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!
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Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
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