On My Birthday
On my birthday I am 69 years old. I woke this morning to the sound of birds chirping in our garden. They seem louder now. There are few cars or motorcycles starting up around our house and no airplanes flying overhead, and the light rail trains that used to bump over the tracks a block away aren’t running anymore, either, so everything seems more peaceful now. So the happy sounds (like birds chirping) stand out more now. The air is cleaner now, too, and the sky is bluer. It’s amazing what a difference it makes when cars, trucks, and airplanes are removed!
We’re in the midst of a global pandemic. The coronavirus (and its associated disease, Covid-19) have ravaged the U.S. and the world for three months. We have been sheltering-in-place for over a month now, since a “lockdown” was declared in the Bay Area March 17. We are allowed out of our house to get groceries or supplies (wearing face masks) and for exercise, but that’s it. The rest of the day we stay in our house, or in our garden. “Essential” workers -- including grocery store clerks, restaurant employees, sanitation workers, and policemen and firemen still go to work.
The front page of the San Francisco Chronicle on March 17 (St. Patrick’s Day) said “Stay at Home!” Streets became deserted, businesses were boarded up, and hoarding began at food stores and drugstores. I shopped for Ina at the Marina Safeway and witnessed massive checkout lines filled with overflowing shopping carts and empty shelves in the paper products, frozen and canned goods, and cleaning departments. People seem to be uncertain how the shelter-in-place will work and how long it will last, so they bought supplies to last a long time.
Walking through business districts became eerie! Nearly all stores were closed, and some put plywood over doors and windows. The few that remained open (grocery stores, hardware stores, gas stations, restaurants) were cautious about how many people they allowed in, and lines outside became normal. It became common to wait for a half-hour or more to get into a supermarket. Restaurants put up hand-written signs to indicate they were doing takeout only, and they turned their chairs over to indicate that no one was allowed to dine in. Homeless people started camping in tents in front of unoccupied gyms, churches, and schools. There was little traffic and few open stores and everyday seemed like a holiday.
Some version of that shelter-in-place order is in effect in “most” U.S. states and most countries. To date, there have been around 3,000,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus worldwide (1,000,000 in the U.S.) and 200,000 deaths worldwide (over 50,000 in the U.S.). There is no cure and no vaccine, so the only recourse at this point is to avoid spreading it. Adherence varies by state: in California the public is largely obeying mask and social distancing orders, but in some U.S. states protestors are demanding that businesses open up and people go back to work. Outside the U.S. several European countries (Spain, Italy, France, U.K.) have been hit extremely hard, as has China, South Korea, Russia and Turkey. Many people think countries in South America and Africa are next, where there is less medical expertise and equipment. The pandemic dominates the news, social order, and way of life.
Patty and I have likely been infected, but we’ll probably never know for sure. There is shortage of testing for the virus in the U.S. and people are only allowed to be tested if they have severe symptoms and a prescription from their doctor. In early March, Patty and I went to Oregon to celebrate my brother-in-law’s birthday, and while there, we both had what appeared to be colds. When we got home, Patty and Anne went to Mexico for a week, and Anne developed flu-like symptoms. She was treated in a clinic and was improved enough to fly home with Patty. When she reached Portland, Buzz and Ian picked her up and when they saw how weak she was they took her to a hospital emergency room. The next day she seemed to be improving, but then became very weak and after testing positive for coronavirus was placed on a ventilator, where she remained for over two weeks. Today, she is off the ventilator, but she remains in critical care and is so weak she can’t move. Her recovery will be long and uncertain.
Testing for the virus is key to stopping it, but so far the U.S. has been late and slow to test. People with mild symptoms are told to self-quarantine for two weeks and then go back out (with face coverings). Many go back to work, where they share equipment, tools, etc. with others who may have been exposed.
Leadership during a crisis like this is vital, to make sure everyone is on the same page and heading in the same direction. Unfortunately, national leadership in the U.S. has been severely lacking. Trump has been all over the place in what he says about the virus and what he proposes doing about it, and he has mis-lead the country several times; telling us it was no worse than the flu, that it was completely under control, that it would “magically” go away when the weather warmed, and that hydroxychloroquine (a drug for malaria) could be a cure (it isn’t), or that injecting UV rays or disinfectant into the body might solve the problem (it won’t). He has looked for someone to blame for the virus and for his slow response to it; taking turns blaming China, the World Health Organization, the Democrats, Nancy Pelosi, and the media. Each time he says something like that Fox News promotes it, his followers believe it, and hate spews to the most recent target. As a result, polls show that few Americans look to or trust Trump as a source of information on the pandemic, and the vast majority of Americans now look to state and local leaders for information.
So today, during the third week in April, all of California is under shelter-in-place orders, meaning we are not allowed outside our homes (unless we have an “essential” job) except to buy groceries and supplies, and to exercise. And when we go out we are to maintain “social distance” of at least six feet from the nearest person (except those we live with). When we are outside we are to wear a face covering (mask), to further prevent spread of the virus. This has been going on for four weeks now, and California just announced that it will last at least another month. Most businesses are closed and millions of employees are temporarily out of work. Exceptions are grocery stores, drug stores, hardware stores, auto maintenance, plumbing and medical clinics. The U.S. government has passed at least four stimulus bills that will distribute funds to businesses and individuals, and property owners are encouraged to temporarily waive rent collection and mortgage payments. The U.S. (and the world) is very likely in a recession that will be deep and long and could easily turn into a depression.
At first, people were kind to each other, and groups began running errands for elderly or sick people. Families took walks together, or drew hopscotch squares on the sidewalks and played together. Then, as time dragged on a tinge of irritation and anger started to appear, and we were sometimes scolded for walking too close to someone, or for not wearing a mask.
I was having a good year before the pandemic. I continue to have good health, and while I have had flare-ups of arthritis in my hands and feet and my lower back aches if I don’t stretch regularly, I don’t have any major health issues and I don’t take any medication. I got a boost from seeing my book published las November, but getting it sold has been frustrating. Bookstores have reluctantly taken a single copy at cost, and I’ve received little feedback on sales from the publisher, bookstores, or Amazon. My pitches to bookstores to do book signings or talks have fallen on deaf ears, and now just as I was beginning to follow-up the bookstores have closed. I’ve even floated the idea of selling direct to the public, but that’s also off the table for now because of the coronavirus rules. So I run online marketing efforts and am selling a few copies. Meanwhile, I have put together another book of short stories I am tentatively calling “Good People,” which I hope to publish this year.
We had a terrific trip to Bhutan in March (with Patty’s friend, Azah) where we hiked, cycled, and saw first-hand how a country can treat its citizens kindly and well. We celebrated my birthday at Pt. Reyes with John and Eva, and we went to Memphis in May to participate in a barbeque contest with Misty’s friend, JoEllen. We went to Oregon in June to celebrate Ian’s college graduation, and we went to my family’s reunion in Nebraska in June, my 50th high school reunion in August, and Patty’s 50th high school reunion in September. My group of Dashiell Hammett fans flew to San Diego in July to watch baseball games and to enjoy that city.
Then in late September and early October Patty and I took a bicycle tour in Quebec that turned out to be excellent! The weather was just right for cycling and we enjoyed afriendly tour group, the French language, friendly people, excellent food, and the beauty of the Quebec wine district. After our tour, Patty and I rented a car and drove from Vermont to Cooperstown, New York to tour the Baseball Hall of Fame, which had been on my list for a long time. We stayed in a very cute B&B in Cooperstown run by a wonderful couple in their 80s, and we explored upstate New York and dined in local restaurants. And we celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary there. It was a wonderful experience with terrific people and the girl I love!
Christmas wasn’t quite up to snuff. Allan had recently become single again, and he was understandably gloomy. But Patty did her best and we decorated our house, put up a Christmas tree, shopped for gifts, and invited Allan, John and Eva over and Patty cooked and baked and had a special meal for everyone. It might not have been the happiest Christmas ever, but Patty made it nice for everyone.
So now it’s all about the coronavirus. At first, once the shock wore off, the vast majority of people were cooperative, and stories began to appear of how people were helping others – taking food to elderly shut-ins, volunteering at shelters, and donating to hospitals and nursing homes. Now, more than a month later, most people remain calm and cooperative, but there is an increasing number of outliers who don’t follow the rules, protest against them, and are more interested in getting back to work than keeping people safe.
Overall, the U.S. political situation is in chaos, with Trump and his Republican allies trying their best to take the country back to a time more pleasing to them and the Democrats trying to find someone who could beat Trump and return the country to some sense of normalcy. Trump continues to operate by gut impulse, and to ignore precedent and reason. The media continues to report on his blatant and obvious attempts to pander to big business and far-right groups, but his supporters stand with him no matter what he says or does, and his approval rating (which rose slightly after the pandemic was announced) has once again flattened at just over 40%. His supporters appear to be the segments of the public who felt cheated or overlooked when Obama was president, and it appears they are now directing their anger and frustration at a society that has left them behind. Whatever the reason, there is a minority of the U.S. that is angry at the “system,” and who rationalize tearing the Federal government apart because they are unhappy with what it has done for them. Those are the people who make me sad.
Meanwhile, the Democrats thinned a huge group of prospective presidential candidates down to Joe Biden. I’ve liked Biden since he first ran for president in 2008, but I feel bad that at 77 he thinks he needs to run for president. One thing I can be pretty sure of is that Trump and his cruel cronies will try to destroy Joe Biden and his family between now and November.
While most of the world continues to cooperate and share, the U.S. is turning inward -- promoting nationalism, self-dependence, and reproach. There are millions of uprooted people in the world and the recent coronavirus pandemic has upturned economies worldwide. Nations who formerly cooperated now block their borders and care only for their citizens. Some world leaders act as though the world is a TV reality show, guided by opinion polls and short-range vision.
But there are positive signs, especially in our neighborhoods.
I see hope in the people of all ages and backgrounds who are keeping things going until we can get through this pandemic. The healthcare workers, law enforcement officers, fire fighters, grocery store and restaurant workers, postal employees, transportation workers, sanitation personnel, and everyone else who goes out each day and risks illness and death to keep the world running are today’s heroes.
I see hope in the millions of people all over the U.S. who have gotten more involved in their government at every level, because they want to see changes.
I see hope in those who lead the fight to control climate change and to lessen our dependence on fossil fuels.
I see hope in our teachers, because education is the best chance that our future will be guided by knowledge and trust.
And I see hope in the way the vast majority of people in the U.S. have been able to recognize a calamity when it is pointed out to them, and to follow the rules that have been designed to minimize its destruction. Those are the people who will get us through this pandemic. And those are the people who will hopefully get us through this period of division and hate. Those are the true Americans.
The Mighty Task is Done
Joseph Strauss was a tenacious man. Despite his small stature, he was an over-achiever driven to do great things, and as his signature achievement, the Golden Gate Bridge, attests, he was able to accomplish them.
Strauss wanted to be a poet and an athlete. He wrote poetry his whole life and became reasonably good at it, but he was so badly injured in a football game he spent time in an infirmary. His room overlooked a Cincinnati suspension bridge, which he admired so much he decided he wanted to build bridges. He did, dozens of them, including the Lefty O’Doul drawbridge across from San Francisco’s AT&T ballpark.
But his most challenging project came when Michael O’Shaughnessy, San Francisco’s city engineer, asked him to build a bridge across the Golden Gate between San Francisco and Marin County. Strauss agreed to build the bridge and fought 10 years to obtain authorization and funding.
When the bridge was finally approved, Strauss, as chief engineer, made sure it was done properly.
He protected bridge workers with numerous safety measures, and made sure they were strictly enforced. It included hard hats for workers, respirator masks for riveters, glare-free goggles, special hand and face cream, carefully formulated diets to fight dizziness, and an on-site field hospital. He required that all employees “tie-off” to the bridge to reduce falls. And he developed and installed a safety net under the bridge to catch workers who fell (and who then became members of the “Halfway to Hell” club.
As a result of Strauss’ concern and efforts, fatalities were well below norms for the time.
Strauss put his heart and soul into the Golden Gate Bridge, and his dogged efforts led to his death shortly after it was finished in 1937. He wrote the following poem to honor its completion.
The Mighty Task is Done
Written upon completion of the Golden Gate Bridge in May 1937
At last the mighty task is done;
Resplendent in the western sun
The Bridge looms mountain high;
Its titan piers grip ocean floor,
Its great steel arms link shore with shore,
Its towers pierce the sky.
On its broad decks in rightful pride,
The world in swift parade shall ride,
Throughout all time to be;
Beneath, fleet ships from every port,
Vast landlocked bay, historic fort,
And dwarfing all--the sea.