Merriment Turns to Mayhem When Halloween Prank Goes Wrong! Every year we see headlines about practical jokes taken too far. Like the October 31st my friend returned from college to find the family home empty, furniture overturned, the kitchen splashed with what looked like blood. She freaked, fled, and called the cops, who tracked down her mother and step-dad at a party, laughing over their hilarious trick. I suspect my friend still has trust issues to this day.
Then there was the high school teacher who wanted to foster Halloween spirit, so he burst into a classroom wearing a ski mask and brandishing a chainsaw roaring at full throttle. A prank about killing children in a school — who could object? The really surprising thing was that in the chaotic stampede only one student broke a leg. The lawsuit was settled out of court for $100,000.
And of course, there’s the famous 1938 “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast, in which a (fictional) Martian invasion was presented in a breaking-news format so real it had viewers calling the authorities in a panic. Cops tried to storm the broadcasting studio to stop the show; the press turned the tale into living legend.
Americans have a history of going overboard at Halloween, and judging by all the skeletons, pumpkins, and giant spiders in my town, families are making the most of the season despite the specter of Covid-19 hanging over our heads. In fact, Halloween — with its apocalyptic atmosphere and emphasis on masks — fits fairly naturally into the pandemic landscape. No doubt pranksters are busy planning over-the-top stunts via Zoom.
Other upcoming holidays —Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanza, Las Posadas, Diwali, Chinese New Year, Winter Solstice, New Year’s Eve — are a bit trickier to navigate.
Let’s start with the big question: is it safe to travel home for the holidays?
The short answer is “no.” But you already knew that.
“Thanksgiving and the winter holidays may look like the only bright spots in the hellscape that is the end of this year, but they come with a unique-to-2020 set of logistical challenges,” writes JR Thorpe in Bustle. “This year, spreading COVID-19 to your community and the people at your table is much more of a threat than your aunt's awful sweet potato casserole.”
“I happen to like my family. But I’m not insane enough to risk death,” 82-year-old Mort Zwick told the NY Times. “I’m not going to rend my garments and cover up the mirrors because I can’t see my children … Every time I miss them, I think of how lousy they were at one stage of their growing up.”
“Mort’s got a point,” Rich said. “It’s the same for holidays; there were plenty of good times, but let’s not forget the lousy parts.” I flashed back to various verbal brawls and embarrassingly inappropriate jokes. The year someone didn’t show up because he was in jail. Close friends who said they never ate any dish their relatives brought because they suspected the food had been poisoned. The time a guest showed up drunk accompanied by a young girlfriend with whom he canoodled on the couch for hours, surrounded by twenty-five guests including his horrified mother and several fascinated adolescents.
Obviously we won’t have that kind of entertainment this year, so we’ll have to rely on our own resources to make the holidays fun and meaningful.
Trick-or-treaters won't be coming to our door this Halloween, so at dusk Rich and I are taking a driving tour of the most spectacular decorations we've found on our daily walks; I can’t wait to admire them in their full, spooky glory lit up after dark. As we cruise around, we’ll listen to songs like "Monster Mash" and of course, wear our masks.
I’ve often wondered why nobody writes Thanksgiving songs, and then I ran across 29 Perfect Songs to Add to Your Thanksgiving Dinner Prep Playlist. It has everything from Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” to Little Eva’s wacky “Let’s Do the Turkey Trot” to Fats Waller’s “All That Meat and No Potatoes,” followed by “Do the Mashed Potatoes,” courtesy of Mr. James Brown. Perfect soundtrack! We’ll be singing along to these golden oldies as we prepare turkey with all the trimmings. (I’m collecting recipes for the leftovers; if you have a good one, please pass it along.)
The great thing about Thanksgiving is that if you eat some turkey, you’ve pretty much fulfilled the ritual and can snooze contentedly in front of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Oh yes, they’re having one, but it’s been reinvented in hopes it won’t become a super-spreader.
The next holiday — which for us is Christmas — involves countless traditions: carols, cards, tree, stockings, presents. Rich and I won’t be celebrating with others this year, but we plan to honor all the customs, plus a few of our own, such as holiday snails. We’ll exchange silly gifts, dress up, cook a feast, eat too much, drink too much, and tell stories of Christmas disasters.
What disasters? Well, there was the time our dog Eskimo Pie found a gift-wrapped rum cake, ate the entire thing, and was discovered in a drunken stupor. Or the year we managed to find a live tree in Seville, back when árboles de Navidad were rare, and right after we decorated it, a strong wind blew through an open window knocking over the tree — which then shed all its needles. And there was that unforgettable moment when I tipped over a bottle of red wine on a snow-white tablecloth while eating Christmas goose with British friends. The list goes on and on.
But when you come right down to it, these moments add spice to the season. Like families, holidays are messy, maddening, and every once in a while, magical. We love them just as they are — not despite their imperfections but because of them.
In 2020, the way to prove how much we love our families is to stay away from them. This morning I heard from a Sevillano friend with whom I’ve celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas for many years. He and several relatives now have Covid-19; one is in the hospital.
“I made the potentially deadly mistake ,” he wrote, “of putting my guard down in a family setting. If nothing else please take this lesson. A common last name is not a certificate of immunity, and no matter how much you love someone we are all strangers when it comes to the virus. I was peer-pressured into excessive stays, not ventilating enough, and tolerating behaviors that exposed everyone... Thanksgiving is going to be a super-spreading event, and the best way to express love to our families is to remain alive for them.”
Like ill-considered Halloween pranks, this year’s holiday gatherings may seem like a good idea at first, but there’s a very real chance they will come back to haunt you and yours. I believe our best move is to fill the next two months with as much love, laughter, and social distancing as possible. And brace ourselves for whatever gobsmacking surprises 2021 has in store for us.
Good luck out there!
Do you have any holiday plans? Disaster stories? Recipes for leftover turkey? Please share them in the comments below.
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One long ago night, Rich burst through our front door shouting, “We have to get rid of the living room!”
“Okay,” I said. “Should I get the sledgehammer?”
“No, I mean reconfigure the space. I just heard a talk by Mike Vance, one of the creative geniuses who designed Disneyland. He says living rooms are too formal. What we need is a kitchen for the mind — a space that’s equipped to nurture creativity the way our kitchen is designed to nurture our bodies. Here, help me move this armchair.”
Over the next several hours, we shoved furniture aside and dragged in a microscope, our desktop computer, books about astronomy and natural science, wind-up toys, a life-size statue of a dog, and dozens of other random objects that had been languishing in obscure corners. By the time we were done, the living room looked far less like Pottery Barn and a lot more like 221B Baker Street, a glorious hodgepodge of brain stimulants.
“Now that’s us!” Rich exclaimed in satisfaction.
Ever since that day, we’ve viewed our lodgings (even temporary ones) as kitchens for the mind. And that’s helped keep the conversation lively all these years. But lately I’ve been looking at our domestic arrangements from another angle.
“Winter is coming,” I said to Rich. “Cold, flu, and Covid season. You can bet we’ll be spending a lot more time indoors.”
And we’ll be doing it in California. Normally we’re back in Seville by this time of year, but with the worldwide spike in cases, the worrying state of air travel, and parts of Spain going back into lockdown, we’ve decided to stay put in the Golden State at least until January. It’s not a bad place to “shelter in place” — the gentle phrase Californians prefer because it sounds mellower than such bummer, buzzkill words as “lockdown” or “quarantine.”
“What can we do,” I asked Rich, “to make the house more comforting, more interesting, more us — reflecting the way we live now?”
“Well, Mike Vance used to say that innovation needs to involve all five senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell. So whatever we do, let’s keep that as a goal.”
Bearing that in mind, I started reviewing the places in our house where we spend the most time. Could they be tweaked to better fit our new lifestyle?
I wish I could report that our lifestyle includes reading great literature, playing advanced-level chess, and studying Mandarin or quantum physics, but the fact is we are, like most people, watching ridiculous amounts of TV. So we started with that. Rich repositioned our two biggest, comfiest armchairs to get a better angle on the screen and brought in a couple of soft footstools. “Sight, sound, touch – all covered. What about taste and smell?” he asked. “That’s easy,” I said. “Popcorn!”
Our days often revolve around Zoom calls, during which we chat with family and friends, attend lectures and poetry readings, and voice our views in town hall meetings and political roundtables. It took me a while to get the hang of Zoom — not so much the technology, but learning how to feel comfortable and look presentable onscreen.
I set up a fixed spot for Zooming, based on three pro tips.
1) The device’s camera is at eye level (far more flattering!).
2) I sit in an upright chair, so I don’t slouch out of camera range, leaving friends talking to my left ear.
3) The light shines on my face, letting people see me clearly.
I usually have a cup of coffee or glass of wine in hand — completing Mike Vance’s five-sensing requirement.
My sister Kate and her husband are getting a puppy to keep them company, and I have to admit I’m envious. But as one viral tweet puts it, “Really wish we had a dog right now but then I remember that old slogan… a dog is for life, not just for a global pandemic.” If you have a canine companion, you’ll appreciate this news item: “The World Health Organization announced that dogs cannot contract COVID-19. Dogs previously held in quarantine can now be released. To be clear, WHO let the dogs out.”
Rich just wandered past my desk, and I asked him what he finds most helpful in adapting to long stretches at home. “Structure and sacred spaces,” he replied promptly.
“What are your sacred spaces?”
“I know I’m going to get up every morning and spend time there,” he said, gesturing to the landing at the top of the stairs, where he has a small desk, a big armchair, and three sunny windows. “Drinking coffee, easing into the day. That’s sacred to me. Doing yoga in the bedroom — that’s another sacred space for me. My time in the garden. My workbench in the shed. Practicing my ukulele and my Spanish. These all keep me comfortably, solidly anchored in my day. I know I’m exactly where I need to be, doing exactly what I need to do.”
And then he added, “Don’t forget to tell them about the goldfish.”
This is another one we owe to Mike Vance. Shortly after our living room became a kitchen for the mind, we invited friends to dinner, explaining in advance about five-sensing, asking them to tell us about their favorite foods, music, artists, and so on. We then did our best to create a dining experience that touched on all their favorites.
Needless to say they got an earful about Mike Vance. And when they asked what exactly we did with the microscope, Rich mentioned that one of his goldfish had just passed over into the Great Beyond and we’d put it in the freezer, intending to dissect it. By now we were on the second (possibly third) bottle of wine, and the tiny cadaver was soon thawed in the microwave and dissected under the microscope; everyone wanted a look. We were just getting to know this couple, and I remember thinking, “Well, if this doesn't scare them off...!” Incredibly, it didn't, and we became fast friends. There are few bonding experiences quite like a mini autopsy.
“Innovation,” said Mike Vance, “is the creation of the new or the rearranging of the old in a new way.” As you’ve probably noticed, our world keeps rearranging itself. Experts forecast a major coronavirus surge as people head indoors to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas together. Bracing ourselves for Covid-19, the Holiday Edition, Rich and I are rearranging our space and reimagining our lives. We’re expats living in our home country, extroverts who rarely socialize in person, frequent flyers grounded for the duration. We are living into an unknown future — one that may not always be comfortable, but certainly won’t be dull. I foresee plenty of mystery, suspense, and surprising developments. And isn’t that pretty much the definition of adventure? Maybe are lives haven’t changed that much after all.
How are you preparing for pandemic winter? Any tips or concerns to share? Let me know in the comments section below. And hey, good luck out there!
This article is part of my ongoing series of articles on surviving the pandemic, if possible while holding on to some shreds of our sanity and sense of humor.
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Have you noticed anything weird lately? I mean besides the global pandemic and collapse of civilization as we know it? Apparently an increasing number of Americans are finding quarantine less isolating than expected, thanks to spectral roommates from the Great Beyond.
“For those whose experience of self-isolation involves what they believe to be a ghost,” wrote Molly Fitzpatrick in the NY Times, “their days are punctuated not just by Zoom meetings or home schooling, but by disembodied voices, shadowy figures, misbehaving electronics, invisible cats cozying up on couches, caresses from hands that aren’t there and even, in some cases — to borrow the technical parlance of Ghostbusters — free-floating, full-torso vaporous apparitions. Some of these people are frightened, of course. Others say they just appreciate the company.”
Reports of ghostly apparitions and hauntings are about six times higher than usual, reports paranormal researcher John E. L. Tenney. Many, he says, can be explained away by long days at home, jittery nerves, and the natural creakiness of settling houses. But in some cases, he suggests, there may be more to it. “Perhaps we’re just now starting to notice that the world is a little bit weirder than we gave it credit for.”
Americans have always loved a good ghost tale; 45% say they do believe in spooks and 30% claim they’d be open to living in a haunted house. And in 2020, it seems, more of us may be doing just that.
Some ghostly roommates seem to be reaching out with a message. Like the one in the apartment American Madison Hill rents in Florence, Italy with her boyfriend (who naturally denies all responsibility for the strange occurrences). First, the bathroom began behaving strangely, slamming doors and throwing towels on the floor. Then small objects began appearing on her bedside table in a manner she described as “mischievous.” One was a long-lost camera lens, which Hill, who’d majored in film in college, took to be a nudge to return to her craft.
Not all spectral visitors offer career guidance, but there are other upsides to hanging out with the undead, as outlined in “The benefits of being haunted during the pandemic:”
Phantoms and wraiths aren’t the only ones enlivening our lockdown routine. There’s been a 50% uptick in reports of extraterrestrial visits as well, according to UFO researcher Chris Rutkowski. "Most cases are just ordinary mistakes, misidentifications, but … last year, there was about 3 percent that remained unexplained, that didn't seem to be airplanes, stars, fireballs, all those types of things."
For decades, the US government has been accused of coverups, most famously of an alleged spaceship in Area 51. You can imagine the rapture among ufologists when, in April, the Pentagon admitted to secretly searching for UFOs since 1947, announced an official new task force to investigate “unidentified arial phenomena,” and released videos of three recent UFO sightings.
“When you think about how nuts this year has been,” said late-night host Jimmy Kimmel, “think about this: the Pentagon releases video of UFOs, it’s barely even a story.”
Are more spaceships heading our way these days? Why now? Are we extra-interesting during a global crisis? Could someone be offering cheap package tours to our corner of the universe — the intergalactic equivalent of supersaver fares to Guadalajara during spring break? Or do Americans just have more time to stare at the sky thinking, “Hey, it’s 2020; anything’s possible.”
Personally, I’m dubious about the existence of UFOs and ghosts, but I’ve heard too many stories from reliable friends and relatives to insist it’s all nonsense. Rich still talks about the strange lights inexplicably following his car late one night as he was driving to the Cleveland airport. Alien spacecraft? Road-tired eyes? Is the truth out there?
OK, let’s say we are sharing our planet — possibly our homes — with creatures from another dimension. How do we adapt to the new paranormal? It’s challenging enough sharing space with family members, roommates found through Craigslist, or your partner. (Not for me, of course, because Rich is perfect in every way, but I have heard this about others.) I Googled “getting along with quarantine companions” hoping for ideas that might help us ease non-humans into our circles of trust.
I read endless horror stories about miscommunication and bad behavior, from filthy shared bathrooms to sneaking in random, possibly infected sex partners, plus all the usual arguments over chores and who drank the last six-pack. There was sensible advice, too, such as not shaming others (no leaving them hand sanitizer with a snarky note!) and being considerate about cats, music, Zoom calls, and not leaving socks on the living room floor.
Winnowing through it all, I found three valuable concepts we should have learned from paranormal movies, had we been paying attention.
1. “In most zombie movies, there’s usually someone who endangers the lot. Don’t let that be you,” advises the NY Times. Words to live by. When survival is jeopardized, whether by zombies, Martians, or Covid-19, then safety — and comfort about safety protocols — has to be a top priority. Rich and I have agreed that if we differ on, say, how often cotton face masks require washing or whether we need to disinfect something before it comes into the house, we default to the most paranoid opinion. Somebody may have to perform a few little unnecessary tasks, but it allows us both to feel completely safe at home — no small thing these days.
2. “Nothing spreads like fear,” says the tagline for the film Contagion. Sometimes it seems every conversation ratchets up our sense of panic. I take my hat off to Amanda Feigin of Minneapolis, who lives in a house with five friends and instituted a “no repeats rule” regarding pandemic gabfests. “You can only offer up new information regarding the coronavirus,” she wrote on Instagram, “to eliminate the repetitive/echoed conversations that add stress and anxiety.”
3. “I feel like I’m living in the Twilight Zone,” my friend Marlene said. Yes, our lives have become as surreal as sci-fi. But that's not all bad. “One of the biggest roles of science fiction,” said futurist Arthur C. Clark, “is to encourage a flexibility of mind.”
Mental flexibility may turn out to be the most valuable survival tool we have. Whether or not our future involves close encounters with extraterrestrials, ghosts, zombies, or stranger things, it will require us to step up in unimaginable ways. Being open-minded will help us embrace our improbable new circumstances and find the courage to enjoy the wild ride that lies ahead of us. Good luck out there!
If aliens did show up with one of these memory erasers (as seen in Men in Black), would you want all your memories of 2020 deleted? Let me know in the comments below.
This article is part of my ongoing series of articles on surviving the pandemic, if possible while holding on to some shreds of our sanity and sense of humor. Sign up below to get it in your inbox each week.
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What is it about weddings that encourages people to be so astonishingly indiscreet? I remember one best man starting his toast, “I’ve known the groom for twenty years. I’ve seen him through…” Long pause. “The dark times…” Naturally we all leaned forward, agog to learn about his misdeeds, but sadly there were few specifics. Another time, the mother of the bride remarked to me at the reception, “I’m so glad my daughter is marrying your friend. He’s nice, and she is such a bitch.” Groping for a suitable supply, I fell back on, “Waiter, we need more champagne over here!”
Every wedding planner has a horror story worthy of The Exorcist author William Peter Blatty. “We had a bride who literally lost it on the wedding day,” recalls JoAnn Gregoli of Elegant Occasions. “She fired her maid of honor and her best man, and she wouldn't dance with her dad because someone challenged her attitude. The entire family left the wedding because of her attitude. The priest was literally performing an exorcism on her in the church and almost would not marry her — I had to beg him to complete the job.” Glossing over whether any self-respecting priest should have consented to perform that ceremony, my heart really goes out to the groom. I picture their wedding night much like the one in So I Married an Axe Murderer.
My stroll down wedding-memory lane was prompted by the recent announcement that one of my nephews is engaged. This happy news has naturally sparked endless discussions about nuptial plans — none of which involve me, because I won’t be going unless the wedding is postponed until the pandemic is genuinely under control (and who knows when that will be?). Until then I'm viewing big weddings — along with family reunions, motorcycle rallies, and White House gatherings — as potential super-spreader events and intend to avoid them like the plague-vectors they are. But that's me. Opinions obviously vary.
“Weddings are so different from going into a store or sitting in a restaurant for 45 minutes,” an Arkansas wedding planner explained. “These receptions last for three, four hours, and everyone is in an indoor space, breathing the air. They aren’t wearing masks and they are dancing. And when they start drinking, it’s like there is no pandemic.”
Drinking is famous for convincing us that it's OK to do foolish and irresponsible things. As Dorothy Parker famously said, “I like to have a martini. Two at the very most. Three and I’m under the table. Four I’m under the host.” If you need yet another cautionary tale, just watch this video.
We always start out with the best of intentions, but sometimes things just spiral out of our control. An August wedding in Millinocket, Maine has been linked to 87 cases of Covid: 30 attendees caught it and spread the disease to 35 friends, relatives, and coworkers, who passed it to 22 others, including residents of a jail and a nursing home. Much as I’d love to be part of my nephew’s big celebration — and finally tell all those embarrassing childhood stories about him I’ve saved up over the years — I’m sending my regrets.
Which brings me to the question of how we can gracefully, lovingly, and firmly decline social invitations that significantly increase our risk of catching our death.
It’s tempting to glance at the invitation and dash off a note saying, “Are you insane? Why would you even consider holding a large, indoor wedding/family reunion/Halloween party/dog adoption jamboree during a pandemic?” But in the interests of family unity and long-standing friendships, you'll want to strive for a trifle more finesse.
All the articles I’ve read suggest that before you accept or decline you should ask for event details and safety protocols. Is it indoors or outdoors? How many people are likely to attend? Will social distancing be possible? These same articles convinced me, when Rich and I first returned to California in May, that inviting people over for drinks and nibbles on the deck was safe so long as everyone agreed on safety measures in advance. Sometimes this worked beautifully. However — and I feel certain Dorothy Parker would back me up on this — often those safety measures disappeared along with the first martini or second glass of wine. We drink to relax, and that can mean letting down our guard and taking risks which seem insignificant in the moment yet loom large in our memory the next morning, causing us to break out in a cold sweat as we review our behavior and that of others.
Rather than focusing on the event, I find it more helpful to begin by assessing our own situation. An article in the Houston Methodist Hospital newsletter suggests considering whether or not you:
The answers may help you find the clarity to make a firm decision one way or the other. If you are going to decline, don’t beat around the bush with elaborate excuses or effusive apologies. Houston Methodist suggests you say something like, "It's great to hear from you! I miss seeing you, but I'm avoiding in-person gatherings due to Covid-19 right now. How about we plan a virtual hangout soon? I definitely miss hanging out with you!"
I have delivered various versions of that statement to everyone I know and now have a very active Zoom social life. Most people have given up inviting me to anything IRL (in real life), but recently one couple found a format that actually worked: attending a drive-in movie in separate cars, chatting by phone before the film. As it happens, the film is Blithe Spirit, the Noël Coward classic ghost comedy, which ties in with our spooky movie theme for October. Perfect! It was only after accepting the invitation that I realized the one teeny, tiny flaw in this plan. As far as I know, there are no rest rooms at this event, which with drive times and previews will last three-plus hours. Guess I won’t be having any Coke with my popcorn.
Adapting to the new abnormal isn’t easy for any of us. I don’t envy my nephew, his bride, or the family members helping them plan their pandemic wedding. Will they opt for a micro wedding (50 guests max) or even a minimony (no more than 10) followed by a sequel wedding (big reception later)? Will there be a belated bach (delayed bachelor party) or wifelorette (post-wedding substitute for a bachelorette party)? Will they avoid travelling after the ceremony and schedule a latermoon?
I’m saddened to think that I won’t be there in person to wish the newlyweds all the happiness they deserve. But I’ll send a nice gift, which is far more useful. And I’ll be with them in spirt, hoping that these words will be as true for them as they have been for Rich and me over the last 34 years:
A happy marriage is a long conversation which always seems too short.
— Andre Maurois
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For me, it will always be the fright night, the one where Rich and I scared the living daylights out of every child (and many adults) in our Ohio neighborhood. It was definitive proof that when you get into a vendetta with a six-year-old, chances are you’ll end up going way, way too far.
It all started one Halloween when we fashioned a ghost out of an old bedsheet and hung it out the window, twitching it when trick-or-treaters approached our door. “That is so lame,” sneered one six-year-old. Rich bristled; I put on my thinking cap. After that, we upped the chill factor, going a notch higher every Halloween. The kid kept scoffing.
And then, the year he turned eleven, we got him.
Picture the scene. The kid swaggers up to our door and knocks. A headless figure with skeletal hands (me in a pair of Rich’s boots) opens the door and beckons him and his friends inside. In the candlelit entryway, scary music is playing, and there are cobwebs, bats, rats, spiders, and snakes everywhere. Saying nothing (after all, I’m headless) I point to the far end of the room, where we’ve placed the dining room table, draped in black. On it sits a large box labeled “Really Good Candy!”
“That’s Rich in the headless costume,” the kid says scornfully as he slouches toward the table. “Like we’re impressed.”
And then he lifts up the box and sees what's inside.
We'd pulled the two halves of the table apart, and Rich's head, poking up through the gap, is made up like a ghoul, blood dripping from one corner of his mouth. The kid screams and leaps so high I am sure we'll have to scrape him off the ceiling. When his feet return to Earth, he runs shrieking out into the night.
Word went around like lightning, and soon groups of trick-or-treaters were lining up on the lawn, waiting their turn to be terrified. That night we passed into neighborhood legend, establishing a benchmark for fear and horror that has stood for twenty years.
“The only way we’re going to get through this October,” I remarked to Rich, “is to think of it as a month-long haunted house.” Because let’s face it, we all know that horrifying things are going to keep leaping out at us at every turn. Between the pandemic, run-up to the election, wildfires, looming economic collapse, civil unrest, and climate change, I blanch and tremble every time I glance at the headlines. Clearly the best we can hope for is to stagger into the first weeks of November gasping for breath, nerves shattered, stunned to find ourselves still among the living.
They say in the future this year will become a catchphrase; we’ll say things like “How was my day? Beyond horrible. A total 2020.”
To distract and entertain us as we soldier on, our local newspaper is holding a contest to see who can write the best six-word memoir of the pandemic. If you’re not familiar with the six-word-story genre, it is usually (probably inaccurately) attributed to pals betting Ernest Hemingway he couldn’t write a novel in six words. He allegedly scribbled this on the back of a napkin:
For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.
Whether or not that ever happened, countless other writers have stepped up to the challenge.
It’s behind you! Hurry before it
- Rockne S. O’Bannon
Computer, did we bring batteries? Computer?
- Eileen Gunn
Machine. Unexpectedly, I’d invented a time
- Alan Moore
The baby’s blood type? Human, mostly.
- Orson Scott Card
T.H.C., L.S.D., D.U.I., C.P.R., D.O.A., R.I.P.
“Male?” “It’s an older driver’s license.”
The New York Times recently challenged readers to write six-word memoirs about the pandemic.
Eighth hour of YouTube. Send Help!
— Leela Chandra
Bad time for an open marriage.
— Rachel Lehmann-Haupt
Social distancing myself from the fridge.
— Maria Leopoldo
Cleaned Lysol container with Lysol wipe.
— Alex Wasser
Afraid of: snakes, heights, opening schools.
— Michelle Wolff
Numbers rise, but sun does too.
— Paloma Lenz
I wondered if I could come up with a six-word story that captures the essence of 2020. Here is my best effort; you be the judge.
Aughhhh hhhhh hhhhh hhhhh hhhhh hhhhh!
Janet Leigh screamed her way through this famous shower scene in Psycho. After that, she said, “I stopped taking showers and I only take baths. And when I’m someplace where I can only take a shower, I make sure the doors and windows of the house are locked. I also leave the bathroom door open and shower curtain open. I’m always facing the door, watching, no matter where the shower head is.”
Yes, there’s plenty of angst going around these days. And maybe that’s not all bad. Frank Herbert, author of Dune, once said, “People need hard times and oppression to develop psychic muscles.” If so, by now our collective mental brawn could rival young Arnold Schwarzenegger’s physique.
I keep reading articles suggesting we reduce our stress with meditation, communing with nature, and switching to decaf. And that’s all excellent advice. But I’m taking a different approach: embracing the mood of the times and steeping myself in ghost tales and horror movies throughout the month. Because really, which is worse — reality or the Hollywood version?
I’m already compiling a list, starting with oldies likeTopper and Abbot and Costello Meet the Mummy, progressing through such spine-tinglers as The Birds, Poltergeist, and The Sixth Sense, and finishing with Black Mirror and the reboot of The Twilight Zone. I’m strictly rationing the amount of news I absorb each day (twenty minutes max!), but I figure this programming will keep my mood in perfect sync with everyone else’s. Except I have the luxury of knowing I can fast forward through the worst parts or shut it off all together if it gets to be too much.
When I was growing up, Halloween was about learning to brave the unknown and handle scary encounters with strangers dressed as monsters. Ohio neighbors told me that after the head-in-the-box year, their trick-or-treating kids walked up our long, dark driveway dizzy with fear and anticipation — and considered it the highlight of the night. But most kids won't get those kinds of thrills in 2020. CDC guidelines warn against activities such as trick-or-treating, haunted houses, costume parties, and hay rides. Instead, responsible parents are organizing small pumpkin-carving and cupcake-decorating parties. This year, we’ve already learned enough about handling scary moments.
Once I came to grips with the idea this October was going to be a horrorfest, I actually grew more cheerful. I like to face things head on. When I was little, my mom went overboard trying to shield us kids from the harsher realities of life, and all too often I felt a worrying disconnect between what I observed and the prevailing narrative. I learned that “I’m delighted your grandmother is coming for a long visit. It’ll be fun!” was code for “Nightmare! Where’s the sherry?”
We have plenty of fright nights (and days) ahead, but on the bright side, the year only has three more months to go. And the odds we'll survive October are pretty good — considerably higher, in fact, than those of the clueless teens in Friday the Thirteenth, anyone falling asleep during Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or customers of the Bates Motel. We are a very resilient species, and we live, learn, and grow through hard times. As a six-word memoir by a writer known as mcavanagh puts it:
Fell nine times; got up ten.
What six words reflect your 2020 experiences? What are you anticipating in the weeks ahead? How are you clinging to hope and sanity? Let me know in the comments below.
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Forget the news, and the radio, and the blurred screen.
This is the time of loaves and fishes.
People are hungry and one good word is bread for a thousand.
Every day I wake up hoping for a miracle — a reliable vaccine, rain dousing the wildfires, a superhero arriving in the nick of time to save our bacon. I’m still waiting on the first two, but I was delighted to learn that Batman has surfaced (at last!) and is doing heroic things in Santiago, Chile. Wearing two masks — one shiny black with pointy ears, the other for coronavirus protection — the Caped Crusader prepares and delivers hot meals to the city’s homeless. And along with the empanadas and cazuela, he brings heartening words and a bit of lighthearted banter.
“Look around you,” said the do-gooder, who asks that his real name not be revealed (as if everybody doesn’t know it’s Bruce Wayne). “See if you can dedicate a little time, a little food, a little shelter, a word sometimes of encouragement to those who need it.”
Times of crisis bring out the best and worst in people. We’ve all watched, aghast, as supposedly sane adults throw hissy fits over masks and insist harebrained conspiracy theories are true because it says so on the Internet. But others, like Chile’s Batman, find in themselves unexpected wellsprings of kindness and compassion. Did you hear about three-year-old Mia Villa who has baked over 1,000 chocolate chip cookies for front-line and essential workers? Yes, her mom helps but says Mia was the inspiration for the Cookie Kindness project.
Then there’s electrician John Kinney, who came to fix 72-year-old Gloria Scott’s broken overhead light and realized that the whole house needed help. “No lights, running water… I [saw] her on a Friday and it stuck with me over the weekend… I said, ‘I got to go back there.’” Kinney returned to make additional repairs, free of charge, then recruited more volunteers and eventually formed Gloria’s Gladiators to assist elderly neighbors in need.
Sometimes the person we most need to help is ourselves. If you’re not feeling existential angst these days, you haven’t been paying attention. Every part of our lives has been turned upside down and inside out, leaving us reeling — and ready to hit the reset button.
“We’re questioning the very fundamentals of the ‘normal’ we’d all come to unthinkingly accept — and realizing we don’t want to go back, not to that,” wrote Sigal Samuel in Vox. “Living in quarantine for months has offered some — mostly the privileged among us — a rare opportunity to reflect on our lives and, potentially, to reset them. Workers whose jobs defined their lives are now asking what all that productivity was for, and whether we really want to measure our self-worth by the yardstick of hypercompetitive capitalism. Many are finding that the things that made them look ‘successful’ actually also made them feel miserable, or precarious, or physically unwell.”
How can we change for the better? Here are eight quarantine-inspired habits Vox readers vow to keep.
Like New Year’s resolutions — 80% of which are abandoned by February — I expect many of these habits will disappear long before we put our masks away in the attic for good. But hey, if even one sticks, it’s a step in the right direction.
Journeys of self-discovery aren’t always comfortable. In one survey 55% of respondents said they felt embarrassed about some of their pre-pandemic values.
Take science, for instance. I don’t know about you, but I’ve read more about biology, medicine, chemistry, and epidemiology in the past six months than I ever did in high school, college, and my years as a magazine health writer. It’s amazing how having your life in danger sharpens your interest in data that could help you survive. Despite the best efforts of the lunatic fringe to discredit them, scientific experts are more respected than ever and viewed as more trustworthy than the media, business leaders, or elected officials (obviously a low, low bar).
“COVID death tolls,” said Katharine Hayhoe, climate researcher at Texas Tech University, “provide feedback on a daily basis of what happens when you ignore science.” Maybe that’s why people are now paying more attention to climate change, too. About two thirds of Americans say that during quarantine they experienced transformative “eco wake-up calls” realizing they — and the government — must step up and protect the environment.
People are re-configuring all their relationships, starting with their partners. Couples in their twenties report spending less time having sex and more time communicating — and they’re OK with that. “I feel like we’ve gone through 30 years of marriage in three months,” says Kate in New York. “But it’s definitely shown me the resilience behind the relationship. It’s like a challenge that I think we both wanted to step up for. So it’s definitely made us stronger.” In Texas, Layne voices a more basic benchmark. “It’s a real good test of a relationship that you can be stuck in the same place as someone for such an extended period of time and not want to rip each other's heads off.”
Several recent studies have shown that the age group handling the pandemic most gracefully is older adults (my cohort). Despite constant reminders that we’ve got a COVID-19 target painted on our backs, those born before 1965 are coping better, in part because we’re juggling fewer work and family responsibilities, but also because we’ve learned how to survive catastrophic times. As columnist Helen Dennis put it, “We can reassure young people that this too shall pass.” And having grown up in the pre-digital age, we find it easier to live with less stimulation and more silence.
Poet David Whyte says, “All of our great traditions, religious, contemplative and artistic, say that you must learn how to be alone — and have a relationship with silence. It is difficult, but it can start with just the tiniest quiet moment.” The universe has given us a big time out to consider our lives and figure out how to be the adults we hoped to become when we were kids and wondered how we’d turn out.
What has surprised you most about the way life turned out? Let me know in the comments below.
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In a year as awash with bad luck as 2020, it’s tempting to wonder whether the fault lies in our stars; after all, Mercury was in retrograde in early March, which could hardly be a coincidence. Or is it divine retribution — the Biblical End Times we've heard so much about? Could the madness be caused by the machinations of reptilian extraterrestrials bent on global domination? I recently had the ghastly realization that it could actually be my fault.
You see, in Spain you ensure good fortune for the coming year by doing two things on New Year’s Eve: 1) eating 12 grapes as the clock strikes midnight and 2) wearing red underwear. On December 31st, Rich and I were at the home of Spanish friends who provided the grapes, so we had that covered. But somehow, as I was dressing for the occasion, the red underwear completely slipped my mind. I was horrified when I realized my omission. “How could I have forgotten?” I wailed to Rich on the walk home. “Sure hope this doesn’t mean 2020 will be a dud.”
It has been a tough year for a lot of us, including Boonrod, the dog found swimming 135 miles from land in the Gulf of Thailand. I’m guessing he fell off a passing trawler; eyewitnesses say the pup was exhausted and in deep distress by the time oil rig worker Vitisak Payalaw spotted him. When the crew hauled the dog out of the choppy water to safety, Payalaw said, “His eyes were so sad. He just kept looking up just like he wanted to say, ‘please help me.’” The crew named him Boonrod, which means “he has done good karma and that helps him to survive.” The dog was taken to a vet on the mainland, and when no owner could be found, Payalaw adopted him. “He is like a son to me,” he said, as Boonrod leaped joyfully into his arms.
Dogs have been a great source of comfort to many during these difficult times. California fire fighters have an official pet therapy dog to play with during breaks. Kerith, whose previous job was cheering up mental patients, now spends her days boosting morale on the front lines of California’s rampaging wildfires.
I don’t know if any of the fire fighters has joined this offbeat trend, but lately some adoring pet owners have been printing images of their dogs on face masks. In these photos, the humans seem far more amused than the canines. Is it me, or do these animals look embarrassed, as if they’re barely restraining eye-rolls and snorts?
Spending more time at home has inspired many of us to pay more attention to the animals around us, and for some, such as Nasa engineer Mark Rober, interest borders on obsession. It all started when he put up a series of “squirrel-proof” bird feeders that were instantly breached by the clever, athletic squirrels in his Bay Area backyard. Rober decided to see how far the furry bandits would go, so he created the Squirrel Ninja Obstacle Course, now a viral YouTube video. The course includes the Bridge of Instability, the Maze of 1000 Corridors, the Pitchfork Tumblers of Treachery, the Homewrecker (a stuffed squirrel in a blond wig and bikini), the Slinky Bridge of Deception, and so on. Spoiler alert: the squirrels eventually made it to the bird feeder and the walnut jackpot. But it’s the journey, not the destination, that makes this one fun to watch.
Yes, a lot of people have way too much time on their hands these days. And that’s especially true for seniors on COVID lockdown; most aren’t even allowed family visits. At Sydmar Lodge in North London, activities coordinator Robert Speker had the brilliant idea of photographing residents in recreations of famous rock album covers. “The need to keep them happy, entertained, and full of spirit has never been more crucial,” he said. “It’s been my job and privilege.” From David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust on the Aladdin Sane album to the Clash to Blink-182’s Enema of the State, these grannies and grandpas show they’re still ready to strut their stuff in style.
Challenging times spark creative thinking. And with concerns over disruptions in the voting process due to COVID and other factors, America’s basketball teams are turning their stadiums and practice facilities into Election Super Centers this November. The vast arenas offer better social distancing, more efficient crowd handling, and convenient public transportation.
The majority of poll workers are over 60, the age group most vulnerable to COVID, and with many sensibly staying home, there will be serious shortfalls in staffing. Starbucks, Old Navy, Target, Microsoft, and other major companies have stepped up, paying their employees for the day if they serve as poll workers and encouraging their customers to volunteer as well.
NBA superstar LeBron James, other athletes, state election officials, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund launched More Than A Vote, a multimillion-dollar campaign to recruit poll workers to cover vulnerable neighborhoods of color and ensure sufficient equipment is available.
Many workers lose pay, even risk jobs, to take time off to vote, especially in poorer neighborhoods where fewer poll workers mean hours-long lines. This year, 950 American companies have committed to giving employees time off to vote.
It’s almost enough to restore your faith in humanity, isn’t it?
And here’s yet more proof this is still (on a good day) a pretty wonderful world. When a Cleveland couple had to cancel their wedding reception due to the pandemic, they were offered a full refund on the catering, but decided instead to deliver the wedding feast to a City Mission shelter for women and children in crisis. As their first act as a married couple, Melanie and Tyler Tapajna, still in wedding finery, dished out food to a hundred residents. “This is actually, probably the best outcome of it all,” said the bride.
This year we’ve all felt like Boonrod, adrift in a vast and terrifying ocean of woes, doing our best to keep paddling, even if there’s no solid ground anywhere in sight. What can we do to keep staying afloat?
For a start, we can check in regularly with good news sources, which carry heartening stories about everyday people doing extraordinary things, like the Tapajnas, Boonrod's new dad, and the residents of Sydmar Lodge.
Need more? Check out free online courses offered by major universities, such as the University of California, Berkeley’s The Science of Happiness, or Yale University’s The Science of Wellbeing, the most popular class ever taught in Yale’s three-century history.
And finally, promise me that you will be wearing red underwear on New Year’s Eve and eating twelve grapes as the clock chimes midnight. Because as sure as we are that those are just silly superstitions, what if we're wrong? Do you really want to take a chance on having another year like 2020? Me neither!
One more thing you can do to bring good news into your life: subscribe to this blog, so you never miss a single heartwarming story, survival tip, or comfort food recipe.
Who doesn’t love to roll their eyes over absurd conspiracy theories? I heard one this week that I’ll share, but only if you promise not to believe a word of it: they’re saying the wire that goes across the nose of your face mask is 5G (wireless technology that’s the subject of a boatload of debunked but persistent rumors). My friend Julie heard one that's equally idiotic: “Don’t let them take your temperature when you go into a store because they’re really going to take your brain.” How exactly does that work? And then there’s the classic blame-the-aliens. “According to Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe, of the Buckingham Centre for Astrobiology, Covid-19 arrived on earth via a fireball from space that burnt up in China last October.”
Which brings us to the most astonishing thing about the modern crop of silly conspiracy theories: so far nobody has managed to find a link between coronavirus and the lizard-like, shapeshifting aliens known as reptilians. Last month I learned these visitors to our planet are (allegedly) breeding energetically with humans and have already taken over the British royal family, the Rothschilds, the Bushes, and the Merovingian dynasty — which fans of the DaVinci Code will remember are believed to be direct descendants of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene. I was staggered to learn this week that 12.5 million Americans are convinced reptilian aliens have infiltrated the US government.
Which members of the government are lizard people seeking to rule the planet, you ask? Where else have these pesky reptiloids infiltrated? Your workplace? Your home? Could you be one? Are you sure? “Scientific evidence” suggests that you watch for these telltale signs, according to Alien Hub (and if you can’t trust a source like that…).
For those of us making a genuine effort to identify whoppers when we scroll past them online, there's the free, downloadable Conspiracy Theory Handbook . Co-authored by Stephan Lewandowsky of Bristol University in Australia and John Cook of George Mason University in Virginia, it offers practical tips like this for investigating suspect claims.
1. Do I recognize the news organization that posted the story?
2. Does the information in the post seem believable?
3. Is the post written in a style that I expect from a professional news organization?
4. Is the post politically motivated?
“Conspiracy theories,” note the authors, “allow people to cope with threatening events by focusing blame on a set of conspirators. People find it difficult to accept that ‘big’ events (e.g., the death of Princess Diana) can have an ordinary cause (driving while intoxicated). A conspiracy theory satisfies the need for a ‘big’ event to have a big cause, such as a conspiracy involving MI5 to assassinate Princess Diana.”
We’re in the middle of multiple big events right now, and you don’t have to be a reptilian psychic to pick up on the fact that we’re all feeling threatened, frightened, and powerless. Our nation’s current leaders have failed to act decisively to protect us from the coronavirus or climate change, and have sewed discord that is feeding public unrest and instability. Nowhere feels safe. Nobody is putting the brakes on the runaway train of 2020.
It’s clear we are in a tight spot. I have no idea what will happen next, but whatever it is, we’re going to need all our reserves of common sense, honesty, truth, and clear thinking. Fantasy can be fun, but I probably don’t have to tell you how dangerous false stories and misinformation can become. A study of the first three months of 2020, published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, identifies 800 deaths and 5,800 hospitalizations due to false information found on social media, mostly involving drinking methanol or alcohol-based cleaning products in the mistaken belief they could prevent or cure Covid-19. Other “remedies” included cow urine, extreme vitamins, and massive amounts of garlic — none of which proved beneficial (except perhaps for warding off vampires).
When the big picture starts to get me down, I focus on the little stuff. “Celebrating the small moments in life is critical when it comes to navigating stressful times,” noted Katie Cline, marketing VP at Bubbies Ice Cream, which recently sponsored a poll asking people to define their top “little joys,” such as being reunited after an absence.
The Little Joys of Summer 2020
1. Seeing a loved one after being apart for a while
2. Sleeping in a freshly made bed
3. Feeling the sun on my face
4. Getting something for free
5. Having time to myself
6. Hugging a loved one
7. Finding money I didn’t know I had
8. The first sip of coffee in the morning
9. The clean feeling after a shower
10. Receiving an “I’ve been thinking about you” type text
These may be modest delights, but connecting solidly with even one of them can boost our sense of wellbeing and help us feel more grounded in our day and hopeful about life.
Another article I read offered such reasonable suggestions as “keep things in perspective … focus on things you can control … unplug.” I was a bit startled by the final bit of advice: a free stress-reduction hypnotherapy program offered by Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. Maybe it was all the time I’d just spent reading about paranoia run amok, but I have to admit, the idea of being hypnotized by a machine gave me pause. My mind replayed scenes from a dozen sci fi movies in which robots took over an Earthling’s consciousness; it never ended well. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to eat your brains and make unspeakable alterations to your body. Or as one meme puts it, “Three conspiracy theorists walk into a bar. Now you can’t tell me that’s a coincidence.”
Thanks for keeping me company on the hair-raising journey through 2020. I publish weekly, sharing my best survival tips, loony stories, and comfort food recipes. If you'd like to be alerted when more stuff comes out, just send me your email address. And stay strong, my friends. This thing is far from over.
Juggling six kids with a 17-year age range and non-stop personalities, my mom became an expert at deflecting disaster. One of her best tricks was simply redefining the situation to suit her purposes. Take the summer I was nine and her car kept breaking down, which in those pre-cellphone days meant long walks home or to the nearest telephone booth. About the fourth or fifth time it happened, she coasted to the side of the road, turned around, and said brightly, “OK, kids, everybody out. We’re going to have an adventure!” And I said, “Aw, Mom, how come every time we’re having fun we have to go and have an adventure?”
I feel a bit the same way now. Six months ago I was zipping along, leading my life, writing a travel book, hanging out with friends in Spanish cafés, having fun — and then, like everyone, I was plunged into the great, cataclysmic adventure of our times, the pandemic. Even my mom would have been hard pressed to put a positive spin on this one.
But if she were here now, no doubt Mom would be busy devising strategies for helping us get a grip on our courage, our perspective, and our sense of humor. Keeping our composure isn't easy when we’re all suffering from persistent anticipatory anxiety, which psychologists now call “pre-traumatic stress reactions.” Fun fact: this informal but commonly used diagnosis originated in a satirical article in The Onion about soldiers suffering from “Pre-PSD” on the eve of battle. Now the entire global population is afflicted, and symptoms flare up at the first glimpse of the morning’s grim headlines. As my reader Lynne wrote me in response to last week’s post, “I’m really struggling with it all, nothing makes sense and there’s an awful anticipation that there could be worse to come.” Sad but true for all of us, Lynne!
With the pandemic and other disasters (yes, California wildfires, I’m thinking of you) continuing remorselessly on, how can we hope to keep our mental equilibrium? Can we find ways to take a break from all the doom and gloom? Yes! Aside from the obvious — wine, chocolate, and yoga — here are the simplest, most effective, mind-clearing, soul-restoring strategies I know.
1.Schedule something to look forward to. While waiting around for the next disaster, why not add something to the agenda we can anticipate with pleasure? I’ve written before about how explorer Earnest Shackleton organized weekly entertainments to keep his crew sane during more than two years trapped in the Antarctic ice. Dogsled races and head shaving aren’t practical in my current circumstances, but Rich and I organize a date night every week or so, with a theme such as 1950s sci-fi, dive bar hopping, going to a drive-in movie, or having a picnic. This week we’re holding a Cary Grant marathon; so far we’ve watched Arsenic and Old Lace, His Girl Friday, and Charade. (Want to help us decide which of his other films to watch? Leave suggestions in the comments below.)
2. Eat well. I used to love dining out, but now the very thought of being unmasked around dozens of barefaced strangers makes me jittery. I know what happens to everyone’s caution (especially mine) after the second glass of wine! So I’m staying home and cooking comfort food — the kind with healthy, wholesome ingredients to satisfy the body and scrumptious flavor to gratify the soul. This being peach season, a few days ago I made Yogurt Peach Pie for the first time in ages, using a recipe given to me decades ago by my mom's sister, Beverly. Even before I served the last slice Rich made me promise to make another soon. Like immediately.
[Get Aunt Beverly's Yogurt and Peach Pie Recipe here.]
3. Organize projects. Rich is happiest when he’s deep into home improvements, so as soon as we returned from Spain in May, I suggested we finally renovate a long-ignored section of garden where an old fence was perilously close to collapsing onto the street. Over the past three months we’ve spent countless hours checking out neighbors’ landscaping and debating the finer points of gates, shrubbery, and brick vs. gravel. He loves the technical side, I love playing with the aesthetics. The heavy lifting has just been completed, and we have months more fun ahead doing the fiddly bits with flowers and lighting.
A carpenter we know made us a new garden gate from some old barn planks, and I let the paint bring out the fabulous scars and grain in the wood. The inset window is actually an old rusted floor vent; I ordered it online, and when it arrived I was delighted to discover the flaps still open and close.
4. Perform acts of kindness and connectivity. Boy Scouts are required to do a good deed every day, and if we all did, the world would be a better place. Social distancing eliminates many of the classics, like helping old ladies across the street. But we can reach out to friends, family, colleagues, and communities with emails, Zoom calls, and cheerful comments on social media. Each contact, however small, serves as a welcome reminder that at least we’re not facing this horror show alone.
Through the magic of Zoom, we've connected with Rich's old Navy buddies, attended a friend's poetry reading, participated in a town hall meeting for retrofitting the town's sidewalks for social distancing, and spent countless hours talking with friends and family about where this crazy situation is headed.
5. Learn something new. I recently watched a Netflix documentary on memory which demonstrated how poorly humans recall events and speculated about how such a faulty system could possibly offer any evolutionary advantage. Scientists showed how the parts of the brain that network to remember events are the same ones used to envision the future. Turns out memory’s value lies not in recording the past but in collecting data that enables us to piece together ideas about what’s likely to happen next. “Your mind is a time machine,” said the narrator. Viewed that way, “it looks like a superpower, the key to our success as a species.”
Right now, that’s one superpower most of us don’t want. Our brains are flooded with terrifying images of the present — the pandemic, teetering economy, rising sea levels, my home state in flames — that leave little room to hope for a secure future. But as Helen Keller pointed out, "Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing."
So I guess I finally have my answer to the question I asked Mom all those years ago. How come we keep having our fun interrupted by adventures? Because life happens outside our comfort zone. Right now our superpower — having our brains hardwired to ransack our memories for components with which to assemble images of probable futures — is giving us all nightmares. But in the long run, if it helps us get our heads around the shape of things to come and take action, it could boost our chances of survival exponentially. In the meantime, we can rely on useful and creative work, connecting with the people we love, and our own stout hearts to sustain us on the bumpy road into tomorrow.
Good luck out there! Let me know how you're holding up. And send me suggestions for Cary Grant classics to watch during this week's movie marathon. Up next: Humphrey Bogart.
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Stay in touch!
Lots more pandemic coping strategies and comfort food recipes to come.
“I can’t believe I just did that,” a flustered stranger exclaimed to me, hurriedly pulling on a face mask in the supermarket. “I’ve been walking around this store for twenty-five minutes and forgot to put on my mask.”
“Well,” I began. “Occasionally we all…”
“And I’d just driven all the way home to fetch it, because I’d left it behind.”
“I do that," Rich said.
“Yeah? Well, you’ll never guess where I found my purse,” she said. “In the refrigerator.”
OK, I had to admit, that did take absentmindedness up a notch. But these days, being discombobulated is everybody’s default state. Months spent absorbing catastrophic news has left us all, at times, feeling that our brains have been scrambled, fried, and turned to mush. Obviously the still-out-of-control pandemic looms large in our anxiety landscape, but here in California (and plenty of other places) extreme weather conditions are adding fresh disruptions and distractions to the scene.
When unusually high temperatures hit the Bay Area on Thursday, it took about five minutes for air conditioners to overwhelm the grid. Officials sprang into action, organizing days of rolling blackouts. Now, even when we have power, internet connection is fragile, with frequent delays and long stoppages. We’ve lost phone service seven times. I can’t help drawing comparisons to last summer, the hottest on record in Europe, during which Rich and I traveled for 5,234 miles through 10 countries and never experienced a blackout or lost connectivity. It’s a sad state of affairs when California’s infrastructure can’t keep up with Albania’s.
And now the fires are starting in earnest. In the last 24 hours some 10,849 lightning strikes have sparked 367 conflagrations in our area. Ash is drifting down in our garden, and officials warn we may be told to flee for our lives at a moment’s notice. Luckily our town, San Anselmo, is many miles from the action, so Rich and I aren't likely to be evacuated. Which is good, because clearly they have no idea where to put us.
In past emergencies, everybody jammed together in some high school gymnasium with abundant air conditioning, Red Cross cots, and rehydrating sports drinks. But this summer's socially distanced evacuation means driving to a parking lot and staying in our cars. In 103 degree heat. For an unspecified length of time. Using communal Porta Potties. Sound like fun?
“Do you ever feel like civilization is crumbing down around our ears?” I asked.
“We have to change the chip in our heads,” Rich said. “This is our life now, and it will be for months, maybe years. Possibly the rest of our lives. The question is, how are we going to get our arms around it? Figure out how to live? Get good at surviving catastrophes?”
My survival strategies start with the small stuff: being meticulous about charging electronic devices, keeping the gas tank at least half full, and having a good audiobook on my laptop for evenings without electricity; listening is so relaxing I’m usually asleep by nine. Between outages, I rush around baking bread, doing laundry, and — starting soon — buying the emergency supplies we’ll store in the Apocalypse Chow food locker.
Rich has been laboring mightily all week to assemble this small “garden chalet” from a complicated mail-order kit. I’m pleased to report that, despite the crushing heat and multiple blackouts (the power grid's, not Rich's), he’s completed all thirty-nine assembly steps and, in a stunning breakthrough, even figured out where the leftover piece of wood was supposed to go.
But Rich isn’t resting on his laurels.
“We need to up our game,” he said, in the serious tone he uses to justify buying a new toy. “I think we should get a generator. A little one to keep the lights on, power a fan, and recharge our devices.”
“Will it keep the fridge going?” I asked hopefully.
As Rich plunged happily into researching generators, I investigated other ways to keep food cold. Here’s what I’ve learned.
Meanwhile, Rich purchased his generator. “Look at this bad boy,” he said fondly. Naturally, the name stuck.
Bad Boy is solar powered, so he’s smaller and quieter than his gas cousin, can be used indoors, and eliminates the worry of storing flammable fuels during fire season. He can be re-energized via any electric socket, our new solar panels, or the car’s cigarette lighter (handy in evacuee parking lot scenarios).
Of all the survival strategies I’ve learned, the most useful is being helpful to one another. Last summer in Sarajevo, Bosnia, I talked to people about the 1990s when the city was surrounded by snipers in a siege that lasted 1,425 days. “That put a stop to everything you consider to be a normal life; there was only a struggle for survival,” recalled resident Haris Hadziselimovic. “No electricity, gas, food, water. You ate what you had and what you found.” With water lines destroyed and the river polluted, locals grew desperate for water. Salvation came from the local brewery, Sarajevska Pivara, built over a freshwater spring; they supplied the entire city with water, free of charge, for the duration.
Rich and I were lucky enough to be involved in something similar on a miniature scale when we lived in Ohio. During the Northeast Blackout of 2003, we used our home's generator to pump water from our well, giving it to friends, neighbors, strangers. I’ll never forget how satisfying, even joyful it felt to hand a thirsty person a bucket of water. Today Rich, Bad Boy, and I are standing by to do whatever we can to be helpful in the days ahead. “Be kind whenever possible,” said the Dalai Lama, a man who knows something about hardship and chaos. “It is always possible.”
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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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