SAVORING SMALL PLEASURES (February 28, 2022)
[I wrote this post in mid-February. When Russia invaded Ukraine on the 24th, my first inclination was to suspend the post’s scheduled end-of-month publication. Upbeat personal anecdotes could seem globally insensitive. But then I decided “No,” we mustn’t let a rampaging warlord strangle our individual breathing space. State terrorism is designed to disrupt and demoralize. This invasion is an Eastern European conflict. The EU and NATO must take lead responsibility, with strong U.S. support, to bring Putin’s aggression under control. In the meantime, the rest of us should not be silenced or intimidated.]
Savoring small pleasures can be an effective contribution to coping with COVID. If we can’t get out and about as much as before and are feeling trapped, bored or agitated, finding sources of stimulation within shrunken perimeters can nourish our mental and emotional health.
Beyond COVID, after Omicron’s hopefully swift, steep decline, that same investment can be a sustainable Agile Aging practice. Not just passive receptivity but proactive curiosity and engagement.
Buddhists and New Age sages have long counselled us to “Be Here Now,” living in the present, surrendering past regrets and future worries. Devoting energy and attention to things we can control, releasing those we can’t. What I’m recommending is congruent but more focused: valuing conversations, contacts, memories, pauses and forward planning as invitations to be more alive.
Let me share a basket of samples that have brightened my winter days.
Clare Springs sent a kind New Year’s email. Her catching-up greeting mentioned she was still in touch with Rick Wright, our mutual friend and my Berkeley Law classmate. Rick’s name summoned fond memories from across the decades — on deck in 1967….
The ferry’s sudden bump into the Ios dock jolted all us backpackers awake. It had been a long, nighttime crossing from Athens. I shuffled across the deck to the gangway, recalling from chatter that the youth hostel was straight up a hill from the port. Still half-groggy, I apologized for crowding the guy descending the ramp just ahead of me. He turned around and burst in laughter: “No way! Russell Sunshine! What are you doing here?” 6’4” Rick was not difficult to recognize, even in the gloom, 7000 miles from our law-school classrooms. I explained I was hopping through the Cyclades on summer vacation. And how about him? “Me? This is my island!”
Rick insisted I forget the hostel and join him in a parked pickup truck as he filled in the blanks. When his dad died after a devastating illness, his mom had to figure out how to support herself and five children. Mimi was a gutsy lady. She plunged into the travel business and soon had her own flourishing agency. Two years before our rendezvous, she’d taken the kids on a family charter through the eastern Med. Sailing into a deserted half-moon bay on the back side of Ios, they’d climbed to a cliff-top village for a restorative lunch. Their taverna host answered the enchanted visitors’ questions. Yes, bay-shore land was available for purchase. And yes, he and his brothers knew how to build simple houses. Mimi sketched a U-shaped layout on a scrap of paper. A deal was sealed by a bottle of wine and a handshake. Over the intervening months, Mimi bought a five-acre plot in the center of the bay, complete with fresh-water spring. A cottage was constructed and equipped with furniture and fabrics hand-crafted by neighboring villagers. Six Wrights were now in summer residence. By extraordinary coincidence, this was the only evening in weeks when Rick had been riding the ferry, returning from errands in Greece’s capital city.
The next few days were a beachfront dream. I loved Rick’s mother, two brothers and two sisters. We swam several times a day. Meals were fresh fish, local bread, melons, figs and harsh but increasingly captivating wine. I may recall two Labrador Retrievers. Definitely, sand tournaments of whiffle ball. The Wrights struck me as spontaneously eccentric. No airs or affectations. When I remembered they were all closing ranks after the wrenching loss of a loved one, I silently saluted their bravery.
Later that summer, Rick’s brother Bill and I again crossed paths, this time backpacking in Denmark. Near the end of our $5/day travel budgets, we decided to sleep under a tree in the main Copenhagen park. A cop rousted us from our slumbers, alerting us in polite English to a midnight curfew. After checking our passports and hearing our financial constraints, he made us an impromptu offer. We were welcome to enjoy his hospitality, without criminal charges, in a nearby Copenhagen jail. Recently repainted and fully vacant. The only catch: we’d have to surrender our cell by 8 a.m. since our host’s supervisor made inspecting rounds at half-past. The sparkling quarters put youth hostels to shame. There was even a toilet and sink in our cell. And they didn’t lock us in. No sheets for the hard mattresses, but our backpacks were familiar pillows. The amused cop woke us the next morning with cups of hot coffee. We signed the register and were free to go. Let’s hear it for civilized Scandinavians!
Chanticleer’s January 30 concert was a source of joy. This performance was a joint production hosted by Cantus, another full-time, professional, male vocal ensemble. The program was Zoomed live from Minneapolis’s Orchestra Hall.
Nancy and I are long-time Chanticleer fans. When we lived on the Monterey Peninsula, we made a family occasion of attending their Christmas concerts at the Carmel Mission Cathedral. That narrow sanctuary’s marvelous acoustics made my hairs stand up when the singers’ candle-lit procession and ethereal harmonies penetrated the darkened nave.
At first, we found Chanticleer’s configuration of voices unfamiliar. Six countertenors, three tenors, one baritone and two bases produce a top-weighted blend. Dramatic for their predominantly Renaissance repertoire but not a conventional choral balance. The purity of their sound and intricacy of their arrangements have always thrilled me. It’s a treat to hear their interpretations of ancient songs from all over the European Continent. In recent years, they’ve also commissioned modern works and even ventured into the Gospel repertoire.
In Minneapolis, the two groups performed separately and together. I was especially moved by their lyrical rendering of On a Clear Day. But my favorite piece remained Chanticleer’s signature anthem: Ave Maria from Franz Biebl’s Agnus Dei. After the show, I was entertained by what I learned from Google-sleuthing. Drafted into the German Army in 1943, Biebl was soon captured by American forces and spent the remainder of World War II interned as a POW at Fort Custer in Battle Creek, Michigan. Repatriated to a successful Munich career as choirmaster and composer, he wrote Ave Maria in 1959. The Cornell University Glee Club heard the piece in 1970 when passing through Germany on a summer tour. They were so impressed, they obtained Biebl’s permission on the spot to carry his work back to the States.
Fifty years later, you can hear it on YouTube, with complementary interpretations by Chanticleer, Cantus and Voce8.
The printout from Stanford Health was laconic, almost encrypted: “01/10/2022. Post-Therapy PSA Details. Your Value: <0.05 ng/mL. Standard Range: <0.05 ng/mL.” With years of experience, I had no difficulty translating and interpreting. “PSA” meant “Prostate-specific antigen”; “ng/mL”, “nanograms per milliliter.” Interpretation? “No detectable signs of prostate-cancer metastasis in last week’s blood sample. Still in remission. Come back and see us in another six months.” The clipped line of bureaucratese was more welcome than a sonnet.
I’ve been undergoing prostate-cancer treatment for so long my radiation/oncologist had time to retire. My saga started with high PSA scores and a biopsy in 2014. Although my cancer was not aggressive, a father who’d died of prostate cancer and an older brother being treated for the same disease convinced all specialists to recommend prompt treatment. After researching alternative approaches, I opted for robot surgery at Stanford/Palo Alto to remove my compromised prostate. The procedure was straightforward; post-operative complications, anything but. During six anxious weeks in hospital, my cascade of side-effects included pneumonia, a blocked bowel, intra-abdominal abscess formation, sepsis at a surgical portal, pulmonary edema and a gurney sprint to the ICU. My frustrated but patient surgeon confided, only partly in jest, “Mr. Sunshine, none of your symptoms are unusual; I’ve just never seen them all in a single patient.” We discussed the possibility that spending most of my adult life living and working abroad may have ill-prepared my immune system to resist American infections. Whatever the causes, slowly, slowly, I survived each complication and returned to a semblance of normal health.
What followed was a series of ups and downs. Eighteen monitored cancer-free months before a few surgery-evading malignant cells caused my PSA scores to start climbing again. A PET-CT scan detected three small cancerous sites, all glowing like neon against a dark background: one in the prostate bed, one on an adjacent lymph node, one on the pubic bone. Seven weeks of daily radiation, commuting 90 minutes each way from Pacific Grove to Stanford/San Jose. Eighteen months of quarterly hormone-suppression injections. (It turns out testosterone is prostate cancer’s favorite snack.) Two years in remission. Then a fresh round of climbing PSA, prompting touch-up radiation zapping my left ischial bone.
Early in 2022, I’ve again been cancer-free, this time for nine months. As my radiation/oncologist explained, prostate cancer is now considered a chronic disease, not unlike diabetes. “Russell, we probably won’t ever completely cure you, but you’ll die of something else. If you need consolation, our bio-technology is improving so fast that any alarm-bells articles you research on-line are already obsolete. There’s no better time in history to have this cancer.”
I’ve made so many trips to the Hoover blood-draw lab on the Stanford campus that the staff and I all know each other by name. I’ve no current symptoms, pain or even discomfort. If cancer cells reassert themselves in the future, a half-dozen therapies will be available. I feel lucky to live near such quality care. And Nancy has been a calm, supporting companion every step of this stop-start marathon.
Each time I download a new shorthand printout, I am ready for whatever it reports. But especially in these COVID-complicating days, every reprieve is a gift of time.
Magic Beneath My Feet
We moved into our retirement community at the end of December, 2019. Three months later, COVID imposed tight constraints on getting out and about. One result was that furniture and possessions were distributed in our apartment mostly on a settling-in basis. In the fall of 2021, when Delta’s decline gave us the premature impression that the pandemic was almost over, we decided to refresh our quarters – and implicitly our domestic lives — by moving pieces around. In my room, the shuffle was not artistically innovative: replacing bulky drapes with accordion blinds, swapping the location of bed and desk, and consolidating the contents of two Ikea bookshelves into a taller Container Store unit. All these rearrangements served a single goal. I was determined to make space to unroll and feature our magical Berber kilim. The carpet was no longer pristine. A careless Monterey cleaner had caused its vegetable dyes to run along one border. For me, this disrespect only added character.
I remembered the Fez souk where Nancy and I had found it, sipping glasses of mint tea while a dignified merchant instructed his staff to display a rainbow of weavings in all colors, sizes and prices. We were immediately taken by one unusual carpet, its base color, warm gold. Within this earth-toned border, the bold palette ventured unfamiliar combinations. Olive green, tomato red, ultramarine, slate, turmeric, apricot, sand and ebony somehow harmonized without jarring. We’d spent years in bazaars and had agreed in advance not to tip our hand. As the tacit negotiation gradually narrowed in scope, I asked why this carpet was an odd 7’x10’ size. Never missing a beat, the vendor praised it as “one of a kind.” Nancy’s feigned disinterest drove the asking price down. After cordial compromise, we purchased the carpet and shipped it to our Umbrian farm.
I’ve always been fascinated by the Berbers. Dispersed across the Maghreb for at least 5000 years, these tribes interacted with ancient Egyptians, Carthaginians and Romans. Berbers led the Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in 711, penetrating as far north as the Pyrenees. Somehow they managed to remain independent of the Ottoman Empire. Still the largest indigenous group in North Africa, Berbers today constitute 40% of the Moroccan population. Their cousins, the Tuareg, occupy Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. Berber heroes include St. Augustine of Hippo and my favorite, scholar Ibn Battuta, who traveled from Morocco to China in the first 30 years of the 14th Century, recording a historic journal. More farmers than nomads, in traditional Berber tribes the men took charge of herding, collecting wool and plants for dying. The women wove kilims for family use and occasional sale.
In my reorganized Portola Valley den, I walk on their artisanship every morning. Sitting in a chair, I’m always discovering new meanings within our carpet’s hexagonal medallions. Are the stylized figures seed pods or branches? Stacked baskets or beehives? Dancing snakes, schools of fish, evil eyes, musical notes? Secret glyphs? Alien summons? How can a boring day lie ahead when there’s magic underfoot?
Passing the Torch
Perhaps because we have no children or grandchildren, I’m taking special pleasure from connecting with talented teens on Zoom. As an Alumni Volunteer, I’ve been interviewing applicants for admission to Yale. The university already has in hand official application packets including academic transcripts, extracurricular resumes, essays and letters of recommendation. The informal conversations with alumni give the kids an additional chance to assess whether Yale will be a good fit for them, and the university extra opinions on whether these applicants will be a good fit for Yale.
Today’s university is a world away from my undergraduate experience 60 years ago. Our Class of 1964 was all male, almost all White, almost all U.S. citizens. Yale’s current first-year students are 55% female, 51% of color, 51% receiving financial aid, encompassing 68 nationalities. Despite these differences, our Alumni Office handlers encourage us ancient interviewers to speak personally about what this education meant to us and how it has influenced our subsequent lives. Pairing up California alums with California applicants also introduces a shared geographical perspective.
I’m heartened by these exceptional boys and girls. In my small sample, all have been articulate, earnest, and eager to transition from high school to college. All are current seniors in public schools. Most are STEM-focused, with a strong climate-change orientation. Many have participated via the internet in national or international competitions and conferences. Several science and engineering enthusiasts also have long commitments to the performing arts that they’re determined to sustain (a core reason they’re applying to Yale.) Others are serious, successful athletes. All are actively engaged in community service. Most are children of immigrants and ethnic minorities as well.
They speak with gratitude about favorite teacher-mentors with a passion for their disciplines and accessibility to students. These kids are delighted to learn that Yale requires all its professors, including Nobel laureates, to teach undergraduate courses and seminars. More than one expressed dismay at their high-ranked high schools’ “cutthroat competition.” All are a bit nervous about how well and quickly they could adapt to New England living. I assured them it didn’t take me long to realize that New Haven skies’ drifting white puffs were not cottonwood seeds but early snowflakes.
In our era dominated by conflict, high-velocity change, self-interest and dismay, it’s reassuring to glimpse the hopes and potential of these future leaders. Transformation is going to be a marathon.
Travel Planning in a Pandemic
I’ve always relished travel planning, even if an envisioned trip never pans out. Selecting a priority expedition and destinations with Nancy; collecting information on-line, in libraries and bookstores; plotting a feasible schedule and route; estimating a budget; making preliminary contacts to test accommodations availability, then locking down bookings to firm up the itinerary. In the old days, we preferred fewer detailed preparations, saving more spontaneity for the road. Now, advance reservations are a safer bet.
For us and other would-be travelers, COVID has been a disruptive game-changer: forcing near- and medium-term plans to be cancelled or delayed; severely complicating the few that might be salvaged. For the latter scaled-back possibilities, core challenges include how to minimize in-person contacts with strangers, and how to keep current on local facilities’ closings and service reductions.
Right now, travel prospects are additionally murky. Is Omicron definitely almost finished? Could a new variant rattle safety calculations? A recent New York Times analysis was typically cautious, assessing “how we might think about vacations in 2022.” (How Travel Will Look After Omicron, February 8, 2022.) Its main points were that international travel remains particularly problematic; would-be travelers’ go/no go decisions depend on individuals’ personal risk tolerance; and travel insurance is the single most essential purchase, since late cancellations may become necessary.
Ironically, pandemic uncertainty makes advance travel planning both chancier and more necessary. But it’s also more therapeutic. When we’re all hemmed in, having a break-out adventure to look forward can be a tonic and a target.
I’ve been dealing with all of these issues while plotting out our 2022 summer get-away. As usual, Nancy and I hope to escape the worst local heat by taking to the road in August. This year our plan is to drive to Washington State’s San Juan Islands, a storied destination promising stunning scenery, secluded lodgings, rich history and ocean breezes. For low-contact pandemic safety, our preferred accommodations are cabins or cottages with kitchens. My preliminary research reassured that many such facilities are available at Islands resorts and B&Bs. But the guidebooks also warned that, in recent years, the most popular quarters have been booked 6-18 months in advance! I got on the phone and promptly confronted COVID complications:
- Whereas I’d anticipated that pandemic-emergence uncertainties might curtail reservation demand eight months in advance, in fact every recommended property that I called was already fully booked for August. It appears that legions of travelers are determined to reemerge.
- On the other hand, the main car-ferry company providing transport to the Islands is still hedging its bets. Even though all guidebooks insist that ferry reservations are essential in summer, the company is not yet accepting them. (Local sources explained that last summer the owners took a financial beating when ferry crewmembers called in sick and too few certified substitutes could be recruited to help operate the ships. Many scheduled sailings had to be cancelled; the result was near-chaos.)
Donning my never-give-up cap, I shifted my focus from resorts and B&Bs to week-long vacation rentals. Here, thankfully, I hit pay dirt. I was able to secure isolated accommodations for our entire three-island itinerary. Several offerings were much larger than we needed, but the agency promised to let us shift to smaller structures if prior bookings are cancelled. Speaking of cancellations, the rental agency’s penalties if we back out, even months in advance, are draconian. They explained this is self-defense; they’ve been burned by no-shows too many times in past high seasons. So just at The Times recommended, I’m in the market for travel insurance.
We’re thrilled by the prospect of a memorable adventure. But my trip-planning gauntlet illustrates that transitioning out of this pandemic will be neither simple nor cost-free. If the ferry operator shuts down, we may call you for two kayaks and life-vests.
My sincere thanks to Nancy Swing and Shutterstock for their photographic contributions.
Coming March 31: DANES & NEW SPAIN
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