Sitting in the ER

Sitting in the ER, waiting to hear my name called, with a female tag team wrestling match playing at high volume on the TV hanging behind me and the people across from me wearing their masks on their chins was not the way I expected to spend last night.

I know no one expects to end up in an emergency room. It’s a reminder that things can change slowly, or in the blink of an eye. This trip turned out to be less serious than we feared, which was a great relief. My wife had a fall in the yard and did not end up with a broken rib or anything requiring admission. Scrapes and bruises, and she will have several days of hurting like hell, but we were in and out in three hours. This morning we hit the pharmacy to get her prescriptions filled as soon as it opened.

The fact that I was in a room filled with people in medical distress, some of unknown origin, and I had to ask the people sitting across from me to put their masks on was difficult to understand. We are at over 600,000 dead from this pandemic, it’s finally, after over a year, starting to recede, and the emergency room has signs saying that masks are required. If there were ever a place where wearing a mask would be a no-brainer, I would think that an ER would be it. Most people were masked up, but a few were sporting the below-the-nose option, and a couple were bare faced.

There is nothing, including wearing a mask, that is an absolute one hundred percent guarantee of protection against the virus. Masks do tilt the odds in favor of avoiding infection, and, more importantly, helps reinforce the fact that we’re all in this one together against a threat that is no respecter of any of our occasionally arbitrary lines of division. I’m more than willing to mask up when necessary. It’s one way to express both commonality with and concern for my fellow humans. Like I said, a no-brainer. I’ll probably continue with many of the hermit aspects of life that were necessary during the worst of the pandemic due to my deeply ingrained introversion, but it will be nice to have options again.

The Worst and the Best

Last night we went out to dinner with a couple of friends and I experienced what for me are the worst and the best aspects of returning to society, all in the space of a few hours. Fortunately they occurred in that order.

We arrived at the restaurant they had suggested a few minutes after they did. We were, they said, second on the list for an outside table with a 20-30 minute wait time. We waited, unable to have any kind of conversation because of the noise level, watching people stream in and out of the front entrance. Some were masked, most weren’t.

After forty minutes or so I had to step out, and walked around the parking lot to clear my head. By the time I got to the lower level lot the music was loud instead of deafening and after a few minutes I made my way back to the foyer. Twenty minutes later our friend went in to ask about the delay in seating and was told there was a trivia game going on that wouldn’t end until nine or so, and many of the tables would remain occupied until that time. At that point we decided to give up on the possibility of an outside table, ordered our food to go, and followed our friends to their house nearby. We had a very pleasant meal and a couple of hours of equally pleasant conversation (which would have been impossible at the restaurant unless we were willing to shout). 

The trip to the restaurant reminded me of many things I dislike about socializing, and my visit with my friends reminded me of the things I’ve been missing, the important connections that feed us and remind us of the value of human contact. I’m glad we bailed on the restaurant, and I’m wondering when or if I’ll be willing to put up with the crowds and the noise to share a meal with friends when all I really want to do is have the kind of conversation that flows from topic to topic, allows us to touch base with each other, laugh or commiserate, tell stories, and share our triumphs and setbacks both large and small with folks we care about and who care about us. That’s a big deal, and I think this past year or so has reminded us of how essential it is.


I’m waiting for the call that says my new glasses are ready, and for the proof of Following Frankie to arrive so I can give it one last look before publication, and for whatever winter this is to blow on through and let spring settle in, and for the results of the blood test I was supposed to have had done seven months ago except for this pandemic. I’m waiting for my first in-person meeting with Kavya, and for my first steps back into the world to be a little less hesitant, and for the next project to suggest itself to me, and for musicians to start gathering again at the community center so I can join in, and, as the poet said, I am perpetually awaiting a rebirth of wonder. 

And I’m thankful that I have yet to be disappointed by that last one.

End of the Rope

We were at a friend’s home for dinner the other night, the first time since the pandemic hit that we thought about venturing out. Since the vaccine became available and more people are getting their shots, it’s becoming possible to do some things that in the past were ordinary but right now seem special.

The conversation meandered around from one subject to another, as it often does when friends get together, and at one point our host was talking about a young couple he knew who were dealing with an overbearing in-law/parent. He said that the father-in-law tried to provoke the young woman, but she didn’t take the bait. The phrase he used was, “She wouldn’t pick up her end of the rope.”

What great imagery that is. If you visualize ego-driven confrontations as a tug-of-war, then by far the best and easiest way to counter them is to refuse to pick up your end of the rope.

He grew up in the Midwest — Wisconsin, I believe — but I didn’t think to ask him if that was a regional idiom or one he picked up somewhere else (or made up himself). In any case, it’s good advice for all of us, I think. If we find ourselves being provoked into a confrontation, it’s a good technique to try, and an easy solution if it works.

We don’t have to pick up our end of the rope.

A Lost Year?

I am beginning to see more people voicing disagreement with the characterization of our children as having lost a year of school due to the pandemic, and I’m glad that is happening. While it is true that they have lost classroom time, it is not the case that they have gone a year without education.

We can, if we choose, regard these children as having been through an experience that is not quantifiable or measurable by any standardized test, a lesson in adaptation and resilience that could not have been planned or fit into a curriculum. We can try to be alert and sensitive to the emotional, physical, and spiritual damage that might have been done and also help them understand what new skills and strengths they have now. 

The above is true for the rest of us as well, and surviving this gives us all a unique opportunity to reinvent the world and our place in it. It would be a shame if we let it slip away from us while we tried to hang on to the way it used to be. There are things we have set aside, and soon we will begin deciding whether or not to pick them up again. Those decisions are better done on purpose, rather than without consideration. We all change the world in small ways every day, sometimes in one direction, sometimes another. Here is a chance to do so deliberately.

The pandemic has not offered us many silver linings, but this is a big one.

Thoughts on the Pandemic

Some meandering and possibly disconnected observations from the last two months or so, all of which are, of course, my opinion and not objective fact. None of us have all the answers, or even all the right questions. It’s impossible to see the whole picture when we’re in the middle of it. Rebecca Solnit says that the future is dark and no one can see farther than their candle, and I think that’s true. It’s very important, I believe, that in this crisis we refrain from blowing out our candles and stumbling around in the dark, or blindly following someone who claims that their candle is the only real light. 

We’re far enough into this now to allow for old habits to be set aside and new habits learned. As restrictions ease, I wonder how many old habits will be set aside for good and new ones put in their place. Without a replacement habit, the old ones will almost certainly resurface.

Many people are both able and willing to do the right thing even if it’s somewhat (or more than somewhat) inconvenient. To be reminded of this, it’s necessary to step away from the media, which spends much of its time giving the rest their fifteen minutes.

The economic system under which we live is in some respects a house of cards. A system built on the necessity of continual growth is apparently unable to respond effectively to a crisis when the solution is to stop, take a step back, and wait for the danger to pass.

Millions of people all across the country have suddenly become aware of how dependent we are on those who are at the bottom of the ladder as far as income and prestige are concerned. We have always needed them, and now that has been brought into sharp focus. We are an interdependent web indeed, and right now we are being forcefully reminded of that.

I have a feeling that we’re starting to move toward a grasp of the characteristics of this virus and a way to deal with its more damaging effects, but it certainly has been a stumbling path forward.

For some reason, I am reminded of one of the basic rules for dealing with students’ stubborn behavior. I remember telling myself, “You just have to hold out a few seconds longer than they do. Just a few seconds.”

It’s usually easy to tell when a scientist is talking; they are careful in their statements and are generally unwilling to offer conclusions that cannot be supported. Statements by those who do not demonstrate the same restraint should be taken with a grain of salt, especially if the subject is scientific in nature.

The Dunning-Kreuger Effect is real.

The characterization of this as a war is inaccurate. The virus is not our enemy. It has no intent to do us harm; it has no intent at all beyond mindless replication. It has no organization, no homeland, no plan of attack, no ideology that stands in opposition to our own. It does not form alliances or target specific countries or groups of people. This is a medical emergency, not a war.

Asking a politician to refrain from politicizing an event or situation is like asking a weather forcaster to ignore the jet stream or a business owner to ignore profit and loss information. It’s not going to work. 

Like the attack on September 11, this medical crisis has presented the world with a rare opportunity to set aside questions of boundaries, sovereignty, and political ideology and come together in common purpose. And, like in the weeks immediately following the September attack, many government leaders have turned down this chance in favor of seizing the opportunity to assign blame and consolidate power.

Small and flexible is often more effective and successful than big and powerful.

Planning things out ahead of time never works for me as a writer, and I find that I’m not much better at it in other areas of my life. It’s a learning process, and probably good for me to develop this skill.

The desperate plight of those among us who are dependent on a paycheck to stay alive and sheltered but who have no paycheck and no way to get one is frightening, not least because the number of people affected is so large.

The British admonition to “Keep Calm and Carry On” is evidently more difficult to pull off than it sounds.

I’ve discovered that while I still love my wife of almost 40 years, I also like hanging out with her for days on end, a discovery of no small importance during this pandemic. Also, it is my great good fortune that she continues to tolerate my odd take on life in general and many things in particular. It makes this whole thing so much easier to bear.

It’s important to be smart about this, and at least as important to be kind and generous. Recognizing that we (meaning the entire human race) are all in this together can help us reach past differences to common ground, and in that direction lies healing for many of our ills.