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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So this is it, I thought, I really have sunk to the bottom. Aloud I said, “So tell me more about your grandmother’s Spam recipe.”
If you’ve never tasted Spam, it’s a cheap canned pork product using unpopular parts of the pig processed into salty lunchmeat. In WWII the US army fed it to soldiers, who dubbed it "ham that didn't pass its physical" and "meatloaf without basic training." When I first encountered it in college, I thought it was the most ghastly food I’d ever eaten. Eventually it became a slang term for something equally unpalatable: junk email.
“My grandmother used to fry Spam and put molasses on it,” my sister-in-law Deb reminisced fondly. “She called it ‘spackle.’”
Repressing a shudder, I made a note to pick up some Spam and try it.
No, I haven’t completely lost my sanity or my taste for Mediterranean comfort food. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and I am following official directives to stockpile emergency provisions.
The immediate threat is California’s wildfire season. Last year, the utility company PG&E began shutting down parts of our electric grid when hot, dry, windy conditions made fires likely. We typically get 8,325 fires a year, destroying 1,126,318 acres, and PG&E has been responsible for some of the worst disasters — including the 2018 Camp Fire. The legal fallout from that one caused PG&E to declare bankruptcy and plead guilty to 84 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter. They are, to say the least, anxious not to repeat their mistakes. In a recent text, they reminded us fire-preventive outages are coming, so it would behoove us to stockpile provisions for two weeks.
This being 2020, I have no doubt emergency supplies will come in handy. The problem is where to put them when I can barely fit everyday groceries into my modest cupboards. A food locker seemed the best answer.
Rich, who is in his glory wielding power tools and manhandling lumber, ordered a kit for constructing a cedar garden shed small enough to squeeze into the skinny space between our house and the neighbor’s fence.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, we dubbed it the Armageddon Food Locker or Apocalypse Chow. The manufacturer calls it a “garden chalet” — a grandiose term for a space two feet by four feet by six. In the online comments, one purchaser complained inferior instructions caused her husband to spend six whole hours on the assembly.
“You’ll probably do it in half the time,” I told Rich encouragingly.
Construction has now reached day five and Rich has completed 14 of the 39 steps required for assembly. Every morning the breakfast table is strewn with power tools, brackets, and stray screws as Rich drinks his coffee and glares at the instruction booklet.
People keep asking what we’re going to put into the chalet, and that’s where I come in. I’ve been reading such articles as 14 foods to keep in your bunker to survive the apocalypse and The 11 Best Survival Food Companies of 2020. If you’ve never cruised these murky culinary backwaters, you're usually looking at large plastic tubs filled with freeze-dried packets of such dubious fare as Textured Vegetable Protein Stroganoff and Strawberry Flavored Creamy Wheat cereal. Costco currently offers a two-person 18-month supply of freeze-dried food at for $4,499.99 — a thrifty $124.99 per person per month. The contents, said to last up to 25 years, are somehow 100% vegetarian while including “chicken and rice soup.” I suppose in an apocalypse, all bets are off and chicken may be reclassified as a vegetable.
Shopping for more modest quantities? Wired’s reviewer Matt Jancer says you’ll find freeze-dried packets “are expensive and unhealthy. For a pouch that'll supply you with 300-600 calories, expect to pay around $8. For one that supplies around 800 calories, you're looking at $13 or so. That's per meal. You don't need a calculator to know that adds up fast. Dehydrated food is also stuffed with salt. A single serving often has 30 to 40 percent of an entire day's recommended level of sodium. But one serving usually isn't enough to make a meal, so you'll inevitably eat both servings. In just one meal, you've almost hit your daily sodium target… that much sodium in your diet, day after day, is going to raise your blood pressure and make you feel like junk.”
“I guess this stuff would be better than having to subsist on squirrels we hunt down and kill ourselves,” I said to Rich. “But only just. Remember the freeze-dried rice?”
Returning from Spain in May, we’d discovered some freeze-dried rice left behind by a young nephew who’d recently self-quarantined in our house. I hadn’t eaten instant rice in decades, and in a spirit of scientific inquiry, I nuked some for lunch. The texture was limp and soggy, the flavor bland, the nutritional content negligible. I put down my fork, saying, “Is it even food? It feels like it's leeching sustenance right out of my body.”
Long story short, I’ve nixed the freeze-dried products and am looking at actual food. Here’s my list so far.
Shopping starts when Rich finishes the chalet. I’m figuring late September; he says by Sunday. Place your bets in the comments below.
As I stock up, I’ll check the site Eat By Date for advice on what sell-by dates to take seriously and which I can safely ignore. For instance, they say dried pasta is fine for an extra year or two and honey stays good “approximately forever.”
With the ingredients on my list, I can make Irish soda bread, grilled chocolate sandwiches, and an old favorite from my impoverished twenties, green bean casserole; I cooked up some this week and found it still delivers a solid portion of culinary comfort.
As for Spam, “Don’t knock it ‘til you’ve fried it,” says their website. Today I tried it, and yes, it is better when it's fried and covered with molasses (isn’t everything?). But with all due respect to Deb’s grandmother, spackle is still not delicious and/or healthy enough to make my emergency provisions short list.
Even in desperate times — perhaps especially in desperate times — food should be an occasion of shared joy. If I learned anything from last year’s Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour, it’s that eating well is worth time and effort because it connects us to the present moment and to our companions in ways that nourish the soul as well as the body. As we all make the hard adjustments demanded by the new world disorder, meals can serve as a touchstone, reminding us life is worth living and that we’re better together. Omar Khayyam wrote, “A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou beside me singing in the wilderness... paradise enough.” Add chocolate to that list and I think he might be on to something.
Got any suggestions for my emergency supplies shopping list? Know any recipes using nothing but nonperishable ingredients? Have an opinion on if/when the food locker will be completed? Let me know in the comments below.
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“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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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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