, and so he just signed on the dotted line.

     He threw his bag in the trunk, got in the car, and drove onto the highway. Then he remembered he'd put his hotel information in his bag. In the trunk. So he pulled over onto the shoulder of the road. He got out, leaving the door open, went around to the back of the car and opened the trunk. His head was buried in the trunk when . . . WHACK! A pickup truck clipped his open door. The car door went sailing off, scraping along the guardrail.

     The truck stopped. It was hardly damaged. Peter was fine. But the rental car had a big gaping hole on the driver's side where the door was supposed to be.

     Peter stood there for a moment. Then he shrugged. He got in the car, turned around and went back to the rental car lot -- not 15 minutes after he'd left. He returned the car and explained what happened. They gave him a new car, and he drove off to enjoy his vacation.

     This could only happen to Peter. So it shouldn't surprise you to know that I told Peter I'd be happy to be the one to drive to the golf course. We arranged to meet at the mall by the parkway. He'd leave his car there; and I'd drive up to the course.

     I pulled into the lot next to Macy's, as we'd agreed. He wasn't there yet. I parked; I looked at my watch. A few minutes later I saw Peter drive up. He parked next to me, pulled out his golf bag, and I motioned for him to throw his clubs in my backseat.

     He put in clubs in the back then opened the passenger door and got in. "Sorry I'm a little late," he apologized.

     "No problem," I said.

     He dropped his golf shoes on the floor, put on his seatbelt. "I had to take my medicine this morning."

     "Oh, what medicine?" I asked innocently as I backed out of the parking space.

     "Well, have you ever had a colonoscopy?"

     "Yeah, sure."

     "I'm getting my first one tomorrow. So, you know, I had to start the medicine today."

     "The medicine?"

     "Yeah, the stuff that's supposed to get you ready for the procedure. It cleans you out. I wasn't allowed to eat breakfast this morning either. I'm really hungry."

     "Wait a second, Peter . . . you mean the laxative?"


     "Peter, don't you know, we'll be on the golf course for four hours. It's an hour drive up there. Another hour back home. We'll be gone for six hours!" I was starting to panic, imagining Peter exploding all over my car.

     "Yeah. So what?"

     "But . . . have you ever had that stuff before?"

     "No. Why?"

     Maybe I shouldn't get on the parkway, I thought, looking for a place to turn around and head back to the mall.. "It makes you go to the bathroom. In a major way. That's the whole point!"

     "Oh, I can hold it. I'm pretty good at that. No problem."

     "What do you mean, hold it? You can't hold it!"

     "No, really, I can hold it."

     "Peter, you're . . ."

     Then Peter looked at me. A big grin crossed his face. "April Fools!"

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Down by the River

     One byproduct of self-isolating is often weight gain, since we're stuck at home with not much to do except sit around and be a couch potato while we watch a screen, read a book, send emails and texts, cook and eat . . .  and then do it all over again.

     Still, most of us are probably trying to get beyond these sedentary activities, since they do get old after a week or two. We try to figure out ways to not only pass the time while we self-isolate, but also to do something reasonably refreshing, meaningful and healthful.

View of New Hope from the bridge

     I have not yet come up with a better idea than to take a walk -- practicing, of course, safe distancing all the way.

Looking down the river ... Philadelphia is about 40 miles south

     I live in a small city in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. But a few miles to the east is the even smaller, but better-known town of New Hope, PA, located on the Delaware River.

Crossing the state line midway on the bridge

     The other day I drove over to New Hope and took a walk around. I actually went across the river and parked in the sister town of Lambertville, NJ, then walked back across the bridge to New Hope.

French pastries
"Moo" Hope ... get it?
     New Hope is usually crowded with people. But today the stores were closed. Only a couple of restaurants were open, offering take-out only. The streets were not completely empty, but they looked bare compared to the usual buzz of activity.

Restaurant in old church

Sign in restaurant
      The pride and joy of New Hope is the Bucks County Playhouse which hosts live theatrical performances, occasional music programs, poetry readings and other events. Last fall B and I went to see Sally Struthers in Always ... Patsy Cline. Yes, Sally Struthers from the old sit-com All in the Family. She is much older now. But she was hilarious. She still has her comic chops.

Bucks County Playhouse

     New Hope has a lot of history. Washington crossed the Delaware only a few miles south of here. Back then the village was called Coryell's Ferry.

House from late 1700s, made of characteristic Pennsylvania fieldstone

     But now it's better known as a funky, artsy place that draws tourists, day trippers, and motorcycle clubs from New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia and other parts of the Northeast. And there are at least a few attractions aside from the bars and restaurants -- a children's museum, an historic railroad, several parks and a host of art galleries.

Acupuncture, of course
Irish pub
     There's also a canal that runs along either side of the river, one on the Pennsylvania side, one on the New Jersey side. They were once used to haul coal barges. Now they feature a walking and biking path.

    And so on the way back to my car, instead of walking through town, I cut along the canal tow path for a few blocks. I noticed a duck paddling along . . . practicing, of course, safe distancing all the way.

Duck enjoying the canal

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Best Foot Forward

     I must admit I have an ambivalent attitude toward nature. Of course, I want to see us save the rain forests. And I love the cute animals and pretty flowers -- especially the daffodils that harbinger the warm weather to come.

     But I don't much like house flies and mosquitoes; I don't want squirrels or skunks in the attic. I used to like deer, but that was before I had Lyme disease. And I certainly want no part of the Coronavirus.

     To avoid being exposed to the Coronavirus, like most people, I've been self-isolating at home, looking for things to do. But there's no reason why we can't go out for a walk, as long as we practice "safe distancing" from other potential carriers we might meet on the path or sidewalk.

     So the other day I decided to look on the bright side, to put my best foot forward, and go for a walk into town. I tried to focus on the beautiful side of nature, which is not hard to do in the springtime. The first thing I noticed was the forsythia in my neighbor's yard.

     Myrtle was peeking out from under the winter leaves.

     Lots of people had beds of little yellow flowers blooming in their front yards. I don't know what they are, but they sure are pretty. 

      One older home had a front yard lined with hedges that were just budding with tiny red flowers.

     I had to go in for a closeup of these pretty pink and purple flowers.

     At the First Church of Christ Scientist a row of Andromeda bushes lined the driveway.

     On the way home another of the daffodils caught my eye. I guess the daffodils are my favorite. I hope you, too, can enjoy some nature, wherever you are. In the meantime, be safe, be well.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Views of the Virus - Part II

     Like everyone else, my wife B and I are mostly staying home these days.We read books, watch Netflix. Our big event of the day is going outside for a walk, making sure to give a wide berth to anyone we meet on the street.

     The weather has been pretty warm where I live in eastern Pennsylvania. Spring is arriving early. The forsythia is coming out. The trees are budding. The daffodils are blooming.

     So I've spent some time outside cleaning up the garden beds, cutting back the hedge by the fence. I was raking up some leaves in the front yard on Saturday afternoon when I saw Ryan, our next-door neighbor, walking his two babies. They are very cute, identical twin girls, five months old.

     We got talking, and it soon became clear that Ryan's attitude toward the virus is more like my wife's casual approach than my ultra-cautious view. I asked him if he was working at home. He said he probably could, but didn't really want to. He works in Montgomery County (which has seen 20 "presumptive" Coronavirus cases, compared to only three in our county, meaning people have tested positive but the results have not been confirmed), but he believes the whole thing has been overblown. So he's not worried.

     He couldn't understand the run on the grocery stores. "What are people doing?" he wondered. "And why are they buying up toilet paper? That makes no sense at all."

     I agreed with him about the toilet paper. This is not a virus that affects the gastrointestinal tract. So why does anyone need extra toilet paper?

     B had been to the store earlier in the day. People have been told to stock up on ten days worth of food in case they have to self-quarantine, which is what authorities are recommending for anyone who doesn't feel well, who has been in contact with a suspected Coronavirus case or been overseas recently. Ten days worth of food? That's a lot of milk and orange juice and cereal and dinners.

     But B and I agreed we could easily get along on spaghetti pretty much every night, if we had to. For me, breakfast is simple. It's cereal. For her it's usually a banana and peanut butter.

     At the store the raisin bran (my favorite) was sold out. She got a half gallon of orange juice, because all the quart bottles were gone. She bought a bunch of six bananas -- any more than that and they'd just go rotten. She did not buy any toilet paper, because we have a supply from Costco down in the basement from before we went on vacation. But she did buy more pasta.

     "Was it crowded?" I'd asked her.

     "Oh, yeah," she'd said. "It was crowded."

     Anyway, my neighbor Ryan is in his 30s. I suggested to him that maybe he didn't have to worry too much about the virus, but it is much more dangerous for older people. Deaths in the U. S. have been in people over 60, and most of them had underlying medical issues like diabetes or heart disease. Many of the deaths have occurred in assisted-living facilities.

     I do not live in an assisted-living facility. And to my knowledge I do not suffer from any underlying illness. But I am definitely over age 60. And by the way, I don't want to have it explained to me that . . . oh, what do you know, it turns out you do have an undiscovered underlying medical issue, just as they're hooking me up to a ventilator.

     I joked with Ryan that I'm beginning to think the Coronavirus is a plot against senior citizens. "You Millennials are behind it," I said. "You want to get rid of us Baby Boomers so you don't have to pay our Social Security."

     He laughed. But it's no joking matter. That very evening I found out a national emergency has been declared. Our schools are closed. The libraries are closed. The parks are closed. Our governor has decreed that all non-essential stores, including bars and restaurants, are to be closed. I guess Ryan will be working from home after all.

     I saw an article at Time online called Here's Why Americans Are Hoarding Toilet Paper. It explains that the disease makes us feel helpless, and so we try to regain some control in our lives by doing something. Toilet paper is primal. It's a basic need. And since we are social beings, we're afraid to be seen as unclean or unwell which may result in our being shunned. "Our panic buying," says psychologist Mary Alvord, "represents one thing we can control. In an uncertain moment at least it's something."

     So I'm embarrassed to say, I ducked down in the basement, just to make sure. I counted them up. We have 33 rolls. Think that's enough?

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Different Views of the Virus -- Part I

     I got the email Thursday night:

     HARRISBURG, PA: Gov. Tom Wolf announced additional statewide measures to mitigate the spread of the Coronavirus.

     The Wolf administration said it "strongly encourages the suspension" of large gatherings, events and conferences of 250 people or more.

     Recreational activities like gyms, movie theaters and trips to shopping malls are also discouraged. Religious leaders are asked to "exercise discretion" in order to slow the spread of illness, which now has 21 confirmed cases in Pennsylvania.

     And then the cascade began . . . an email saying the author appearance at our local bookstore was canceled, another announcing our Saturday night dance was off, and one from our local Center in Learning for Retirement saying classes were shut down for the rest of the spring semester. Then the County Theater sent out an email saying it is closing for two weeks.

     My wife B was still undeterred. "We should all go out and get the virus and get it over with," she scoffed. "People are going to suffer more because they lose their jobs than they will from the virus."

     B feels invulnerable, almost immortal, because her mother lived until age 103. So her worry is not that she will die, but that she will live too long. And maybe she will.

     But maybe she won't. And I'm pretty sure I won't. So I'm much more concerned about the Coronavirus than she is. If the governor tells us to stay home, I will stay home. I bought some disinfectant. I've been washing my hands religiously, almost obsessively. I've been out; but I haven't shaken anybody's hand for a week.

     Maybe it's just a matter of how we each deal with the uncertainties of life. Some people just figure, whatever is going to happen will happen, so get on with your life. Others think that what they do matters. They have the idea -- perhaps an illusion -- that they have some control over events.

     On Thursday night, as B was planning her social events for Friday, despite the warnings to avoid crowds, I gave her this analogy. On a normal day, there about about 100,000 airline flights in this country. So, if 2,000 planes crashed every day, would you feel comfortable getting on an airplane? That's a 2% death rate, which is what they're talking about for the Coronavirus.

     She thought about it for a moment. "No," she finally said.

     But in the morning she was talking about meeting a friend for lunch. I suggested not going to a restaurant, but going to her friend's house, or having her friend over to ours. At least then she would only be in contact with one other person who might have the virus, instead of 40 or 50 strangers at nearby tables, any one of whom could have the virus.

     "Oh, I'd be more worried about the kitchen staff," she said. "They're the ones who can't afford to stay home, even if they're sick. So someone might be coughing into my food."

     She is worried about how poorer people will handle this virus. We don't have to go to work, she says, we can afford to stay home and wait it out. But a lot of people have to go to work or they won't be able to pay their rent or buy their groceries.

     But our conversation was cut off by a text. B's friend was canceling the lunch. She didn't want to go out, after all.

     But B just couldn't abide the thought of staying home all day. So she made a date for later in the afternoon, to go walking with another friend. At least, to me, that seemed like a lot safer activity than lunch in a crowded restaurant.

     "Don't forget to practice safe distancing," I called from the safety of my office as she went out the front door.

     "I get it," she called back. "No hugging."