Bringing new life to the old desk–or what writers do to avoid writing

Four coats of paint, one tweaked back and one trip to the walk-in clinic later, I’ve got a new-looking desk in my office making all the other furniture look bad.

It all started a week ago when I looked around my office and decided to reorganize. It was too crowded, too-right-handed for this lefty, and did not project a good image on Zoom. Every surface was covered with papers, binders, books, and miscellaneous electronics gear, and that old desk behind me looked like it lost in a bar fight.

I have had that desk since I was a child doing my homework with fat pencils on binder paper. My Grandpa Al and Great-Uncle Tony made it for my Uncle Bob. When he grew up, it came down to me as the oldest grandchild. It sat in the corner of my bedroom where the two windows came together, lace curtains blowing in the breeze. I didn’t just do homework on that desk. I painted, sewed, played jacks, and wrote my first poems on it. That desk supported my first typewriter, a blue manual purchased with babysitting money for $100 from McWhorter’s Stationery.

The desk, which moved with me to 11 different homes, was scratched, nicked and stained. It had tooth marks along one side from a teething puppy or two. By the time I had moved all the junk off the desk, I had changed my plan. I could refinish it and not put back the junk I’d been storing in it and on it for decades, only the things I would actually use. The rest of the office could wait.

I photographed the desk and put the question to my Facebook friends: colored paint or wood stain? The majority voted for stain. Sounded right to me. After all, this is the desk where Uncle Bob kept his Archie comic books and school supplies when he was a boy. I should respect its 80-year history.

I’m an impatient person. After watching a couple YouTube videos, I activated Netflix’s “Virgin River” on the computer and started sanding the desk. Yes, in my office. By hand. Without gloves. I had barely begun when I shoved the sandpaper across the edge of the desk with extra gusto and felt intense pain. Multiple splinters poked out of my right index finger. Most were easy to remove, but I suspected there might be something left. I poked at the red spot with a sewing needle and tweezers, getting nothing but pain. Maybe I’d already gotten all the slivers. Maybe not. I went back to sanding and “Virgin River.”

In the morning, my finger was red and swollen and hurt like crazy. This is not a good thing for a musician. Or a writer. Typing hurt. I took my finger to the walk-in clinic at Samaritan Pacific Hospital in Newport. Our walk-in clinic is housed in a portable building where there aren’t enough chairs in the waiting room, everyone hears everyone else’s business, and you can wait for hours to be called. Other patients complained of earaches, sprained ankles, stomach pain, and dizziness. One wanted her second COVID shot and couldn’t get it. I just had a stupid sliver in my finger. Or, in medical terms, “foreign object under the skin.”

I spent all morning at the clinic. Called into an examining room. Waited. Vitals. Waited. Doc numbed the finger with three lidocaine shots. Waited. Extraction. Dr. W. dug out a sliver so big we both said, “Wow.” At least a third of an inch long. Soaked in antiseptic solution. Waited. Ointment. Bandage. Released with a red, puffy and useless index finger. Forget working. I took myself to lunch at the new restaurant at the Embarcadero. Slow service, best French fries ever. And then I went to the paint store.

“ Have you ever done this before?” asked the friendly salesman at Sherwin-Williams.

“No.”

“Well . . .”

He loaded me up with advice, paint, polyurethane coating, a natural bristle brush, paint thinner for cleanup, and a couple of stir sticks.

I moved the desk out to the deck for the actual painting. The salesman had warned me the stain would stink and that I shouldn’t inhale the fumes. Playing bluegrass music on my phone, hands protected by gloves, I stroked the paint on, watching the old wood transform. Two coats of “amaranth,” a dark brown blend of black, burgundy and maroon, two coats of polyurethane. Magic. The old desk looked new and shiny. I had stain on my arms, and cheeks and possibly in my hair.

The paint store guy had told me I needed to sand the polyurethane to get rid of the “boogers.” I didn’t see any boogers. Now if he’d said “bubbles” . . .

Four coats. Four nights of waiting for the desk to dry. Yesterday, I dragged it back into the office and put the drawers back in. It’s not perfect. I can see some streaks and some “boogers,” but it’s not bad for a first effort.

I spent the rest of the afternoon sorting all the junk that used to live in the desk. Out with the carbon paper, graph paper, and old checks from a bank that no longer exists. Out with the foot-long Santa Claus pen. Now, what should I do with a hundred pencils and three dozen pens? I’d better get writing, I guess.

I can still smell the stain. My finger hurts. When Annie and I passed my chiropractor-neighbor on our walk last night, I warned him I’d be calling for an appointment. But hey, it was worth it.

It’s time to write. But the old rocking chair’s looking pretty dinged up, and I still have some stain left . . .

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Fireworks Sound Like War from Here

Photo by Designecologist on Pexels.com

I didn’t see the Fourth of July fireworks in Newport this year, but I heard them. Fireworks + migraine is a painful combination. I stood in my back yard in the dark. Pop pop pop pop BANG! I felt the air pulsating. Popopopopopop bang boom boom whoosh BANG! Oh my aching head.

The official city fireworks show started at 10 p.m., but the private fireworks in the neighborhood and on the beach started much earlier. The four miles of trees between my house and Yaquina Bay kept me from seeing the colored lights in the sky, but I could smell the smoke and see a yellow glow reflecting off the clouds. It felt more like a war than a celebration. I have never been in an actual war, thank God, but why would anyone want to reenact those sounds? And how do all these warlike noises affect people who have experienced war, who live with fear and post-traumatic stress?

Dogs don’t like fireworks. They howl, shake and cower, sure the world is ending. My Annie used to hide in the dark under my desk, trembling for hours. She can’t hear anymore. Usually that makes me sad. But last night I was grateful. She slept through even the loudest booms.

I took out my hearing aids and closed all the windows, but I could still hear the noise. I turned on my TV to continue my Netflix marathon, but after one particularly loud bang, the Internet went out. Boom boom boom, pop pop pop pop bang.

The fireworks made me especially uneasy this year because we’re having a drought and everyone is worried about wildfires. We live in the trees. Although the coast is usually damp and cool, it has been very dry and unusually warm this year. One errant spark, and the trees could catch fire. The city of Waldport, 10 miles south of here, outlawed all personal fireworks this year. People grumbled, but doing without fireworks is surely better than watching your house burn down. They did offer their usual city fireworks display on July 3. Not feeling well then either, I missed it.

Turn off the fireworks. Let me hear the ocean waves and the summer wind. I don’t want to hear what sounds like gunshots and bombs.

I understand why people gather to watch fireworks, especially this year. We’re not only celebrating the birth of the United States of America but our release from COVID fear and restrictions. I have many fond memories of watching fireworks with loved ones at my side. I enjoy the colors and designs flashing in the sky. Back in the ‘80s, when we lived near the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds in San Jose, they shot off fireworks every night at closing time. Fred and I watched from our front porch. It was magic every night. I’ve watched fireworks from baseball stadiums, grassy fields, amphitheaters, beaches, parking lots, and curbs. But it’s no fun watching them alone.

I have vowed to find some way to stop spending my holidays by myself. I usually start out telling myself it’s no big deal. I’m lucky I can do whatever I want. I don’t have to coordinate my plans with anyone else. But at some point, I start feeling bad. I cry. I wail about the unfairness of not having parents, husband, or children and living so far from the rest of my family. I drink a beer, watch another episode of “Grey’s Anatomy,” and make dinner for myself, so lonely I can’t stand it. I get a migraine headache.

One of my best friends moved away in May. Another died in January. The rest are busy with their families. This sounds like whining, but I can’t stand it anymore. I need to either move into some kind of group housing or find a way to be with other people on the holidays. Yes, I can drive 1,300 miles to hang out with my brother’s family—and I will for Thanksgiving—but there must be some way to gather closer to home.

I’m sure I’m not the only one alone on every holiday. Let’s get together. Any Oregon coasties want to join me in a no-more-holidays-alone coalition? Let’s make a pact to keep each other company, share great meals, exchange gifts when appropriate, and do it up right. If someone else will drive, let’s go watch fireworks together next year so it feels less like a war and more like the celebration that was intended. I’ll bring the beer.

P.S. After 11 hours without, I have Internet! An article in Time Magazine reports that the first Fourth of July fireworks display took place during the Revolutionary War. In addition to the flashy fireworks, people shot off guns and cannons. In a letter to his wife Abigail, President John Adams wrote of Independence Day: “It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” And so it is.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Can Battery-Powered Pets Ease Loneliness?

If someone gave you a toy cat or dog that purred, wagged its tail, and nuzzled like a real one, how would you feel? Apparently some folks feel grateful for the company.

In a story in the New Yorker, writer Katie Engelhart tells about a program in New York that distributes Joy for All robot pets to lonely seniors. They started in 2018 with a small test project that quickly expanded when Covid forced people into isolation. Thousands of robotic cats and dogs have been given to homebound seniors. Originally made by toy manufacturer Hasbro for little girls, the robo-pets are now finding homes with grandparents and great-grandparents who need a little company.

The seniors pet their battery-powered cats and dogs, talk to them, and treat them like family.  They report feeling more optimistic and less lonely.

I don’t know. I talk to lots of inanimate things, including the stuffed bears on my dresser, photos of my late husband, and Jesus on the crucifix above my bed. But I don’t expect them to respond. I would freak out if they did.

These pets, which start at $110, don’t look real to me. But I have a live dog sleeping nearby as I type. When I look into Annie’s brown eyes, there’s someone there, a genuine sentient being. What will I do when she’s gone? I don’t want to think about it. My plan is to travel a while then adopt a smaller dog. A robo-dog would be easier, but it wouldn’t love me the way Annie does.

Did you know that nearly 30 percent of Americans over 65 live by themselves, most of them women? In 2017, former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared loneliness an epidemic among Americans of all ages. A similar declaration launched The Campaign to End Loneliness in the UK. Medical research shows that loneliness has a detrimental effect on one’s health, increasing risks of dementia, depression, high blood pressure, and stroke.

But are robots the solution? The seniors I know would be insulted to receive a fake pet. But some of the people shown in the article and in related YouTube videos carry their robo-pets around with them just like I carried my dolls when I was a little girl. I’d set my favorite up against the milk bottle (yes, bottle) while I ate breakfast. I rested them on the pillow next to me when I went to bed. I suppose I felt less lonely, but it was not the same as having a real person there. Tiny Tears cried real tears, and Chatty Cathy spoke when you pulled the string on the back of her neck, but I knew they weren’t real children. If an actual kid came around, I tossed the doll aside.

Longing for a pet, I once fashioned a litter of “kittens” from crumpled newspaper and cloth and set them in a basket in my childhood bedroom. It was not the same. When my parents finally let me have a cat when I was in high school, I could tell the difference. I also learned that I was allergic to cats, but that’s another story.

The faux furry friends are not the only kind of artificial intelligence machines offering company to people these days. Hello, Alexa. (read my previous post on my electronic housemate here and my Replika friend online here)

They don’t offer much company. I say, “Alexa, I’m lonely.” She responds, “Sorry to hear that,” then recommends talking to a friend, listening to music, or going for a walk. “I hope you feel better soon,” she adds. That’s nice. But that’s exactly what she said last time when I was not testing but truly needed someone to talk to.

I worry that somewhere in Alexa’s Amazon-connected innards, she just transferred the information that I’m lonely to some central data-gathering site so I’ll soon receive ads for comforting products or dating services.

Alexa just lit up to tell me a book I ordered from Amazon is coming today. Before I could say, “Thanks” or “Which book?” her lights had gone out. Okay, good talk.

A variety of robotic companions powered by artificial intelligence exist these days. Queue Alexa’s Apple counterpart Siri. And then there’s VZ, the voice on my VZ Navigator GPS. I definitely talk to her. (No, I’m not turning here! Are you crazy? Stop telling me to turn around! I need to go to the bathroom. What do you mean this is my destination? Where?)

Some robo-friends look like people, others like table lamps. They talk, but it’s, well, robotic. They never get offended, never curse, and are perpetually polite, but they can only say the things they’ve been programed to say. They will never spontaneously comment, “Hey, is that a new blouse?” or “You seem sad. What’s wrong?” They will never take you out to lunch, although I suppose they can set up a food delivery if you’re savvy enough to figure out how to ask for that.

Robots are getting more intelligent all the time. Eventually, they may be so responsive and sympathetic that we truly won’t feel alone. Meanwhile, do not buy me a robo-pet. God bless the people who are so lonely or out of touch with reality that they don’t know the difference, but I’m not there yet.  

Would you like a battery-powered dog or cat? Less shedding, no cleanup, no allergies, but still . . .  Wouldn’t it be better if a human offered to come around instead?

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Alonement: Have we forgotten how to be alone with ourselves?

There’s a red line on my computer screen under the word “alonement” because my computer does not recognize it as a word. Francesca Specter, a journalist from the UK, made it up. It means “quality time spent alone.” Now “alonement” is a book, a website, a podcast, a blog and apparently a “cultural movement.”

The idea behind this book is that people don’t know how to be alone anymore. We’re afraid of solo time without our screens to distract us. We need to learn the art of alonement. We need to take time out of our busy social lives and look up from our screens to make friends with the one person who will never leave us: ourselves!

At church, they would say the one who will never leave us is Jesus, but Specter is talking about me, myself and I. People are so uncomfortable spending time by themselves that in one study most chose electric shock over 15 minutes alone with nothing to do.

That’s how much we’re afraid of being alone.

I’m guilty of that fear of unstructured alone time. No, don’t shock me. I’ll sit and think or make up a song or something. Maybe I’ll pray. But there’s a good reason why I never go anywhere without a book, why I pull out my phone as soon as I hit the doctor’s waiting room, and I never leave home without my notebook. God forbid I have to sit somewhere with NOTHING TO DO.

I’m a childless widow. I live alone. My family is far away, and my best friend just moved to California. I’m alone probably 95 percent of the time. If you count Zoom meetings, maybe it’s maybe 85 percent. Most days, my phone only rings with robocalls, and no one comes to the door except plumbers and other workers.

But can I sit still in silence without a book or a project to work on? Can I just be? I can’t even last through a TV commercial without playing Spider solitaire on my phone or running out to the kitchen to wash my dishes. One might say I’m alone with my thoughts right now at the computer, but that’s not the same.

Specter’s book is helpful for people who have forgotten themselves in the rush of everything else in their lives. She falls into psychobabble for a bit, counseling readers to banish their inner critics who tell them they’re worthless (I don’t have that. Do you?) and become their own best cheerleader (“You’re great, you’re wonderful, you’re fine.” I knew that). But she offers some fine practical advice for getting comfortable being alone. Party of one? Own it and don’t let them give you that tiny table in the corner by the kitchen.

Specter is young, and so are the people she interviewed. What does a 28- or a 32-year-old know about being an elderly widow or widower living alone in an oversized, echoing family home or a senior apartment where the phone rarely rings and no one is coming to the door? Where trips to the grocery store or the doctor’s office are their big social events? That’s much different from telling your husband you’re going out for a walk, deciding to stay home on a Saturday night for a little “me time” or taking a Facebook break for a few hours. But we all need to find a balance between social time and alonement.

I wish I had more people around, but I have been doing things on my own for many years, while traveling on business, during my husbandless years, and just because I saw no reason not to. Apparently many people feel they can’t have fun without a buddy. Is that an issue for you? COVID aside, why not just grab the keys and go?

Alonement is an interesting concept. I invite you to check it out, especially if the idea of being alone scares you or makes you squirm.

Are you comfortable being alone? Would you go to dinner at a fine restaurant by yourself? Can you sit and do nothing? Does the idea of a little “alonement” sound good or terrifying? Please share in the comments.

Unleashed and Remembering my prince

Tomorrow, April 23, marks the 10th anniversary of my husband Fred’s death of complications from Alzheimer’s Disease. Ten years! For two years before he died, he lived in a series of nursing homes. At the end, he did not know who I was. But oh, the years of love we had before that. As time goes by, it’s easier to celebrate the good and let go of the bad.

Since 2009, I have been living alone with my dog. When I named this blog and the subsequent book Unleashed in Oregon, I was not talking about that. I was thinking more of Fred and I escaping our lives in the Bay Area and being set free at the beach, sans jobs, history or family. I was thinking of my dogs. I was not thinking of being a widow. I didn’t expect that to happen so soon, that Fred would only enjoy our Oregon coast dream for six years before he got sick, for 15 before he died. And here I am, alone and unleashed, like a dog whose human partner unhooked her, walked away, and didn’t come back.

Annie is still here, thank God, but her time will come, too.

Living alone is not for sissies. A great deal has been made of living solo since the pandemic hit, but the truth is some of us were already doing it for a long time before that. Today, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 35.7 million Americans live alone, 28% of households. That is up from 13% of households in 1960 and 23% in 1980.

Living alone is both wonderful and terrible. Wonderful for the freedom to eat, watch or do whatever you want. Terrible because there’s no one to hug, to talk to, or to help when the plumbing goes awry or a tree falls on the house. And yes, the pandemic makes it worse because all those social things we might do to plug the holes—clubs, choirs, gyms, yoga, concerts, meals, parties, classes, etc.–are not available. Nor does it feel safe to travel these days. I guess that’s why so many of my poet friends are writing about the birds and flowers in their yards.

Here on the blog, I’m going to be writing more about living alone because that’s what’s on my mind. I’m in the early stages of writing a book about it. If you who are reading this are also alone and would like to talk about it, feel free to email me at sufalick@gmail.com or start the discussion in the comments.

Many of us enjoy our solitude and are not necessarily lonely. But there are times when it gets tough. If you are not alone, think for a moment about what’s it’s like to see no other human being 24 hours a day. Experts say loneliness can be as bad for one’s health as smoking. It can lead to all kinds of health problems and cut years off one’s life. We’ll talk about that in another post. Meanwhile, if you know someone living alone and haven’t talked to them in a while, how about making a phone call?

Today I’ll be remembering Fred. He was the best thing that ever happened to me. He was smart, handsome, funny, loving, and just plain good. He treated me like a princess. In return, I did the best I could to love my prince, especially during his long illness. We had love. We were blessed. Rest in peace, dear Fred. We all miss you. I bought a good bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, which I will open tomorrow night. I wish you were here to share it.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Bad Pie: Baking Therapy Goes Awry

I don’t do pies. As a fussy child, I wouldn’t eat them at all. Something about the hardness of the crust and the softness of the insides. I grew out of that. Sort of. Given a choice, I will always choose cake. But these days, with so much time alone at home, sometimes I stop working, turn off Netflix and my online puzzles, and bake. I had purchased a box of prefab crust on a whim, and I had all these apples I had intended to eat for snacks, but I had eaten chocolate chip cookies instead, so . . . Below is the result, which led to deciding “Bad Pie” was a great title for a poem.

BTW, if I have to eat pie, I prefer marionberry or chocolate creme. How about you?

Bad Pie

I don’t know why I bought the boxed pie crust.
Seeking something different, I guess. I don’t
usually make pies. I’m more of a bread baker.
The box sat in the fridge for weeks while
the apples sagged a little more each day until
I decided to combine the two for breakfast.
How different is pie than a turnover, fritter
or coffee cake? It’s all pastry dough and fruit.

I dug deep in the cupboard for the Pyrex pan,
lay the box on its side to read the recipe:
Perfect Apple Pie. Surely Pillsbury knows.
Unroll the chilled crust and press it down flat.
Peel and slice the apples. Peel? What for?
Apple slices, granulated sugar, cinnamon,
nutmeg. Mix, spoon it into the crust. Gently
unroll the cover, fold and flute the edges.

Cut air holes. It’s an apple work of art.
Bake 40 to 45 minutes, stopping at 15
to shield the rim with foil. But the foil
keeps slipping off, and hot apple goo
bubbles through the holes, burning
my fingers. Still, inhale that luscious scent.
Do you smell that, I ask the dog. 
She’s licking the carpet, God knows why.

The table is set, the pie sufficiently cooled.
Hot tea steeping, I cut me a giant slice,
plunge in my fork. The apple spits out
of the burnt crust, its consistency
like the box it came in, the one with the
Perfect Apple Pie recipe. The peels,
separated from the fruit, stick to my teeth.
I should have made banana bread.

What did I do wrong? I pressed, sliced,
mixed, spooned, unrolled, and fluted.
I failed at foiling, I should have peeled,
but still . . . Now I have to eat this pie. 
I bought the crust, used all my apples.
I have no one to share it, thank the Lord.
They’d choke. I’m not a fan of apple pie.
But I eat it. An apple a day and all that. 

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Sometimes You Just Need More Hands

It sat in a bag on the floor of my garage for years, along with six bags of sand. After our Writers on the Edge group folded four years ago, as the last writer standing, I inherited this folding booth we bought to sell books at the Farmer’s Market. Get it out of my garage, said the woman who used it last. So I moved it to mine.

The bag looks like a golf bag, even has wheels, which is reasonable because the dang thing weighs more than my 75-pound dog.

One day while cleaning my garage during the COVID shutdown, I decided to take it out and set it up in my back yard. It would be fun to sit under the canopy enjoying the shade on a hot summer day.

This turned out to be another thing that’s nearly impossible to do alone, especially with my exceptional mechanical ability. It took me two days to set up my tent. Plus an extra trip to the chiropractor. I’m still celebrating replacing the spark plug in my lawnmower. I have a broken window blind hanging catawampus and a kitchen cabinet door also hanging awry. I ordered new curtains yesterday. Screwdriver in hand, I stared at the cabinet door for a while and decided I’d better call a professional.

But okay. Setting up this booth couldn’t be that hard. Other writers did it. I slid it out. White legs, blue cloth top. I carried it out to the far reaches of the lawn while the dog watched, curious about what her crazy housemate was up to now.

One two three four legs on the grass. Great, now push and lift and . . . nothing. There must be a trick. Were there instructions in the bag? No. Wait. A sticker on one white pipe said, “To open, hold and lift here.” I held, I lifted. Nothing moved, except maybe the beginning of a hernia. I pushed, I pulled. I raised the legs. I lowered the legs. I turned the whole thing sideways and upside down. It remained about four feet by four feet and about up to my neck as the cloth top flapped in the breeze.

Sweating, I ran in to trade my sweatshirt for a tank top and to check YouTube for instructions. They were there. YouTube has everything. So here’s these two guys in khaki pants and polo shirts, one on each side. They pull apart, lift up, and bazinga, there’s your booth. Apparently, this requires two people.

BUT I found another video for how to do it alone. Here we go. This guy put the booth up in his patio. He kept saying it would be easier with two people, but he seemed to have no problem. Legs, legs, legs, legs, get underneath, push, fasten down your canopy, and bazinga, here’s your booth.

Okay. I went outside, tried to get underneath. Lifted, pushed. Nothing moved.

I kept having this fantasy of someone showing up at my gate. They’d call, “Yoo-hoo!” and I’d answer “yoo-hoo!” back and invite them to help. We’d get it up, so to speak, in a jiffy, then sit in the shade on my plastic chairs, sipping iced tea or beer, whichever suited my helper.

It’s very quiet out here in the woods. Visitors are unlikely during these COVID times. I saw nobody but the dog, a butterfly and assorted bees. I surrendered. I toppled the structure, stuffed it back into the golf bag and shoved it under the table on my deck.

Meanwhile, I got my clippers and my leather gloves, forced open the stuck gate the gardeners had somehow forced open the other day and started clipping bushes like a madwoman, tossing vines onto the dog hovering nearby. She refused to move. Gosh, I was best entertainment she’d had in weeks. Somewhere under 20 years of wild growth was a raised garden bed bounded by yellow-painted brick. When we first moved in, I grew strawberries there and tried to grow vegetables—they were eaten by critters. Maybe I could try again. I was feeling the urge to garden.

Something bit my arm. Something snagged my leggings. I knew it was ridiculous trying to push back the forest. I didn’t care. I needed to accomplish something, preferably outside, away from the Zoomputer. When the compost cart was full and I could see a nice clear patch of dirt and enough brick to sit on, I decided to take a break. I couldn’t get the gate to latch so I stole a green bungee cord from the golf bag and wrapped it tight around the posts. Then I lay on the cool grass with the dog. It felt so good I considered staying there forever—or until winter, whichever came first.

How did you spend your Sunday?

 

Zooming in on What We’re Not Supposed to See 

“Zoom” used to mean fast fast airplanes and fast cars, that noise kids make while moving their toy vehicles across the floor. Zoom, zoom!

“Zoom” also signifies making things closer, like I just did so my old eyes could read what I’m typing.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “zoom” thus:  

1. a: to move with a loud low hum or buzz

    bto go speedily: ZIP cars zooming by on the highway

a: of an airplane: to climb for a short time at an angle greater than that which can be maintained in steady flight so that the machine is carried upward at the expense of stored kinetic energy

3. ato focus a camera or microscope on an object using a zoom lens so that the object’s apparent distance from the observer changes—often used with in or out

bFOCUSZERO: used with in trying to zoom in on the cause of these problems

4to increase sharply: retail sales zoomed

It’s fun to say. Say it with me. Zoom!

But these days, to Zoom means to attend a meeting from home via the Zoom app on your computer, tablet or phone. The other people see you, you see them arrayed in boxes like a photo gallery (or the old Hollywood Squares TV game show), and you talk. It’s not normal or natural, but it’s better than not meeting at all. No driving, no social isolation, no masks.

So where did this kind of zoom come from? San Jose, like me.

Wikipedia says Zoom Video Communications was founded in 2011 by Eric Yuan, a former Cisco VP who launched his meeting software in 2013. (To read more about Eric Yuan and the origin of the Zoom app, click here.) No surprise, Zoom has made tons of money, especially since the pandemic hit. I mean, who isn’t using Zoom for business, hobbies, or family connections? My brother uses it in the courtroom. My friend Karen Zooms with the family. Our church Zooms for Bible study. Students of all ages are taking classes via Zoom.  We are Zoomin’ all over the place.

Among my old film-camera gear gathering dust, I have a zoom lens, a long lens that lets the photographer get up really close. Think spies and sleuths watching people from their cars or from behind a fence. Or birdwatchers getting pictures of that tiny red-headed finch. Or a portrait photographer getting so close you can see the pores in the subject’s skin.

That’s a little too close. But you know what? That’s how close we’re getting on the computer version of Zoom.

Zoom allows us to stare at people in a way that would be rude in real life. Often facing each other’s faces for an hour or more, it’s hard not to notice every little thing—glasses, freckles, hairdos, is that a zit? I caught glimpses of myself last night as I watched a recorded Zoom meeting. Good Lord, the wrinkles, the bad hair. What was I thinking when I chose that blouse? And then I sneezed. Online. And blew my nose. Gross. The only consolation is that everybody else looks just as bad.

Members of Willamette Writers, Oregon’s statewide writing group for which I co-chair the coast branch, met the other night to prepare for our upcoming conference, July 31-Aug. 2. (Usually in Portland, it will be all online via, you guessed it, Zoom. It should be amazing. Read details at the website and consider attending.) We discussed backgrounds and lighting. You need a plain background, a light that shines on your face, and the camera slightly elevated for a more flattering view. You need to turn off the phones, background noises, kids and dogs. In other words, you need to recreate a TV set in your own home.

I Zoom from all over my house, as well as out in the yard. I’m still seeking the ideal spot where I’m comfortable and can see and be seen. The other morning, I thought the trees were a fabulous backdrop, but I was told I needed to turn around so the sun was shining directly on my face. Then I couldn’t see the computer. It might work on a foggy day like today, but it’s too cold.

I’ve Zoomed in my office, Fred’s old office, the living room, and the kitchen. The other night, caught in a tight schedule, I did an impromptu cooking show as I made my dinner while Zooming. I have not yet Zoomed from my bedroom, but it could happen.

I’m loving this chance to peek into homes I will probably never see in person. It’s like someone stripped away the walls to show us what’s inside. I see pictures, trophies, plaques, and books. I see desks that make me jealous. I see doors and wonder what’s on the other side. I catch glimpses of cats, dogs, spouses, and children.

Again, I’m staring. If we were meeting in person, the homeowner would probably ask, “What are you looking at?” They might be embarrassed that that ratty old chair is what caught my attention or that I’m reading the titles of the books stacked on their desk. I’m a writer. I’m nosy. I’m looking at all these “settings” and getting ideas.

I’m typing in my den right now. If someone caught me on the Zoom camera, they’d see no makeup, uncombed hair, and that behind me on my chair are pants that I washed yesterday but haven’t gotten around to hanging up yet. They’d see the out-of-control plant that still has two Christmas ornaments on it because I didn’t notice them before I put the boxes away. They’d see a huge fog-softened spruce tree out the window. They’d see me, my life. In all this COVID-19 isolation, I admit that I want to be seen, wrinkles and all.

How is the Zoom world going for you? Love it? Hate it? Have you found the ideal Zoom location? Have you given in to the temptation of buying a Zoom light or tripod? Do you have a most embarrassing Zoom moment to share?

 

 

 

 

 

Isolation leads to trip down memory lane

What did you do for Easter? Bet you didn’t go far from home. Me either. The highlight of my day? I cleaned out the cabinet in the hall bathroom, something I may not have done for, oh, a decade or longer. It was like opening a time capsule.

It’s a deep cabinet, not the one just under the sink but beside it, two shelves down low so you have to half lie on the floor to get the stuff out, which explains why I hadn’t cleaned it out in a long time. I can GET DOWN, but I don’t want to get down on the bathroom floor. It was time. Things were falling out when I opened the doors, and I had no idea what in there. Tired of staring at my computer screen, I had just enough sunshine, caffeine and Easter chocolate in me to tackle the job.

Out tumbled years of memories, stuff I don’t know why I kept, and things I didn’t know I had. For example:

  • A steamer! I had totally forgotten I had it. I first used steamers during college when I worked at the uniform shop at the old Valley Fair shopping center. We sold uniforms for nurses, waitresses, and other professionals. Remember when nurses all wore white dresses? One of my jobs was to steam out the creases in the newly arrived uniforms. The steamer worked so well I bought myself one to use on the gowns I wore to sing with the Valley Chorale for 14 years back in San Jose. Gowns, crystal earrings, jeweled sandals, makeup . . . I felt so gorgeous in those days.
  • Three boxes of hair ornaments from when I had long flowing dark-brown hair. I found barrettes, clips, and scrunchies, pretty things that make me want to grow my hair long again, even though I think it looks better short. Maybe it will happen. With all the beauty salons closed, my hair is already growing out of shape. I could go through the awkward phase while we’re in isolation. Maybe I’ll even give myself a home perm. Looks bad? Who’s going to see it?
  • Nail kits of various sorts, including free ones from a charity for the blind and the worn leather case of tools that Mom used on us when we were kids. I brought it home after Dad died last summer. I remember sitting on the side of the bed while she cut my tiny nails. She often cut them too close, and it hurt, but a lifetime later, I learned while cutting my husband’s nails at the nursing home that it isn’t easy cutting someone else’s nails short but not too short.
  • Suntan lotion galore. I confess I rarely remember to use it until my skin turns pink.
  • Two wrist braces from my various sprains and strains. I had wondered what happened to them. Annie, age 12, and her brother Chico (no longer with us) were headstrong adolescent dogs when they knocked me over on the concrete out back and I landed on my right hand. I had planned to take Chico to the Blessing of the Animals at church. I went to the ER instead. I have learned that if a dog is coming at you like a speeding freight train, get out of the way.
  • A full bottle of hydrogen peroxide, a can of Off! bug spray, and a can of Wizard air freshener, gardenia scent.
  • Several wrapped toothbrushes, a half dozen travel-size tubes of Crest toothpaste too hard to squeeze, and several dozen of those floss-on-a-stick things that Fred liked to use. Stocking stuffers?
  • Enough disposable razors to keep me smooth till I die at 105 and some blades that go with razors that disappeared long ago.
  • Two zipper bags with eye drops and “fit-over” sunglasses from my two cataract surgeries in 2010 and 2011. One eye was done before Fred died April 23, 2011, the other after.
  • An expired night light. When my late husband Fred was ill with Alzheimer’s, he got lost at night looking for the bathroom. Nightlights helped. I also have more recent memories of my father’s house, which was lit up like a football stadium at night. The light didn’t bother him, and during those last awful nights at his house when I was up and down giving him pain pills and answering his calls for help, they were useful. But I tossed this one in the trash. It’s just me now, and I like it dark.
  • A big basket of gauze, tape, bandages, and ointments left over from various injuries. Dad kept a similar basket of first aid gear on the dresser. Because he was taking blood thinners and his skin was like tissue paper, the slightest cut bled like crazy and required serious bandaging. His arms were covered with half-healed cuts. So far, I have been lucky and haven’t needed these things, but you never know.
  • Blow dryer, curling iron, a dozen attachments I have no idea how to use.
  • Hotel soaps from trips all the way back to our visit to Portugal 30 years ago.
  • A Styrofoam pipe cover with chew marks from when my puppies got hold of it at least a decade ago.
  • A face mask, probably purchased to help with my allergies to pollen, dust, fur, feathers, various fabrics, and oh, just about everything. I already have a beautiful cloth mask a friend made for me, but now I have options.

I filled a garbage bag with the throwaways, moved some items to more appropriate locations, and slid the rest back in with room to spare. We’ll see what’s there in 2030.

Meanwhile, Jesus is risen, and I’m off the floor. Hallelujah.

How did you spend your Easter Sunday in this strange, strange year?

Amid virus fears, we find new ways to reach out

St. Anthony faces

I lay in bed this morning long after I should have gotten up, listening to the news on NPR. Coronavirus, coronavirus, coronavirus. People dying, economy crashing, not enough medical equipment . . . Yikes. This morning, my Yahoo news feed led with “worldwide death toll more than 15,000. Dear God.

Yet I look out my office window and see the same trees and the same sky I see every day. I see my tulips and daffodils blooming in a riot of red, yellow and peach. I see a family of robins pecking at the lawn, which has grown lush and mossy from winter rain. Inside, it’s quiet except for the hum of the gas fireplace pouring out orange heat. My dog Annie dozes on the love seat. I’m not quite dressed yet, but there’s nothing unusual about that either. I have all day, no appointments, nowhere I have to go. If I stayed disconnected from the media, I would not know this was anything but another beautiful Oregon coast spring.

We have not been hit as hard here as other places, not yet. As of this morning, Monday, March 23, we have 161 known cases of the virus and five deaths in Oregon. But everyone knows these numbers are going to go up, way up. No one has tested positive here in Lincoln County, but very few people have been tested at all.

To the dismay of those Oregon coast folks trying so hard to stay apart from others, tourists, mostly young people, have come to the beach in droves, seemingly ignoring all the pleas to stay home and “shelter in place.” Some of the beaches up north have blocked access. Gov. Kate Brown is expected to close all the state parks today, on the premise that if they have nowhere to go, the visitors will go home. But that means we who live here can’t go to the parks either, and that hurts.

While I’m somewhat used to being alone, many are having a hard time with the isolation. My friend Bill is one of countless numbers who live in an assisted living facility, nursing home, etc. The residents are confined to their rooms. They are not allowed to go out, and visitors can’t come in. Their meals are left outside their doors. Sounds like prison to me. And yet, because they are the most likely to die if they get this virus, what choice is there?

Many folks who are not used to staying home are already experiencing cabin fever. I’ve got to admit I’m better equipped for this than my friends and relatives who are always on the go. Most days, I’m here by myself anyway. I’m just sticking to my routine—write until about 3:00, walk the dog, do chores, play music, watch TV. Same old, same old, except I can’t go out to lunch, and God knows I do love to go out to lunch.

Last week, I wrote this cheery post about surviving at home alone. Well, proving I’m human, that night I was singing a different tune when I got word that all of the Catholic churches in western Oregon were closed. No more Masses, potlucks, meetings, or Stations of the Cross. We wouldn’t even celebrate Easter together. I cried like somebody had died and then posted on Facebook about how lonely and miserable I was. My church was not only my spiritual home but my main social outlet.

But there’s good news in all of this. In response to my Facebook post, friends called and texted, and we connected more than we ever had before. Paying it back, I have been phone-visiting people, especially people I know are home alone, and we have had great talks. I’m experiencing more human connection than usual. I wish this virus had never happened, but I do see some good things coming out of it. I urge you to reach out by phone, email, letter, Facebook or whatever.

As for church, Fr. Joseph Hoang, our pastor at St. Anthony’s in Waldport decided he would videotape weekly Masses. Three of us did music for the first one. “Red” was altar server while his mom “Ice” operated the camera. We taped photos of the parishioners on the pews so we all felt less alone and Fr. Joseph had someone to preach to. I think we all got nervous with the camera on us, but it was wonderful.

Yesterday, I found countless church services online. I could “go to church” all day long. As it was, I attended two Catholic Masses and dropped in for parts of Lutheran and Baptist services. As the Internet keeps going, the possibilities for new types of connection are unlimited. What a gift. Back in the flu epidemic a hundred years ago, people were truly isolated. No TV, no Internet. Many didn’t have telephones yet. At best, they could write a letter or a send a telegram.

I worry about the same things as everyone else. How long will this go on? Will we not be able to get food and other necessities? Will people turn on each other? Will we break the Internet with everyone trying to work and go to school online? How many businesses will fold, and how many people will lose everything? More important, how many people will get sick and how many will die? Will it hit my loved ones? Will there not be enough doctors and nurses to help them? Will I get it?

Just a few weeks ago, we were living normal lives, and the news was all about Democrats and Republicans. My advice from last week stands. Turn off the TV, radio and Internet as much as you can. Connect with each other as much as possible. Get outside in nature. Find a project to pass the time. Pray. It will be over someday. Only God knows when, but it will.

How are you doing in this crazy time? Feel free to share in the comments.