Pandemic “Logic”

Hammering my head against a brick wall has never, for some unfathomable reason, been my favorite activity. Yet I seem to have done a lot of it since March, 2020.

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, I have been engaged in a battle of wits, with, no, not an unarmed person, but one who continually brings a knife to a gun fight.

At the first whisper of the approaching pandemic, I voiced my concerns. My apprehension elicited a reaction amounting to a big shrug and a long lecture. After all, I was informed, the SARS epidemic of 2002 did not reach pandemic proportions; ditto, bird flu. MERS never even amounted to epidemic, let alone pandemic proportions. The most serious outbreaks of Ebola, although devastating to other countries, resulted in very few cases reaching the U.S.

Of course, my disputant quite ignored the fact that, during those years, from 2002 to 2016, the US was governed by administrations in which Presidents were actually literate and capable of reading their daily briefings, all the while maintaining cordial, informative relationships with the WHO and CDC. Unfortunately for America (and fortunately for the novel coronavirus), 2020 found us governed by an orangutan who couldn’t have located his own backside using both hands and a proctologist. (I apologize to orangutans, who are actually very intelligent creatures.)

My plaints fell on deaf ears. As both case counts and deaths began to accumulate, I was assured by the Font of All Wisdom that Covid-19 was no worse than any other annual influenza. “Really?” I dared question. “I don’t ever recall seeing plague pits and mass burials during previous winter flu epidemics.” But the photos I displayed of the distressing Hart Island burials were dismissed with a wave of the hand.

Then worldwide death tolls spiraled upward. Nationwide mask mandates and lockdowns were initiated (to which I reacted with a nod to necessity while hunkering down for the duration). Meanwhile, I was sent information regarding Sweden’s herd immunity experiment and copies of the so-called Great Barrington Declaration.

“Hmmm,” I responded, watching Sweden’s death toll pile up countless times higher than any of its neighboring Nordic countries, decimating its elderly population and leaving thousands suffering the lingering effects of long-haul symptoms. “Hmmm. Isn’t it odd that no world population anywhere managed, over all the centuries of recorded civilization, to achieve herd immunity to viral illnesses such as chickenpox or smallpox? Nope, the darned viruses just managed to keep on inflicting illness and injury and death until vaccines were invented.”

“And how,” I wondered idly, “does anyone, anywhere, propose to ‘shield’ medically-vulnerable populations—elderly and infants, immunocompromised, and those undergoing various medical treatments such as chemotherapy? How does one even begin to accomplish that, when the very people working with those at-risk populations are bopping about, unmasked and not socially-distanced, going to work or attending school, socializing and gathering at sports arenas and Trump rallies?”

I received no answer to these very Spockian-logical questions.

And, “Isn’t it amazing,” I recently noted, as the increasing spread of the more-contagious Delta variant became endlessly newsworthy, “that the authors and signatories of that Great Barrington Declaration never even considered that the damned virus might mutate?! That all those living bodies hosting and incubating the virus might be nothing more, after all, than petri dishes for an increasingly vital, transmuting monster, desperate to survive despite all the mitigations of lockdowns, masks, hand sanitizers, social distancing and vaccines?”

Ignoring these remarks, and responding only to my statement that I was still, and planned to continue, wearing my mask while in public, I was informed that masks only protect others from me; they provide no protection to the wearer. I sighed tiredly and referenced a web page produced by the renowned Mayo Clinic stating that masks and eye protection serve to protect the wearer from inhaling or encountering respiratory droplets released by others. I doubted the page would be read, but I felt a masochistic compulsion to send it, nonetheless. Partnered with that compulsion was an act of simple insanity on my part when I further confessed to still wearing disposable gloves in certain situations, such as while pumping gas or touching ATM or elevator buttons.

Now, it isn’t really possible to hear scathing laughter over the electronic pathways of e-mail, yet I swore I could catch it tumbling down the wires in response to my admission. There was NO possibility, I was informed from the lofty heights of Mt. Know-It-Allus, that one could contract Covid-19 from surface contact—no, not even if one hopped into the car picking one’s nose after pumping that gas! Once more, I exhaled gustily, rolled my eyes, and replied with simple truth: “Have you ever SEEN a report of exactly what bacteria and viruses contaminate those surfaces?! The only thing missing is bubonic plague!”

I may be wearing those disposable gloves until the end of time, let alone the demise of Covid-19.

Hammering my head against a brick wall has never, for some unfathomable reason, been my favorite activity, and yet I seem to have done a lot of it since March, 2020. No matter. I’m vaccinated, masked, gloved, hand-washed and sanitized, socially distanced and surface-disinfected, and have so far been Covid-free. And if apprehension, information, caution, and just plain common sense can keep me that way, then that’s the plan.

If you enjoyed this essay, you might also like “To Wash or Not to Wash: No Question”, last published July 8, 2020, or “Handshake, Schmandshake”, from April 18, 2020.

December 26, 2019

I am horrified now to realize that I might have spent a full day carrying and spreading a potentially fatal illness

On December 26, 2019, at two o’clock in the morning, I woke with a dry cough. Sitting up on the edge of my bed, coughing steadily, I blamed the roughness in my lungs on the unhealthy combination of my asthma and all the ghastly cigarette smoke I’d been forced to inhale at a relative’s house on Christmas Eve.

Since I was due at a medical lab at an ungodly early hour that morning for blood tests (note to self: Never ever, never again schedule an annual checkup following a month of overindulgence between Thanksgiving and Christmas!), I piled my pillows high to breathe more comfortably in an upright position, and slept a little longer before rising for my appointment.

Later, minus six vials of blood, I hurried to break my fasting status (more junk food, before I had to face the awful results!) and then dropped by my favorite discount store to load up on post-holiday sale merchandise. But my cough worsened as I piloted my cart through the store, so I checked out with very few purchases and drove home, planning to use my nebulizer to clear the ongoing asthma attack.

Good intentions, road to hell… I arrived home to find a message on my house phone (why, oh why, did he not call my cell?!) from my father, saying he was heading to the ER with breathing difficulties. Of course, he neglected to mention the ER of WHAT HOSPITAL??! Since he never actually turns his own cell phone on, precious time was wasted in tracking him down before I rushed off to the hospital. I remained there most of the day until Dad, made more comfortable, was admitted in the late afternoon and settled into a room. Then I drove to his house to care for his lonely little cat, check his home security system, and haul in his Christmas gifts, still sitting in his car.

Yet even as I’d remained at Dad’s side throughout the afternoon, I’d struggled to suppress my ongoing cough. I couldn’t in good conscience abandon my father, yet I was uneasy. A full day of wheezing? Could this really be no more than a reaction to cigarette smoke? But I had no other symptoms, not then, and years of asthma have made me blasé about the condition. I told myself that I just needed that nebulizer treatment.

But as I drove to Dad’s house, a tidal wave of illness crashed over me. My head began to swim; every muscle began to ache. Arriving at his home, I seriously considered just collapsing there and sleeping on the couch. But I knew my own pets were probably waving protest placards and chanting unpleasant slogans regarding my failure to provide dinner. So, despite a quickly rising temperature, I drove home. Half-hallucinating, I was actually startled when I automatically raised my garage door and drove in, for I remembered nothing of my route home but feverish dreams.

I cared for my pets and collapsed into my favorite armchair. I would remain there for the better part of the next four days, aching, chilling, headachy, feverish and coughing; actually unable to walk up the stairwell of my own home to my bedroom. Although the worst of my illness seemed, at least initially, to be over within a week, I suffered a relapse on New Year’s Day, and continued feeling absolutely dreadful for weeks, coughing continually long after my fever lowered.

My brother, who had taken over with Dad when I dropped, fell ill next; his wife followed, all of us sharing similar symptoms. Meanwhile, a friend living in another state who is usually healthy suddenly fell seriously ill of pneumonia; one of her acquaintances then lost her spouse to pneumonia. And if all this sounds like possible cases of Covid-19, well, then, so it does. But on the day I fell ill, the epidemic in China was still carefully under wraps; their first coronavirus death had not even been acknowledged until December 8.

Long months later, I would read about random blood samples collected during that December which were found to exhibit Covid-19 antibodies, proving the disease had been infecting people throughout the U.S. far earlier than initially known. So I’ve since given much thought to the undefined illness my family and friends experienced that winter, and the horrifying reality that I might easily have spent a full day carrying and spreading a potentially fatal illness, all the while thinking it was nothing more than a totally-undeserved smoker’s cough bequeathed me by others’ cigarettes. That realization overwhelms me with guilt.

I remind myself that none of us living had ever experienced pandemic, and that when I fell ill even the medical community was unaware that Covid-19 had already begun to spread. But whether we suffered Covid-19 or not, and as the victims and fatalities from the Delta variant mount up, I hope that none of us who’ve survived these turbulent and painful months will, in the future, ever again take lightly even the hint of communicable illness.

At this spot, I usually refer readers to an earlier blog post–but there is nothing in the Archives of my past blogs that in any way relates to this essay. Of course, with the possible exception of those who endured Ebola, none of us living in the late 20th and early 21st centuries had ever experienced a plague! Pray heaven we never do so again.

Cowardly Lions

I find myself bewildered by belligerent individuals who first escalate but then refuse to discuss a problem.

I’m someone who consciously avoids conflict. When forced to argue a position, I find that problems are more often solved by calm voices making their points with firm resolution, as all parties involved allow the other(s) to speak while listening wholeheartedly and carefully and asking for clarification.

So I find it absolutely bewildering to be viciously verbally attacked by a gutless ass who then storms away, refusing to discuss the problem, darting into his home to avoid doing so.

Yes, I said “his”. Because each time this has happened to me, it’s been some male who behaved in this cowardly manner. Women, I’ve found, if they aren’t amenable to calm discussion, tend to stand their ground, shouting and gesticulating.

But men (at least when confronting women), throw a genuine hissy fit before storming off to sulk in their dens like old lions. Or such has been my experience.

Two examples of this behavior spring strongly to mind. The first was the neighbor of “There’s Always One” fame (if you’re interested in that bizarre little story, you can locate it in the Archives, dated April 29, 2020). The incident recounted in that essay was only the opening gun in his on-going practice of picking insane quarrels with me. One memorable event was the occasion when I went helpfully about to pick up downed branches from the backyard trees following a severe thunderstorm. There being no trees around my own condo, I heaped all the detritus into a single pile, mixing them with the downed limbs from the tree behind his condo, innocently supposing that, since the mess would have to be cleared by the contracted yard workers, it would be helpful to have all the scattered branches gathered into one place.

Bad assumption on my part, apparently. Much like the thunderstorm that had brought down the branches, Grumpy Neighbor stormed out, roaring at me for having intermixed the neighbor’s tree limbs with his own, before escalating into a shouting harangue about where I placed my garbage bin at the curb for weekly pickup—which, he proclaimed, interfered with his ability to exit from our conjoined driveways. Wondering to myself why the old fool hadn’t just calmly mentioned this problem to me earlier, I began to reply coolly. But my words died on my lips as, rather than hearing me out, Cowardly Lion turned and stomped back into his den.

The very next week, however, the old crank intentionally placed his garbage bin where it would make it impossible for me to exit my portion of our joined drives. Meanwhile, I, ever the little peacemaker, had trundled my own bin all the way down the drive and sidewalk to the grassy verge. The joke was on Cowardly Lion, though, for previous to his temper tantrum I’d been the considerate neighbor who’d thoughtfully rolled both our emptied bins back up to our garages. No more to that nor any other helpful practice. When the post office sent notice one snowy winter that mail would not be delivered if the street in front of our boxes was not cleared of drifted snow, I dug out my own mailbox only–and considered, but didn’t follow through on piling each shovelful in front of his post box. The shrub between our two condos remained beautifully trimmed—on my side only. (Never let it be said that I do not have a full grasp of the joys of passive aggression!)

But dealing with Cowardly Lions never ends, I find.

Parking is an adventure on my daughter’s one-way street in an old area of town. There being no driveways or attached garages, cars of both residents and their visitors line both sides of the road; only the spaces marked by handicapped signs are unusable to the general public.

I’d found a single open space across the street from her home one Saturday afternoon, but, upon leaving, discovered that I’d been boxed in by someone who’d parked much too close to my front bumper. As I crouched down to be sure my car hadn’t been scratched, the homeowner stormed out of his front door, shouting, “Not even close!! But if you ever park in front of my house again, I’ll beat you!”

Shocked, I nevertheless started to reply calmly, but he thundered back into his house. Still hoping to discuss the problem, I walked over to knock on the screen door, but the main door was slammed in my face, as Cowardly Lion went to sulk in his den.

Prevented from resolving the problem, I merely sighed and stopped by the local police department on my way home, reporting the incident and his threat. The police sighed, too; it wasn’t their first encounter with Mr. I-Own-the-Street.

Reflecting on these and similar incidents, though, I find myself bewildered by belligerent, irrational males who first escalate and then refuse to discuss a problem, instead storming off to hide after a display of unwonted aggression. I will never comprehend such behavior, never. Just something to do with that Y chromosome, I suppose.

Scroll down to the Archives to find “There’s Always One” from August 29, 2020.

Christmas in July: The Christmas Chandelier

Sometimes we have to defy those silly “rules” about what’s appropriate for a particular time or season.

Several years back, I was shopping in the late winter and happened upon a long- after-Christmas sale. A lone ornament caught my eye: a sparkly chandelier. It sported plastic crystal droplets and faintly-pink sparkles and fake candles; it was adorable and unusual and 75% off. So, although it had absolutely nothing in common with my then-red-and-gold themed Christmas tree, I bought the ornament.

The following Christmas season, I hung the pink chandelier ornament from the tip of my real dining room chandelier. Now, here I must pause to explain that I detest my dining room chandelier. It was there when I bought my little condo but, as I mentioned in Coloring Our World, the previous owner of my home had, shall we say, unusual taste in décor (read: no taste at all). Although obviously very expensive, the chandelier is totally out of place in my ivory and pink and Wedgwood blue dining room. One might say it resembles something borrowed from a medieval castle. One might…if one were being polite. But the darned thing serves its purpose—to light the room—and I am nothing if not thrifty and practical, so I have never replaced it. Nevertheless, I only tolerate the chandelier. I don’t really like it.

So hanging the shimmering little pink chandelier ornament from the tip of the medieval monstrosity was an act of defiance. It said, “This is what you’re supposed to look like, you ugly thing!”

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Weeks later, as I was packing up all my holiday decorations (or, as I’ve always called it, “Taking Down the Christmas”), I missed the chandelier ornament. A day or two later, I discovered it still hanging from the tip of the feudal fake. I reached to remove it, but hesitated. I didn’t want to bother rustling up the correct box of Christmas decorations out in the garage; I didn’t feel like wrapping the ornament and putting it away. So I just left it dangling there, the chandelier-on-the-chandelier.

Of course, this wasn’t the first time some small bit of Christmas detritus had been overlooked during the post-Christmas cleanup. I recall the time that a plastic icicle lived an entire year in a plant pot where I stuck it after stumbling upon it days after the tree came down. Then there were the two small silver stars that I discovered in a corner, probably batted there by a marauding cat as playthings. I stuck them on wires and wore them as earrings.

But, returning to the chandelier, later that summer, as my young great niece and nephew, Mya and Kai, ate lunch with me one afternoon, Mya glanced at the glimmering little decoration and asked me, “Is that a Christmas ornament?” A bit abashed, I agreed that it was. I explained I’d forgotten to take it down in January and decided to just leave it up. “I like it,” Mya pronounced judiciously. “It’s sparkly!”

Enter the holiday season of 2020. Although I did not splash out on anything extra, I decorated early and fiercely, trying to brighten my spirits during the sadness of the lonely, anxiety-ridden pandemic Christmas. I brought out decorations that I hadn’t bothered with for years, when my motto had been, “If you put it up, you’re gonna have to take it down!” Now, in the Year From Hell, taking everything down a month hence seemed a small price to pay for having some light and beauty around my home. So the shimmering little chandelier came out of hiding once more and returned to the tip of the ugly lighting fixture.

But on January 2, sighing as I packed away holly garland and lights, tree skirt and ornaments and icicles and candles, I deliberately and with grave intent left the glistening little chandelier ornament hanging from the tip of my lighting fixture. Because it was bright. Because the house, stripped of all the holiday decorations, felt as bare and sorrowful and depressing as the continuing pandemic. Because that tiny bit of sparkling joy felt just a little bit like hope.

Hope… The hope that I will, next December, still be here to unpack all my Christmas things and splash them about the rooms once more. The hope, now showing promise, that the vaccine will bring an end to the horror and devastation of Covid-19. The faint and dimming hope that a new administration will be able to somehow mend the divisive anger and furious accusations of a divided American populace, unifying us once more. The hope that those I love will be safe and protected through whatever the year hurls at us.

So the little chandelier will remain hanging above my dining table for another year.

Because hope sparkles.

If this post resonated with you, you might also like “Taking Down the Christmas”,
which was posted January 3, 2018, or “Puffy Socks Finds a Home (Sort of a Pandemic Story)”, from June 17, 2020. Scroll down the page to the Archives link to locate them.

Minimizing Is Not a Bra!

It is NOT “all small stuff”!

I know several people who will nod in sage agreement when I admit that I’m a person who falls easily into the trap of listening to and accepting other’s opinions about my life experience, often to my own detriment and peril. But I’m learning. Late in life and slowly, but I’m learning.

One such event occurred not long ago when, asked during a Zoom meeting about how I was doing (a question that, in this case, was not just the usual social nicety, but intentional), I commented that I felt I was just lurching from one crisis to the next. Another of the meeting attendees quickly chimed in, pointing out that, from the perspective of the universe and over the course of a lifetime, nothing I was experiencing was a crisis. Everything was “small stuff”; just a challenge to be met or a learning experience, not a calamity.

The critical individual lives 300 miles away. He was quite clueless as to what personal disasters I was referring, or what I, along with my family members, had been experiencing. I’m sure he thought he was helping me regain perspective by his comment. But his remark was, nevertheless, intentional minimizing: diminishing the importance of not just what I was experiencing, but my feelings about the situation. By doing so, he was also shaming me—letting me know that my emotions were excessive and inappropriate; “bad”, if you will. Leaving entirely aside the fact that his remarks smacked of the male habit of denigrating female moods (that’s a subject for another blog post), the simple truth of the matter is that feelings are neither bad nor good; it’s what we do with them that counts.

Amazingly, though (and this NEVER happens), I did not fall prey to his inappropriate comments. In what was, for me, an astounding feat of standing up to being bullied, I quickly snapped back, “Oh, bullshit!” My critic was visibly startled, for he is one of those self-assured, clever types whose comments are rarely challenged. For once he had no quick comeback. Some of the others in the meeting quickly diffused the incident by joking and laughter, and we all moved on. But I did not apologize, nor feel any need to do so. If anything, I believed his apology was owed to me.

To be totally honest, though, and much to my shame, I have to admit that I, too, have behaved this way to others in the past. I have minimized their experiences, shamed their emotional responses, and gifted them with my “superior” knowledge and understanding as to how they could better handle their personal pain and disasters. Not only does this behavior smack of narcissism, it is simply rude; rude, thoughtless, uncompassionate, and bullying.

When I face even more uncomfortable truths, I know that when I have minimized others’ experiences, I have done so as a self-defense measure. Minimizing puts a barrier between us and the problems or pain of another; it assures us that, even if we were to experience such an event, we would not respond to it with angst or tears. No, we are strong; we would rise above the situation! Minimizing props up our fine opinion of ourselves: “If I could get through what I have done without complaint, then you have no right to feel sad or anxious, or to speak your feelings.”

But when we muzzle another person, even those who are certifiable whiners, we diminish not just their humanity, but our own. Yes, there are those people who simply wail. There are hypochondriacs who moan about every real or imagined ache or pain. There are individuals in our circle of acquaintance who drive us half-mad because they refuse to take any action to free themselves from terrible situations, instead continually lamenting their misery. There always exist feeble individuals for whom life itself is simply overwhelming—even when it’s not.

But that does not indicate that we are free to diminish their experience. We can make the choice to acknowledge their distress without being enveloped by it. Rather than shame them, we can act with true consideration and compassion by responding gently: “I’m sorry you’re going through this”, or, “That’s a harsh series of events. I hope things will be better for you soon”, or even straightforwardly, “Is there some action you can take to resolve this problem—something that will help you feel better?”

In the final evaluation, it all comes down to courtesy. To minimize and shame another for their emotional reaction or admission of a problem is rude; it is aggressive and narcissistic; it is the behavior of a bully. Even worse, it is counterproductive. Rare is the individual who ever took her or his courage in hand, stood up resolutely, and solved a problem as a result of by being tormented and oppressed by those who should have provided support.

At some point in our lives, we all need encouragement and kindness. Kindness is never overrated. And true kindness never minimizes another’s need.

If you found this post interesting, you might also enjoy the essay, “Feeling Our Feelings”, which can be located in the Archived material from October 14, 2020.

We Need a New Pronoun!

She, He, Ze or Te, that is the question.

I’ve just read (well, actually, skipped over reading most of) yet another story of some celebrity about whom I know little and care less who has come out as bisexual / transgender / asexual / lesbian / demisexual / gay / pansexual / cisgender / “I only have sex with Martians.  Green Martians, not purple ones”, or some other variation on the apparently-boundless spectrum of human gender and sexuality.  Well, here is me coming out with my reaction: Who the (multiple bad words deleted) cares?! 

Why is announcing this information to the entire planet not considered to be simply in bad taste, let alone the uttermost extremity on the far intergalactic end of the narcissism spectrum?  Why is it anyone’s business, except for the individual’s own partner? (Or partners, to be more likely accurate.)  Normalizing variations of human sexuality can no longer be considered an excuse for these vainglorious announcements, since “normal” comprises an extensive range these days, while those who do not accept such differences are never going to do so, anyway.

This most recent declaration included the expository remark that the individual in question wished to be known by the pronouns them or they.  And THAT, as much as anything, set my teeth on edge.

I fully understand and agree that those who’ve concluded they fall into a previously-unremarked gender category may feel disconcerted by referring to themselves using the gendered pronouns she or he.  But, frankly, in light of these unremitting public revelations,  we badly need a new, genderless pronoun added to the English language.

Language, not just spoken language but written language, changes. In the longer-ago-than-I-care-to-remember era in which I grew up, the only pronoun of general reference was “he”.  It didn’t matter than an entire magazine issue might be geared toward the female of the species; “he” was the pronoun of indeterminate reference used within its pages.  This was galling and irritating to all females everywhere; it was simply wrong.  I even endured one minister, God help me–pun intended, by the way–who insisted that we were all, male and female together He created them, Sons of God.  That’s right. Sons.  Only Sons.  No Daughters. Not even Children.  Just Sons.  (Here insert the sound of grating teeth…)

Eventually—I believe it may have been sometime shortly after the introduction of the prefix Ms. to replace Miss or Mrs.–one began seeing writing which used the phrase “he or she”.  Yes, always, always that damnable “he” first!  Or occasionally even “s/he”.  (As an aside, this could lead me spinning off into a discussion of why it is always the male noun now used when gendered nouns were once the norm; i.e., always actor, rather than actress—why is it always the male noun that becomes the norm?  But I suppose that’s a grumpy discussion for another blog post.)

In any case, despite these permutations, the pronouns of multiple reference were always “they” or “them”.  A student who misused the words they or them in writing that school essay was likely to see a blatant red circle on the sentence and a lowered grade.  Worse yet, students who had, as I did, the misfortune to attend a parochial elementary school were apt to have the Ruler of Death smacked across cringing knuckles.

Consequently, I will never be able to view the pronouns they or them as anything but pronouns of multiple reference.  An individual referring to her or his (Ha! Take that, Wielders of the Ruler of Death!) person using they or them will forever indicate to me that the speaker suffers from multiple personality disorder. It’s not just grammatically incorrect; it’s downright confusing.

The simple fact is that, if we are to accept, acknowledge and adhere to our new understanding of the fluidity of human gender while using the common pronouns of personal reference, then we  need new pronouns.  The English language is endlessly malleable. New words are added at an alarming rate. We have, after all, come up with new words to describe these many variations of human sexuality.  The word transgender; the uneuphonious cisgender, which I personally so dislike (more about that in a future blog post) —those words were not commonly used until at least the 1960s, or even much later.  Why, then, not new pronouns?  Why not words which genuinely eschew gender, and simply reference humanity?

I have seen Ze or Zhey used, as well as Te or Tey.  (I suppose it should actually be Ze or Zhey or Zheir or Zhem, or Te or Tey or Teir or Tem.)  I have no preference for either form, and a consensus could probably only be reached by whatever words see the most use—sort of like the antique VHS/Betamax debate.  And while learning to use brand-new words instead of trying to hammer old puzzle pieces into the picture in an attempt to make them fit might be disconcerting to many, it is actually the appropriate thing to do.  One should  genuinely bend with the winds of change, rather than try to break in a word that’s already seen gender-filled usage for generations.

Until that happens, though—until the English grammar texts and the grave arbiters of language correctness settle on a pronoun of indeterminate gender reference, I shall continue to use my preferred “she or he”, if only to avoid the Universal Ruler of Death.  I have very tender knuckles.

Liked this essay?  Then you might also enjoy “Who or Whom? That is the Question!”, from April 17, 2018.  Scroll down to the Archives link to locate it.

Juneteenth

Why had I never been taught about these events?

There are odd moments in our early education that will forever stand out in surprising clarity no matter how long we live. One of those moments for me was when, as a high school student, I turned the page of my history textbook to an illustration of the Trail of Tears. The illustration and the accompanying discussion of that horrific episode sent shudders down my spine.

During those years, the late 1960s and early 70s, the U.S. was coming smack up against the glass regarding its continuing abuse of the Native American population. The Red Power movement occupied Alcatraz and Wounded Knee; Paul Revere and the Raiders sang “Indian Reservation”. Claire Huffaker published the comic yet heart-wrenching novel Nobody Loves a Drunken Indian. Consequently, having read just that brief mention of their plight in my school textbook, I was saddened and supportive.

Circle the world on its axis thousands of times…. The summer of 2020 happened. Not just pandemic, but the deaths of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Abery and George Floyd. Racial protests and clashes throughout the U.S.

In the slow awakening of consciousness that followed, I read. I read, among other things, of the Tulsa Race Massacre, and Juneteenth—events of which I had barely, or, in the case of Juneteenth, never heard. Subjects that had certainly not been covered in those long-ago school history books. Stories that were, until that summer, touched on briefly, if at all, by major news outlets.

Again, I was shocked and saddened, but this time I also questioned. Why had I never been taught about so many events? Why had my schoolbooks not examined them, my teachers never mentioned them?

And then, the horrifying realization: because my teachers did not know.

In the Pale Island of my youthful existence on the southeast side of Indianapolis, I had, throughout my school years, not a single Black teacher. The parochial elementary schools that I attended had not one Black nun or Black priest. My high school did not have a single Black student until my senior year. There were no Black families in my parents’ housing addition until I was in my 20s; a local library had a single Black librarian, Ms. Inez Babbs, a close acquaintance of my mother.

There was essentially no one to teach me about Black history, because no one in my immediate vicinity knew. What little I learned came from occasionally catching a documentary on public TV, or reading a few scattered articles about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I existed treading water in a sea of ignorance, without even realizing that others were drowning.

Occasionally, the truth was brought home to me. Living three years in the American South during the early 80s awakened me to more racial prejudice than I had ever believed existed. I rode the bus to work for economic reasons, but mine was one of the few White faces; the seats were clotted with older Black women—maids, mostly, taking the bus to the homes of the affluent White families for whom they worked. The insurance agency where I found a job had to be forced by the head office in New York into employing its first Black agent.

But that was the deep south. When I returned to Indiana a few years later, I told myself that such things only happened there. My Northern home was different, I assured myself.

However mistaken that assurance, it seemed to be true. I spent the rest of my years of employment working for the State, where equal opportunity hiring was enforced, and fully half my coworkers were Black. Lowly office support staff myself, it did not occur to me how few of those Black coworkers were supervisors.

Ignorance is bliss, the saying goes. My carefully-maintained ignorance allowed me to go for years existing on my Pale Island, genuinely believing the untruth that racial equity was the norm. Today, though, reading and watching and educating myself on racial disparities, I am far more than dismayed; I am angry. Angry and appalled at how little I was taught, not just of Black history, but of that of all races. Even having lived through the Red Power events of the previous century, I knew little about the shameful treatment of America’s indigenous peoples. I learned of Angel Island, and the horrific behavior of Americans toward Asian immigrants, from a novel, not my schoolbooks. The history of the concentration camps of WW II had been thoroughly taught to me, but their counterparts, the American internment camps, were accorded only a paragraph or two; carefully glossed over. Anti-Semitism was barely mentioned.

Why was I not taught, I ask, and then I must, in shame, face the real answer. It was not merely that my teachers themselves did not know, or that they did not choose to know. It was that I preferred keeping my head firmly in the sand rather than face uncomfortable truths.

Education is, as I have pointed out before, not something one gets, but a gift that one gives to the self. Painful as it is, I am slowly educating myself on the history and reality that I have, for a lifetime, preferred to ignore. Becoming my own teacher is a shock to the system, but necessary, and is, in the end, that gift.

If this essay struck a note with you, you might also like “The Slave Cabin” from February 8, 2018. You might also find “A Cultural Heritage”, February 10, 2018, interesting, but disconcerting. Scroll down to the Archives link to locate them.

My Shabby Old Green Armchair

We imbue the physical objects in our orbit with worth, adding to them a value far beyond their price.

My old green armchair is on its last legs, almost literally. It is growing ever more shabby…and ever more comfortable and comforting. It is just an overstuffed chair, not even a recliner, but that scruffy old chair has been my salvation for at least 15 years. It’s the chair where I sit to read in the mornings, sunlight pouring in from the living room window behind me. It’s the chair where my cat Lilith comes to lounge across my chest as I sprawl in the laziest position, my feet propped on the leather hassock in front of me. It’s the chair where I collapsed, feverish, coughing and wheezing one December night in 2019, feeling sick enough to die after a long day spent at the hospital with my even-sicker Dad. It’s the chair where I cuddled my cranky little grandbaby, trying to soothe her to sleep as I watched her through the night. And it is the chair which I knelt beside to stroke and kiss my darling little black cat, Belladonna, who lay there so peacefully and quietly as she began her journey across the Rainbow Bridge.

The green armchair wasn’t new even when I bought it. In the early 2000s, I’d discovered a store which sold second-hand hotel furnishings—sturdy pieces which were still in good shape, usually disposed of because a business was remodeling. In the days before bed bugs had become a resurgent menace, these pieces were an excellent bargain. The furnishings had heavy-duty springs and were covered in substantial, sturdy fabrics; upholstery meant to last through the worst that careless guests could offer. Best of all, the pieces were within my limited price range. So I bought a set consisting of a sofa striped in bottle-green, rose pink and fawn, with two matching bottle-green chairs.

The sofa had already seen the most wear, but still lasted a good eight years; I finally disposed of it when moving from an apartment to my little condo. The two green armchairs, though, moved with me. Despite being a pair, one was a bit more worn than the other, and finally, its springs sagging, gave up the ghost. Prior to putting it out on the curb for heavy trash pickup, though, I removed the fabric from the seat. A bit of cutting and stitching turned the rescued cloth into slipcovers to disguise the worn arms and back of the remaining chair.

It is those covers which are themselves now beginning to show wear. Picked at by cat claws and rubbed a thousand times by my forearms (and, regrettably, my knees, as I’ve sat sideways on the cushion with my legs slung over the arms), the covers are growing shiny with use and knobbly with picked threads. When they go at last, there will be no reprieve for my shabby old green armchair. But saying farewell to it will be genuinely sad.

It’s strange how these little bits of household detritus worm their way into our hearts and memories and lives, becoming more than just the sum of their being. Yet it happens to everyone. A wall is not just a wall, but a record of a child’s growth; a stuffed animal not merely a toy, but the friend that comforted us throughout our childhood, and one whom we cannot bear to abandon. And, for me, a chair that is not simply an old, battered, and comfortable chair, but the foundation of a hundred precious and important memories. The more spiritual among us may scoff at this habit of making a material object something more than it seems, deriding our connection as a foolish physical attachment, and perhaps they are right. But there it is, nonetheless. The broken down beater that was one’s first car, or the too-small first apartment; the maple tree climbed by a succession of children, itself grown tall from nothing but a spindly little volunteer; the old rocking chair that comforted many a sick child—they mean something to us, these little incidentals in our lives. We imbue them with worth, and they take on a shining patina thereby.

It won’t be long before, one sad day, I’ll find myself dragging my battered old green armchair out through the garage to await the trash truck. Chairs can’t have souls, of course. But I will, nonetheless, pat it when I place it on the curb and tell it, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Well done.”

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like the essay, “My Blue Willow Tea Set”, which was posted June 26, 2018. Scroll down to the Archives link to locate it.

Cultural Appreciation

Mexico recently accused certain clothing manufacturers of cultural appropriation.

Undoubtedly, in a world where divisiveness and rage are accepted behavioral norms, someone will be furious at me for saying this, but I simply don’t comprehend the concept of cultural appropriation. All of us, we humans, have been borrowing on one another’s creations, discoveries, customs, culture, and traditions since the earliest rising of humanity. The current century, with its instantaneous transmission of information and knowledge, photos and videos, has simply made that sharing all the more rapid and simple.

Think on it: most of us in the Western world live in democratic societies—the political development of the ancient Greeks. Did we then culturally appropriate democracy?

Have you ever worn linen? Thank the prehistoric humans of 36,000 years ago who developed the process of extracting and weaving flax fibers, and the Babylonians who mastered the process, which was then taken over by the ancient Egyptians, who raised the activity to a high art form. The wearing and use of linen is already a cultural appropriation, millennia old and through multiple civilizations. Should it happen as well that you wore that linen cloth with embroidery upon it, remember that the oldest surviving examples of embroidery were found in Tutankhamen’s tomb, so embroidery, too, was appropriated from that ancient civilization.

Slightly closer to home, how many of those reading this have taken a yoga course? Have you not then culturally appropriated a religious practice of Indus-Sarasvati civilization in Northern India, one observed for over 5,000 years? Or were you just getting in some stretching and calming exercise, unconcerned about how and where the practice originated?

Have you ever put up a Christmas tree? How dare you appropriate a German holiday custom! Worn a plaid skirt or shirt or tie? You have culturally appropriated a traditional Celtic form of weaving– which is, by the way, actually called tartan, not plaid; it is a plaid only if you’ve slung it over your shoulder as a giant rectangular scarf. That, you probably haven’t done, so you may be excused from that precise form of cultural appropriation—but if you’ve worn a kilt, and are not of Celtic descent, then, shame on you!

Think back to studying poetry in elementary school. Were you instructed to write a haiku? It is shocking, shocking, that you have culturally appropriated a centuries old form of verse native to the Japanese.

Did you celebrate a national holiday by attending a fireworks show? You and others for all the long centuries since approximately the year 900 have stolen that custom from the Chinese Song dynasty. You are a cultural thief.

Perhaps you’ve strolled down the sidewalk satisfying your hunger by munching a hot dog purchased from a street vendor’s cart. Again, cultural appropriation from the Germans, who developed the frankfurter from which that hot dog was derived. Foods are themselves an entire classification of the supposed crime of cultural appropriation, so you might consider giving up your tacos and burritos unless you are of a Latinx nationality. Stop purchasing your Chinese and Thai takeout, ditto. Of course, anyone of Italian descent may well jib at giving up spaghetti, despite the fact that the long noodles themselves were unknown until Marco Polo returned from his travels in the far east. But at least Italian Americans can enjoy pizza, especially if their ancestry derives from ancient Naples.

Caftans come and go in popularity, but are owed to ancient Mesopotamia, not the fashion houses of New York. But you may be easily excused from an accusation of cultural appropriation for having braided your hair, which is a traditional form of hairstyle so ancient that the oldest statue ever found, the 25,000-year-old Venus of Willendorf, shows a female with braided hair. Various cultures from Africa to ancient America to Scandinavia may have developed different methods of braiding, from multiple thin beaded braids, to two plaits at each side of the face, but the hairstyle itself is basically so old that it might be best described as a cultural activity of all humanity, not any one national group.

And, considering hair, I hardly think anyone would deny a chemotherapy patient the right to a nicely-styled wig, despite the fact that it, too, is an Ancient Egyptian development, and therefore a cultural appropriation of an archaic African hairstyle.

Can music be culturally appropriated? If so, all current humans who haven’t been determined to show a few Neanderthal genes in that DNA swab they took should stop playing any music, for the oldest musical instrument known is a Neanderthal flute. Like a percentage of modern humans, I myself carry such genes, but, sadly, do not play any instrument. Nevertheless, bearing a few Scottish genes, I can still thrill to the skirl of the bagpipes; don’t you dare, unless you, too, carry Celtic DNA!

By now, I am sure you are shaking your head, or wryly twisting your lips, or perhaps even chuckling as you grasp, even if you do not concede, my point: there is no such thing as cultural appropriation. We humans have been borrowing from and improving upon one another’s customs and traditions and inventions and creations for the entirety of our history on this mangled little planet.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. There is and never has existed any such thing as cultural appropriation. It is all, as it has always been, cultural appreciation.

If you appreciated this essay, you might find “A Cultural Heritage”, from February 10, 2018, interesting. Or you might hate it! But scroll down to the Archives link to find it.

The Landscape of War

On Memorial Day, Monday, May 31, we will commemorate all those who have died in military service to their country.

Some 15 or so years ago, the members of a women’s chat group in which I participated were berated by a young woman whose spouse was serving in a combat zone. She first shamed us for being unable to identify, on a blank world map that she forwarded, the country where he was stationed. She then took issue with another participant’s remark that, due to advancing technology, we were all under the impression that most of those in the military no longer had to rely only on handwritten letters, but had the occasional availability of e-mail or text or even the rare international phone call. I sprang to the defense of the member whom she berated for making this last comment by pointing out that I’d just responded to a charitable plea requesting funds that would provide international phone minutes to those in the military.

The young woman replied to our remarks by verbally chewing us up and spitting us out. We were part of the problem, she sniped—people who knew nothing about what military spouses and families endured. We didn’t even know where the battles were raging. We hadn’t a clue.

Since this woman was perhaps 30 years my junior, I took a deep breath and counted to about 110 before addressing her comments. Then I calmly referenced the unmarked world atlas page she’d forwarded to us when pressing her point. I suggested she place her finger on Vietnam or Korea, or even France.

She could just about manage France.

So I explained that it had been in France that my uncle, serving in WWII, had hidden in a chicken coop to avoid discovery by a German patrol, thereby contracting the histoplasmosis that destroyed his lungs and shortened his life.

I showed her the spot in Vietnam where my brother-in-law, the man I would never know, had died. I recounted my mother-in-law’s description of her anguish on that afternoon when she, playing cards with girlfriends, received the terrible news of his death–the death that had occurred weeks prior. I then marked Korea, where another uncle served, and survived, and from where he sent me, his toddler niece, a beautiful doll dressed in a red silk kimono.

I told her about a friend’s classmate who was forced to repeat her senior year of high school, having not attended classes for months after receiving word that her boyfriend had died at Phnom Phen. Ten of his handwritten letters arrived just the day after she learned of his death, I explained. She lay on her bed for days, dry-eyed, not eating or sleeping, until her despairing parents had her involuntarily committed for a brief time, fearing she might suicide.

I described the stories told me by war survivors of letters that didn’t reach them for four, six, even eight weeks, only to drop into their laps in a giant bunch, the envelopes helpfully numbered by their parents and girlfriends and spouses so that they could be opened in the correct order. No texts, no e-mails, no FaceTime or Skype or Zoom. No international phone calls. Just hand-written letters, sometimes enclosing a photo. A rare reel-to-reel tape, which they might not even be able to play.

I reminded her that all these service members were draftees, not volunteers. That they, drafted as young as age 18, could not, at that time, even vote for the very leaders who were sending them off to fight and die, many in wars that were not even declared.

Don’t shame us, I told her, that we cannot identify current combat zones. For some of us, the landscape of war is as old and weary as we are. The memories, though—the memories, despite their age, are fresh and new. The memories, the pain and wondering, the anguish—those will never fade.

There is nothing straightforward or easy about sending a loved one off to a combat zone. It is sheer, unmitigated hell, all too often ending in the greatest of sorrow. I empathized in every bone and nerve fiber for what that young woman was enduring. None of us belittled what she was experiencing. But we had, all of us, endured our own combat zones and separation and agonizing uncertainty, in a landscape of war that did not even hold out a faint hope of occasionally hearing the voices of or seeing the faces of our loved ones. For that reason alone, mutual respect was needed, I concluded sternly; respect for each group that had endured a different and perhaps even multiple theaters of war.

Not long after this discussion (although for other reasons), I ended my membership with that online group, so I’ve never really known if the young woman took my words to heart.

But I’ve always hoped she did.

If you liked this essay, you might also enjoy “Judge Not…Sort of”,
which you can locate in the Archives from March 23, 2018, or the more recent “The Big Ice Storm”, which published on February 10, 2021.