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.