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.

 

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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.


5.05.2020

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 43 Bodacious 5/5/20

My second alphabetical day and already I am in a quandary. I am feeling Beneficent, having spent much of Sunday watching a livestream Rotary International telethon highlighting that august organization’s efforts during the pandemic. It is easy to get caught up in the sweep of public service.

That’s the respectable word for the day. Another word that I really have my heart set on using – possibly the very reason I decided on doing this alphabetical puzzle – is Bodacious.

Despite some unfair connotations, Bodacious (or more accurately Boldacious) is merely a compound of ‘bold’ and ‘audacious’. It means brazen or insolent.

Those who know me will attest, I don’t have an insolent bone in my body, but I think after weeks of social distancing we have all earned the right be a little brazen. We are all given license to yell back at the newspaper or the television and say, “Enough of platitudes. Give me facts!” Or even against nature and the virus, “Enough already. You’ve proven your point. Now let us get back to life!”

None of which is why I wanted to include the word. As with all things, there is context.

Growing up, my siblings and I were inveterate viewers of cartoons. Being the perfect age range, I was more grounded in the regular Saturday morning fare, Scooby-Doo and the like. But my sister and brother, weaned on Howdy Doody and Captain Kangaroo were more drawn to the classics, those shorts that were produced for theatrical consumption as openers to a day at the movies and then migrated to television as a ready source of content. They loved Popeye and Tom and Jerry, as well as the strange MGM melodic shorts such as the one in which Richard Strauss comes alive to fight off monsters on the Danube.

An overlap point for David and me was the series of poorly animated vehicles which featured famous comic characters. One of our favorites was Snuffy Smith, the shiftless Hillbilly moonshiner. Originally a sidekick in a strip called Barney Google, Snuffy rapidly outgrew his host. I’m not sure you could get away with creating a character like this now, with his laziness and petty criminality, but by the time David and I met him, Snuffy was an undisputed star. His strip is still in circulation.

Most of the plots of these seven-minute extravaganzas are repetitive and forgettable (except perhaps the classic Rip Van Winkle episode). It is the theme song that resonates in my head forever. “Oh, oh, oh, great balls of fire, I’m Bodacious!”

Fifty years later, I look back and cringe at the time wasted watching that piffle. Yet almost every time my brother would call me throughout the rest of his life, he would start the conversation, “Well, kid, are you bodacious?”

Great Balls of Fire, Dave, I’m trying to be.

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 42 The ABCs of It 5/4/20

It is the forty-second day on my island, and I have a new concern.

The end of this lockdown may well be in sight. Some restaurants have shaken their phoenix ashes and a few non-essential stores are accepting patrons. The slow return to some measure of normal may have begun, depending on luck and common sense (the latter of which provides me only the most guarded of hope).

Despite this, the sheltering carries on for now. From an emotional standpoint, I think I can handle social distancing for a while longer. From a writing standpoint, I am in crisis mode. I am running out of subject matter.

(Aside: I sometimes wonder if all writers try to throw a Wizard of Oz-like curtain over their craft. Writing is backbreaking labor, but the final product almost always feels effortless, as if the author had discovered the work whole rather than crafting it syllable by syllable. Make it seem like you heard the whole story in a bar, Ernest. Hide all the sweat and blood behind a veneer of effervescent simplicity, Scott. Pretend that every phrase is as inevitable as the rising of the moon, Virginia. I doubt the process was ever that easy for any of them. The art of writing is like the proverbial sausage factory with one exception. Most of what the food works produces is palatable. Most of what an author churns out is gristle.)

To the matter at hand – for the next stretch of days, in order to keep the flow of these notes going, I will try to filter my thoughts through a word chosen in alphabetical order.

So today on my island I am feeling Abecedarian, a charming adjective that means, well, alphabetical. It looks like a made-up nursery word (think ‘a-b-c-d-arian), but apparently it first saw light of day in the late second century CE in some serious Latin poetry.

For the record, I’ve already given thought to ‘b’, ‘c’ and maybe ‘d.’ I can only hope that we are all sprung free before I must go too much further. I don’t relish finding a suitable word for ‘x’. Nor I’m sure do any of us want to be inside reading these in another twenty-four days or so.

In the end, the sausage that I am about to present may not be edible. But it spares you from hearing about my nursery school years (I once failed apple sauce. I have no recollection of how, but it must have been gruesome.) or of the history of jigsaw puzzles (Odd fact – no one knows the derivation of the word ‘puzzle’. It is itself an enigma). And maybe before too many links are produced, my muses will wake from their slumber or, better still, we will be able to step out into the cool fresh air and leave our islands for good.

[This Post was adapted from a essay originally published on Facebook the day listed above]

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 40&41 News on the Island 5/3/20

On the surface, Sundays feel the same on the island. But things have changed even on this most causal of days.

One obvious change is the lack of church choir. I miss the church coffee and the pleasant fellowship of my fellow singers. And going out to brunch at a restaurant is off the board. By now, a few places have opened for limited seating, but I am still skeptical of the trajectory of the pandemic. It is still too early for the optimism of breakfast.

Another more subtle change is in the Sunday newspapers.

I realize that I have instantly dated myself. My son and his generation do not think of a daily journal as a rite of passage the way we do. I can recall the cozy Sunday feeling of being stretched out on the floor with the Sports or the Arts section open in front of me (New York Times had no Comics) and a loving cocker spaniel sitting on top of that, vying for attention. The scene in my memory is in greyscale wash with a soundtrack of opera. It speaks home to me.

There is still a Sunday paper in our house (two in fact, we get the NYT and the local news) although my days of lying on the floor are long gone. There is still a dog close at foot, now an ancient and somewhat lunatic pug. And instead of a stereo playing FM stations, we have Alexa playing ‘Classical for Concentration’ or whatever playlist she has offered up. If we don’t look too closely, it still appears like those pleasant weekend mornings of yore.

But the papers themselves have changed to match the current pandemic state. I’m not talking about the headlines. I’ve lived long enough to have read far too many catastrophic headlines in my life. The differences rest in what has been removed.

The New York Times has excised their vaunted sports and travel sections, lumping some of that into what they call the At Home Section. These omissions make sense after all. When the only sports news is “Still No Word On When Seasons Will Open” it seems hardly worth printing an entire section. As for Travel, there are only so many wistful essays that can be written along the lines of “If Only I Could Travel I would Go To…”

There’s the rub, isn’t it? All the lacunae in our life right now make sense. Brunch at a restaurant could be dangerous. Social Distancing will slow the spread of the virus at the cost of handshakes and hugs. Newspaper sections covering things that once were or that cannot be now are expensive luxuries. It all makes sense.

But that doesn’t make their absence any less jarring. The clear-eyed logic does not quite make up for the heartache of their loss.

[This Post was adapted from a essay originally published on Facebook the day listed above]

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 39 Gestures (adapted from a previous post) 5/1/20

In an earlier century there was the concept of the ‘beau geste’. This was defined as a gesture made with no thought of reward or return.  It needed not be a thing of magnificence; just an action done with no fanfare that somehow made someone’s life a little better. In the 1800’s it might involve stepping aside so that your friend could marry the girl. In today’s parlance, it may be paying for the lunch of a healthcare worker.

There are depths of pleasures in a gesture of this sort. Besides the satisfaction of knowing you have done a little something for someone – the “random act of kindness” – there is also a bittersweet pang in knowing that your gesture may never be discovered.  Sometimes humans like to feel the ache of being overlooked.  The longing hurt of unrequited love gives sweetness to the one that is finally consummated. 

There is another kind of gesture that can fill the heart with longing. It is the gesture unmade. I think that many humans have generous souls, but the realities of life may force us to avoid showing them either from inconvenience or from diffidence. 

Not long ago, just before a Valentine’s Day, I had given in to the temptation of buying a dozen succulent chocolate-dipped strawberries for my wife.  Now she loves chocolate and strawberries, but no one needs twelve of the delightful confections.  On the way home from the store, I walked near to but not quite past a bus stop where two homeless people were sitting in conversation.  It was a beautiful day and they seemed content – pleasantly wiling away their shared destitution.  My heart sang out to me to share my candies with them.  What were strawberries to us?  But what a sweet, simple and pleasant gesture it would have been – a true beau geste.  

I didn’t do it.  Shyness and the untimely arrival of a bus stole my organic opportunity and if I had doubled back to them, the action would have felt forced and unnatural.  But those were just excuses.  The gesture died unmade and I regret its passing. 

Unmade gestures may make great stories. We only need to read Dickens’s A Christmas Carol to see the renewing strength of regret and repentance. But it in the real world, especially a world as fraught as this one is currently, it is always better to complete the small deed.  I urge you to give away your strawberries, for the good of others if not for your own peace of mind.

[This Post was adapted from a essay originally published on Facebook the day listed above]

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 38 Witches Sabbath 4/30/2020

Tonight, amidst the underlying thrum of anxiety caused by the pandemic, I will be facing an even older fear. It is Walpirgasnacht, the Witches’ Sabbath on the eve of Beltane or May Day.

Now I am not a Wiccan (no value judgement implied. An abiding respect for natural consciousness is as good a basis for belief as many). Nor, living in the heart of Dallas, do I really dread the frenzied marauding of moonlit and unclad cavorters.

It is just that growing up, my brother would regale me with terrifying stories about the festival. Then, when he had left me in a fevered pitch, he would call out my name in the deep of the evening through the intercom which, for some strange reason, connected our two rooms. Or he would sneak in to wave one of our glow-in-the-dark models in my face until I awoke and screamed. He would dash merrily back into his room, sure to get a withering scolding from our parents but loving every minute of it.

Why do we enjoy being scared so much? Why would David and I sneak out of bed to watch Lugosi’s Dracula (still one of the scariest movies I have ever seen)? Why would we read passages of Lovecraft or Derleth to each other until our eyes teared and our hands shook?

David taught me early that ghost tales are almost universal for as long as humankind has been able to tell stories. Parents who are ever protective of their young will offer up terrifying tales in the dark of night or by a lonesome campfire. Even sacred texts are not above dragging in a good scare or two.

I think it is because terror is a universal part of human existence. We are so frail and so limited in what we know and what we can understand. We are so lost in the shared enormity of being alive and suddenly not being, that we cannot even voice our dread.

Ghost and monster tales give names to the things we fear. A vampire, a werewolf as dreadful as they may be are so much easier to handle than the terror by night, the breathless and formless void lurking in the darkness of the cave or the laundry room. A thing with a face, no matter how dreadful the face is, is something we can recognize and perhaps avoid or fight.

This year in particular, when we are surrounded by a threat that is everywhere at once and cannot be seen or fought, it is nice to remember the old-fashioned kind of scare – one that may be laughed off or run away from or replied to with a brotherly shove.

So tonight, if you must, I urge you to keep track of where you put your clothing, beware of moon burn and don’t fly too high into the clouds. Or spend the evening as I will, blankets over my head waiting for the voice on the intercom that won’t be coming and basking in a fear of the far-fetched but imaginable.

[This Post was adapted from a essay originally published on Facebook the day listed above]

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 37 State of Abstraction 4/29/2020

Who knows how many more days we have on our islands? We are moving forward with hesitant steps towards opening parts of the community. I am optimistically cautious about this forward progress. I think it is precipitous, but I also think that with common sense and a bit of luck it may work. The problem lies in the common sense part.

More and more as I read the news or listen to the responses of other people, some positive many negative, I feel abstracted from the outside world. I am lost in thought, trying to use second (or third sight, ala Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching) to understand the situation, the context and my own responses to them. My abstraction is a cocooning defense. My third sight is parsing whether it is a cowardly one or a position of strength.

There is little or nothing that we as a population can do about the pandemic beyond getting out of the way and letting separation, natural healing and the excellent work of medical caregivers and scientists lead us to a place of stability (if not yet cure). Doing nothing is hard. It is in all our natures to act, whether the action involves running towards or away from the fray. When the fray is invisible and encircling, it is unclear where to run, but the movement gene is strong in humans.

We pride ourselves on our advancement as a species. Look, we have conquered darkness! Look, we have mastered distance! Look, nature bows before us! But nature never really was bowed – she was plotting. There is nothing malevolent about the COVID virus. It has no personality. It is the being that it is. But its ubiquity and its tenacity has given a lie to so much of our perceived superiority. Doing nothing seems to be capitulation.

But it is expressly our ability to do nothing when every instinct is telling us to run, to fight or to lash out that is the best quality of humanity. Our rational thought allows us to recognize those instincts and when necessary to overpower them. Cowering together may be our atavistic response to global uncertainty, but staying separate is a rational, appropriate and proven response. It is not a sign of capitulation but evidence of strength.

We all need some abstraction, to understand not only our best course of action (or inaction) but to recognize why that course is so difficult. Hopefully the abstract state will give us the context and the understanding to continue to do the right things.

[This Post was adapted from a essay originally published on Facebook the day listed above]

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 36 Sports Redux 4/28/2020

Not all of the losses on the island are life-shattering. The absence of live televised sports may not catastrophic except for those who work in the business (or who run sports books in Vegas – scant sympathy for them here). But in a world that is now governed by diversions, the sports-shaped hole is irksome at best.

For those of you to whom one ball is the same as another, I give you full license to scroll away. I hope you’ll come back tomorrow when this current fit of madness has passed. And Lynn, I will eagerly anticipate your statement about the hockey game breaking out at a fight, which has become something of a ritual between us.

I enjoy sports, I will confess. In another lifetime I was a fair little athlete (‘little’ being the operative word). Now I find compelling enjoyment in almost any soccer or hockey match you offer me, a bit less so in basketball or football (don’t talk to me about golf). But any game with a set of rules and structure will lead me on an obsessive quest to master an understanding. One rainy weekend in London I even forced myself to learn the rules of cricket during an England-India test match. I must confess I have not yet figured out rugby, but I was trying gamely when the Six Nations League went dark.

My rooting interests are complex. I will cheer for any Boston team and most from Pittsburgh (where I was born) unless they are playing Boston. Anybody who beats the Yankees is okay in my book (unless it is the Cincinnati Reds – I have still not forgiven them for 1975). The Mets are okay, although they beat my Sox in 1986, because they gave me such joy in ’69. If there is no rooting interest or historic villain, I will root based on some imaginary gallantry. Oh, and I always want the bull to win in PBR. You get the idea.

All of which leads me to the shocking statement that I am rather enjoying the replays of old sporting events that have attempted to fill the gap. After all, all sports are based on memories. I love the Red Sox because my grandfather and my brother did. I love the Bruins because I met them when I moved to Boston and had no other friends. Every play of every game reminds me of a play I have seen before or of someone who shared the moment. It doesn’t matter if I’ve seen the game. The emotions remain the same.

Someday, we’ll root for new players and crown new champions. But for now, I will still get up and holler when Christian Laettner scores THAT basket against Kentucky, even though I have cheered it in the same way hundreds of times before.

[This Post was adapted from a essay originally published on Facebook the day listed above]

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 35 Groundhog Day 4/27/2020

And there goes a month of Sundays, documented in thirty or so notes from a castaway soul. Although if truth be known, it has felt more like a month of Tuesdays – each day drab and the same and never seeming to move us closer to a desired end.

In the classic Ivan Reitman Comedy Groundhog Day, cynical big city weather reporter Phil Connor (Bill Murray), is trapped in an endless loop of the frigid holiday in a small town. Each repeated day is predictable to the point that he can set his clock by the occurrences. At first, he is overwhelmed by despair. He overeats, he mocks his colleagues, he commits crimes and even drives off a cliff within the weird framework of the repetitive time. Yet every morning he wakes to the same day.

What happens next in the movie is worth noting. Through his abundant resource of time, Phil finds that the only changes that are lasting are the one he makes to himself. It is his internal change that leads to a slow betterment of his situation and ultimately in the community in which he is stuck. In the end he is rewarded with love, a sense of achievement and finally liberation from his limbo.

We have all run through a similar gamut of emotion during our enisling, each on our different trajectory. Fear has alternated with despair alternating with determination or resignation or hope. The world is shifting outside of our quarantine walls and we can do little to control it.

But we can control ourselves. We still have the ability to seek a betterment, either through impassioned study to more fully understand the situation or through ignoring the circumstances and dedicating to personal enrichment for ourselves and those family or friends who share our islands. Like Phil, we can learn bit by bit until we know something about French poetry or jazz piano. Along the way, we can use our newfound knowledge to make a friend or make a deal or even if chance will offer it to fall in love.

Our month has been long and grueling. That it will continue for another month or more is both frustrating and desperate. But our time on our islands will end. The small things that we have learned or experienced or built or materialized there will be with us for the rest of our lives.

[This Post was adapted from a essay originally published on Facebook the day listed above]

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 33&34 Sunday Rules 4/26/2020

Even before the pandemic, there was one strict rule in our house. On Sunday, no one could complain about your clothing choices. We called it our Sunday Rules.

We’re conservative people, so don’t imagine anything too far out or risqué. For the most part it meant wearing old clothes with holes in them or ancient dog-eaten slippers. The usual matching conventions of colors and textures were thrown out the window, so purples, browns and greens might be thrown together in a deranged rainbow. On rare occasions, a pair of pajamas could stay on until after lunch. In general, the policy was Be Decent but Be Comfortable.

Now, when everyday has the feel of a Sunday, the world has settled into its global Sunday Rules. My very first Zoom meeting, I asked the participants for a show of hands as to who was wearing shoes. No hands were raised, although a slightly higher number were in socks, it being early Spring. I didn’t dare ask about pants.

It is not just locally. A judge in Missouri went viral with his complaints that attorneys were appearing in remote legal proceedings wearing inappropriate clothing – tee shirts or sweats while presenting their petitions. One attorney, he claimed, was even still in bed during the conference.

This may be a quiet revolution. Just as teleconferencing has become a reality that is not likely to disappear, the social norms of dress and presentation may be battered. Productivity is not down among those who are working. The meetings are still getting done and decisions being made. One successful meeting occurred despite the CEO inadvertently projecting herself as a talking potato for the whole thing (I would have made all the officers choose an avatar both to avoid my embarrassment and to gain an interesting peek into their psyches). Maybe the world really can be run on a more casual basis.

I hope not. The way the competitive world works, people will be trying to outdo themselves in how grungy they can look. Plague beards are fun during pandemics and playoffs, but we don’t need everyone to look like they were shipmates of Robinson Crusoe. Also, think about the stress on dress-down Fridays or Ugly Sweater Contests. All the comfort would be wrung from the casual.

I would like to think that, when the normal world comes back, Sunday Rules will return to being a place of refuge (and idleness) and not become some sort of faddish expectation.

[This Post was adapted from a essay originally published on Facebook the day listed above]