A pandemic diary: A wild weekend!

April 20, 2020

Have I got plans for THIS weekend! Friday I’m finally going to get that Hell’s Angels tattoo I’ve always wanted — and afterward, once my shoulder stops hurting, I’ll hit the bowling alley. Saturday it’s time for a long-overdue haircut, followed by a massage to work the stress of the last several weeks out of my frame.

Sunday, to keep myself limber and relaxed, I’ll join a gym. Monday I’ll start the week with a bang by eating out for the first time in ages! I’ll probably overindulge, so Tuesday it’s back to the gym to work off the eggs, sausage, grits, and hashbrowns from the Waffle House. (Sorry if I just made y’all hungry.)

All this will be possible because the governor of Georgia has decided to reopen the state, though a lot of mayors warned him not to and he didn’t listen. The businesses I’ve mentioned can soon operate again under “guidelines:” masks, screening workers, and social distancing.

Of course, as quite a few people have pointed out, it’s tough to keep six feet apart in a nail salon. Also, Georgia is near the bottom of the barrel in testing, which all the experts say is critical to avoiding another outburst of illness and death.

I’ll spare you my thoughts about the right-wing goons who are pushing to reopen, their rich backers, and the gutless imbeciles who are pandering to them. Personally, I’m not going anywhere except the grocery store for a good long time. I’m not about to risk my life for a movie, a haircut, or even a double order of Scattered, Smothered, Covered, Chunked, Topped & Diced hashbrowns. Take care and be safe.

A pandemic diary: Our daily bread (but not hot sauce)

April 17, 2020

My wife and I are lucky because we can afford to keep ourselves fed and haven’t had too much trouble finding the essentials. Still, “going to the store” is nothing like it used to be.

First off, we never go inside. Too many people won’t keep their distance. Every week, we put together an online order and arrange a pickup time, which is getting tougher because the slots fill up fast. We park in a designated spot, pop the trunk, and a staffer loads the bags — no up-close contact required. If we’re buying beer, like we did today, we leave a driver’s license in the trunk to confirm we’re a few years past 21.

The weekly load

Sound easy? It’s just the start. A few weeks ago, we got home and found we didn’t get everything we’d paid for, so we had to go back to the store (twice). Now, we drive across the road to an empty parking lot and sort through all the bags to be sure the contents match our list. Except for toilet paper we haven’t run into many shortages, though we haven’t been buying large amounts of meat, and today for some reason we couldn’t get Tabasco sauce.

Finally, at home we wipe everything down with disinfectant before stowing it. Some of the experts say this isn’t necessary but as long as grocery workers are getting sick we’re not taking any chances, however small. The people at the local Kroger’s are always helpful, polite, and understanding. One of them told us he’s an actor who was thrown out of work when everything shut down. Now he has one of the most important jobs in the country, and one of the risky ones.

At least the delivery people had sun and mild temperatures to work in today. In the Chicago area, where my photographer cousin lives, schlepping beer and milk around the parking lot would be no fun at all. Take care and be safe.

A pandemic diary: the ugly, the bad, and the good

April 15, 2020

Though I try to avoid cliches, today’s title fits like an old shoe, the one I can never find because some lunkhead (guess who) knocked it under the bed. But I digress. Here’s the latest.

The ugly: A trip to Lowe’s and Home Depot to pick up a few critical items for our new house, which we didn’t want to ask our builder to collect. Despite all the pleas to stay home, on a Wednesday morning both parking lots were so packed that it felt like a Saturday morning in the good old days (a couple of months ago). Some of them were contractors but I’m sure most were just bored, risking others’ lives to finish their honey-do lists and buy things like plants.

Cars, cones, and too many people at the store

At Lowe’s, everyone waited outside at six-foot intervals, with no one allowed in until someone else left. Even so, there seemed to be an uncomfortable excess of people in the place, walking too close to us, entering through the exit, and generally acting like the virus doesn’t exist. Maybe half the customers wore masks. All the employees did, but some put them so low on their faces that their noses and even their upper lips were uncovered.

The bad: We got home and found WalMart had suddenly cancelled today’s grocery delivery because of “unexpected demand.” Well, damn. We have food on hand. I just hope this isn’t an omen of worse disruptions to come.

The good: Our stimulus payment hit the bank account. I’m glad we didn’t have to wait longer than necessary, unlike the millions of low-income people whose paper checks will be delayed because Trump wanted his name printed on them. When I worked for the IRS as recently as 2015, this kind of political meddling was unthinkable. No more.

More good: My cousin Chan, who’s a great photographer, is sharing some of his pictures. The one just below was taken at the Chicago Botanical Gardens.

That’s all for today. I think. Of course, the world could change in the next few seconds. Take care and be safe.

A pandemic diary

I realize this is a drop in the ocean. But I want to record these times in words, if only for myself. It’ll help me sort things out in my head, keep me busy, and ease my writer’s frustration, especially when I get stuck trying to finish my novel-in-progress. I’ll update as warranted, but won’t post just for the sake of it. A babbler and navel-gazer I am not. So here goes.

April 14, 2020

This is day 34 of distancing for my wife and me, or D+34, as they might say in the army. On March 8 we had tickets for a “house concert,” with a great jazz musician playing in someone’s living room, and decided not to go for fear of being in a crowd. Our last restaurant meal was about the same time. Now we hardly go anywhere except the grocery store and even then don’t venture inside: we order online and have the bags brought to the car.

On the scale of suffering, we’re pretty near the bottom. We haven’t gotten sick, nor have any of our family and friends, though we think of them all the time. We have a full pantry and enough of our vital meds to last months. Because we were already retired, our daily routine hasn’t been turned upside down. Our musician friends are streaming their concerts. We know we’re lucky.

I can get by without face-to-face contact if it keeps us alive. There’s no particular thing I’m yearning for and can’t have. I won’t even be upset if they scrub the football season. And of course, I’m still writing.

I do wish I could write about a world where people could go about their lives without sickness, countless human and economic tragedies, desperation, and constant fear. But I’m not a science fiction writer.

Lessons from the last world war

I’ve hardly been out of the condo for three weeks. Except for my wife, my last offline human interaction was five days ago with a grocery clerk. Every time I wash my hands, which is often, I feel like Lady MacBeth: “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” But I know I’m one of the lucky ones and hope everyone understands that yes, we are in this together.

The notion of a common enemy and shared sacrifice is simply foreign to most people in this country. Though the Cold War could have wiped out the world if it turned hot, and a few hard-core preppers even built their own fallout shelters, it generally didn’t affect daily life. Vietnam turned us against each other. Some compared 9/11 to Pearl Harbor, but except for the armed forces and their families, most people didn’t need to do much except take their shoes off at the airport. (Watching “Rescue Me” was optional.)

A collective effort of this magnitude hasn’t been asked of us since World War II. I know some of y’all are about to click away from yet another tribute to the Greatest Generation by one of its boomer children. History is made up of small stories, not big names. My dad’s story offers a few examples for today.

He joined the Army in the spring of 1942 and was assigned to the Air Corps, which was part of the Army then. At the age of twenty-nine he was considered too old to fly, so he was sent to clerical / administrative training in Colorado, then to an air base in Salt Lake City.

When he wrote to his family back in Elgin, Illinois, he always emphasized that he was fine and, “there are a lot of worse jobs in the Army.” He used his great sense of humor to ease the strain of separation, telling his sister how the Colorado post was built in 1888 and still had a regulation that said, “…it was positively against all rules and stuff to shoot buffalo from the barracks window.” He added, “Being in the Army isn’t as bad as a lot of people seem to think, though I wouldn’t be mad if I could get into my blue double-breasted pin stripe suit again.”

What he wanted most was for my mother to join him in Salt Lake City, even if it wasn’t like their old home. “It will be swell having her out here, or wherever I am, and although it won’t be like the place we had, anything will do until this thing is over. Practically everything we have is in cold storage, furniture, car, boat, everything except dreams…if we can keep those out we’ll be okay, and I don’t think we’ll have any trouble doing that.”

A couple of weeks later he wrote to his parents, “There is an awful big show going on, and I’m glad to be a very very small part of it…All of this, like everything else, will come to an end some day, and if sitting here in this office pounding a typewriter all day and part of the night will help to bring that end about, this is where I belong, and I wouldn’t get out for anything, even if they’d let me.”

There’s not much I can add to that. Be safe and look out for each other even if you can’t hug each other. Don’t forget to laugh. This will pass. Take care.

Do not operate heavy equipment while reading this post

Being a writer takes purpose, a thick skin, and not least, concentration. To produce pages, I need to tune out the world and stay in the moment, focused on the story and absolutely nothing else. It makes me appreciate my grandmother’s favorite saying: “One thing at a time, and that done well, is a very good rule, as many can tell.”

I can’t imagine what she’d think of today’s vortex of tweets, texts, multitasking, and general chaos. She’d survive by drawing on the inner strength that carried her through the Depression and other very tough times. She certainly would not give a darn (her word) for self-care snake oil like this video on how to optimize your life.

After watching the thing several times, I’m still not sure if it’s a serious manifesto or a modest proposal but I’ll assume it’s real. Claiming the average person wastes 21.8 hours a week, it gushes, “This six minute video could add years to your life,” and offers various cures. Example: “If you order your coffee while you’re still at the gym, you can pick it up on your way to work practically without having to stop.” What if the place is busy or the barista accidentally gives you—shudder—decaf? You might lose five or ten whole minutes that you could’ve spent learning Ukrainian.

“Read a book while you cook, but not the whole book. There are services now that actually just give you the short version of the book. Same info, way less time.” Try reading a dictionary, pal. “Shorter” ≠ “Same.” It’s “A Tale of Two Cities,” not “A Tale of Two Townships.”

Finally, there’s this, which reads like the writer is on diet pills: “At the gym, check your emails on the bike while drinking a meal replacement shake with an added shot of MCT oil to stabilize the glucose in your bloodstream and prevent you from getting hungry until dinner or maybe ever again. You’re saving time and feeling great. And when you save time and feel great, you’re going to have more time and energy to plan out how to save more time and feel even better.”

This isn’t just snake oil, it’s a pyramid scheme. You multitask and keep one step ahead and plan how to multitask better and keep two steps ahead and plan more efficiently and get three steps ahead and cram more activity into each day and and optimize every last second. The treadmill never stops, let alone takes you to the top of the pyramid.

I’m not saying we should be slackers. All my life, I’ve tried to do each job a little better every day. I worked at being healthier too, because my family has a history of heart attack and stroke. But when I’m off the clock, whether at 5:00 or 9:00 or 3:00 the next morning, I’m done, son. My idea of optimizing is sitting on the porch with friends, listening to music, and drinking beer. What good is adding years to your lifespan if you’ve forgotten how to spend them?

It’s a safe bet that when your optimized life nears its end, you won’t pine for videos and MCT. You will slowly turn your head toward the window and notice the colors of the new grass and the morning sky. You’ll hear a whole gang of birds, each with its own cheerful call, and watch some kids zipping by on bikes, laughing and hooting for no particular reason. You’ll decide this would be a fine time to sit under that big tree with a real full-length book and….

“Slow down, you move too fast
You got to make the morning last
Just kicking down the cobblestones
Looking for fun and feeling groovy” – Simon and Garfunkel

Un visiteur grincheux dans le grand pas si facile, or A grumpy visitor in the big not-so-easy

My wife and I just returned from a jazz education conference in the city where jazz was born, the one that greets the suckers tourists with the slogan “Laissez les bon temps rouler!” or “let the good times roll.” However, after a few days in the conference hotel, les bon temps became le mauvais moment* instead. Here’s the scoop.

  1. After driving for two days, we unpack a little, lie down to rest — and find that our bed is like cement. The front desk offers us another room, but we have to trek around to find a decent bed, then repack and schlepp our stuff. When we try to take a shower in room number two, we have…
  2. No hot water! The desk claims, “the engineers are working on the boiler,” which was probably built when Louis Armstrong was a baby and definitely should’ve been patched up before.
  3. There’s no place to hang hand towels, and we can’t reach them without bending down and riling up our backs. Worse, the shower lacks a grab bar for anyone who’s a little unsteady. Note to hotel: not all guests are young and physically flawless.
  4. We grab some chips and get slapped with an outrageous markup, even by New Orleans standards: jacked up from $4.69 to $8.99. Did I mention that the people at the conference are jazz musicians, educators, and students, none of whom have extra cash?
  5. We lie down for the night and have – wait for it – No heat either! Which we need, because despite the sweltering summers, NOLA gets chilly in winter. We pile on some blankets and try to sleep, but…
  6. In the room right above ours, two young sax players are blowing, in both senses of the word. It takes two calls to the desk before security can quiet them down.
  7. Still no hot water or air next morning. Desk says “noon” for a fix. Guess what?
  8. The lobby and common areas are drenched in some noxious freshener / scent / perfume. Just because it’s New Orleans doesn’t mean it should smell like a cheap cathouse, though of course that’s the best kind. (NOT that I have any firsthand knowledge of such a place. Truly. Really! Just a bit of literary license here. Okay??)

In the end, the hotel owned up to the problems and gave us a free night, which we greatly appreciated. Also, the buffet had world-class bread pudding and grits. (And we found the best king cake in town right up the street.)

I’m not as touchy as I sound. I just don’t like having to struggle with the details of life, especially when it puts the damper on something I love, like music. Forget the bon temps: from now on, my personal slogan is, “Go Ahead and Complain. It Might Be Good for You.”

*A bad time (which you probably figured out).