“I don’t believe in astrology; I’m a Sagittarius and we’re skeptical.”
― Arthur C. Clarke
I’ve lost count of the times someone’s sent me “intelligent, you-should-read-this” coronavirus advice that turned out to be total hooey. Remember the (now debunked) Michigan doctor who told us all to wash our vegetables in bleach? Did you see the guy masquerading as Stanford Hospital board member who claimed holding your breath was an accurate coronavirus test? Now everyone’s talking about the infamous (quickly removed) America’s Frontline Physicians video promoting such discredited “cures” as hydroxychloroquine, zinc, and the antibiotic azithromycin while dismissing masks and quarantines as useless.
One of the “experts” in the video was Dr. Stella Immanuel. Who’s that, you ask?
“Immanuel, a pediatrician and a religious minister, has a history of making bizarre claims about medical topics and issues,” journalist Will Somer noted. “She has often claimed that gynecological problems like cysts and endometriosis are in fact caused by people having sex in their dreams with demons and witches. She alleges alien DNA is currently used in medical treatments, and that scientists are cooking up a vaccine to prevent people from being religious. And, despite appearing in Washington, D.C. to lobby Congress on Monday, she has said that the government is run in part not by humans but by ‘reptilians’ and other aliens.”
OK, that last statement may be true and would certainly explain a lot. Such as why senior White House officials retweeted the America’s Frontline Physicians video, calling it a “must-see.” And yes, I find that deeply worrying.
There’s a lot of crazy misinformation out there. So it’s up to each one of us to use common sense, stay skeptical, and double check our facts against the best scientific evidence we can find.
Take face masks, for instance. Immanuel insists we don’t need them, but I beg to differ — as do the CDC and the World Health Organization. Even the famously unflappable British, who consider it cringeworthy to look ruffled or perturbed in a crisis, have begun requiring shoppers to wear masks.
Until now, I’ve mostly been wearing my face shield, which according to infectious disease specialists offers “about a 96% reduction [in contagion], so it's very, very good.” In the Journal of the American Medical Association, Eli Perencevich, M.D., compared them favorably to masks saying, “We feel face shields are far more effective.” Then two weeks ago my friend Honey alerted me to a news item about a fancy restaurant in Switzerland. “After a coronavirus outbreak where only those wearing plastic visors were infected, the Swiss government has said plastic shields are inadequate protection and should only be worn in combination with a face mask.” Yikes!
Unfortunately, there’s been little (actually, none that I can find) serious scientific study of face shields as protection against coronavirus. Opinions are plentiful and all over the place. For now, I'm favoring cloth masks for everyday outings while I continue my research.
One thing I know for sure: I’m avoiding the MOYOF (mask of your own face) option. Journalist Heather Schwedel bought one for lighthearted entertainment but ended up describing the experience in words like “creepy,” “grotesque,” and “my skin crawled.” Sound like fun? You can commission one on Etsy, the crafts marketplace for under $20.
Etsy vendor Bunny Giuliani told Schwedel, “I took pictures of some of my family and some of my friends and I started printing them on masks and wearing them out to the store. I’d wear my dad’s beard, stuff like that. It was a big hit.” She’s now sold thousands of personalized masks online. Giuliani said employees from a dentist’s office “bought the bottom half of the dentist’s face and they all wore it whenever they were cleaning teeth, to just be funny.” My California dentist, who last Halloween had everyone in his office dress up as characters from the Elton John biopic Rocketman, would probably love to do this. I can only hope and pray nobody turns him on to MOYOFs.
These days masks are all about self-expression, sporting slogans such as “Black Lives Matter,” “Vote,” “Will remove for wine,” or obscenely phrased objections to mask wearing. The small, belligerent minority of aggressive anti-maskers continues to be active on social media. My post Risky and Ridiculous Business: The American Mask War drew some nasty attention from people who called me a dupe, a Nazi, a puppet, and mentally ill. You may not have seen their comments because I took down the ones that crossed the line into actual hate speech.
“What are they going to object to next?” I said to Rich. “Hand washing? Anybody who uses soap is falling for left-wing propaganda?”
Rich laughed. “I have something you need to see,” he said, and sent this to my laptop.
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Meanwhile the press, which finds any juicy story irresistible, continues to give the loonier anti-maskers plenty of attention. Like the guy who walked into a cigar store in in Bethlehem, PA, and when asked to don a mask pulled out a handgun, stole a couple of stogies, and shot at a store clerk. Later he fired an AK-47 at the police. Thank God he’s a terrible shot; as far as I know nobody was hurt. In his defense, his lawyer said he was “not handling the pandemic well.”
Let’s face it, navigating the pandemic is a nightmare. And while most of us are coping better than the cigar store gunman, we all feel overwhelmed at times. I’m one of the most optimistic people on the planet, and even I find myself caught up in dystopian gloom at times.
Growing up in the SF Bay Area, I've seen my city survive Godzilla, aliens, zombies, brain-enhanced apes, cyborgs, a giant octopus, a Bond villain, the Body Snatchers, and of course, killer earthquakes (as in this scene from San Andreas). Unfortunately, with the horror show of the 2020 pandemic, there's no guarantee of a happy Hollywood ending.
But then there are the good days. Like when we really connect with the people we love (even if it’s on Zoom). And when our latest home improvement project turns out to be cheaper and better than we imagined (when does that ever happen?). Drive-in movies are making a comeback; we saw Speed the other night snug in our car. Animal shelters are emptying as people remember how cheering it feels to hug a furry friend. And Tom Cook and Joseph Feeney, who agreed back in 1993 that if either one of them ever won the Powerball jackpot they’d split the money, just divvied up $22 million.
“He called me, and I said, ‘are you jerking my bobber?’” said Feeney, an avid fisherman.
The odds of winning the Powerball jackpot are one in 292 million. Our chances of surviving the coronavirus? Considerably better. The likelihood that we’ll get the ‘reptilians’ and other aliens out of Washington in November? With some hard work, I think we might actually have a shot at it. And no, my friends, I’m not jerking your bobber.
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It happened again a few days ago. I was on the sidewalk in our small California town when a family — parents, three kids, a sweet, goofy dog — began ambling towards me in a convivial cluster. Heartwarming, right? I reacted by leaping smartly into the street, heedless of oncoming traffic, to avoid their unmasked faces. Yes, thanks to COVID-19, I’m not only honing my agility, I’m finding myself far less fearful of everyday hazards. I try not to do anything too foolish, but I just don’t have the anxiety bandwidth to get exercised about cars, canned goods slightly past their sell-by date, the effects of excessive TV on my brain, or what shade of lipstick (if any) to wear under my mask.
A couple of days ago I stood looking in a boutique window at a flowery summer cocktail dress that seemed about as relevant to my current lifestyle as a hoop skirt or bustle. Then I walked past the newsstand (remember actual newspapers?) and reflected on how glad I am not to be the writer responsible for digging through the thesaurus every morning to find a compelling yet tactful new way to say, “The virus is winning.”
Later, strolling through a nearby village, I saw a sign that really stopped me in my tracks.
I realized that one of the things COVID-19 had driven from my worry list was the upcoming wildfire season.
As you may have heard, California’s vast forests and delightful climate — sunny, breezy, dry — create ideal conditions for wildfires. Since 1984, climate change has doubled the number of large fires tearing through the state; we had 8,194 last year, consuming 259,148 acres. Don't worry, Rich and I do have a family emergency plan and are updating our evacuation kit this week. And luckily we are well south of the worst danger zone, significantly reducing our chances of waking up in the middle of the night to find our home in flames (as happened to one guy we know). But our entire region is at risk. On hot, dry, windy days, if a live power line goes down, a single spark can create a conflagration of biblical proportions.
Last year, PG&E began declaring “extreme red flag days” whenever they felt it was prudent to avoid fires — and potential lawsuits — by shutting off the electricity for days or weeks at a time.
“I got a text from PG&E,” Rich told me Saturday over breakfast. “They say we should keep two weeks’ supply of non-perishable food on hand to live on during the outages.”
“Great idea. And it’ll come in handy if the coronavirus and the food shortages get worse. You know, when society breaks down completely and there are bands of marauders roaming the streets so we can’t get out to the market.” It’s possible I’ve been watching too many dystopian movies on TV lately. Or perhaps just reading too many these-are-the-End-Times articles. “The real question is,” I said, looking at our compact kitchen’s overstuffed cupboards, “where do we put all that food?”
“The attic?” he suggested.
Getting into our attic requires pulling open the trap door in the ceiling and unfolding the old, rickety wooden ladder — which is perfectly positioned so if you tumbled off it, the momentum would carry you all the way down the main staircase, across the tiny foyer, through the front door, and down six more steps to the street. Not something you want to do holding 10 pound bags of flour and a dozen jars of artichoke hearts.
“The crawlspace under the house?” I offered as an alternative.
“That’s fine unless there’s a flood.” This is only too likely to happen here in San Anselmo, which has waist-high floods about once every 20 years. We’re nearly due, and considering how 2020 has gone so far, it’s pretty obvious this is going to be the year.
In the end, we decided to purchase a small wooden shed and attach it to the side of the house. “We can call it the Armageddon Food Locker,” I suggested. “Or wait, I know, Apocalypse Chow!”
The shed is now on order, and I’m busy compiling a list of groceries to go in it. One of my first considerations was bread making, which I view as a spiritual, emotional, and physical necessity under any circumstances. Could I find a recipe that called for non-perishable ingredients only? Reviewing old favorites, the solution leapt out at me. My World’s Best Irish Soda Bread only has four ingredients: flour, baking soda, salt, and buttermilk. Would it work, I wondered, with powdered buttermilk? I got ahold of some and tried it last night. Yes! The dough was much wetter and gooier, so I added extra flour, and it came out fine.
Working out a way to make bread with survival rations was highly fortuitous, as I was really eager to try a recipe just sent by a friend: the grilled chocolate sandwich.
“It’s perfect,” I explained to Rich. “All the ingredients can be stored in the shed, at least until they’re opened. You take two slices of bread, drizzle them with olive oil, cover one with chocolate chips, and close up your sandwich. Then — and here’s the part you’ll love — you mix mayonnaise and brown sugar, slather it on the outside, and fry it up like a grilled cheese sandwich. They say since mayo is made from eggs, the bread is almost like French Toast. I feel I owe it to my readers to test it out. Are you in?”
“Are you seriously asking if I want to eat a fried chocolate sandwich? How long have you known me?”
As soon as I scooped it out of the frying pan, Rich tasted the sandwich — and closed his eyes in bliss. “Spectacular.” One bite and I decided that was an understatement. The lightly caramelized, sweet-salty exterior combined gorgeously with the burst of molten chocolate. At a friend's suggestion I'd added peanut butter to one half as an experiment, making the sandwich even richer. I couldn't decide which half I preferred and kept doing taste testings until all that remained were a few smears of chocolate on my fingers.
[Want to try this at home? My version of the recipe (two servings) calls for 2 tablespoons mayonnaise, 1 tablespoon dark brown sugar, 4 slices Irish soda bread, 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, a generous 1/4 cup chocolate chips, 1/4 cup peanut butter. All measurements are very approximate, as I measure by eye and with ingredients like these, I believe it's really the more the merrier.]
When I could speak again, I said, “I know it’s not the usual healthy stuff we eat. But this is Apocalypse Chow. The sugar will give us quick energy, and there's enough protein in the peanut butter to keep us going.”
“If zombies attack, we can distract them with these sandwiches and make our escape.”
“If zombies attack, I’d say our days — our minutes – are numbered. But hey, as a last meal, this is just about perfect.”
If you don’t happen to live in a zone prone to fires, floods, earthquakes, and/or zombies, you may (rightly) be worried about the fat, cholesterol, and sugar content of the grilled chocolate sandwich. And despite Rich’s requests, I’m not adding this to our regular meal rotation. But on days when the world seems to be spinning out of control, it’s good to know you have something in your repertoire suitable for occasions that call for eating like there’s no tomorrow.
Do you have any recipes that only require non-perishable foods? Suggestions for what to store in our emergency food locker? I'm working on my shopping list, so please share your advice in the comments below.
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Of all the bonehead ideas floated in the 1950s — the curved-barrel machine gun for firing around corners, the vest-pocket ashtray, and bird diapers come to mind — the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab for children is a hot contender for top prize. Giving a kid a box of radioactive uranium ore to play with at home — what could possibly go wrong? Incredibly, it was marketed as a safer alternative to the American Basic Science Club’s Atomic Energy Lab kit, which let youngsters experiment with both uranium and the far more radioactive radium. Frankly, it's a miracle anyone from that generation survived to adulthood.
Brushing up on fun yet terrifying facts about the 1950s was part of my prep for a recent date night — one of the strategies Rich and I use to keep things fresh after 33 years of marriage and five months of pandemic togetherness. The evening’s 1950s theme was inspired by our acquisition of an icon from the era: a metal porch glider. Durable, cheap, and surprisingly comfortable due to their springy construction and smooth rocking motion, gliders became the darling of post-WWII America, and when Rich and I ran across one at a bargain price in a second-hand store, we couldn’t resist its retro charm.
Going old-school on the date night menu, I served onion dip and chips, meatloaf, and corn on the cob. Updating them just enough to keep our arteries from hardening completely, I used yogurt instead of sour cream in the dip, and dug out my Unbelievably Moist Turkey Meatloaf recipe. After those virtuous substitutions, we felt free to slather the corn with butter and sprinkle on plenty of salt.
For entertainment, we listened to Elvis, Billie Holliday, and the Rat Pack as we played the Welcome Back to the 1950s Trivia Quiz, with questions like these:
What was the subject of Nixon’s “Checkers” speech?
A. Cocker Spaniel dog
B.The game of politics
C. A favorite pastime
What did the 1954 law Brown v. Board of Education prohibit?
A. School segregation
B. School sports
C. Affirmative action
[Way before your time? Find the answers below.]
Nothing says the fifties quite like low-budget sci-fi flicks with mutants covered in jelly, aliens in aluminum foil suits, and flying saucers crafted from actual saucers. I invited Rich to choose one of these classics B movies to watch.
He picked The War of the Worlds, whose special effects — laughably cheesy by modern standards — won an Oscar in 1953 and helped launch the modern sci-fi movie industry. The timing was perfect. The American public, having witnessed Nazism, Fascism, and our own pilots dropping atomic bombs on Japan, were already braced for global catastrophe. A “soul-chilling, hackle-raising” movie about Martians invading Earth resonated with the apocalyptic paranoia of their times — and our own.
“We’re living in a dystopian movie,” my brother Mike remarked the other day during a discussion of (what else?) the pandemic. “The question is: are we victims or heroes?”
I suspect most of us feel like a bit of both these days, wanting to cower under the covers until all this is over, then forcing ourselves to climb out of bed every morning and do what we can to look after ourselves and one another.
Mike’s question made me stop and consider what makes someone a hero. Hollywood likes to represent them as winner-takes-all champions, but in real life, heroism is mostly about showing up. Like the New York nurses who volunteered to go to Houston and are there now, running coronavirus testing clinics. Among them is Kristine Chan, who lost her grandfather to COVID-19. "July 17th was supposed to be my wedding in Cancun, Mexico,” she said. “But here I am in Texas.”
Grocery store workers are heroes, too, for keeping us all supplied with wine, food, toilet paper, and did I mention wine? And now they have to watch out for whackos like George Falcone of New Jersey. Annoyed when a supermarket employee reminded him to maintain social distance, he (allegedly) moved closer, coughed on her, and said he had coronavirus; he then spent 40 minutes harassing and threatening the staff. Yes, he’s facing charges now. But that doesn’t make it any easier for workers to go to their jobs, knowing the next whacko might actually have COVID-19.
Among our modern-day heroes, I count everyone who is out peacefully protesting against systemic racism and police brutality. My mother raised me to speak out against injustice, and like most people, I haven’t done it as often as I should, but I am doing it now. Mom once worked on a committee with one of her heroes, Coretta Scott King, who said, “It doesn't matter how strong your opinions are. If you don't use your power for positive change, you are, indeed, part of the problem.” Or as a popular meme puts it, “If you ever wondered what you would have done during the Holocaust, slavery, or the Civil Rights movement, just look at what you’re doing now.”
Real-life heroes rarely score an easy, comprehensive victory or stand tall in the last scene being cheered by thousands. Most quietly work for the common good, providing others with food, medical care, or the simple comfort of a lighthearted remark that brightens hearts on a dark day.
I have to admit I dozed off halfway through The War of the Worlds, but I woke up in time to see my fellow earthlings trembling in terror as the Martians rampaged across Earth zapping everything to dust with their death rays, unstoppable even by atomic bombs. Then at the eleventh hour (you’ll appreciate the irony of this!) the Martians were destroyed by a virus. The alien anatomy had no defense against our infectious germs. The film's protagonists were heroes not because they defeated the Martians, but because they helped hold humanity together until our luck turned.
Science fiction teaches us how to live in a nightmare world, where forces beyond our control are running amok and there’s no guarantee that we will win the day. Not everybody can lead a team of scientists cracking the code that will make the world safe for humanity. But we can all make everyday choices based on our better nature and common sense — for instance keeping our kids safer by wearing masks and not giving them radioactive atomic toy sets to play with.
“We are, in many ways, a hopeful species,” said sci-fi author Josh Vogt. “Hope gives us strength, and fantasy and science fiction … represent endless possibility and the belief that there is always something wild and wonderful yet to be discovered. Even if there’s danger or even death along the way, we have the ability to be brave and persevere in the hope of reaching a better existence.” So hang in there, everybody. Be brave, persevere, and when all else fails, watch cheesy sci-fi movies to learn how others managed to survive in scenarios even more hair-raising than our own.
[Quiz Answers: A. Accused of corruption, Nixon said the only gift he accepted was the dog Checkers. Also A. The court said, “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”]
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Rich loves swimming and normally does laps several times a week. Years ago in the locker room of his Cleveland gym, he noticed a man heading toward the pool — stark naked.
“Excuse me,” Rich said politely. “There’s a rule you need to wear a suit in this pool.” The man shot him a “Well, duh” look. Rich tried again. “I think they’re pretty serious about it.” The man just stared at him. Finally Rich pointed to the fellow’s nether regions. “You might want to think about that.” The guy glanced down, then did a horrified double take. “Oh, my God. Thanks!!” He dashed back to his locker to don his swim suit.
As you’ve no doubt heard, this is precisely what’s NOT happening nowadays when people are reminded that they are required to wear face masks in public.
Although face covering is mandated by law in many states, including here in California, trying to get Americans to cover up in stores, let alone on the street, can lead to confrontations in which people throw insults, racial epithets, glasses of water, even punches. As one Minnesota woman put it, “I never in a million years would have thought that working in a grocery store would have been considered a high-risk job.”
Has America completely lost its mind? The jury is still out on that one. But in Zoom call after Zoom call, I’m having a tough time trying to explain all this to friends in other countries.
“Did they somehow miss the news there’s a pandemic?” ask my amigos. “Are they unaware that face masks can save their lives? Their grandmothers? Perhaps thousands of others? How is that not worth the effort?”
I explain that with America balked of its traditional sports, COVID-19 has become the latest political football, another hard-fought scrimmage in our endless culture war.
A culture war is about symbolic thinking: a mask isn't just a mask, it defines your loyalty to a social group. Politicians gain power by making us believe that every issue comes down to us against them, with our entire way of life at stake. By reframing the pandemic as a hoax designed to rob you of something precious, they stir up emotions they hope will carry people to the election booth in November.
I believe that underneath all the bluster, the COVID-19 deniers are desperately afraid. At this point, with three million reported cases in the US, on some level the anti-maskers have to know they've placed themselves at high risk by refusing to protect themselves. They've backed themselves into a corner, and fear is making them lash out.
Big chain stores have become a battleground. In a group Zoom call on Monday, my friends Marlene and Lonnie told of going into a Long Island Lowe’s, where they noticed the clerk serving them had a face mask down around her chin. Thinking this was simply an oversight, Marlene suggested to the clerk she might want to pull the mask up. The clerk became incensed, repeating hotly, “My body, my face!” Being civilized people, Marlene and Lonnie didn’t resort to screaming or violence; they left the store and filed complaints. “Management said all the right things,” Marlene said, sounding doubtful that anything would be done.
At this point in the conversation, our friend Julie mentioned that he'd been aghast to learn of a massive July 4th beach party taking place not far from his home on Fire Island, New York. Hundreds gathered without masks or social distancing. Julie, who is a paramedic, said he’d like to tell the revelers, “If you think a mask is uncomfortable, you’re really going to hate the ventilator.”
Eventually postings on social media tipped off the Fire Island police, who broke up the party. But most often it’s left up to individuals to figure out how to act responsibly. As co-owner of Antique Sugar, a vintage clothing store In Phoenix, Arizona, Sarah Bingham asked customers to wear face protection and gave masks to anyone who needed one. Most cheerfully complied, but some turned hostile. “They wanted to argue about it and just tell me it didn't work, or that it was stupid," she said.
Eventually she posted this sign.
As you can imagine, she got a some angry messages and threats. But she also received a flood of voice mails from grandmothers all over the world who wanted to thank her for defending them. Reddit praised her for “telling it like it is.” Due to all the fuss, she now posts a security guard at the door. And she continues to make sure her staff and customers wear protection. “If I get it at work and end up passing it to somebody that can't recover, that's the most awful thing in the world, and we need to be thinking about other people, not ourselves," she said.
For many of us, it's scary to think of being unprotected in any public place, and that goes double for hospitals. Ten days ago, my brother Mike, visited an emergency room in Seville, Spain after a spectacular fall off his bicycle.
Nearly home after a long ride, as he passed Seville's Plaza de Armas bus station, he hit a bump, flew over the handlebars, landed hard, and briefly lost consciousness. Yes, he was wearing a helmet, which is why he’s alive today. A couple of passing strangers stopped, helped him to the side of the road, collected his gear, locked up his bike, phoned his wife, called an ambulance, and waited with him until the paramedics arrived.
Rushing into the hospital’s crowded waiting room, Deb found Mike sitting in a wheelchair dazed, confused, scraped up, bleeding, and barefaced.
“Where’s your mask?” she demanded.
“In my pocket…?”
Knowing Deb, I can be sure eye-rolling ensued as she helped him put it on. Over the next four hours, the hospital staff ran test after test and seemed incredulous when they didn't find any real damage. Other patients and their families began to take an interest; one woman asked Mike’s name and went to check with the staff to make sure he was being properly cared for. When the results of the last test, a CT scan, finally came in, Deb told the woman Mike was muy bien (very good). And everyone around them burst into applause.
And that’s my whole point. Most people are kind enough to care about the fate of strangers. They don’t want to be responsible for killing anyone’s grandmother, or for letting my brother suffer by the side of the road or get lost in the shuffle of a busy emergency room in a foreign country.
These are fearful times, and it’s hardly surprising that some folks are scared silly and acting up in ways that attract media attention. Luckily we don’t have to let them set the tone for our times. The pandemic is going to be with us a while, and we’ll all have plenty of opportunities to step up and act decently, supporting each other during the darkest hours and celebrating together every time something turns out — despite all odds — to be muy bien.
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When I was a college freshman, one of my roommates came home from a consciousness-raising seminar and announced that from now on she was eating nothing but purple foods. “They have the highest karmic level,” she explained. Some guru had convinced her beets, blueberries, and raspberry ice cream would keep her karma in tip top condition. Luckily she moved out soon after that, leaving me with dark stains on the kitchen sink and a cynical view of fad diets.
Many years later, when I was working as a health editor for a magazine, I often ran across dietary advice that seemed equally loony to me, and I was all set to laugh off the idea stress could be reduced by eating certain foods — including (you’ll love this) beets and blueberries. But then I read the science behind some of the claims, and I realized it wasn’t all hooey. In the past few years I’ve written about how coffee lowers depression and chocolate reanimates our brains. Lately I began wondering what current research showed about other feel-good fare. Because if specific foods can alleviate stress and anxiety, clearly I need to be adding them to my shopping cart right now.
As you may have noticed, this has been a pretty discouraging week for those tracking the progress of COVID-19 here in America. The chaos and craziness are spiking along with our infection rate, and there’s no end in sight. “This is no longer something to get through,” my brother-in-law Jeff said Monday. “This is our life now.” His tone reminded me of a comedy about a comet on a collision course with Earth, where the protagonist says in amazement, at the start of every episode, “This is it. The actual apocalypse.” OK, maybe our situation isn’t quite that dire. But just about the only thing we can predict with any certainty is that our future will include more bad news and high anxiety. If there are food items that can ease the mental pain, I’m ready to pile them on my plate.
So what should we eat to reduce stress and increase our sense of wellbeing? In a spirit of selfless research on behalf of my readers, I spent this week trying out recipes recommended as mood enhancers. I know, it’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it, and Rich kindly volunteered to help.
“More comfort food?” he said. “I’m in!”
Top on every list of mood enhancers are salmon, sardines, and other fish bursting with Omega-3 fatty acids. Studies have shown that eating more fatty fish is associated with lower rates of depression and an increase in our ability to think clearly. Who doesn’t need that, especially in these challenging times? Rich happily fired up the barbecue for a batch of Grilled Salmon Burgers with Avocado Salsa, sourced from the appropriately named Laughing Spatula.
[Don't worry, I've included links to the recipes below.]
Avocados are high on most lists, too, containing not only those feel-good Omega-3 fatty acids but large amounts of a B-vitamin called folate. Scientists believe folate deficiency messes up mood-influencing chemical messengers known as neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, etc.) causing irrational fears and anxiety. I’m not saying more folate will make all our worries — or the coronavirus — fade from consciousness, but hey, let’s keep the guacamole coming and see what happens.
Most green vegetables contain plenty of folate plus other brain-beneficial vitamins and antioxidants. Broccoli and artichokes are considered particularly good mood boosters, so with my vegan sister and brother-in-law coming to lunch on Monday, I added a large jar of grilled artichokes to the simple, yummy Vegan Broccoli Rice Casserole. I’ve had long discussions with Kate about social distancing protocols, and this was a practice run for summer entertaining, 2020-style. I wanted a one-dish meal I could serve on the deck, with proper social distancing and full non-contamination procedures. I baked it in two small casserole dishes, so each couple could have one to themselves. When it was ready, I put on my mask and oven mitts to remove their portion from the oven, placing it on the table in front of them, piping hot and absolutely germ free. They seemed to appreciate the gesture and love the casserole.
Yogurt is another top mood food. It’s full of probiotics, which, like the more familiar antibiotics, are active microorganisms; yogurt's probiotics are great for digestion and, according to recent research, can be a powerful way to fight depression. I used to buy low-fat brands, but a few years ago in Athens, I fell in love with the rich flavor of full-fat Greek yogurt. Does it have more mood-boosting benefits than the watered-down variety? It does for me. When Rich and I made Persian Grilled Chicken, which is marinated overnight in whole-milk yogurt, saffron, and lemon, the results were little short of nirvana. We served it with Pear Salad with Dried Cherries and Candied Walnuts, because A) green leafy vegetables and nuts are full of Omega-3s and antioxidants, and B) they had me at candied walnuts.
OK, about those beets and blueberries. It turns out my college roommate wasn’t entirely bonkers. Well, maybe she was; incredibly, there has never been any proper, in-depth scientific research into the effects of purple food on karma. But blueberries now top the list of superfruits, reducing depression, improving mental and physical equilibrium, enhancing memory, clarifying our thoughts, and much more. This was thrilling news for me, as I happen to love blueberries on my morning oatmeal (a brain-boosting grain that stabilizes blood sugar and reduces mood swings).
As for beets, they contain betain, a vitamin that helps produce serotonin, along with mood-stabilizing magnesium. But that’s irrelevant in our household, because Rich finds beets utterly revolting and wouldn’t eat one to save his life, much less add pep to his step. “I have to draw the line,” he said. “If you want to research beets, you’re on your own.”
So I didn’t cook any beets, nor did I follow through on my plan to try making Loaded Anti-Stress Chocolate Chip Cookies. I purchased all the ingredients, then realized the recipe required grinding 2.5 cups of raw oats into flour, which using my mini coffee grinder would take approximately the rest of my life. I began hyperventilating at the very idea. Then it occurred to me that the recipe was totally superfluous. All chocolate chip cookies are sure-fire anti-stress fare; you no doubt have a favorite recipe and don’t need me to tell you how fabulous you feel biting into one warm from your oven (or even just reliving the memory).
It’s heartening to know that some of the most delicious foods in the world are good for our bodies and spirits in unexpected ways. They not only give us pleasure but may help us navigate our turbulent times with a bit more energy, grace, and humor. As the Irish saying goes, “Laughter is brightest where food is best.” Bon appetit, amigos.
Discovered any great, mood-enhancing recipes? Please tell me about them in the comments below.
MORE ABOUT MOOD FOODS TO LIFT YOUR SPIRITS ON DARK DAYS
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For inspired lunacy, it’s hard to beat the idea of a pandemic mask printed with the lower half of your very own face. We’ve spent months feeling stripped of our visual identity by surgical masks and struggling to express our personalities through face coverings of cheery print fabrics or don’t-mess-with-me dark solids; is now the time to show the world who we really are? Maskalike is hoping to launch their line of personal face masks soon. In the meantime, how about a t-shirt that shows what you looked like back in the days when we all went around barefaced?
During the early months of the pandemic, underemployed creative types kept busy posting memes and song videos we could all enjoy for free. Now they’re designing and marketing products that let them express the same humor and existential angst, only now they’re hoping to make a few dollars by turning them into saleable items like t-shirts and mugs. A quick scroll through Etsy, an online marketplace for cottage industries, reveals a wealth of wit and wisdom.
Chuckling over a clever t-shirt is just one small way to lighten these dark times and help us maintain a grip, however tenuous, on our sanity. I recently received an article from my medical provider titled, “Is the coronavirus pandemic affecting your mental health?” (Is it paranoid to wonder if they sent this to everybody or just me?) The story linked to a podcast about the symptoms that could indicate you need psychiatric help, including:
Let’s face it, if you’re not experiencing at least some of those symptoms, you haven’t been paying attention lately.
Just this morning I heard on the radio that California’s numbers took an uptick of worrying proportions: 42,000 new COVID-19 cases in the last two weeks, representing 25% of the state’s total cases so far. It’s hard to match up those figures with the “let the good times roll” atmosphere I’m seeing around me. Our little town of San Anselmo has started closing the main thoroughfare on weekends to allow café tables to spill out into the street. Friends gather there in clusters to enjoy the fine weather, great food, famous Napa wines, and the opportunity to exchange droplets without any of those pesky masks getting in the way. The virus, said this morning’s radio announcer, is no longer focused on institutions such as nursing homes and prisons; it’s jumped to households.
To me, all this rampant unprotected mingling seems like an open invitation for the coronavirus to spread throughout my community and keep killing us for years.
Walking past the crowded picnic benches and café tables in downtown San Anselmo, I began experiencing low mood, loss of appetite, lack of joy, racing heart, shortness of breath, and considerable irritability. In fact, I found myself scowling so fiercely at a barefaced woman walking by that she hurriedly pulled her bandana up over her nose and mouth and increased her speed to get away from me.
“Oh my God, Rich,” I said. “I’m turning into the town curmudgeon.”
People keep saying, “It’s time to start living normally.” If only! There seems to be a widespread belief that the pandemic is all over but the shouting, and that the government wouldn’t let us reopen businesses and hold public gatherings if it wasn’t safe. Do I really need to provide a list of the things the government lets us do that have proven, time and again, to be extremely bad ideas? For obvious starters, there’s binging on cheap alcohol, having sex with inappropriate strangers, and smoking cigarettes and/or excessive amounts of marijuana. And then there's all the risky business with science and technology. Didn’t we learn anything from Frankenstein? Or Jurassic Park? Or FindFace, the new Russian app that’s apparently designed for stalkers?
“If you find yourself in a café with an attractive girl, and you don’t have the guts to approach her, no problem,” says the ad, which was showcased on a program about the dangers of facial recognition software. “All you need is a smartphone and the application FindFace Find New Friends. Take a picture and wait for the result. Now you’re already looking at her profile page.” Could that be any creepier?
As far as I know, FindFace is only available in Russia, which kind of makes you want to scratch Moscow off your travel itinerary, doesn’t it?
You won’t be heading there soon in any case; Russia is one of many countries that haven’t yet unsealed their borders. The EU is slowly opening up to international travel, but so far they’re planning to keep Americans out due to concern over our nation’s infection rate. Before considering any trip abroad, see comments above re: things you may be able to do but probably shouldn’t. And then read about the perils and aggravation of My Harrowing Pandemic Journey from Seville to SF. If you’re still determined to go, here’s the latest info on what, when, and how countries, airlines, and hotel chains are reopening around the world.
If you’re wisely refraining from international travel, don’t worry, you can still pick up exotic souvenirs to wow your friends. Alabama-based Unclaimed Baggage is the nation’s only retailer selling the contents of suitcases left behind at airports for more than three months. And while most of the contents are just as boring as you’d imagine, and wind up going to charity or the recycling center, there have been many extraordinary finds. Over the years, staff members have unearthed an Egyptian burial mask, a camera from the space shuttle, a Tibetan ceremonial horn, Chinese opium scales, an entire bear pelt packed in salt, and one live and rather bewildered rattlesnake — which was not offered for resale but given away to a good home.
People everywhere are adapting to the strange new rules we live by. This week Barcelona’s opera house, the Gran Teatre del Liceu, held a performance, billed as a prelude to its 2020-2021 season, in which a string quartet played to a capacity audience composed of 2,292 plants donated by local nurseries. The leafy crowd seemed to enjoy Puccini's Crisantemi, which was also livestreamed to humans. After the show, the plants were gifted to health care professionals who work at the Hospital Clínic of Barcelona.
Despite all the shocks and changes, our world remains a wild and wonderful kaleidoscope of human creativity. There’s plenty of inspired lunacy to keep us thinking and chuckling as we learn to navigate our crazy new normality and find ways to stay safe while living fully and joyfully. On good days, I believe this first round of the pandemic will finally subside, and we’ll somehow avoid a second wave in October. It’s up to all of us to do what we can to make that happen. I’m thinking of buying this t-shirt in case anyone needs a reminder.
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"If you're going through hell, keep going."
I’m not much of a spelunker, but some years ago, I found myself deep underground on a private “wild tour” of West Virginia’s Organ Cave,.
“How long does the tour take?” I’d asked at the outset.
“Sorry, we only have three; we need to get back for a business dinner.”
“OK, we’ll do it in three,” said the guide, bounding like a mountain goat down the rocks.
Scrambling after him through the winding caverns, our only light the headlamps on our miner’s hats, Rich and I eventually reached a vast cavern with a row of stalactites that could, if you squinted just right, be said to look like a pipe organ. We had about thirty seconds to gawp at its magnificence and then we were racing back.
I was doing all this in old, slippery sneakers and was frankly feeling pretty proud of how well I was managing until halfway back, when I ran into trouble.
I’d dropped a little behind while navigating slender footholds on either side of a narrow crevasse. The gap kept getting wider and the space for my feet narrower until I ran out of footholds. I flashed my headlamp wildly around, seeking any way forward; nope, I was well and truly stuck. I called out and the guide sprinted back to help. “Look again,” he said and shone his headlamp over the rim of the crevasse. There, below the edge, were abundant outcroppings of rock and packed earth, offering easy footing all along the way.
I’ve thought of that moment a thousand times in the years since, most often when I’m trying not to panic over something — like this week’s Washington Post piece “The coronavirus pandemic isn’t ending, it’s surging.” While some countries, such as New Zealand and Taiwan, have eradicated the virus, the US is still in deep trouble, with death tolls predicted to reach 200,000 by October. The optimism, or economic desperation, that fueled the reopening is giving way to gloom. “As the long, hot summer of 2020 begins,” said an article in The Atlantic, “the facts suggest that the U.S. is not going to beat the coronavirus. Collectively, we slowly seem to be giving up.”
I can’t speak for all of America, but around here the attitude isn’t so much despair as discombobulation. Official information is skimpy, advice conflicting, directives vague. “The administration’s guidelines for ‘opening up America again’ are so bereft of operational specifics that they’re like a cake recipe that simply reads, “Make cake,” wrote Ed Yong in The Atlantic. We’re all stumbling in the dark. “As things change the uncertain feelings seem to stay the same,” my friend Kitty wrote in a comment on my post last week. “What should I do or not do?”
Kitty, the only thing I can tell you for sure is that we should all start planning for the long haul. Experts predict the pandemic could easily hold us in its grip for two years. Let’s hope they’re not being as overly optimistic as the Spanish officials who told us in March that lockdown would last two weeks. Whatever the timeframe turns out to be, it behooves us all to take a deep breath, stop talking about “when all this is over,” and start figuring out how we’re going to live the best lives we can now, in the shadow of COVID-19.
How? According to positive psychology, there are five key elements of a happy life:
“Bread baking has become an empowering and meditative act,” wrote Katharine Gammon in the Guardian article “Kneeding to relax? How coronavirus prompted a surge in stress baking.”
I started baking in earnest a few days after the start of lockdown, when our last loaf was gone and I wanted to dissuade Rich from risking his life venturing out in search of an open panadería. Being lazy and lacking yeast, I sought out an Irish soda bread recipe, finding one with such good texture and flavor it’s become a mainstay. My friend Phil has spent the pandemic perfecting his sourdough bread; I haven’t had the pleasure of tasting it yet, but it’s already legendary. My brother-in-law Jeff’s olive bread, left as a welcome gift on our return to California, was absolute nirvana.
(Find links to all three bread recipes below.)
On lockdown in Spain, Rich and I spent countless hours researching recipes and now we’re both hooked on experimenting in the kitchen. Last night was one of my best efforts: a Greek version of meatloaf. Is that brilliant or what? You stuff ground turkey with spinach and feta (since I was out of that, I used herbed goat cheese) and drizzle it with tzatziki sauce made from Greek yogurt and the fresh herbs we just bought. The only disappointment? A serious lack of leftovers. Another hot favorite this week was Easy Baked Tilapia topped with lemon-parmesan breadcrumbs.
I used to love gathering over meals with friends and family, but now that’s not possible or wise, so we’re connecting online in all-new ways. Last week, Rich invited old Navy buddies to a dive bar Zoom party, where each of us created the atmosphere of a funky tavern, donning various suitably goofy accoutrements such as Dave’s Bud Light Stetson and Jill’s hot pink wig. This week we have the Marble Olympics; with bets (benefitting charity) placed with my brother and his wife, the excitement is really mounting.
Such entertainments may seem trivial, but they’re what explorer Earnest Shackleton used to keep his men alive and sane when their ship was crushed by ice and the crew was trapped on Antarctica for 2 years and 22 days. He organized weekly concerts, soccer and hockey matches, sled dog races, singing competitions, and skits. On one occasion he danced for them; on another, they all shaved their heads for a lark. As one book on Shackleton’s leadership put it, “All of these rituals and celebrations gave the crew a comforting sense of normalcy in a situation that was anything but normal.” Sound familiar?
Establishing a sense of normalcy doesn’t mean casting precautions — or face masks — to the wind and acting like the pandemic is over. In fact, we need to be extra alert now. Seventy-five percent of all mountaineering accidents happen on the way down, when the initial resolve and first giddy thrill of survival have passed, and climbers are tired enough to slack off on their vigilance.
People have survived far worse than this pandemic. Every one of Shackleton’s crew made it safely back to England, and chances are you’ll get through this challenge, too. As I learned in Organ Cave, sometimes all it takes is fresh perspective to realize you’re already on solid footing. “Get yourself grounded,” said outdoors writer Steve Goodier, “and you can navigate even the stormiest roads in peace.”
Earnest Shackleton loaned the men books from his private library on Endurance. A recent restoration made it possible to read the titles for the first time; you can see the complete list here. It made me wonder: What books would I have picked? Which ones would you pack?
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In sci-fi movies, it usually takes an hour and fifteen minutes for the loony but brilliant scientist to look up from the microscope, shout “Aha!,” and announce the breakthrough that will save the human race. In real life, after six months of feverish activity by practically every PhD on the planet, the mystery just keeps deepening. We have managed to figure out a few things, among them that our best lines of defense are (stop me if you’ve heard this already) hand washing, face covering, and social distancing. The first two are simple enough. Social distancing, however, gets more complicated every day.
“As the pandemic presses on and restrictions ease, I’ve been conflicted about what social events to attend, if any,” Jenna Jonaitis wrote in the Washington Post this week. “Denying my parents opportunities to see my son, let alone hug and kiss him, weighs on my heart, and there’s an emptiness in not seeing my sister and her kids. But because so many questions about the virus persist, my family, like many other Americans, is trying to figure out how to socialize going forward.”
I hear you, Jenna. Now that I’m in California and out of quarantine, I’m getting invited out by my nearest and dearest, and while my heart rejoices, my nerve endings are fraying with anxiety. Am I ready to share a table with pals at a restaurant, even outdoors with tables six feet from other diners? Frankly, I break out in a cold sweat just thinking of removing my face shield and sitting bare faced, nose to nose, over a leisurely meal. Maybe it’s just me. My protection parameters were forged in Spain, which had the strictest lockdown in Europe. Are my standards unrealistic? Prudent? The bare minimum to ensure survival?
Who knows? And that’s my whole point.
I understand why others feel it’s safe to socialize more intimately. Here in Marin County, cases have plummeted to nearly nothing. My friends probably are virus-free; a few even have test results to prove it. And I’m feeling pretty good myself. But there’s no guarantee one or another of us won’t pick up the coronavirus five minutes from now, due to someone sneezing all over Starbucks or chatting at a neighborhood barbecue, especially with the influx of summer visitors from all over.
I’ve been asking around, and almost nobody here knows anyone with coronavirus, so I suspect the danger may not seem quite real. For me, it’s only too vivid. One friend in her forties has been battling a particularly vicious case for nearly three months, getting briefly better only to suffer yet another, even more hideous relapse. It’s the stuff of nightmares — and a powerful incentive to be very, very careful not to risk getting it.
Unfortunately, it’s not always clear just how to avoid that risk. Information about COVID-19 remains so sketchy that we all have to devise homemade defense plans. I have friends who have been housebound in near-total isolation since mid-March. Others are constantly out and about, sporadically wearing masks. They invite me over, assuring me their bodies and homes are germ free, even as they mention that the grandkids are visiting from another state, and no, they didn’t quarantine before arrival; for heaven’s sake, they’re family.
Staying completely apart is obviously safest but carries a tremendous emotional burden. People I know living in residential care are totally isolated and starved for human contact. A friend visiting her 97-year-old mother last week discovered there was now a “hugging machine,” a plastic barrier equipped with two pairs of shoulder-length gloves, allowing them to reach through the barrier and wrap their arms around one another. As they kissed through the plastic, her mother began to cry for joy.
So what is the right balance of socializing and safety? My anecdotal, unscientific research led me to The California Happy Hour. “Each person brings their own wine and snacks,” my sister Kate explained, “and we all sit far apart and talk for an hour or so. At first it felt weird not to offer guests a meal or even drinks, but it’s not about food, it’s about fellowship.”
The California Happy Hour
After due deliberation, Rich and I have adopted this plan. If people think I’m silly for insisting on it, they've been too kind to say anything. So that’s family and friends sorted. Getting the larger world to honor my boundaries is trickier. Especially now, when I’m participating in peaceful protests over the killing of George Floyd and others.
Last Thursday I joined 1000 neighbors at a busy intersection during rush hour; protesters waved signs, cars honked in solidarity. The crowd, mostly young people, wore masks and often stood close together. Rich and I wore both face shields and masks, letting folks know we were A) a bit odd, and B) serious about distancing; people gave us a wide berth, and we had no trouble maintaining our distance. We all knelt for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, the amount of time Officer Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck. It felt like a very long time indeed.
On Sunday Rich and I joined a protest in which cars, decorated with posters, drove through our town and several others. Approaching the starting point, the long lineup of cars looked like the final scene in Field of Dreams. Once underway, we were cheered on by bystanders waving their own Black Lives Matter posters. Passing a young family out for a bike ride, I heard the dad saying, “You see, there was this man named George Floyd…” And I remembered my parents saying to me when I was a kid, “You see, there was this woman named Rosa Parks…” And I thought: some of these young people will remember this moment their whole lives.
There’s no perfect formula for keeping safe while staying engaged. We cherish our sense of belonging but don’t want to sacrifice our health, possibly our lives, by getting careless now. Speaking to another generation in challenging times, Churchill said, “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” That’s about where we are today. The first wave of the pandemic has changed our world forever. And it’s far from over. Coronavirus cases have jumped sharply since Memorial Day in many states, including California. And we've all heard the warnings of a possible resurgence in the fall.
Obviously I’m hoping one day soon some loony, brilliant scientist will shout “Eureka!” and start victory-dancing around the lab in celebration of finding a cure. But for now, defining the future is up to us. So we have to ask ourselves: What kind of people — what kind of a country — do we want to be?
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It’s not often I get to set a new fashion in trendy California. But having emerged from quarantine (yay!) completely symptom-free (double yay!!), Rich and I are now out and about and constantly stopped by neighbors who want to ask about our face shields.
I explain they offer good protection, greater comfort than masks, full facial visibility, no fogging of your glasses, and a look that doesn’t say, “I’m on my to perform surgery and/or a bank heist.” The downsides? Alarming moments when insects fly in for a quick look around. “Shield hair” from the rubber bands serving as straps. Forgetting I have it on and whacking the transparent plastic in a disconcerting manner. As for Rich, when his nose itched yesterday, he slowly, painstakingly snaked his sanitized hand up inside the shield — only to realize he was no longer wearing it.
Masks? Face shields? Social distancing? Party animals in Missouri ignored public health directives while celebrating Memorial Day at Lake of the Ozarks. "We expect residents and visitors alike to exhibit personal responsibility at the lake," said Sheriff Tony Helms. Photo by Twitter/Lawler50, via Reuters
We’re all having trouble staying on track in the midst of so much turmoil. Official health advice is confusingly piecemeal, sometimes contradictory, and often ignored. (Yes, I’m talking about you, Lake of the Ozarks.) Food distribution is no longer a well-oiled machine; shortages are common. And (please don’t panic!) Hollywood is delaying production of movies and TV shows. Many of us can easily live without The Spongebob Movie: Sponge on the Run and Mission Impossible 7, but it’s a shame we’ll have to wait until 2022 to see Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness; that one sounded tailor-made for this summer.
But not to worry; creative geniuses around the world are stepping up to fill the void. Check out American Hedgehog Warrior and tell me if you agree Pepper deserves an Oscar for her performance.
I know, right? How did the rest of us get through so many months of quarantine without an athletic pet hedgehog?
If thrilling to Pepper’s exploits whets your appetite for the adrenaline rush of other rip-roaring sporting challenges, stop mourning the loss of baseball, football, soccer, and basketball, and start embracing this year’s hottest competitive event: online marble racing. Like most people, I was totally unaware this sport existed, although to be fair, my interest in most spectator sports is on a par with my desire to sit around watching hand sanitizer dry. But Jelle’s Marble League appeals even to me, with lots of action, practically no rules, colorful visuals, and extremely short games.
Incredibly, the marble league was struggling to find sponsors in these economically challenged times. All that changed when late night comedy newscaster John Oliver decided to step up and bankroll this summer’s races, just in time for the qualifying rounds which start on June 18. Mark your calendar! Rich and I have placed bets with relatives, all winnings going to charities. I’m backing the team Mellow Yellow, which grew a ripe reputation in the Fruit Circuit. Rich is rooting for Balls of Chaos, confident that team leader Anarchy can motivate players Tumult, Clutter, and Snarl to earn more gold medals in the team’s trademark brawling style.
Many of us are turning to homemade fun. My sister Kate, inspired by my post Bar Hopping, Quarantine Style, set up a Zoom Dive Bar Party. Each participant created a funky setting, choosing a theme such as Irish pub, European bistro, or tropical lounge, and going all out with decorations, costumes, and novelty drinks. Brilliant!
Entertainment, once squeezed into the outer margins of our lives, has now taken center stage, recognized as an essential tool for boosting our spirits during these difficult days. Having survived months of anxious confinement, we’re still overwhelmed with grim news, and never more so than this week.
America keeps passing monstrous milestones: nearly two million people diagnosed with COVID-19, more than 100,000 fatalities. You won’t be surprised to learn the hardest hit are communities of color. African Americans have suffered twice the fatalities of white people — 92.3 deaths per 100,000 compared to 45.2 — largely because of economic inequity, says the CDC. With unemployment topping 40 million, almost twice as many black Americans (20%) as whites (11%) have been laid off recently. On top of all that are revelations about the madness of Amy Cooper, aka Central Park “Karen,” and the unprovoked, horrifying murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. Small wonder that people are in the streets shouting “I can’t breathe.”
Most of the protesters are peacefully exercising their constitutional right to speak truth to power. But not everyone is showing restraint, and shocking images of this week's looting and burning are seared in our memories forever, calling to mind disturbing memories of other upheavals and conflagrations.
I remember what it was like waking up on April 29, 1992 and hearing the radio announce the acquittal of the four cops who’d been videotaped savagely beating Rodney King. I was stunned, then incandescent with rage. A family story flashed through my mind, the one in which my grandmother, having been profoundly disrespected by her husband, picked up every plate on the dinner table and threw it at his head. A social contract had been broken, and it was the only way she knew how to express the height of her wrath and depth of her pain. That's not the way I express my feelings, but I understood it on April 29, 1992. And I understand it now. I’m not saying that smashing, burning, and looting are appropriate responses, just that I have some small inkling of why they happen.
“Eventually, doctors will find a coronavirus vaccine,” wrote Roxane Gay in the NY Times, “but black people will continue to wait, despite the futility of hope, for a cure for racism. We will live with the knowledge that a hashtag is not a vaccine for white supremacy. We live with the knowledge that, still, no one is coming to save us. The rest of the world yearns to get back to normal. For black people, normal is the very thing from which we yearn to be free.”
These are heartbreaking times. The number of lives lost and blighted is more than we can bear. The comfort we took from thinking we were all in this together has been shattered. And the only predictable thing about the future is that it’s bound to include yet more shocks and horrors.
So how do we keep from losing our marbles?
For me, it starts with finding ways to be useful. Engaging in a get-out-the-vote project. Writing articles on climate change. Holding Zoom conversations with insightful friends and relatives. Taking long walks and talking with neighbors about face shields. I wish I could add “adopting a hedgehog” to that list, but that hasn’t happened (yet). I did buy Rich, as an early gift for his birthday this Saturday, a marble racing kit that he's spent many happy hours assembling and fine-tuning. Playing with marbles may not help resolve life's big issues, but taking time to share joy and laughter with the people we love is one way to keep our equilibrium as we try figure out how to work for the common good in these turbulent times.
How are you managing not to lose your marbles these days? Let me know in the comments below.
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“There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.”
— Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
I don’t need to tell you that our world has become as bizarre and inexplicable as anything in the loonier fringes of science fiction. Having just returned to my native California after a very long absence, I feel as if I’ve passed through a time warp to arrive on another planet in a galaxy far, far away, possibly in a parallel universe.
Everything's different now, including my name, which is currently being dragged through the mud. I’ve been called Karen since 1951 and always considered it a serviceable moniker, if not particularly romantic or inspiring. Karen is a Danish form of Katherine that’s said to mean “chaste or pure.” (Possibly my parents were trying to send me a message; if so, it didn’t take.) Yesterday I learned that in American pop culture “Karen” has now become synonymous with pushy, sanctimonious, anti-vaccine, down-with-science, quarantine-is-communism, let-me-speak-to-the-manager middle-aged women — like the Tennessee gal photographed holding a sign reading “Sacrifice the weak, reopen TN .” When Las Vegas mayor Carolyn Goodman proposed reopening the city’s casinos early as a “control group” to measure infection rates, she was called “an idiot,” “an actual monster,” and worst of all, “a Karen’s Karen.”
Yikes! Obviously I'll have to change my name to something less cringeworthy. What’s trending now in California? For females, it's often nature themes such as Luna, Meadow, and Elm; pop culture faves like Khaleesi, Lennon, and Paisley; hippy classics including Freedom, Nirvana, and Karma; and such non-binary names as River, Bear, and Noor (which means “light”). Do any of those sound like me? I don’t think so either.
But these days it isn't easy to define myself, let alone the cultural norms I'm supposed to live by. I miss the simplicity of Spain, which has a single national policy based on medical science. Lawmakers brawl over the details behind closed doors, but eventually they hammer out a plan and speak with a single voice, applying the rules uniformly throughout the country, with clear consequences (substantial fines, even jail time) for those who flout the law. You may not agree with every detail of the plan, but you always know where you stand in Spain. Here in America, it’s like trying find your equilibrium on a Tilt-a-Whirl fairground ride.
For instance, the CDC tells everyone returning from abroad to quarantine at home for two weeks, avoiding shared workspaces, classrooms, and public transportation. So far so good. But does that mean I can or cannot go out for walks? Is it OK to put on protective gear and shop for food? When friends drop by, should I ask them to leave? I can’t find a word online about any of this, and believe me, I’ve looked.
The only thing the CDC made abundantly clear is that I'm supposed to make notes twice daily on the form they gave me at the airport, recording any symptoms (cough, shortness of breath) and my temperature. Fun fact: even our body temperature has a new normal. The old standard of 98.6, established in 1851, has been recalibrated to a range of 97.5 to 97.9. Unfortunately, my readings kept falling short of those benchmarks, hovering around 95.5, then 94.3 and finally plunging to 93 degrees. I began to worry I’d contracted a sort of reverse COVID-19 (91-DIVOC?). Eventually, I realized the thermometer was broken. Whew! I tossed out the useless thing and had Amazon deliver a new one the next day.
And this brings me to one of the other gee-whiz-this-really-is-the-future aspects of my life in California: insanely fast online ordering. Yes, Seville has grocery delivery and Amazon.es, but I rarely use them. Even during the lockdown, Rich and I found it quicker and easier to don protective gear and walk to the market one block over. Now, in perpetual confusion over American self-quarantine protocols, I’m playing it safe for everyone’s sake, staying home and ordering online from the market five blocks away. It’s astonishing. Almost before I hit “send,” I start getting texts: Shopping for you now … Out of that brand of honey, how about this one? ... Our driver is on their way … Minutes later the stuff’s at my back door. I couldn’t get groceries that fast if I sent Rich sprinting out to buy them.
Being homebound, I can’t really comment on how the re-opening is going here, beyond noting that my region’s numbers are very low and state officials are proceeding cautiously and systematically, following the recommendations of qualified health professionals. (I know; what a concept!)
Mostly the priorities make sense; markets, pharmacies, gas stations, drive-in movies, dog groomers. But I was shocked to learn that, inexplicably, beauty parlors are not yet on the list of essential services. In Seville, barber shops and hair salons opened two weeks ago, but in the flurry of activity surrounding our departure, I decided to wait until I was back in the US. Boy, am I regretting that decision. Yesterday I persuaded Rich to trim the seriously shaggy mess at the base of my neck. He did well in this test area and may get the rest of the job soon. True, there aren’t a lot of other candidates right now. Although some of those dog groomers might be able to pep up my style.
Looking well-groomed, or at least not hideously unkempt, is my way of prepping for that glorious day when I come out of quarantine and go back into the world, possibly under a new name. Rainbow McCann? Dharma McCann? Nope and nope. I’ve also crossed Harmoni and Wynter off the list, because after a lifetime of proofreading, I couldn't abide going around with a name that looks like a typo.
“Our names,” said essayist Logan Pearsall Smith, ”are labels printed plainly on the bottled essence of our past.” He’s right. “Karen” is writ large on the story of my life. Why should I give it up, just because it’s been temporarily appropriated as shorthand for a particularly appalling category of crackpot? Confucius says, “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.” So hey, everybody, call me Karen.
Are you in a place that's relaxing quarantine and re-opening? How's it going? What are you noticing as you venture out into the world? Let me know in the comments below.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
As we journey through the pandemic together, my blog provides a regular supply of survival tips, comfort food recipes, and the wry humor we all need to lighten our hearts on dark days.
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