11.11.2020

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 241 – November 12, 2020 - The Good Loser

Growing up, my brother and I loved a movie called “Gentleman Jim”. The 1942 Errol Flynn vehicle, directed by Raoul Walsh is the fanciful biography of Jim Corbett, the first prizefighter to use strategy and skill to defeat the ham-fisted bruisers of a bygone era.

There are a lot of reasons to turn your nose up at the film today. It romanticizes boxing, which I reluctantly admit is a brutal blood sport. The script runs from overblown to mawkish. There are ethnic shortcuts, like that of the brawling Irish, that should not pass muster in the current society. Flynn himself is probably better known now for his checkered past than his acting, (although I defy anyone to name a better screen Robin Hood). But the movie is funny, fast paced and charming. It captures Flynn at the height of his powers as a full-fledged movie star.

What the movie also has, along with its it rough and ready charm, is a fulsome heart. The film centers around a heavily touted fight between challenger Corbett and the Greatest Champ of All, Boston’s own John L Sullivan (played with power by the great character actor Ward Bond). Corbett is the underdog, of course, but Sullivan is a step too old and a tad too lax in his training. He cannot contend with the spirited young sprite who fills every corner of the ring. Despite Sullivan’s prefight shows of bravado and braggadocio, Corbett is the inevitable victor.

Our favorite scene comes near the end, when Corbett is having a huge swanky party to celebrate his victory. Amid the white-tie revelry, the door opens and a sad, weary and lonely John L walks in, hat in hand. The two men share words of respect and admiration as Sullivan talks in prophecy about the new direction of the sport to something clean and healthy. He shakes hands with the new champion, dons his hat and walks out of the party, his head held high.

There are a lot of ideals that folks think of typically American. Some are unpalatable and even toxic: the “Me Against the World” attitude, the spirit of vigilantism, the idea that a good gun can win all battles. Somehow these have been preserved and lionized. But the simpler and kinder morals that were once equal hallmarks of our society, like being a Good Loser, seem to have been left by the wayside.

If the Strongest Man In the World, the unbeatable champ, can face defeat with grace and honor, then shouldn’t we all?

 




11.07.2020

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 236 – November 7, 2020 - Serendipity in Art

 Today was a rare day when we could take our island out for some fresh air and that rarest of all things, a public concert.

The brilliant Dallas-based choral ensemble Verdigris presented a program called “Life In Our Times”, comprised of four of their solo singers performing recital style, bookended by two ensemble pieces at either end. The glorious voices, soprano Erinn Sensenig, mezzo Katrina Burggraf, tenor Alex Bumpas and baritone Derrick Brown, each sang three or four songs of their choosing introduced by their own statements about what the COVID related isolation has meant to them. Each was about journeys towards some measure of understanding and each posed as many questions as were answered.

The ensemble’s director, Sam Brukhman, talked about a feeling of recovery that he and the singers had felt from the moment they joined again in song. Even the audience shared in that restorative moment. The most moving part was the sheer pleasure of live singing. From the opening strains of the first ensemble piece, Sondheim’s “No One Is Alone” there was a sense of return, not, as Ms. Sensenig pointed out to me afterwards, a triumphant one, but halting and unsure yet forward to something that could measure as normal.

The concert was different than any I had encountered, not in terms of format or even in the stirringly personal choice of music by each of the singers. It was clearly a concert of the pandemic – social distanced singers and audience sitting or standing in a parking lot, masks on all, muted but glorious, nevertheless.

On this gorgeous autumn day, we were witness to the eternal serendipity of art. Nine months ago, such a concert would have been undreamed of. Now we were witness to a thing of earthly and intimate beauty. I will never be grateful for the pandemic in any way, but at least it provided the magical opportunity and inspiration to produce a timeless moment.

And that is a thing filled with hope. Humans can always take monstrous calamity and create beauty in its wake.

 


10.31.2020

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND – Day 222, Oct 31, 2020 - Halloween

 

Another holiday falls to the pandemic. Halloween 2020 is relegated because imaginary terrors cannot measure up to the real anxieties of disease and politics.

I’m sorry for the youngsters who will miss a Halloween. Hopefully, there is just this one lost, for you get so few magical days in your life before the humdrum of adulthood takes over. Halloween is one of those holidays where youth is not necessary to believe, but there is something about the innocence of those early celebrations that instill the strongest of memories.

I was raised in part in Scarsdale NY, a fashionable but not overly stylish bedroom community of New York City. Even from age six to twelve, I could tell that Scarsdale had little of note to recommend it. Except that it may have been the best Halloween town in which I have ever dwelt. Small enough to roam through, at that time quiet enough that traffic was not an issue and by and large safe enough to let children free on this Devil’s night of October 31st, the village was formative in my love of the holiday. It had small patches of woods (which I’m sure were just a few trees but seemed liked haunted forests to my impressionable young self). There was a pond around the library where a dreaded and eldritch snapping turtle of legend lived. There were creepy lanes and colonial houses that might have sheltered witches.

When I was young, we would meet up in packs as the sun went down, nervously greeting each arriving friend to make sure that he or she was in fact wearing a mask and not an actual witch or mummy or monster or ghost. Our numbers set, and swag sacks gripped in our cold enthusiastic hands, we would set out on our missions. This is the year, we would boast, that we will hit every house from Hartsdale to the Village. This is the year, we crowed, that we will demand our fair share of candy even from the meanest of providers. This is the year, we vowed, that we will finally ring the door of the ancient house at the top of the Old Post Road.

None of those things ever happened, as tired and frozen legs gave in to the lateness of the hour. Our pack would dwindle, members slipping off home without announcing their shame to the rest of the group. Finally, it would be two or three of us huddling together in a night swept by ghastly winds, no stars daring to glow in the sky where menacing clouds or spirits would cover the moon. We would stomp along in brave exhaustion, silent as the tomb lest we attract the attention of some hideous creature of the night. We would walk in the middle of the road so nothing could grab us from the bushes.

At the top of the road a small group would appear and approach, an inexorable force. Do we run or face them? Our path home lay ahead and the three or four of us were too tired for the long loop around. We trudged forward into dreaded unknown. Monsters? Highwaymen? High schoolers? Each prospect more dreadful than the last. Finally, in sullen shadow, we would reach hailing or grabbing distance. Fight or flight frenzied our minds.

A call, a voice, a greeting. It was my brother David’s pack, equally worn and equally scared. A laugh, a playful threat so that the older kids would not have to admit their own secret horror. A passing of foragers in the haunted night, then home to count the booty and fall asleep to nightmares of happy singing ghosts and werewolves wagging their furry tails.

HAPPY HALLOWEEN to all!

 


10.09.2020

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 207 – October 9, 2020 Happy Birthday, HJM

 

My father, Henry Mankin MD, would have been 92 today. He was a wise and powerful leader, a larger-than-life hero who never entered a room without commanding it. He was also funny, snarky and sentimental. I miss him all the time.

I have often wondered, since the early days of the pandemic, what he would have said and done in the situation. Not the enfeebled and docile Henry of his final years – it is a mercy that he didn’t live to experience this. But the powerful Young Turk Henry in his pomp. What would his reaction have been?

It is not as far-fetched a question as it sounds, because Henry had lived through his own pandemic. He was born in 1928, raised in Pittsburgh PA in the 30s and 40s and graduated from Pitt Medical School in 1953. Students of history (as we should all be) will recognize Pittsburgh 1953 as one of hose epicenters of earth-change. It was the very site where Dr. Jonas Salk developed and first produced the vaccine which defeated polio. In fact, my father’s medical school class was the first wave of humans to receive the new inoculation.

Polio is all but forgotten now, but it was a scourge. Communities were decimated by its viral reach. Public buildings and parks were shuttered and abandoned. Families were cast out of society for having the weakness to allow the virus to affect them. The disease returned every year, unmitigated in its devastation. That is until the brilliant work of scientists brought it to its heels.

Henry in his prime would have looked at our current condition as another of life’s hurdles. He would have been spirited and energized by his firm belief that there was nothing, nothing, that science and rationality could not overcome. He would not have suffered fools to raise conspiratorial doubts. Mostly, he would have been there on the front lines, exhorting his followers to provide care and support, challenging the scientists to stick to their task, sticking out his arm to be in the first wave of the treated.

Henry had a voice that would be heard. He testified before congress on numerous occasions advocating for research and rational healthcare. He would have been on television and radio and newspaper articles.  But mostly he would have been in the ears of everyone who could hear his stentorian tones. “Keep working! We’ve got this!” Where are the voices like that now?

Happy birthday, dad.



10.08.2020

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 206 – October 8, 2020 Two Hundred Days!

 NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 206 – October 8, 2020

Two hundred days on the island have come and passed – two hundred! The pandemic that was supposed to be gone by Easter has consumed Memorial Day, Arbor Day, the Fourth of July, both Mother’s and Father’s Day, Labor Day and both versions of Patriot’s Day. It looks to be a Halloween specter and an uninvited guest at the Thanksgiving table as well.

There have been some positive signs along the coronavirus trail. The death rate, albeit still horrific, has stabilized in many parts of the world although infections have gone up. Either we are getting better at managing the virus or the virus is learning to live with us. Although the early autumn surge has again put hospitals under stress, there has been a breather of sorts in many of the hot zones – recharge, regroup, restock. On the imminent horizon is an accurate and inexpensive rapid test which may at least allow better tracking and isolation of active cases. And the vaccines appear promising, although they will most assuredly be a spring arrival.

What hasn’t changed is the cavalier attitude of much of the nation towards the deadliest pandemic in our memory. I had harbored hope that the number 200,000 would be shocking, but we have become so numb to others outside our vision that the number seems abstract and distant. Even at a time when every American knows someone affected by the disease, possibly with death or incapacity, but certainly through financial hardship, we as a nation have not admitted how seriously we are threatened. Americans don’t talk about threats unless it is to rally their political bases. The John Wayne/ Clint Eastwood “strong, silent type” gives a grimace-like grin and turns towards the danger without expressly calling it out. Danger is beneath our notice. And therein lies the problem.

The virus is not an ‘enemy’ per se. It has no intelligence, aside from the shrewd calculating of its RNA functionality. As such, it does not care if you grimace or grin or wail or scream. It simply is a fact of nature, like the wind or the smell of grown grass. And, as all viruses, it is ubiquitous. It is inside and outside, up and down, over and out. We can’t turn and face the danger because it is around (and in) all of us.

By framing coronavirus as an enemy we can fight, we have placed an imaginary border between it and us – a sort of biological Maginot line, where French troops massed their weapons and focus as German troops nimbly skirted the region and overran from the rear. We are none of us waiting for the coronavirus to arrive. It is already here – everywhere. If we imagine the virus is in front of us – somehow “out there” like the plant-based monster in “The Thing” we can hunker down and feast until it arrives. But if the beast is already among us, then we need to always be on alert. We would need to use precautions all the time and not only when the sirens sound.

We should not be terrorized by the prospect, but we should be very wary of it. Masks up, everyone. Respect social distance. Let’s find a way to keep two hundred days from becoming 365. And 200,000 becoming an order of magnitude more.



7.22.2020

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND, Day 121 Statues and Heroes - 7/22/20

When I was a third grader in Scarsdale NY, I had a teacher who was a daughter of the Old South. Mrs. Langdon was born and raised in South Carolina, never explaining how she happened so far across the Mason-Dixon line.

In general, things worked out fine with her instruction. I had one mortification when I crashed out of a school-wide spelling bee, unable to spell her word ‘iggle’ (which we Northerners would have pronounced ‘eagle’). And she once mischaracterized the location of Cambridge MA, a sin that my Bostonian mother could never quite forgive.

The oddest part of the school year was her treatment of the Civil War in our proto-study of American History. She abandoned the textbooks to instead teach us about the “Real Heroes” of the ‘Late Unpleasantness’ as she preferred to call it. We learned about wise and warm Robert E Lee, crafty and indomitable Stonewall Jackson, stalwart AP Hill, elegant PGT Beauregard and my own favorite, dashing JEB Stuart. She could barely bring herself to name the Northern Generals preferring to say that they won by shear numerical advantage or by somehow cheating at the noble game of war.

It took me a while to unlearn what she taught me. Fortunately, intellectual curiosity and a well-read brother taught me to look for the unvarnished history.

There are many people decrying the disruption of statues as erasing of history. What they are not accounting for is the bias of these statues. It is rare in America to produce a non-heroic statue. City planners do not want to fill public spaces with warts and all depictions of events that are being commemorated. The trend has only changed with Holocaust memorials and arguably with Maya Lin’s inimitable Vietnam War Memorial on the National Mall.

When you see a statue of a great man on horseback or nobly scanning the horizon, you assume that figure was a person of profound influence. You don’t need to know the history of Belgian politics to recognize the power embodied in the statue in Ghent of King Leopold II (at long last removed from display). What you won’t recognize from the bronze itself is that these statues were erected by those in his (or his family’s) political thrall. What you will not learn is the monstrous cruelty of his African colonization or the subsequent disgrace of his entire lineage.

Statues are not history, except wherein they fit into the architectural history lore of a city. The Robert E Lee statue in Dallas, for instance, only represents the history of an era of Black suppression or more recently of the decision to remove it and the protests that occurred. It tells (told) us nothing about the man or his actual time. In fact, its very presence was a complete historical fallacy. Lee had nothing to do with the history of Texas or Dallas. One of my colleagues even remembered it as depicting Lee leading a group of black people to freedom. There were no black figures on the Lee statue, not did the historical Lee ever lead black people anywhere constructive.

The opponents of statue removal are right in one thing. History should not be forgotten or erased. But it is historical fact that should be preserved, not some comfortable legend that plays into anyone’s social agenda. The distinction is that whereas the past should be recalled, it should not be revered. A man like George Washington was a great leader of our country – fact. He was also a slave owner who relentlessly hounded his escaped hostages – fact. Both should be remembered as they are both essential to understanding the nature of a nation’s past. We don’t need our heroes to be untarnished. That’s not what heroes are. Instead, they are humans, fault-ridden and fallible, who happen to do immense things.

Sorry, Mrs. Langdon. There was so much more to your icons than you were willing to share.   


7.06.2020

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 105 A. Hamilton – 7/6/20

I missed a milestone.

I could not bring myself to write about the hundredth day of the shutdown in part because I have a distaste for arbitrary celebrations. My hundredth day may have been a New Yorker’s 150th or a Parisian’s two hundred somethingth, rendering my declaration meaningless.

The main reason though was shear frustration. After a hundred days, the situation in Texas (and in the USA as a whole) is worse than it was when we started. Our governor may be finally speaking out in forceful terms, but he is still being undermined by his own Lt. Gov and Secretary of State. What little leadership we have seen, both in this state and from the Executive branch of the Federal Government has been muddled and tentative. Why commemorate a hundredth day when there is no reason to think things will improve by the second or third hundredth?

I celebrated the Fourth of July by watching Hamilton – for once a product that is even better than its hype. The play is a work of genius with stellar performances and a powerful, frenetic strength that is constantly challenging. Where is it written that the theater is meant to be easy? I urge everyone to find a way to watch it.

For those of you who have spent the last five years under a rock, Hamilton is an urban musical biography of one of the towering figures of US history. But it is really a vignette of the times and the brilliance that went into the formation of our country. Its motive force is the juxtaposition of Hamilton and his nemesis Aaron Burr – Burr a man so cautious that he achieves nothing and Hamilton so rash that he almost destroys everything he has achieved. In the end, history is kinder to Hamilton than Burr, who is now barely remembered except for the one shocking act of (spoiler) killing his rival.

The most striking thing about the play, and in fact the historical period it depicts, is the electric energy that crackles throughout. The world was stripped down and turned on its head and American leaders invented an entire country from whole cloth, taking fewer than fifteen years to do so. The production captures this energy in fierce and rapid-fire song and in the constant swirl of action in the background. It can be easy to forget how much effort was involved in the American experiment, of thought and documentation and debate. Hamilton, the play, is an active reminder.

For Hamilton, the man, and his colleagues, History was there for the taking and they grabbed it without hesitation. They recognized the task ahead and flung themselves into work with wit, brilliance and wisdom. Their solutions were far from perfect but created a framework for growth. They strove and accomplished.

Where are today’s Hamiltons or Washingtons? Or even today’s Aaron Burrs? Where are the energy, the wit and the courage to take history by the scruff of the neck and make a move? All these have been lost in the cowering fear of voting bases and approval ratings.


6.10.2020

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 79 Reservations 6/10/20

Today’s note is about Reservations.

‘Reservation’ is one of those remarkable English words that contrives to have diametrical meanings. On the one hand, the word means a sense of hesitation or reconsideration (“I have reservations about writing this essay.”). With typical linguistic agility, it can also mean securing the time and place to do something (“I have a reservation to write this essay, so you can’t tell me the internet is full.”).

Our time on the island has been full of both types of reservation, especially now as the community tries to open within the bounds of safe capacity. I can now use both meanings in a single sentence (“I have reservations to go to dinner, but I have reservations about how safe it would be to do so.”). I do not mean to make any sort of moral or even scientific judgement. I’m merely pointing out that we are now in the odd intersection of Venn diagrams.

Recently, I was bemused by the news item that the Dallas Zoo is now open for business (I should have saved this essay for my ‘z’ entry). There is nothing striking about that fact or the associated attempt on the Zoo’s part to control the flow of the crowds who are likely to come out, especially with the fine weekend weather we have been having. What I do find comical is the concept that the Zoo will be open By Appointment Only. In fact, the appointments represent time of admission and I presume there will be some guidance as to the flow of passage through the park to limit potential exposure. But in my mind, I picture a tuxedo-clad lion standing at the maître d’ station, checking out names on a list before passing us off to a giraffe for seating. In the kitchen, a rhino is hard at work making soup while hedgehogs garnish the salads.

There is always something subversive about zoo parks. They are not locations where you can govern the flow easily. Patrons want to be able to choose their favorites (I for one would hate to be shuttled through the spider exhibit). They want to sit and make faces at the gorillas (which they should not be doing and which the gorillas in their far greater wisdom generally ignore) or roar back at the tigers (who spend the day sleeping in the sun despite the noisy visitors). We may be forced to adjust for the pandemic, but I have trouble envisioning a zoo that has a turnstile flow like some exhibit at an art museum.

Cancel my zoo reservations for now, thank you. I have far too many reservations about how a rigid structure will change the experience to attend right now.


5.29.2020

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 67 The Questioneer 5/29/20

This is the story of the Questioneer.

The Questioneer was an occasional visitor during my childhood. His visits always involved my brother, three years my elder who delighted in nothing more than scaring me from my dreams. David was notorious for reading terrifying passages from his many horror books into the intercom that we shared in our haunted corner of the house. Or holding glow-in-the-dark toys over me until I’d wake and scream.

The Questioneer was a softer form of teasing. He came only on those nights when, due to a guest lodging in my room or perhaps because I had been scared by some other source, I would be sleeping in the second twin bed in David’s room. We would we chatter a bit, my brother and I, often hushed by my parents (or my grandparents if they were the guests next door) until the peace and the silence would settle. In the faint half-doze of those midnight hours, a hollow disembodied voice would gently sing its welcome. “Keith,” it would intone. “This is the Questioneer.”

The voice would ask questions, of course – a light quiz which would range on everything from Ancient Egypt to current comic books. It thrilled when I got the answer right and coaxed when I was stumped until the correct answer would come. And then, with barely a whisper or a farewell it would be gone, and my brother would sit up in his bed and ask, “Did you hear something?”

I lived in a house that was always a knowledge test. At dinner, my father was constantly playing “Who Was…?” My brother would test me during waking hours to make sure I had read the latest book he had recommended or researched the latest topic. Somehow, of all these interrogations, the Questioneer’s were the most gentle and welcome. Although his questions were always tough he never seemed condescending or even challenging, as if he were only soothing my busy young mind with the balm of knowledge.

I have no evidence that the Questioneer was my brother at all. Heaven knows, we had enough ghosts in that old house that we certainly might have harbored a quizzer. At times, I would try my best to watch my brother ad see if I could see any sign that it was he who was voicing the questions. But the darkness was always so deep, and he was always so still, even when the voice was present, that I still to this day am uncertain.

It has been years since the Questioneer has asked me a question. Sometimes, though, when I am lying in the stillness of the deep night too tired to sleep, I can just make out the high, reedy voice in the inky silence around me – a sweet silken voice with an interrogatory tone. Then I can almost hear my brother calling out, “Keith, do you hear something?”

I think that I can, David. I hope that I can.


5.28.2020

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 66 Pac-Man Pedestrians 5/28/20


An unforeseen and unfortunate circumstance of writing alphabetically is when you have already used all the good words as themes for prior notes. I have already written about Pets and Puzzles. I have no taste for Polemic or Partisanship. Pandemonium and Pandemic seen somehow too panicky.

During a walk around my block, er, island, I had the inspiration I needed. I will write about Pac-Man.

Please understand, I have no great affinity for the arcade game. Aside from a few unsuccessful dabbles in my youth, I avoided the arcade games of this sort as unprofitable wastes of quarters. I was always much more of a pinball guy. Pinball had a mechanical reality that made you feel you were a part of the game. Adding the occasional machine shimmy and the hand and wrist movement to keep flippers flying and the ball on track, it almost felt like dancing. I confess to wasting far too many hours over pinball machines but do have the distinction of being told by college radio disc jockey Stompin’ Zemo (yes, THE Stompin’ Zemo himself) that I had “righteous flipper action.”

Walking outside in a world of social distancing (even in a world where half of the citizens have convinced themselves the crisis is over) has a dislocated feeling of unreality that reminds of the arcade games. The world is real, the trees are lush and the flowers ripe, but the people you pass are featureless – a combination of masks and averted gazes, as if eye-contact were prohibited in the municipal by-laws.

The overlap between game and reality becomes intense when I spy another walker on an otherwise deserted stretch. There are so many calculations and strategies to process that I feel like the hunter in Predator with a constant grid of data flashing in my vision. How far away is my opponent? How fast are they walking? How wide is the sidewalk? What is the grid of the streets if I need to turn off and will there be others on those paths? Will the soon to be passer-by suddenly turn glowing blue and attack me?

Okay, that last one is not really in my calculations, but it might as well be. I can almost chart out the dots that I must follow as I make my way forward. Will we meet at a driveway where there will be room for both of us to pass with adequate distance? Should I stop now? Should I step onto the sodden grass, or will they? Relax! They’ve crossed the street. Crisis averted until the next chance meeting.

Americans are faint of etiquette and protocol in the best of times. I have been nudged by bikes along the trail whose riders decided it was easier to pass to my right than my left. I have been jostled by pedestrians in my lane too intent on their virtual lives to notice the actual one approaching them. Now that the stakes have raised, maybe we’ll learn some manners. At the very least, we can replace our computer games with the daily strategy and tilt-less intrigue that a walk now promises.


5.27.2020

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 65 Observations 5/27/20


A few Observations from my island’s crow’s nest:

Traffic is returning, although it is unclear where folks are going. Although stores have been slated to open, a large number still have limited hours and equally limited service. It is possible that people are just driving to stay in the habit, or perhaps to take advantage of the cheap gas.

Along those lines, gas is no longer cheap again. Demand is up, so the price has snuck up to pre-epidemic levels. Which is the opposite of how supply and demand is supposed to work, although I am no economist.

Although there was no way to know how long the shut would or will last, it seems to me that we would have been better holding any sort of stimulus payments until things were opening. I fear that the stimulus money landed in secure vaults with other funds and will stay there rather than going into the revival of the economy where it is needed.

I am a little bewildered by the delay in the opening of museums at least on a controlled-attendance basis. We have all discovered during sheltering that art is essential. It is also fluid. Few people stop and linger in a single spot for hours on end the way they do in restaurants.

Libraries could also be reopened along safe lines, since the act of studying in a library is almost the definition of social distancing. I mean that in a good way.

However, I do not understand how a bar can ever practice safe social distancing. Not to say that bars should not be open. I just think we should be honest about our expectations.

What are sports if not spectator events? The rush to open major sports without folks in the stands proves that the fans are the least considered part of the industry. No surprise I guess, just sad to see.

However, my hat is off to the inventive ways that teams have tried to give the illusion of attendance. Fox Sports purportedly included virtual fans in the stands of some of their televised events. Other teams have used mannequins (including one foreign baseball league which seated sex dolls in the stands). The German soccer league has placed photos of fans’ faces on the seats, but I wonder if they charged the supporters for the privilege of seeing their disembodied visage on a television screen.

This pandemic has included a remarkable number of holidays – Easter, Passover, Earth Day, Memorial Day, Mother’s Day, Arbor Day etc. Is there another two-month stretch that would have swallowed as many milestone dates? November and December, I suppose, although those include big holidays and would not match the sheer number. Hopefully, we will be loose by July 4, but I wouldn’t be too optimistic at this point.

The most obvious Observation is that I clearly need to get outside more.



5.26.2020

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 64 Newspapers Redux 5/26/20


 

I have written about Newspapers once before from my island (Days 40&41). Caught in a wash of sentimental nostalgia, I bemoaned what the pandemic had stripped from the publications. Now on the backside of the alphabet, I am trying to present a more positive face. Let me talk about what newspapers have given during the shutdown.

I am a huge fan of printed newspapers. My son thinks I’m crazy to rely on what may be a dying product, but there are substantive pleasures to the dailies even in normal times. I like the ease of reading, the fact that you can enjoy them without constant pop-up advertisements, the fact that you can fold and shape them to fit your reading needs. I even love the way you can crumple and tear out bits of them in anger (Boston Globe readers will appreciate the number of times I have mutilated Dan Shaughnessy’s picture).

Lately, the newspapers have included delightful surprises that have been a source of small and much-needed diversion.

The Dallas Morning News (an ‘okay’ paper in my book – good reporting, a bit parochial, far too much Cowboy coverage) has offered an occasional puzzle book with their Sunday edition. Their puzzles already are better than most and they have a good skein of comics, but the puzzle book imparts lingering entertainment. When the real news starts to distress me too much (usually after three or four headlines) and the Cowboys section (I mean the Sports section) is digested, it is nice to be able to escape into the orderliness of the grid.

The New York Times has one-upped them. In balance to their stark and often brutal coverage of the pandemic, the Times has added small doses of levity. I was delighted one weekend to discover a puzzle section to augment the already ritual puzzles that the brilliant but lately unreadable Magazine contains. (Unfortunately, my wife discarded the book before I had a chance to tackle the Mega puzzle that took up the two center pages.) Each week they offer a card game for families, encouraging positivity and mindfulness. And this week, the Times presented a special section on Joy – how staff members find simple thrills in an otherwise dreary time. Essays about re-growing scallions or having appointments self-cancel emphasize the pleasure that even the smallest things in life contain. In presentation, these lovely essays are in themselves an anodyne.

Before long, we may all go back to scrolling news on our phone or snatching headlines off Twitter. While we have the time, we might just savor the gentle pleasures that the printed dinosaurs offer us.

 

#NotesFromAnIsland #COVID19Essays #SocialDistancing #Puzzles


5.22.2020

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 60 Memorial Day 5/22/20


Memorial Day weekend.

Most years this milestone brings a great relaxation. In addition to the respectful aspect of honoring the military dead, Memorial Day is also the herald of the arrival of summer. The calendar may tell us that the season is a month away, but our hearts know better. The weather is warmer (in Texas read ‘hot’). The sunlight lasts longer. And the air becomes still with that lazy doldrum that begs for lemonade and ice cream. White slacks and seersucker can finally come out of storage.

This year, for many of us, the torpor has been around for two months or more, even if the weather has not cooperated. My dear friend in North Carolina told me that they had all four seasons in a week recently. In Michigan torrential rains and floods are blocking any relaxing feelings. They are still looking out for cold fronts high up in the Northeast. But warm weather or not, we have been frozen in a state of suspension by the need to shelter in place.

The biggest issue with this Memorial Day is the lack of contrast. As I’ve asked before, when every day is like Sunday, what do we do on the real Sunday? How will we be able to discern a holiday respite from other days when we have been locked inside in its advent?

For some, the answer is to not stay inside. Some beaches and parks are opening throughout the country and I am sure that I know people who are looking forward to as ‘normal’ a celebration as they can muster. There is nothing political in me commenting that it is far too soon, as tempting as it may be, to rush back into careless revelry. A beach or a park can be visited in a safe manner, but it is difficult to control other’s definition of safe.

For our part, we will stay in. My wife, who has been working at the hospital on her regular (if more anxious) schedule will have the day off and we will try as we might to capture the fleeting feeling of relaxation. Perhaps I will use the grill if I can disinter it from the winter’s junk in my garage. Maybe we can sit outside, a respectable social distance from others, and toast the passage of another milestone – each one bringing us closer to the times when the days are no longer a bland wash of sameness and the holidays regain their specialness.

 

#NotesFromAnIsland #COVID19Essays #SocialDistancing #MemorialDay #Summer #Holidays


5.21.2020

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 59 Island Literature 5/21/20


You are on an island. What five books do you have with you to make the desertion bearable?

This may be the oldest trope in the history of Literature. I can almost imagine the monks in Cluny bent over a codex in their candle-dim scriptorium stopping to ask each other. (“Verily, Augustinus doth beguile the time well.”)

I am on an island, but I am also surrounded by books, more than I could hope to read in this (hopefully) brief time of sheltering. I don’t need to worry about what book will bear rereading until rescue or which is long enough to fill a passel of sand-swept days. But I do have the luxury to stop and think about the books I have read and about which ones I would want with me through an endless absence.

The first choice I would make is a cheat – like the man uses one of his genii wishes for more wishes. I would choose a blank book with enough pages to allow me to write. I have always felt that literature is a game of give-and-go. Well-written, Cervantes! Now read one of mine! I’m not sure there ever was a first book, because all books influence each other in a timeless circle. Even books written later cast rewriting shadows for the reader on their precursors.

Another obvious choice would be The Bible, although not for the most obvious reason. Religion is warm comfort in times of isolation, to be sure, and the Bible is a source of great inspiration. But it also is one of the freshest and funniest books in literature. It combines poetry and nursery rhymes while mixing in a few naughty bits and riveting military adventure. It includes mystery, swashbuckling and romance. In short, one volume encompasses an entire Everyman’s Library of styles and genres.

I would want to have a mystery novel, as a true aficionado of the art. The book would need to work on enough levels so that the fact that I knew the solution would not change my enjoyment. Sherlock Holmes fills that niche well, especially if I could finagle some sort of Collected Works Omnibus. (Heck, my island, my rules!)

I would sacrifice one book to a tome of enormous complexity that I would never undertake in an ordinary world. “Foucault’s Pendulum” by Umberto Eco perhaps would give me something to chew on in small bites over a long period of time.

Which leaves me with one last book that I would never tire of and never cease to take pleasure from. This may be akin to naming my favorite book, but the two are different. There are many books I have read and loved, but that I will never read again “Heart of Darkness” anyone?). It would be bad enough to be lost on an island without having my emotions roiled on a constant basis. I would choose something to remind that no matter how I age or how much time passes, there is still a child’s soul inside me. “Charlotte’s Web” or “Stuart Little” would be a great choice to round out my collection.

These books and the light to read them by are all that I could ever ask.

 


#NotesFromAnIsland #COVID19Essays #SocialDistancing #FiveBooks #Literature #Reading


5.20.2020

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 58 Kaddish 5/20/20


The Kaddish is the Jewish Prayer of Mourning, typically recited at graveside by family with all participants in support.

To date, more than 90,000 Americans and over 300,000 worldwide are confirmed dead from COVID-19. Many of these died in isolation, either alone in quarantine or in mechanical ventilators in ICUs. There has been little time for the dignity or the quiet that we all hope to associate with death.

I have been fortunate. None of my family has been directly affected, although I do know some who have been stricken. I fear that we all have. But no one, no matter how isolated, dies alone and no one shall pass unmourned. As John Donne wrote, “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind. Therefore, never send to know for who the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.”

 

KADDISH

 

Sightless eyes need light.

Soundless ears a voice.

The only noise to join the last wheeze
Is the sigh of the bellows
Pushing air where none will go.

How many souls, Oh Lord?

How fierce the tears?

How weak the heart that waits apart
Detached by safety from
The fleeing spirit?

None die alone.

The world hears each unseen tear.

Each lonely grain of time
Stolen from the earth
Echoes in all hearts

A voice raised in universal prayer.

A sun, or is it the moon, spied at last.

                                                               

Keith Mankin, May 2020



#NotesFromAnIsland #COVID19Essays

5.19.2020

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 57 Japan's Olympics 5/19/20

My calendar image for this month is Japan. It is an insipid piece of artwork even for a travel poster – two women in traditional dress crowded into the foreground which overwhelms the autumnal colors of maple leaves and misty mountains in the background.

Nevertheless, it spurs my imagination (see yesterday’s Note) to dream of travel and cool fresh air in a place I have never been.

The redolence of absence also hangs around the poster. Although I had no plans to travel there, Japan would have played prominently in our awareness this summer, as Tokyo was to host the Olympics. We would already have been following the final stages of qualifying for sports that we only care about every four years. We would have been arguing with authority about whether (then) Bruce Jenner or Daley Thompson was the best decathlete of all time (ignoring of course pre-or early television greats like Jim Thorpe, Bob Mathias or Rafer Johnson), all the while struggling to name all ten components of the event. Self-taught experts would be commenting on whether the race walker had really broken into a run or the Greco-Roman wrestler had illegally used his legs.

Now, we wait for 2021, we hope, as the calendar of international sports falls off its established treadmill.

The last games in Tokyo were held in 1964. Japan had originally been slated to host in 1940 but were stripped of their rights for their military aggression. Even in 1964, the War must have seemed close for the hosts and their guests. Some athletes from Asia refused to attend in protest, and the lighter of the flame, Yoshinori Sakai, was a 19-year-old runner chosen because he had been born in Hiroshima on the day of the nuclear bombing.  The competition itself is probably best remembered for the heroics of Abebe Bikila, the Ethiopian who was the first person to win sequential Olympic Marathons and of Joe Frazier who followed Cassius Clay’s 1960 heavyweight boxing gold in Rome with one of his own. Willi Holdorf of Germany won the decathlon. The games are also memorialized in the engaging Cary Grant comedy “Walk Don’t Run” (1966).

The odd legacy of these future Tokyo games has yet to play out. By report, the Tokyo ’20 organizers have decided that rebranding to ‘Tokyo ’21’ will be too difficult and fraught, so all the signage will remind us of the disjointed timing of the games. Coaches and athletes are concerned about the effect of the long layoff from meaningful training due to the shelter-in-place orders as well as the effect of the extra year. Qualifiers in most sports will be allowed to maintain their positions on the teams but may be out of sync or even past their prime. Internal standards and records will be difficult to compare. The whole process will have a huge asterisk assigned to it.  None of this considers the complex financial process that will be involved in the dislocation.

In ancient times, by legend if not always in fact, the world stopped for the quadrennial festival. Wars are said to have been paused. Political events were laid aside until the champions had been crowned. Wouldn’t it be nice if the virus could call a truce for two months and allow us the small measure of regularity that an on-time Olympics would bring?


#NotesFromAnIsland #COVID19Essays #SocialDistancing #Tokyo2020 #Tokyo2021 #Olympics


5.18.2020

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 56 Imagination 5/18/20


There are a lot of words starting with “I” that are applicable to my island. ‘Island’ itself comes to mind, but that would be cheating. ‘Irritable,” for sure, and maybe ‘irascible’. ‘Isolated’ seems both too obvious and whiny. ‘Incomplete’ perhaps or as a positive ‘independent’. Words that should not be used include ‘interconnected’ and ‘immaculate’.

How about the word that is the sine qua non of my time here, ‘imagination’?

Imagination is a difficult word that is widely used, often interchangeably with ‘creativity’. The two words are connected but are opposite. Creativity leads to the construction of something actual. Imagination, coming from the Latin word ‘imago’ which is itself a translation of the Greek ‘phantasia’ (from which we get both fantasy and phantom) manufactures dreams. What we imagine is never a real thing, but rather a copy or an interpretation of reality. With typical English linguistic agility, we have added shades of meaning that may not have been there at the start. The word ‘image’ can mean both spectral (as in ‘imaginary’) and real (‘imaginable’).

Where would we be in a time like this without our ability to think about things that are conceivable but not actual? If we looked out the window and only saw empty streets instead of wide vistas to travel? If we looked at the walls and only saw, well, walls, wouldn’t our confinement be that much more severe?

So many folks have shared how their own imagination (or that of others) has helped to leaven the time. Imagination is at play in brilliant parodies of artwork or songs, in stories that are being written and told, even in the ubiquitous memes that are the communication currency of our time. It is present in the surge of crafting, where the boundaries of imagination and creativity are closest. We even see it in the solving of puzzles, jigsaw and otherwise, where we are literally creating an image from broken and scattered fragments.

With so much imagination powering the world right now, I will be fascinated to see how the other side of this crisis appears. Like any skill or muscle, imagination responds to exercise. The more stories we hear or the more creative work we produce then the more accustomed our imagination becomes to being used and the stronger it gets. It will be difficult to lay all that aside when the ‘normal’ world resurfaces.

I’ve heard some pundits despair that we are looking at the end of Art, as too many resources will go into technology and the economic rebuilding to allow for indulgence. But I genuinely feel that the resources of the imagination are inexhaustible. Rather than no artists, I think we will come out of this with a generation that is all artists. Art and imagination will continue to be prized and even rewarded, as those of us who are most imaginative in our responses to the crisis will be the ones in positions to lead us out of our exile.

Imagine that!


5.16.2020

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 54&55 Come Saturday Morning 5/16/20

Some of the things missing from my island were not there at all, missing for many years. Isolation brings their long-term absence into sharp relief.

There is a movie called “The Sterile Cuckoo” (1969) which I have always had mixed feelings for. Liza Minelli is extraordinary but the script alternates from zany to melodramatic too sharply for my tastes. Maybe because the nine-year-old me wanted nothing to do with it, the film has never made into my inner circle.

The theme song though is one of my favorites. “Come Saturday Morning,” written by Fred Karlin and Dory Previn and recorded by The Sandpipers, is light folk rock at best, approaching pop. The hook may be catchy, but it is the lyrics that capture me: “Come Saturday Morning/ I’m going away with my friends/ We’ll Saturday spend ‘til the end of the day.”

To most, this song is about romance and the excitement of young love. To me, the song evokes the carefree time of waking up late, noshing sugary cereal and spending hours in the company of cartoon friends on the television. Grown ups may be running around in parks and falling in love. The happy and hearty boy that I was immersed himself in the freedom of wasted time.

The characters that paraded (mindlessly, I must admit) across my television were indeed my friends. I looked forward to Scooby Doo and Bugs Bunny. I cheered for Penelope Pitstop and chuckled along with Muttley and the other Wacky Racers. I even relished the less-than-classic animation of shows like Frankie, Jr or the Way Way Outs or Spider-Man. Nothing cheered me more than the advertisements in TV Guide which boasted of the New Fall Line-up of Saturday Morning cartoons, as I welcomed back old favorites and dreamed about what delights the new products might hold.

I wouldn’t dare watch any of these shows again, even if I could find them. I have treated myself to listening to the themes from shows like Milton the Monster or Kimba the White Lion (which I still know by heart), but the thought of watching an episode or two stops me in my tracks. Either I will recognize that they are pablum (as the rational part of my brain knew even then) or the heartbreak of nostalgia will be too crushing.

One thing that the cartoons represented was consistency. The titles would change, but every Saturday the feeling and the sounds and colors would always be there. And they were all mine. My mother was tolerant enough to let me have the television to myself. My brother and sister had no interest. These were my moments, my friends, my world if only for a couple of hours. How lovely would it be to have that certainty now.

The song finishes, “And then we’ll move on/ But we will remember/ Long after Saturday’s gone.”

 


#NotesFromAnIsland #COVID19Essays #SaturdayMorningCartoons

5.15.2020

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 53 Hirsute Days 5/15/20


Waking up on my island and wondering whether to shave, my essay today is about Hirsuteness.

The word ‘hirsute’, generally accepted as meaning ‘hairy’, has nothing in its origins to do with hair. It means ‘spiky’ or ‘bristly’ and is probably more closely related to the word ‘horror’ than to the word ‘hair’ (as in ‘hair standing on end’ fright). I have always felt it was onomatopoetic – the sound that you hear when you stroke your scraggly chin.

It is a strong and strange indictment of our times that I need to make a political disclaimer before tackling this subject. Who would have dreamed two months ago as we entered our bewildering enisling that even haircuts would become partisan? Discussion of this cultural phenomenon is best left to others than me.

The length and shape of our hair is an important aspect of our personal image. Hair is the first feature many notice, visible as it is in a crowd or from a distance. Even in a time of Zoom meetings, it is hard to hide, although hats, scarves and even fright wigs have all been deployed. No one will blame us for being a little shaggy, and yet the shagginess is an omnipresent indicator of what we are lacking as well as nagging reminder of our collective vanity.

The hair on the head is one thing, barbers being shuttered. By the way, this is not the first time such an embargo has occurred (despite the protestations of the vocal crowds). Tonsorial workers have always been among the most policed and controlled artisans, largely because of the concern of epidemics of head lice, scabies and even life-threatening diseases like TB or bubonic plague. Barbers and stylists know that they work at the discretion of the local Boards of Health – it’s in their licensure.

A more mystifying process is the ubiquitous plague beard. There is no shortage of razors during the pandemic, nor do most people rely on outside forces to raze their faces. And yet everyone has sprouted “facial fungus” as the Saint often called it. I tried my own only to find out that: 1) I cannot grow a full beard and 2) beards are itchy for an unpleasant amount of time.

My son shifts from hirsute to cleanshaven with alarming rapidity.  A dear friend of mine has a magnificent mandibular mane to go with the illustrious mustache that he already wore. My own effort went from five o’clock shadow to mange over a few days. My sorry attempt is long gone, and I have noticed many others who have finally given up the whiskered ghost.

Why did we grow them in the first place? Was it laziness? Was it rebellion against the abrupt dismissal of the world’s normal order? Was it superstition ala the NHL and their playoff beards? Perhaps it has been an attempt to identify with other beasts, like bears, in our hibernation?

Many of the things that we are now seeing during the shutdown are here to stay. Zoom meetings will never leave us. Work from home has become acceptable alternative. Telemedicine as well.  Perhaps we are seeing the re-advent of the Age of the Bushy Beard. Or possibly, like the shaggy mop that many of us are sporting on our heads, all this will vanish when the doors and the barbers reopen soon. 

 

#NotesFromAnIsland #COVID19Essays #PlagueBeards #Barbers #SocialDistancing

5.14.2020

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 52 Ghost Story 5/14/20

I almost always publish my Notes at the first light of day, but it’s never a bad time to tell a Ghost story.

Growing up, my brother, sister and I had our fair share of spectral encounters, mostly during the time we lived in the house in Scarsdale NY. There is nothing particularly eerie about Scarsdale except perhaps its age, with houses dating back to Colonial times. Ours was not one of them. It was a large and eccentric stucco from the 1930s and it was jampacked full of ghosts.

My sister told us when we moved in about a young man who had died there. She even knew his name, although in retrospect David and I should have been skeptical about how. It may not have been the deceased lad’s spirit harrowing us, but the wing in which David and I dwelled had more than its share of noises, cold spots and creaking doors. We were high above the garage and the kitchen (where a refrigerator housed a phantom head and the pantry a box of graham crackers that no one had bought, and no one could ever grab). The noises may well have been wind rattling through drafty spaces. But no explanation could account for the faces in the window when David and I were out back playing, or the elderly woman who appeared behind me one small morning as I sat at the window seat reading comic books.

One evening, my sister, our putative babysitter, went to a play at the High School. It was just down the street and David was at least thirteen. And she did ask us to join her. But we had battles to fight and monster movies to watch. We let her go.

Not long after, the noise started, a moaning from the basement. We were far too scared not to explore, baseball bats (the universal weapons of boys our age) at the ready.

Our basement was vast, too large for lighting even in daytime. It was always creepy, with its mysterious electric football game that turned itself on even when unplugged and its miles of disused toy trains that my father swore were his as a boy. By night, in the piercing darkness, the cellar was hushed and lurking. But we sallied forth, too brave to breathe. Our plan was to stop at each of the thousand doors in the cavernous depths and then, at a count, run screaming in with bats flailing. We never encountered anything, until the last room, a combined furnace and laundry room that neither of us had ever had the guts to step into. It had one hanging light, square in its center, and no windows to even soften the inky depths.

At the door, we heard the steady hum of the furnace. In our breathless concentration, we could even hear the whirring of the gas and water meters counting the passage of utilitarian time. Behind that, came another noise – so low that it barely rose above the heartbeats in our ears – a deep and solemn moan in the heart of the woeful darkness.

The play at the high school was excellent. Allison had the good graces not to ask us why we followed her home so closely or why every light was burning in the house when we arrived.

 

5.13.2020

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 51 Family 5/13/20

I had a perfectly good out yesterday since Fifty begins with F. But I’ve always eschewed using numbers as alphabet substitutes. Besides, I really wanted to write a note about Family.

It’s hard to discuss family in a time of crisis without tending towards the maudlin. So much of what I would say is tautologic – of course they are my bulwark and support during the pandemic. Of course, I am making decisions that are in their interests, in terms of both health and security. To say so merely sounds like I’m echoing the ubiquitous (and manipulative) television advertisements that would have us believe that every product from fried chicken to half-bed trucks should be purchased “now more than ever.”

Family is one of the few areas that has provided serendipity during the lockdown. My nuclear core finally has the time to stop and think about what we are as a unit. My son, part of my remote cadre by virtue of living in Chicago rather than Dallas, has revealed responsibility and maturity. My sister-in-law, a part of our physical shelter group, has proven to be a steadfast friend. My time with my wife has allowed me to recall what made us such perfect soulmates from the first.

Probably the best serendipity has been the reacquaintance with my cousinship. My father was quite close with his two brothers, so growing up we spent a lot of pleasant and formative time with our firsties. There were ten of us in all – three of my dad’s, three from what I think of as the Pittsburgh branch and three from the California side (although during our closest interaction they lived in New York just as we did). We saw them at holidays and summers. With time, we separated both in location and in experience.

Three of the cousins have died, the second-born in each family, a sort of inverted Biblical curse. The others of us had kept our council, meeting only for rare family reunions and now painfully more common funerals.

Now, through the magic of Zoom and the irony of social distancing we have come back together for weekly visits. We are starting to fill in the lacunae of our experiences and to enjoy the wit and the laughter that we had savored so long ago.

First cousins are an irony in themselves. We are so close genetically that we share family traits – voices, faces, hair color. In animal packs, we would be part of the same inner circle. But humans are migratory, and whereas it feels like I know them so well, there is only a small portion of their lives to which I am a party.

So, here’s to this brief, unasked for and mostly unwanted moment in our time. Here’s to the opportunity to reset the Family button, not to sell cars or insurance, but to strengthen the common and unshakable bonds of genetics.


5.12.2020

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 50 Fifty 5/12/20

When is a milestone not a milestone? When nobody wants it to occur.

Today (depending on your mode of counting) is Day 50 on the island. It translates a little better converted into months – a shade under two. Or perhaps as a decimal of a year, 0.137. Regardless of how we spell it, it represents a long time with more to come.

If there is something magical in our decimal based minds about a hundred (even though we as a country are emphatically and stubbornly not metric), then there is something only semi-magical about fifty, as if it is nearly an achievement. In that opaque sport of cricket, we celebrate a player’s “half-century” with the bat, fifty runs or more, although the ovation is not nearly as emphatic as it is for the full hundred. Fifty home runs in a baseball season is a lot, although not record breaking thanks to Babe Ruth (and steroids). The fifty goal plateau for a hockey player is the difference between journeyman and hall-of-famer and in professional soccer (football) is largely unprecedented (unless you account for all competitions, where two blokes named Messi and Ronaldo have recently thumbed their noses at the milestone on a regular basis). A fifty-yard field goal is considered monumental still, although kickers can easily send a ball sixty or seventy yards on flight. Fifty points in a basketball game remains remarkable. And no one had eaten anywhere near fifty hotdogs in a competition until 2001 when that mystical threshold was reached. The current record is seventy-four.

Fifty years is a formidable anniversary, whether for marriage or membership. For life expectancy in the modern world, it is not considered a long span – the great irony in the fact that fifty is many years of accomplishment and yet seems so young (especially to those of us who have passed the number). Which says something about life or marriage or both.

But what can you do with fifty days? Many of us have the answer now. We can stream the entire catalog of Marvel Universe movies and throw the Star Wars saga in for good measure. We can make the effort to read fifty books – no matter how many we complete is a good number. We can build jigsaw puzzles to cover every surface of our house and then wonder why we are saving the finished products in the first place. We could (and many do) celebrate the full extent of Pentecost, although our starting date was off by several weeks and there were no churches in which to celebrate.

According to the internet, we could lose fifty pounds in that time (unlikely in a time of stress and isolation, but worth noting nevertheless). Or even run fifty ironman competitions. So says the internet and the internet does not lie.

Or perhaps we can write fifty silly Notes trying to make sense of the world and its craziness, all the while hoping that we never need to collect information for a hundredth day essay.


5.11.2020

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 49 RIP Roy Horn 5/11/20

There have been many, many deaths attributable to the coronavirus and I give honor to every single soul that has passed. Some deaths though touch me more deeply.

Roy Horn, a performer in the sparkling Las Vegas act Siegfried and Roy, died this weekend of complications from the virus. He had been in fragile health for many years since an onstage accident leading to a severe traumatic stroke in 2003.

For those younger folks in my readership, Siegfried and Roy’s act was unique in a town that had everything. It featured a combination of magic and animals, specifically an array of marvelous white lions and tigers in a production that was at once over-the-top and elegant. The best part was that although the animals featured in the act, they were never humiliated or belittled. It was as if it was their act and the humans merely did their bidding to showcase their magnificence.

Outside of the stage, the pair, who lived together for more than fifty years although never explicitly discussed their personal relationship, by all appearances maintained the same respect and deference to the mighty creatures who shared their lives. The estate was built around beautiful environs for the cats to prowl – no cages for these beauties. Cats and humans seemed to dwell in peaceful coexistence.

Even at the very time of the accident that nearly cost him his life, Roy insisted that the tiger who had attacked him be spared, relying on the charming fiction that the animal was protecting him but didn’t know its own strength. That animal was retired to the estate and lived out its days in peace.

I don’t know why I am so moved by this death, unless it is because of my love for great cats and for Roy’s remarkable poise in that fateful moment so long ago. Perhaps it is the stark irony that a man who could tame and love some of the world’s largest and most powerful animals should be felled by a submicroscopic one. Everything about this virus seems to arise from Penny Dreadful irony.

I can’t help wondering if, in his final moments, Roy Horn forgave the tiny beings that killed him. Did he believe that the viruses were just doing what they do? Or did he finally lash out at a living creature and at the unfairness of his fate.


5.10.2020

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 47&48 Mother's Day May 10, 2020

HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY, whatever island you are on.

Mother’s Day is the ultimate greeting card holiday, created at the start of the twentieth century, not so coincidentally at the same time as Joyce Hall opened his Hallmark business. Despite this, even I have trouble generating any cynicism for an occasion that allows offspring to focus on the formative force in their lives.

In yesteryears, when my mom was still with us, the day would be celebrated with a long phone call in the morning. There was nothing unique about that – Sunday morning was always the province of my mother. She made sure to instill the habit of calling her by calling us – early. A few phone calls at 7 AM on Sunday to a college dorm is a sure way to elicit the promise of a defensive phone call at 9 or 10, if only to protect the college kid from the opprobrium of his roommates.

The phone call on Mother’s Day always seemed special. Maybe it was the moment of concern until Mom confirmed that she had indeed received the card that we had sent. Maybe it was the fact that, for once, my mother would put her diffidence aside and let me (and my son eventually) heap gratitude and appreciation on her. It was a rare chance for her to bask in good thoughts and, if I guided her properly, to reminisce in uncharacteristically happy terms about her own mother.
When we lived in the same city, Mother’s Day would be a day for dining out, although even in the early part of the 90s when we all were in Boston together, getting into a restaurant was difficult. My parents were upscale people, so often we would have brunch at the Ritz or the Four Seasons, and for a while at least that gave some shelter from the mobs. But even there we would encounter long waits for our reservations, harried and hurried waitstaff and a general urgency to get us done that took away some of the pleasure of the day. We had one surly brat of a waiter who, when asked about the tardiness of our salad course snapped, “You’re putting me in a lose-lose situation. I don’t know what you want from me.” My dad simply said, “Our salads?” and the waiter fired us as a table to the chagrin and the abject apologies of the maître d’.

But my mom never seemed to care about the bustle. Don’t misunderstand – she complained with the best of them. But at the end of the meal, no matter how fraught it might have been, she would look at us and sigh, “Best Mother’s Day ever.”

To all families and especially all mothers out there, may you show the same resilience as my mom. This is certainly the weirdest of Mother’s Day since old Joyce Hall started printing flowery greeting cards. But if you can spend even a moment in your loved one’s thoughts, then surely it is a wonderful day.

Here’s to you, Carole Mankin!


5.08.2020

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 46 Google Enchanted 5/8/20

Amid every other emotion I find myself Enchanted.

I’m sitting at my office desk, Zoom meetings done for the day, surfing the internet in that mellow haze that a computer screen can inspire in the late afternoon. I am a modern-day rendition of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s Lost Chord protagonist, “fingers wandering idly over the noisy keys.”

Sometimes Google features an interactive Doodle, those artistic imaginings of the title heading on the search page. I seldom notice these, but on this day, for want of any brighter thoughts, I am beguiled by a Halloween themed Doodle that they had reposted for idle shut-in hands. As a result, I end up playing several rounds of a nerve-racking ghost fighting game.

Time wasting is a progressive disorder. In due course I have scored a half century playing Google Doodle Cricket – actual crickets batting against snails (not good at running down the ball but with decent spin on the bowl). I am then humbled by a garden gnome throwing game, yet despite my humiliation I am thirsty for me.

The next link in line, enigmatically titled “Rockmore” introduces me to Clara Rockmore and her theremin. After some tutelage from her oddly ghost-like image, I am able to play along with her on a haunting version of Faure’s “The Swan” and then compose my own tunes on the instrumented. The computer simulation of a device which in imitates music has a meta magnificence.   

The final stage of my enchantment occurs with an interactive representation of Oskar Fischinger’s animations (https://www.google.com/logos/doodles/2017/fischinger/fischinger17.9.html?hl=en). The German American filmmaker is most famous for his vibrant animation of abstract music. As such, the doodle has me place dots on a grid. As a wave of sound passes over, each dot produces a distinctive note and timbre according to the voice I had used to place it. There are four different voices each associated with its own shape and color. The effects are cumulative, so the final melody has the rich tones of a gamelan with each burst of noise accompanied by a unique and hypnotic shape.

I both distrust and require Google. It is a useful albeit nosy search engine, although I would feel better if it were not insinuating itself into all aspects of my life. I am equally equivocal about the computer on my desktop. It is both a vital tool and a wellspring of mindless distraction. But to be able to provide the tools for such soul soothing arts is surely the work of mechanical angels.

An hour later, I step away from the screen in a faint daze. Like any musical experience there was nothing to hold onto or cherish but the dim fading memory of a pleasant dream. This is the surest sign of enchantment. That and the desire to return (tomorrow perhaps) and search again for that lost chord.


5.07.2020

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 45 Island Dogs 5/7/20

Where would any of our islands be without Dogs (or pets of all kinds).

Over the past 45 days my superannuated pug Coco has been my constant companion, my sounding board, my colleague and my editor. She shares office space with me, always keeping her workspace clean and her in-box (food bowl) empty. And her salary is quite reasonable.

I’m not sure what one does with a cat in a lock-down (no judgement implied – cats are endlessly fascinating to me but I am allergic and have never lived with one since the days of Lydia, a Siamese who used to bite my six-year-old toes in the still of the night) but dogs have been an important outlet for many in my community. No matter how tightly we want to seal up the house for quarantine, we still must get the dog outside. Several times a day and in several waves, the pet parade passes outside of my window. A bewildering array of breeds and sizes prances ahead of the owners, both parties enjoying every moment of the sunshine (or the rain – it never seems to matter much). The humans, despite themselves, bask in the relative freedom of their perambulation. Moods lighten a bit and there is even room for a friendly nod or a mask-wreathed smile, as long as the alien dog and owner don’t stray too close.

I observe a lot of puppies in the mix as well. Well, what better time to bring a new pet into a house than one where we are forced to be there anyway. I have read that animal shelter numbers are low, an unforeseen benefit to the shelter-in-place regimen. The better angels of our natures have come forward or maybe have been adopted by us.

Pets have scientifically documented health benefit. Just like chicken soup, it turns out that owning a pet leads to demonstrated and reproducible improvement in cardiovascular function including heart rate and blood pressure. Even the small amount of exercise involved in walking an animal leads to better joint function. And with my pup around, I never get to finish a cookie. There are even dogs that are trained to identify seizures or diabetic crises. What better companion during a health crisis?

In Wes Anderson’s 2018 animated classic Isle of Dogs, the cat-controlled politicians exile all the canines to a small island thinking that they will become savage and self-destructive. Naturally, the opposite occurs, as the dogs create a society that looks out for each other and ultimately for a human who is likewise stranded there. We are so fortunate to be able to share our lives and now our solitude with these small blessed creatures.

5.06.2020

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 44 Clamorous 5/6/20

I had a tradition in High School. On the final day of exam every year, after the last nubbin of a No. 2 pencil had been laid down and the final bluebook passed in, one of my best friends and I would meet up at the edge of the football field and solemnly march to the center of the fifty-yard line. We would look up to the skies and in the loudest voices we could muster we would shout, “We’re done!”

It is the forty-fourth day on this island, and I want to be Clamorous.

A lot of people comment on the peace and quiet that we have experienced over the last several weeks. It was restful and novel in the early stages. But I am at heart a city person. Quiet is suspicious to me. I require some hustle and bustle around me to concentrate. I used to avoid studying in libraries because I hated to hear myself think.

Humans are not by nature silent creatures. Fictitious images of the strong, silent type notwithstanding, humans are chatty, boisterous, sociable and gossipy. I think it was Douglas Adams who said that humans must constantly talk to keep their tongues from growing too long and suffocating them.

Some of the bustle has returned. Traffic is slowly ramping up, although even with the easing of the shelter-in-place orders I’m not sure where people are hustling to. It is conceivable that folks are just creating traffic because traffic is what they know. Like a cup of coffee, some people need the anger of a drive-time traffic jam to get their blood pumping in the morning.

Some have taken things too far. In Dallas, on the eve of the shelter relaxation, a large group of imbeciles decided that it might be their last chance to reenact Fast and Furious. Twelve arrests and one death later, they had made their noise. Now they can deal with an extended time of actual lockdown.

We don’t need to reach extremes of dangerous activity to satisfy our need for noise. There are positive ways to do it. Sing a song, for instance. Come on, just do it. There’s no one else around to hear. Recite some poetry. Reach back into your nursery school days and find your favorite nonsense syllable (“Lar lar lar” is a good one). Anything that with shatter the unnatural calm.

Stay in good voice. It won’t be that much longer until we can all meet at midfield for a prolonged and well-deserved primal scream and we’ll need all the power and the clamor we can get.