Hey, Mom, we got married!

Today we’re forty-niners. No golden anniversary yet, happily. Rather stodgy and ceremonious that, and we’re not much for ceremony. I guess we’ve rolled with our hunches—and with the punches, haha.

George Harrison

It began sans lightning bolt. The guy reminded me of my true love, George Harrison. Tall and skinny (but decidedly stronger than George), wearing a pea coat, black turtleneck, Bob Dylan cap, and army boots. Kind of a mash-up of 70s chic. I liked that when we first talked, he spoke affectionately of his mother, referring to her as “me mum.” She wrote long letters from England that were “all one sentence,” he said with a smile. Our main common ground was an English class (modern British literature), having attended the same Rolling Stones concert, and a mutual friend who was a stunning guitarist.

So, you could say, there was the lure of the animal at work, but also compatibility. We made a major decision together: moving into a commune with a group of university town hippies. As it turned out, we’d escape furtively to the Italian Patio on brown rice and seaweed nights at the commune. To add insult to our communal ethic, we’d order veal parmesan.

English Building on campus

In time we moved out. We set a date, a Friday, to tie the knot. I had an oil painting class that summer morning, and he would be coming from his class (Latin?). I’d stop back at the apartment to change and pick him up at noon en route to the county courthouse—to elope! We could get our license and marriage certificate in one fell swoop. I wore a pale green dress my little sister had made for me a few months earlier, and he wore jeans, a white shirt, and a pinstripe jacket. No witnesses necessary. The judge took a picture of us together, then we each snapped a photo of the other holding the marriage certificate.

That’s us, way back when.

We asked a couple of good friends, Jeff and Vicky, to come to Howard Johnson’s with us for our wedding reception. We ordered burgers, of course. Afterwards, Jeff took our picture next to the car. Vicky said “If it doesn’t work out, you can always get divorced.” Then my new husband had to go to work. After nine, we all met up at our apartment. We lacked champagne, so Jeff invited us to go to his parents house with him. Apparently they kept champagne. When we got there, his dad, true to his rep, dipped down to the basement and came up with a couple of bottles of bubbly. Jeff and Vicky, his parents, and their friends all toasted us.

The next day we drove to Milwaukee for our honeymoon, crashing in on my older sister and brother-in-law, who’d married two years earlier. They weren’t thrilled but were good sports and took us to Kohl’s to pick out a wedding present, our first, a big brown bowl for baking bread (used most recently this past week).

On Sunday we headed back home, stopping at my parents’ house, that is, my childhood home. As we pulled into the driveway, my next younger sister sauntered up to the car window and looked at me with intuited meaning. My mom was tending the garden when I called to her, “Hey Mom, we got married!” I revealed the slim 18-karat white gold band on my left hand. She said “I’m glad you still believe in marriage.” My dad was out on a bike ride; as he returned, I repeated our announcement, and he remarked, “I need a drink,” and fixed a round for everyone, now gathered on the big screened porch. I told my Nana, “I know we’ll never be rich, but we know how to work. We’ll have enough.” And so we did.

Today we celebrate in a pandemic. We’ve never done that before. We came over to a little place on the Pacific coast, 90 minutes from our house. We awoke to an overcast sky, and drank coffee from the window that looks onto the ocean. A happy anniversary message was already on my phone when I booted it up—from my little sis!—and within the hour we had a FaceTime call from Kid #4 and two grandkids gallivanting in a local meadow.

CCC shelter

Since sunshine is forecast for this afternoon, we decided to drive to our favorite lookout at the top of the cape just south of here. From there we can walk on a woodsy path overlooking the blue expanse of the Pacific to a little shelter constructed in 1934-35 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a little historical deep diving for the occasion.

We’re arranging take-out from the excellent little Italian resto a few doors down. There’s a bottle of decent, not expensive, bubbly in the fridge, which we’ll drink on our balcony as the sun descends. We can check through the binoculars to see how many boats are still out, their little sparks of light dotting the horizon. It’s still enough.

The Not-So-Guilty Pleasures of COVID19

From the numbers, it looks as though most citizens of the world are beginning to understand what they can do to face off against the power of a coronavirus cell. They can stay home, wash hands, exercise—and connect with others.

As cases mount, I have repeatedly reassured myself that the vast majority of people are well. Yet my reassurance quickly turns to horror. It reveals a callous nature, schadenfreude, that uniquely useful German word signifying pleasure in another’s misfortune. If it’s all about me and mine, I’m suddenly on the opposing side from one friend’s winsome daughter just home from college and another’s cherubic, curly-headed five-year-old grandson, both caught in the viral web. The guilty satisfactions of poring over statistics and reading New York Times headlines turn out to be not so pleasurable. In fact, they are terrifying.

So it is that in our newly quieted lives, we are discovering a host of not-so-guilty pleasures—the implicitly positive. The Italians set us aright by singing in the streets of Siena. We recalled in the grips of terror what it is to be human. Let it be remembered that in March, 2020, we segued from the confusion of separation into the stabilizing comfort of global unity. We’ve shared our nature walks. We discovered online Happy Hours. Last weekend, I was checking in on a couple of friends, who happened to be out hiking when I called. I said we’d catch up later, but Larry suggested we meet that evening online. We’d each bring our wine and a tray to nibble from, and we’d catch up. And so we spent two hours on our desktop FaceTiime, sipping, chewing ciabatta and olives, over the gamut of current issues and nonsensical observations. We signed off high on the simple joys of life.

Listening to my favorite podcasts over the past week, I hear podcaster Oliver Gee and his wife on The Earful Tower, who, strictly confined to their 300-square-foot apartment in Paris’s Montmartre quarter, are setting up new podcast-the-pandemic interviews (Oliver) and painting daily watercolors (Lina). The finished paintings on Instagram (@parisianpostcards) are exquisite.

In my own corner of the world, Dorothy, too, is expanding her watercolor repertoire. Mary is embroidering a clever cat motif for her soon-to-arrive baby’s room. Luellen is steeped in weeding and nurturing her garden while Jennifer is starting tomato plants. Ron is practicing simplified piano versions from the great American songbook. He has Fats Waller’s Ain’t Misbehavin’ down and has moved on to Scott Joplin. On the advice of novelist Ann Patchett on the PBS News Hour, we started reading aloud Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield during apéro.

Life in isolation is inexplicably full. For a positive outlook, I depend on a routine of leaping out of bed when light hits the blinds, heading straight to the shower, fluffing the bedhead and restoring simple make-up. Indomitably dressing for the day, I feel like an Army sergeant, boots on and ready for inspection. The day falls into place with news and conversation over coffee, confronting domestic needs, whether laundry, cleaning, or the wary grocery expedition. My cooking focus has reached a new level of intensity, as we exchange recipes and mouth-watering photos with the kids in Chicago.

Glimpses of nature and absorption into intricate details of this springtime rebirth must be profound consolation around the globe, if one is so fortunate as to get out into it. My walking grounds circle wetlands two blocks from my house. The string of three large bodies of water is full of waterfowl: Canadian geese, ducks, egrets, and blue heron. Emerging wildflowers trim the paths. One glimpses an occasional bald eagle in the treetops and catches repeatedly the song of the red-winged blackbird.

But best for last: Surely the most satisfying of pleasures is being able to provide positive good for others whose lives are made decidedly more difficult by the illness that knows no bounds. Inspiration comes from ingenious brewing companies now bottling hand sanitizer. Home-bound crafters striving to design and produce up-to-code health-care face masks. A former postal worker who drives around town with bags of food, looking to hand them off to the homeless.

This morning in a call with a friend, I learned that her son, Sean, a consultant in Seattle, has come to the realization that in this crisis, no one needs a consultant. By chance, Sean had recently acquired a pizza franchise on the side. He didn’t have a lot of business there either. He figured he must reinvent himself. What about making pizzas for nurses and doctors at one of the nearby hospitals? He called another friend, John, to join him. John said he’d donate $1000 toward the hospital pizzas. Sean delivered that first load of pizzas to the hospital, to the exuberant delight among staff. Now Sean finds there are lots of people in Seattle who’d like to donate $1000 toward pizzas for the medical community. Thus, pressing on, Sean’s job has become finding places that can use a good round of pizzas.

In music, in art, in nature, in love for our fellow humans we find pleasures that know no guilt.

A Failure to Communicate

One of our most quoted American film lines came from Paul Newman’s classic, Cool Hand Luke: “What we have here is a failure to communicate,” spoken by fellow prisoner, George Kennedy, to Newman’s Luke. The circumstances of the line in the film are irrelevant here, but the fact of communication failures in the sudden emergence of the coronavirus, arriving on the scene as a 21st-century black plague, is monumental.

On the cusp of Spring, as crocuses emerge along our front walk, we scour the online news daily to discover how many new cases have been uncovered: Korea, Iran, Italy, Australia. Horrifying to perennially optimistic Americans, we now have California, Washington state, New York . . . . We wonder how many miles is it yet from my home? When will my family and I succumb?

Oddly, people buy out mountains of toilet paper from Costco. This week I went to our nearby Rite-Aid to purchase 91% rubbing alcohol, aloe vera gel, and essential oils to concoct our own homemade hand and surface disinfectant, stashed in little travel bottles in my car, bathroom, kitchen, and my already overburdened handbag. I didn’t stop there; I created little packets of wipes for attacking germ-laden surfaces wherever I should alight in and around town.

We’re not buying the mysterious coronavirus toilet paper but boxes of Emergen-C to boost our immune systems. My husband brings home crates of oranges and ritualistically squeezes us little glasses of fresh juice daily. We had been shopping for fresh fruit and veggies and supplementing every meal with a big salad when a friend grown killjoy asked how we can be sure that fresh produce is free of the virus. Alas, at this moment, what I need in my heart of hearts are real-life stories. I’ve just read that more than 50,000 Chinese from Wuhan province and more than half of those struck worldwide have survived the virus and moved on. So why cannot a journalist pick up a phone, give a survivor a call, and find out what they had for lunch today? Can they eat lunch yet?

My dream interview with a coronavirus survivor would tell this story. When you first noticed you didn’t feel well, where were you? where had you been? what had you eaten? Did it start with a sore throat? runny nose? fever? general malaise? How high did your fever go the first day, second day . . . . Did you go to bed? take lots of liquids, tea with honey and lemon, or chicken soup? What were the changes each day, or parts of the day? How did you sleep? Did you notify a doctor or health facility? go to the hospital? did you protect yourself or others when you went? Did you get medicine? which medicine? how long did it take for it to have a beneficial effect? did it have an effect? When did you start to feel better, what got better first? Do you feel normal yet? How do you continue to monitor and care for yourself?

In short, I want the stuff of human communication, how we’d analyze potential scenarios over coffee and a scone. Statistics are for the CDC, the WHO, my PCP. I want the wholly human story so that I can respond to the big scare like a person with a life, home, family, and friends. Otherwise I am frozen in uncertainty while bits of T.S. Eliot’s Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock echo in my brain:

. . . there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”

. . . time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?

. . . When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin. . .
               And how should I presume?