JULY JOURNAL (July 31, 2020)
July kept us sheltering in place in our Bay Area Retirement Community. Early in the month, we were quarantined in our apartment for one week as a precaution after off-campus medical appointments. Let me share with you my notes on mid-summer activities, readings and reflections.
Before getting started, I’d like to warmly acknowledge Nancy Swing’s creative contribution of photos in this and prior Agile Aging posts. Her fresh visualizations of familiar subjects never fail to enhance text and tone. Shabash!
One welcome reminder from this pandemic lockdown is that we don’t always have to be busy. Especially for retirees, and even more so for quarantiners, it’s okay just to be still. Jumping up from the breakfast table to scroll through overnight emails may be a habit. But it’s not an obligation. This morning, almost guiltily, I ease into a rocking chair and tune in to the birdsong. A full combo, with riffs and refrains. Are they here every day? Have I not been paying attention?
Nancy and I sit together, chatting about anything and everything — a mutual friend, Atlantic and Pacific hurricanes, Trump’s latest tantrum. It’s not the content that’s important; it’s the communion. Of course, we see each other every day, every hour. But somehow this “static” interlude, with no agenda, nothing happening, is especially satisfying. Impromptu togetherness displacing solo busyness.
When I step outside to inspect our patio garden, the transplanted camellia is producing shiny new leaves. Another welcome morning sign, affirming recuperation after what must have been traumatic shock. A generous gift from a relocating neighbor, this unrelenting specimen had survived 18 years in a root-bound pot. Estuardo, our Community’s Grounds Manager, has recommended that Nancy and I scatter coffee grounds around the trunk to add acid to balance the soil. The tonic is obviously working. Let’s hear it for espresso roast!
Five feet away, our trellis-trained rosaria vine is flush with deep-throated blossoms, irresistible for queuing hummingbirds. This plant also paid its dues, bouncing up from Pacific Grove in the back of our SUV, then waiting weeks for transplanting due to lockdown. Plants are silent teachers. They can’t move their placements, yet change every day. Stretching and pivoting, tracking the sunlight, siphoning up irrigation. Nancy’s grandmother knew what she was talking about. You have to find out where they want to be.
The identical patio in the evening, but deepening shadows work a transformation. Another unexpected pandemic blessing, near-empty highways have drained pollution from the skies. The waning moon pops brilliant as cinema searchlights remembered from childhood. It comes up later each evening, shifting to the left out the open bedroom window. This city boy has so much to learn about basic astronomy. Moonrise location shifts back and forth each night along the horizon, as the relative orbits of earth and moon change the angle. Moonrise timing also shifts every night, not a fixed interval, although steadily later. Neon Jupiter, Saturn and Mars align in a diagonal row. Somehow I’d thought only Venus was such a standout.
The International Space Station just scooted through. Six quick minutes, silently zipping from Southwest to Northeast. Late in July, Comet NEOWISE becomes the headliner. If we could just shift the Santa Cruz Mountains over a tad to get a clear view.
When not star-gazing, I spent much of July trying to keep informed about COVID-19. On the 13th, I had the privilege of listening to Dr. Anthony Fauci’s live Zoom conversation with Stanford Medical School Dean Lloyd Minor. Ironically, almost operatically, this was the same day that Peter Navarro and anonymous White House sources were trying to cut Dr. Fauci’s rhetorical legs out from under him – allegedly for having the chutzpah to earn higher media ratings than the President.
When historians reassess America’s tragically mismanaged COVID-19 fiasco, they will hopefully emphasize Dr. Fauci’s heroic contributions. Not only for speaking truth to power, but also for conveying unwelcome messages to the public with credibility and clarity.
This Stanford interview offered a stellar example. I was most struck by Dr. Fauci’s overarching qualities: his relaxed responsiveness to questions winnowed from 2000 advance submissions; the breadth and currency of his technical knowledge; his consistent avoidance of sugar-coating or spin, ducking or denial; his unhesitant readiness to admit what he didn’t know. I found it the single most informative and persuasive briefing I’d received in four months of daily study. Let me share some Q&A highlights, extracted from my jotted notes.
- Overview. Dr. Fauci considers this pandemic the most challenging in his 35-year public-health career, because it presents the most pervasive worldwide threat.
- How Do We Navigate the Current U.S. Surge? Physical separation is the best response. Unfortunately, we’ve reopened prematurely, when the new-cases rate had merely plateaued, not declined. Now an effective fallback strategy will be more complicated. A complete long-term shutdown would be economically and politically untenable. Second-best choices include following undiluted CDC Guidelines, pausing reopening in spiking states and communities, and unanimously promoting individual responsibility: physical distancing, wearing masks, avoiding crowds and washing hands.
- What Do Medical Prospects Look Like in the Coming 6-to12 Months? The best news is two promising therapeutic interventions for mitigating advanced, hospitalized cases. What we need are comparable early-intervention therapies for initially sick patients not yet requiring hospitalization. There are some promising antivirals. On the vaccine-development front, there are two or three promising candidates for readiness by early 2021. Prominent commercial labs are taking financial risk by scaling up production capacity prior to FDA approval. This will save months of getting up to full-speed, if and when approval is granted. As for clinical trials, the key lesson is to be prudent, not rushing treatment before research. Anticipating widespread “anti-vax” skepticism and resistance, the best approach will be communicating clearly and respectfully, involving local advocates for community engagement, allaying fears and building trust. “No outsiders that look like me.”
- How’s California Doing? A mixed bag. The Bay Area thus far is much safer than Southern California. Governor Newsom and several mayors “have been doing a good job.” listening to medical experts and taking reopening step-by-step. The national response has benefited from major research contributions from “world-class” academic-medicine institutions, UCSF and Stanford.
- At This Interim Stage, What Public-Health Lessons Are You Drawing for the Future? America needs a sustainable National Pandemic Preparedness Plan, with hugely bolstered operational resources, financing and capabilities. “We let our local public-health infrastructure go unattended. The system was in tatters.” As for the debate between the best locus for pandemic leadership, federal or state, he has no pat answer. “There are good arguments and trade-offs on both sides.”
- Crippling Inequalities. African-American, Latino and Native American minorities are being hit disproportionately hard by this pandemic. At least four reasons help explain this imbalance: front-line “essential” jobs are high-risk and disproportionately staffed by minorities; minority communities have inferior medical resources; minority populations are particularly vulnerable due to chronic preconditions like diabetes; and impoverished, often uninsured minority workers may lack savings and income to stay safe at home.
- What Key Remaining Scientific Unknowns about This Pandemic Are of Most Concern to You? (1) Durable effective immunity; (2) chronic long-term side-effects; (3) the full extent of medical damage (like recently emerging inflammation in children); and (4) early, proven therapies.
- What Last Advice for the Viewing Public? “We need to convince our youth to take this disease seriously. Exercising social responsibility — for their loved ones’ protection as much as their own.”
THINKING FOR THEMSELVES
Away from Zoom, I’ve probably skimmed 10 news articles and essays every day on the COVID-19 maelstrom. As coronavirus cases resurge, President Trump seems determined to continue minimizing federal responsibility for either the pandemic’s spread or containment. This abdication has left State and local authorities scrambling to suspend or tighten re-openings. In this tumult, I’m detecting evidence that sequestered citizens, and seniors in particular, may be growing more assertive. Here’s an illustrative trio of articles.
Ronda Kaysen surveyed shifting pandemic attitudes and behaviors among local residents of the coastal communities of Mendocino County, California. (A Reopened World Is Greeted by a Locked Door,” New York Times, July 12, 2020.) One resident “saw little to celebrate” as Mendocino stores and streets filled with vacationers, few wearing masks. Instead, she saw only risk. “When I go into town, I’m strapping in for battle.” Kaysen extrapolated from this Northern California case study to discern a national trend:
For months, Americans engaged in a shared collective quarantine. Sourdough starters and banana bread recipes trended on Instagram. TikTok filled with quirky videos of families shamelessly performing dance routines….The world was at home together, with overgrown haircuts and badly chipped manicures. But now bars and restaurants are reopening to various degrees. Facebook feeds are often full of happy reunion photos of families and friends in backyards and at beaches.
People who consider themselves low-risk for complications from infection could still get seriously ill, or pass the disease on to someone more vulnerable, yet that has not proved to be enough of a deterrent to keep many of them home. Beaches are packed, vacation homes are booked and those itching to travel are in recreational vehicles. And so, two worlds are emerging: the people still staying home, and those who have decided they have had enough.
Back in Mendocino, Kaysen reported, intimidated seniors and other vulnerable residents, unable to stem the inflow of summer vacationers or curb young tourists’ pandemic indiscipline, are withdrawing into defensive self-isolation. Their forced retreat is probably unfair. It is definitely unhealthy, mentally and emotionally. But a self-help sequestration may be the best security they’re going to get.
Picking up the thread of reluctant self-isolation, Paula Span examined the more disquieting possibility of mandatory senior segregation. (“The New Old Age: Birthdays as Part of a Coronavirus Calculation.” New York Times, July 21, 2020.) Span cited a recent proposal by M.I.T. economists “protecting people over 65 by having them isolate for an estimated 18 months until a vaccine becomes available; younger people, facing less health risk, would return to work.” The authors argued this two-track policy could deliver twin benefits: far fewer deaths and less economic pain. The journalist commented that these experts’ approach “assumes that older adults’ only interest lies in not dying.”
In rebuttal, she quoted Dr. Linda Fried, a geriatrician in charge of Columbia University’s School of Public Health: “We have to find a balance between preserving safety and living….We all need to do somethings to maintain our mental health and well-being.”
A third article portrayed older seniors tacitly pursuing a broader sphere of satisfaction. (Tara Bahrampour, “As the pandemic surges, old people alarm their adult kids by playing bridge and getting haircuts,” The Washington Post, July 10, 2020.) This reporter introduced her analysis by reiterating elders’ special vulnerability: “The effects of COVID-19 are most devastating for older people, with a 30 percent death rate among people over 85 in the United States who develop it.”
She then collected opinions from elders’ middle-aged children alarmed by their parents’ failures to observe mask-wearing and social-distancing protocols. Most offspring’s explanations for their parents’ behaviors were strongly negative: some elders were ignorant of pandemic risks or misled that those risks did not apply to them; others were simply forgetful; still others, bamboozled by libertarian or conspiracy advocates.
But as Bahrampour dug deeper, interviewing the seniors themselves as well as care-giving professionals, she discovered the non-compliance picture was more complex. Some elders, especially those who had survived Great Depression deprivations or military combat, were less frightened by death than were their children. Others consciously accepted the pandemic health risks in return for preserving cherished social interactions with their long-time neighbors.
The Director of the Stanford Center on Longevity observed that “Even when older people do understand the risks, it may not terrify them as much. Older people in general experience less stress in everyday life….There is lots of evidence that as people come to the end of their life, they come to live in the present and stop worrying about the what-ifs.”
Another geriatrician added, “Older people are more likely to be living with the awareness that they are in fact mortal, and have a limited amount of time left. Many are more conscious of weighing the risk-benefit based on the knowledge they’re not going to be around much longer. So you make some different calculations than younger people.”
I had several reactions to this more nuanced assessment of elder motivations. Families should not assume that their elder relatives’ behaviors signal cognitive decline. Our own CCRC management team’s recent promotion of expanded plaza and patio socialization opportunities for residents may reflect recognition of seniors’ valid needs beyond COVID-19 safety. Looking ahead, if lockdowns persist, sequestered seniors may insist on asserting more control over their own risk-taking choices.
Setting sequestrations and seniors aside, in July I finally digested two delicious paperbacks I’d been schlepping around the world for years. Well worth the wait, both delivered layered reading pleasure.
The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett
A solitary sailing vessel departs Philadelphia in May of 1855, bound for the arctic north. Its mission is to solve the mystery of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition that disappeared pursuing the elusive Northwest Passage. The Narwhal’s two leaders become this saga’s co-protagonists: a narcissistic young commander ready to sacrifice safety and shipmates to serve his obsessive ambition; and a wiser but conflict-averse naturalist, struggling to emulate Darwin.
This is historical fiction firmly grounded in fact. The author was educated as a scientist. Her account is rich in technical detail: nautical design and navigation; geography and geology, zoology and botany, psychology and anthropology. The stark antithesis of a pampered ecotourism jaunt, this pre-motorized probe soon confronts immobilizing ice flows, 50-below temps, scurvy and frostbite. The narration is unsanitized, pushing suspense and terror in your face.
But Barret also writes with wonder and lyricism. Listen to her reimagining of an Inuit take on First Contact:
Her mother had been a small girl on the summer day when floating islands with white wings had appeared…From the islands hung little boats, which were lowered to the water. The boats spat out sickly men in blue garments. They couldn’t make themselves understood but offered something that looked like ice, which held the image of human faces; round dry tasteless things to eat; parts of their garments, which weren’t made of skins.
‘At first,’ her mother had said, ‘we thought the spirits of the air had come to us.’ On the floating island her mother had seen a fat, pink, hairless animal, a man with eyes concealed behind ovals of unmelting ice, bulky objects on which to sit…The men who’d first stepped on the ice had worn hats shaped like cooking pots. Through them, her people had learned they weren’t alone in the world.
The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal
This tour de force is venerated by memoir writers and readers. It retrieves and celebrates 200 years of history of the author’s remarkable family. Emerging from modest but ambitious beginnings as Odessa grain traders, the Ephrussis built a banking empire in Paris and Vienna to rival the Rothschilds’. Then, in a few shockingly swift weeks during the spring of 1938, they lost lives and fortunes when Hitler’s Anschluss targeted the Jews as scapegoats for festering “Aryan” grievances.
At first I thought that selecting an inherited collection of Japanese miniature carvings (netsuke) as the unifying theme for this memoir was no more than a clever literary device. But the figures’ familial significance and power steadily emerged.
When de Wall’s traumatized great-aunt returns to Vienna for the first time just after the Second World War, a surviving family servant recounts the terror when Nazi thugs had stripped the Ephruzzis’ home:
She had looked to see what she could save for Emmy and the children. ‘I couldn’t carry anything precious away for you. So I would slip three or four of the little figures from the dressing room, the little toys you played with when you were children – you remember – and I put them into the pocket of my apron whenever I was passing, and I took them to my room. I hid them in the mattress of my bed. It took me two weeks to get them all out of the big glass case. You remember how many there were!
‘And they didn’t notice. They were so busy with all the grand things….they didn’t notice the little figures. So I just took them. And I put them in my mattress and I slept on them. Now you are back. I have something to return to you.’
In December 1945, Anna handed Elisabeth 264 Japanese netsuke.
From the gutted five-story, three-generation mansion, that’s all there was left.
After the War, the netsuke inspired the author’s great-uncle and mentor to settle in Tokyo. That relationship inspired de Waal to study ceramics, language and culture in Japan, laying the foundation for his career as one of the world’s leading porcelain artists.
As someone who’s tried his hand at writing memoir, I’d like to close this blog post with one additional de Waal passage, this time exploring creative synergies:
It is not just things that carry stories with them. Stories are a kind of thing, too. Stories and objects share something, a patina. I thought I had this clear, two years ago before I started, but I am no longer sure how this works. Perhaps patina is a process of rubbing back so that the essential is revealed, the way that a striated stone tumbled in a river feels irreducible, the way that this netsuke of a fox has become little more than a memory of a nose and a tail. But it also seems additive, in the way that a piece of oak furniture gains over years and years of polishing, and the way the leaves of my miniature medlar shine.
You take an object from your pocket and put it down in front of you and you start. You begin to tell a story.