This is how the day begins: Mary and I get up to brush our teeth and dress, and Lucy remains sprawled at the foot of the bed, watching us, lounging. I might walk over and give her ears a scratch. Then she stands up on the bed, does a quick downward dog and hops down to the floor. I stretch, she stretches again — down in front, down in back. She may lie down on the floor and I’ll rub my foot along her spine, in response to which she will stretch her legs out, curve her back a bit and groan with pleasure.

She retrieves her dark blue stuffed octopus, plops it at Mary’s feet and sits, ready to play. We toss it around the bedroom for a bit and she leaps after it, always bringing it back to us. Eventually I kick the octopus out the bedroom door onto the third floor landing; she runs out and grabs it, gnaws on it some then lets it go, because she knows what’s next. I boot it down one flight of stairs, and Lucy hurls herself down the steps to retrieve it. She waits at the next landing for me to come down and boot the thing to the second floor, and off she tumbles again. Eventually she winds up down on the first floor and waits.

When I trod downstairs and grab her harness, she bolts to the other side of the couch and our next game begins. “Iiiiiii’m gonna getcha!” I say, and I start chasing her around the couch, now this way, now that. If I crouch down, hands spread in front of me, she’ll play growl and keep running from me. Eventually she will bolt across the room and into Mary’s office — ollie ollie enfree! — then turn and slowly walk back out so I can put on her harness. “You win, Lucy! You win!”

I strap on her harness, put on my shoes and a jacket, grab a couple poop bags and a training clicker (just in case, though I no longer need it with her). I fasten her leash and we march out the door. As soon as I close the door I let the leash go, and Lucy bounds around the corner of the house and down the driveway. I jog after her and call out, “Wait,” but halfway down the driveway, she has already stopped, and is waiting for me. Unless a squirrel pops up, and then she is off on the chase.

I grab the leash and off we go down Saddle Hill Drive, Lucy running and pulling me into a jog at the end of the leash; I can’t go far, knees are a little dicey, but I give her a couple dozen steps and she slows down to a quick trot. It’s my morning exercise, getting my heart pumping and warming me up when it’s cold outside. We stroll a quarter mile over and down the hill almost to Rte. 80, where she sniffs around and finds her spot.

Or, she pulls me up onto a grassy area just down the street, below a wooded hillside, sniffing toward the woods and pulling at the lead; I get the signal. I unclick the leash and she’s off, running into the trees, roaming back and forth until she finds her spot. Then if I grab a stick, she’s all game to fetch it, and runs into the woods again and gnaw on it.

Or, Lucy balks just around the corner: She stops and stands, and no amount of tugging induces her to continue; she is done. The walk is every day, rain or shine, but the way it plays out is up to her. I reach down and give her ears a scratch and say, “OK, let’s go home,” and she leads me across the street and along the other side toward our driveway. At our lawn, I let her loose again, and she runs around investigating whatever it is dogs are looking for. I stop at the end of the driveway and reach down for the morning paper; Lucy’s already there, pouncing on it. “Hey hey,” I say, and she backs off and sits. I grab the paper and give it to her; she grabs it with her mouth, and as I call out “Paper!” she runs it up the driveway, around the corner to the back door. If I’m slow coming up the driveway, she runs back, paper still in her jaws, as if to make sure I’m still coming. Inside, she runs around the entry hall and I tell her, “Bring the paper to Mary!” And she bolts up the spiral stairway to the kitchen. She looks for Mary wherever she might be and drops the paper, knowing that Mary’s “Good paper!” means a treat’s in store.

I sit and sometimes with a grunt, untie my shoes. Lucy by now is back down and dropping the octopus at my feet, ready to play. I’m warmed from the walk, heart up to speed now, feeling good. I grab the toy from her and make a few tosses, and Lucy does Scooby-Do slip-slides across the tiles. If I stand and take a breath, just holding the octopus, she sits and waits for the throw. When I’m done, she takes her toy to the same corner by the bookshelf and lies down, the octopus between her front paws.

I walk up to the kitchen for coffee. As soon as I get Lucy’s food out and start rinsing her dishes, she’s up the stairs again, drops her toy beneath the dining room table, another hangout, and comes into the kitchen. I make her sit and stay. I put the food and water dishes down and say “Free,” and she’s on it. Mary and I hang out at the counter reading the paper and talking. When Lucy’s done with her meal she hops onto the small kitchen couch (the left side, always, by the orange pillow), cleans herself and curls up, head canted at an angle by the pillow, and settles in.

I put all this in the present tense because I don’t want to accept that it’s over. All that seemingly banal detail is just to point out that by contrast, my morning now is: get up, stretch, wash up, dress, walk down to the kitchen, put coffee on, head down the driveway to grab the newspaper. When I return, there is no one bothering me to play as I take my shoes off and plod back up to the kitchen. The degree to which a well-loved dog can insinuate herself into the minutes of your waking day — convince you to play and exercise and otherwise do her bidding — is remarkable.

There’s more to it: how intimately, and happily, Lucy was a part of my morning, and our lives, and how it shaped OUR day, our moods, our interactions. We almost took it for granted; not now of course.

We put Lucy to sleep late on a Friday afternoon, March 11. She was 6. She died from a viciously fast and resistant bacterial infection (pasteurella necrotizing fasciitis or something — a flesh eating bacteria that attacks the layer under the skin). The Friday before I took her out on a hike at Bittner Park, and she was her usual happy self, trotting down the path ahead of me, checking out the smells, dipping her paws into the stream there to lap up a quick drink of cold water.

By the next Friday she was so sick, suffering from this infection, that we had no choice but to have the vet put her down.

The details are really only important to Mary and me. They’re etched in our minds and evoke our grief. They mark the transition from happy-go-lucky us to the searing pain Lucy must have felt, and the palpable heartbreak we felt looking at her looking at us with her lovely brown eyes, wanting help, wanting to help, feeling such love both ways and yet unable to do anything about it.

We first took her to the hospital Saturday night, when she had trouble walking. Diagnosis: a pulled muscle. We gave her painkillers and rest. But late Monday night, when we still thought she might just have pulled a muscle, she began relentlessly licking her belly, which had a purple bruise on it. She was on the floor in the bedroom, next to the bed; at one point, she started to whimper, and even in my half-sleep I knew it was bad. By Tuesday morning she had licked her wound raw, and we took her right back to the hospital. That’s when we found out just how bad it was: They shaved her belly and leg and we could see all the bruising now, and the vet realized what was going on with the infection; though, we had our hopes up she could be treated with antibiotics and other therapies.

The look from this dog, oy: “I want to do what I’m supposed to do as your pup; but I’m also hurting and I need you to see it and what can we do?”

Through Thursday Mary and I were living in limbo: Talking to the vets, who kept saying what a great pup Lucy was, stoic and cooperative. We tried to stay upbeat. Friday morning a new vet called and said they wanted Lucy transferred to a different hospital so she could get treatment in a hyperbaric chamber. We drove down to pick her up for the move. She walked out to the car with us, and a vet tech helped us lift her into the back seat.

Not long after we got home from dropping her off in North Haven, the vet there called and said her heart had stopped. This put us into complete shock. Did we want to try to revive her? Yes of course was the answer — at least so we can reassess what’s going on. We spent the next 20 minutes sobbing. The vet called back: Lucy was back and breathing on her own; but we needed to consider what comes next. If she survived the next 24 hours, a huge IF, she might have a chance to beat the infection, but it would have destroyed a lot of her skin and meant a long process of healing, skin grafts, pain meds — all very dicey and painful. We took a walk down the street to process this. But the outcome seemed clear now.

So on Friday afternoon we drove back to the hospital in North Haven and they brought her out to a room so we could sit with her for a while. We took off her plastic head cone; she still had an IV tube in her paw, for the injections to come. Mary held her in her lap and tried to soothe her in ways I found uncanny. She talked about her going to see her Dad and their old dog Bronx, and I am starting to cry all over again just recalling this.

I paced the room and could not speak; I broke down every time I tried to utter a word. I barely got out a goodbye, Lucy, dear pup. We were both in tears. At the end of any day, Lucy would hop onto the bed, approach the head and sit and stare at us for a bit. Then Mary would give her a hug and she’d give Mary a lick in the face, then settle down by our feet for the night with a sigh. And now, as Mary held her, Lucy reached up and took a lick at Mary’s face, somehow in those last minutes finding a way to try to comfort Mary.

I have been here and there before with grief: Shocked, numbed, overcome with sadness, feeling the real physical ache in my heart. I find grief to be both about the specific loss at hand: Lucy, Ted, Joan, Connie, Delsie… but also an accumulation of loss, a kind of universe of grief that encompasses the fleeting nature of life, the inevitability of suffering, the broad sadness of the world — and at the same time the most intimate splinters of pain from a personal loss.

With Lucy there were none of the complications of a human relationship. It was pure friendship, joy, play, affection, and a willing obligation to care for each other in whatever ways we could. We’ll get another dog, for sure. Won’t be the same. So long, Lucy, and enjoy the next life.

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Reality Check on the 2020 Election

What are we to say about the events in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021?

I don’t want to talk to the guy adorned in fur and buffalo horns who fancies himself the “Q Shaman,” or the angry cracker from Arkansas who took a selfie perched in Pelosi’s office. Or the people smashing poles through the doors and windows of the Capitol and parading around with vandalized parts of our democracy. Let the FBI and the cops deal with them.

I DO want to talk to most of the people who voted for Trump this past year. And to the GOP officials who have enabled this chaos. I have no argument with your vote — it’s for you to decide, as is mine. You are welcome to your politics. We are allowed to disagree about policy. This isn’t about policies, right or left, big government or small. We’ll always be discussing that stuff, trying to figure out what works. That’s how we work. We elect a Democrat, we elect a Republican, we keep moving on. And that is politics, which is NOT a dirty word, just a messy business.

But I do want to talk about news, and information, and where we get it. Because if you think the election was stolen, you’re misinformed. You’ve been lied to. You are wrong, sorry, but the evidence just doesn’t back that whole “Stop the Steal” up.

How do I know this and not the contrary?

Because I listen to reliable sources. People who put their name to what they say. People who deal with facts and data, not just opinion and innuendo. Who are willing to test those facts and that data.

I want to rely on reporters (and others) who are present in the moment and actually SEE what is happening. Who say who they’ve talked to, and where they got their information. Who ask questions and think carefully about what they see and hear. And who do not look for answers by blaming some imagined “they” and imagining wild conspiracies.

When I hear a guest on a news show — and I mean a NEWS show, not Hannity/Maddow/Younameit Talking Opinion Head — if they make an assertion, I want someone to question it, or some other guest to offer another viewpoint. And I want some context — again, why do you think that? What’s your opinion or analysis grounded on?

Take this one: “It could be true, I don’t know if it is but people say…” Or: “We all know that such-and-such is true…” I would ask, what people? Who says that? What’s it based on? Is it a rumor? How do we KNOW that? On what basis would you believe it? Is it convincing in itself, or do you believe it because it just confirms what you already believe?

The facts tell us there is no widespread electron fraud. It’s a myth, perpetuated by some politicians and others for years now to serve whatever mission they’re on. But the facts don’t bear it out. That’s according to election officials from both parties, impartial observers, studies of elections and voting, and lots of court cases. Beyond an occasional bum ballot, there’s no “widespread” fraud.

If you believe DJT won by a landslide and had the election “stolen” from him, then my vote and 81 million or so others don’t count. Then thousands of people across the country — election officials, judges, poll watchers and other people who actually pay attention to what’s going on (instead of just imagining what’s going on) — are involved in some impossibly elaborate conspiracy to deprive you of your political rights.

For example: Do you think more people were counted as voting than actually are registered to vote? That contention is based on outdated numbers and did not reflect reality on election day 2020. It’s pretty easy to debunk that claim, if you care to look at a reliable news source (like Reuters News Service). But, you say, that’s the fake news / mainstream media! OK, so check their sources. And if the sources are all a part of your “conspiracy” to steal the election, then you’ll have to ask yourself, are the elections officials (from BOTH parties) who tally these counts in 15 or so different states ALL in cahoots?

This is where skepticism and accuracy count: If you look at the facts — like, WHEN were those registration numbers tallied? — you will see the problem. If you don’t ask these kinds of questions, which a well-intentioned journalist usually does, then you’re just looking to confirm what you already believe. Even if what you already believe is untrue.

Or the lie about how the vote changed overnight. It changed because the people in various states charged with counting the ballots kept counting the ballots — legitimate ballots. Many of them mailed-in ballots.

A lot of people mailed in their vote. Why? They were worried about contracting Covid (which is not a hoax; ask the families of the 400,000 who have died, or the hospital nurse down the block from you). Those people leaned Democratic, because Trump and his cohort were telling you not to worry about Covid, and that mail voting would be fraudulent. It wasn’t, and when the votes were counted, the election swung the other way.

Does a “stolen election” actually make sense to you? Do you actually believe that something becomes true just because someone says it’s so? Because Trump, who has demonstrably lied thousands of times to us, says it’s so? Because some person just spouting their opinions says so? Or because a mysterious online person anonymously dubbed “Q” says so?

Is it so hard for you to step back from your anger and ask yourself, “Does this really make sense? Or am I just repeating a slogan because it feels good?” (This test applies to any part of the political spectrum.) There is comfort in belonging to a group that feels it has the “inside” scoop. But if it’s all based on fantasy, misdirection, bad information and lies, you’re heading toward Jonestown, my friend. Or, perhaps, a shirtless guy dressed in a buffalo hat with his face painted red, white and blue invading the U.S. Capitol, armed with a spear.

It is indeed “our house.” All 331 million of us. Not just the guys in camo with guns and Trump signs. That’s why we have elected representatives, to help sort out our differences.

One congressman who spoke to the crowd outside the White House on Jan. 6 characterized those of us who disagree with the president (or just with him) as “anti-Christian Socialists.”

Really? And everyone who voted for Trump is a racist/facist whatever?

I voted for Biden. I’m not a socialist, nor anti-Christian. I’m a moderate, leaning a bit left of center. But if I WAS a socialist and NOT a Christian, would that matter? I get to live here, too, this is my country, too. The Bill of Rights and plenty of other foundational sources will back me up on that. So yeah, I’m not treading on you; don’t tread on me, either.

I am not alone in my fear for the consequences of denying the results of the 2020 election. We have seen where it leads, and it’s clear there is a continuing threat of civil unrest.

We know Joe Biden won, and we know it was a fair and free election. But some large portion of our people have been persistently misled by some of our leaders. The charges of voter fraud are a lie: There has been no widespread fraud; most people in the country know it, and the Republicans in Congress know it, too.

Obviously a small and noisy slice of the populace, whether because they have been misled or for their own reasons, is willing to commit violence to get their way. Their position is based on lies spread by the president and many members of his party, among others. The effort to challenge the Electoral College votes was a cynical ploy that perpetuates the lie.

The Republican Party and its leadership need to stop this deception, and censor your own who encourage these falsehoods and stoke the fevers that are leading to armed rebellion. You need to stand up to extremists and live by the foundational principals of this nation. Catering to the whims of a self-absorbed and unstable president has done enough damage. Please, look into your hearts, and find the courage to stand up and speak the truth to the American people.

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Remote Connections


A niece who teaches in public schools in Minneapolis/St. Paul has about a week to nail down how she will handle her 150 high school students remotely, with no classroom and no schedule. And, she asks, are they really all that interested in French anyway? Some have taken jobs to help support their families as their parents get laid off. Some look after younger siblings during the day. When can she connect with them live, and will they pay attention to their assignments?

Some students have been with her four years, and she is sad she may never see them again, now that in-person schooling has ended for the year, at least. She won’t get to say goodbye in person, give them a hug, encourage them on their way with a smile and her loving eyes. They won’t have a chance to stand up in front of the school and grab hold of that diploma to cheers from friends and family.

We surely will get over it, but still, chopping off all of these springtime rituals will have an effect, they count for something — an indelible memory of achievement, perhaps a little extra shove that helps some kids keep looking forward. I hope for their sake their communities find some way to acknowledge these rites of passage.

Meanwhile the term will resume in a few days. J is a fabulous teacher who loves the face-to-face interactions in the classroom. She’s not so great with new technology. How will she manage all these kids from afar? How will she schedule assignments and interactions when 150 kids are scattered and have such varying demands on their lives outside school? Many are immigrants, many of these Hmong, and they have extra challenges in language and culture. How will she know they’re listening? Can she Zoom it?

I know she’ll pull it off and worry restlessly about it the whole time.


Not enough masks: We all know that by now. Just thinking about a friend who’s a nurse practitioner at a private practice on the Monterey Peninsula. She gets one mask, an N95, normally intended for single use; now it’s one per provider. She’s down from seeing a dozen or more patients a day face-to-face to just a few, and the rest by phone and eventually video link. Her practice has set up an isolated area at one of their offices to evaluate all respiratory complaints needing further hands-on screening. (They’re not testing; that’s handled by the Community Hospital of Monterey in an isolation tent outside the ER.)

“I was fitted for [the mask] Thursday last. If any of you have ever had one – part of the fitting procedure is having a cone like mask over your head and moving around in different directions – could only think of The Cone Heads of SNL. Made me laugh. Trying to do a lot of laughing with colleagues. It helps. NOT ENOUGH MASKS.

“These are intended to be single use only. However, here one for each of us. Every 10 days an MD or NP/PA will rotate through the off-site respiratory triage area. We only each have one mask for the day and for each 10 days. This is the situation all over the country for now.”

She adds: “Hands: What manicure? So dry. Did I mention patients stealing hand sanitizer out of the exam room? So, just like you all – I am doing everything I can to protect myself, my patients and anyone else I may come in contact with.”

And: “This is an amazing time to be in practice as a health care provider/worker. This is an amazing time to be a human being. ‘Amazing’ can be interpreted in many ways. I expect to stay well.”


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What’s Essential?

I stopped in at the liquor shop down the street, run by a couple of young and entrepreneurial guys, who have transformed ya decent neighborhood package store into a more creative space where you can find many good wines from all over, small brewery beers and lots of boutique whiskeys/bourbon/etc. They have a couple of old oak barrels in the lane by the registers; people use them to put down goods while waiting in line. They’ve moved the barrels now so they nestle against the counter — to give a little more space between customers and the people behind the register.

As one guy was ringing up my six pack of beer, I asked if they were pleased that the governor classified their shop as “essential” in his new directive that put a lid on many other businesses. He said, No, actually, we’d rather be home. They have kids and elders who are vulnerable, and at work they come into contact with lots of us who might be carrying the c-virus. The sooner we separate, isolate the virus and deal with it, the better off everyone will be, including businesses, he said.

I thought that was a very heartfelt and thoughtful answer. Focused on the essential priorities. Sometimes hard to do in this age of micro attention spans.

It also makes me think about all those folks for whom home is no balm at all, if they even have one to go to. Those who are alone. Or for whom home life is difficult if not dangerous. Or where increasingly now bills are hard to pay and the enforced isolation turns up the volume on daily frictions.

A friend from New York City has retreated with her boyfriend to a house up the Hudson Valley. The boyfriend, divorced, shares custody of a young son, who now is coming up from the city to spend time with them. And she worries about whether the boy might be bringing the virus with him. That’s not ALL she feels, she worries about his health, too, of course, and they’re excited to have him come up. But with the city so overrun with this disease, how could she not be concerned?

Again, how can you not be on edge?

OK, so what’s essential in Connecticut? Turns out a lot of things you’d expect — shops selling food (restaurants can do takeout and delivery only); gas stations and auto repairs service; most all health care services, including medical marijuana dispensaries; law enforcement; homeless shelters and food banks; transportation, power and communications infrastructure; manufacturing suppliers; hardware suppliers and construction trades. Also farms and farm stands, nurseries, banks, legal services, insurance and real estate offices, child care, trash collection, news media, marine vessel maintenance… and billboard leasing. And gun shops. The list goes on. What else do we need? Yeah, masks and ventilators and fast, reliable tests for the virus would be nice.

Random question: What did we spend to print and mail out a card to every US household labeled “President Trump’s Coronavirus Guidelines for America”? Don’t we know all this stuff already from the endless hours of news coverage on TV, online, in print, from talking to neighbors? I suppose in some way it can help reinforce the basic message. But why is it HIS guidelines? It’s not his guidelines, it’s the CDC’s guidelines, probably. I am openly biased on this one, for sure. But I can’t imagine any other president personally branding this type of mailing.

Since the dawn of the TV age (at least) we’ve been bombarded by advertising — for generations now — and the lines between fact and fiction, story and promotion, art and branding, news and opinion, are so blurred, I wonder who among us can any longer see the difference? I know one guy who very obviously can’t.

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Flocking Together

Two of my nieces are sewing surgical masks to donate to a local hospital. A nephew in DC is responding to demands to pass along his mother-in-law’s recipe for bourbon balls; he’s been off work a week to help care for his newborn son, and returned to work the other day, remotely. Niece B is offering recipes for banana bread and carrot-ginger soup; she’s turned on her Christmas lights and dances on her apartment balcony at night.

I’m learning all this through a WhatsApp group set up by niece B, in South Beach; she is the oldest of that generation and has been inviting family members aboard. Like birds flocking to a feeder, they flew in from their outposts — St. Paul, San Jose, San Francisco, Utuado PR, Barrington RI, Illion NY — starved for something fresh to do, I suspect.

My sister-in-law, home in Puerto Rico where the aftermath of Hurricane Maria still stings, is so angry at both the Chinese authorities for their mendacity and Trump for his stupidity, she couldn’t finish an Atlantic article about it all posted by B. But she won’t be bothered with blame just now: “The history of this pandemic is being written as we speak and the virus doesn’t care whose fault it is.”

This brings to mind the idea that we are mostly anthro-centric — we think everything revolves around us, and what we do. D’s comment speaks to the truth around that — to questions like, did we domesticate dogs, or did they simply use us as a means to foster the species, and most successfully? Or, (with a nod to Michael Pollan), did we propagate across the globe apples from Central Asia and potatoes from South America, or did they cleverly use us as pawns in an evolutionary chess game?

Now, coronavirus is happily spreading around the globe, and many of us are redirecting our social lives online. All this Skyping and WhatsApping and Zooming is, we think, helping to slow the spread of the virus. Then again, like those creepy things in sci-fi horror flicks, the virus’s imperative is to live.

One sister of mine, living in a small town and well-connected into her community, bakes a cake every evening to take to a neighbor. (I hope she has a good stash of flour — the local market had none on the shelves yesterday.) In the mornings, she Skypes her grandchildren in Minneapolis, and they work on a book, a chapter each day. It began with a warthog growing angry at his toaster, because it kept burning his toast. So he threw it into the sky; the toaster flew all the way to Mars. The Martians liked the toaster because they like burned toast and use it to fly around on. A child’s imagination will not be confined.

Yesterday M and I watched via Zoom (instant celebrity platform) as our niece at Dartmouth gave a public presentation of her PhD thesis: in microbiology, about proteins and inflammation and Parkinson’s disease (which her mother’s mother had) — trying to understand how it all gets started, with a goal of making earlier diagnoses, and finding ways to treat it before the body’s functions start breaking down. Hardly understood a word but wow, she was impressive. To one side of the screen sat her committee; another panel showed K, and then her slide show of graphs and charts and photos of lab mice took over. After a break, she spent an hour and a half privately Zooming with her committee, answered their questions, and passed. Dr. K!

At 5:30 she invited friends and family to a Zoom party to toast her victory. The screen filled with images, from the East Coast to Honolulu, parents, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles and cousins, old family friends and old school chums. Seeing everyone so gathered, like the Brady Bunch or Hollywood Squares, made us chuckle; it also felt awkward as people chimed in, making their image pop up larger on the screen, then replaced by someone else uttering something, very staccato and not always intelligible. At a real party you talk to people one to one, one to two. Here you’re at a meeting and talk to the group, and somehow it’s harder to find something to say, even as you’re directing your comment at one or two people on the screen. It’s fun and social, but not intimate or conducive to thoughtful, deep conversation. Well-suited to cousin C, who has a knack for hilarious one-off comments. K ended the party by inviting us to get together again next Tuesday at 5:30. C: “So basically I’m now making a doctor’s appointment?”

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Alternative Reality

You don’t need to ingest mescaline or the like to experience altered reality, or alternative reality. We probably tend to resist it, but we’re here now, right? Why else would we expend all this effort to find comfort in some familiar things (a favorite movie or TV show, a book, music, a nap). A long hike in Westwoods the other day felt normal, and not: Out there it all looks just the same, paths well trod by us and many others, dog trotting down the trail in front, bird calls echoing through the still gray woods. We know the world out there has shifted quickly. The world we’re stepping through runs on a different clock.

The elegant granite outcrops sit unmoving, remnants of deep upheavals so, so much older than human memory, now exposed, cracked apart and etched by eons of change — freeze and thaw, the patter of rainwater, the breath of wind, glaciers growing and receding, something taking root, altered even by a coat of soft bright green moss. Atop one hill sits an erratic as big as a bus that has been split in two — it may have cracked open 10,000 years or so ago when the fading face of the ice sheet dropped it onto a hunk of bedrock. For a meager 26 years, I’ve watched a cedar grow inside that crack from sapling into adult, looking for all the world like a big sprout popping out of a granite nutshell.

A friend tells us about an encounter at the supermarket — she stood in line with someone who’d filled his cart with boxes of cereal and other goods, a big pile of stuff. She said, Well, you seem to have enough carbs there… Then he explained that he runs a food delivery service, and these things were for people either unable or afraid to go out on their own. His business is booming. And so yes, reality may not reveal itself on first glance.

Of course many people don’t need to spend much time considering this question of altered reality. They work in a hospital, a grocery store, a pharmacy, a restaurant now closed, some other job unsuited to plugging in a laptop and working from home. The public library, which offers via email many tips for online activity, is closed, the Cole Porter tribute concert this weekend evaporated — a minor thing but still, I wonder what Cole Porter would have to say. Don’t fence me in?

The virus has snipped threads of community life: the local book store and barbershops and nail salons; Metro Pooch, the dog boarding service down the street; Guilford Savings Bank (just drive through service). The guys due to come in and re-tile our shower hesitate, because they have small children at home. We can no longer walk into Maplewood, the assisted living place in Orange where M’s Mom sits in her lovely apartment, reading the paper, waiting for a phone call, waiting for an aide to bring a meal to her door or help her with some daily chore.

The other night we had our final (for now, of course) trip to a local restaurant, South Lane in Guilford. We got there early because as of 8 p.m., all such places had to shut down. Five or six people sat at a couple of tables; we two took seats at the bar. The young and cheery waitstaff were absent, already home and filing for unemployment insurance. Two cooks worked the kitchen — takeout orders provided extra work. They delivered food to table when needed. Our friend the owner handled the rest, which mostly was helping us and chatting across the bar about this new life we’re in. Kids at home, staff let go, she and her chief chef and husband were organizing to handle only takeout orders after this night, figuring out what to do with their daughters.

We went to show loyalty and support, and add a couple of drops into the bucket. It felt good to talk and empathize and commiserate, laugh a bit, and also worry about those less able to ride out the storm. Even as we turn our routines inward, we’re thinking about ways to sew things back together.

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Virus Diary – Day What?

Our friend told us that her cleaning person stole her only jar of hand sanitizer. The act seems both trivial and a razor cut to one’s faith in humanity. Certainly not the only example — threads of such tales unwind across social media: people swiping bottles off counters, running off with boxes of masks from a hospital, pushing a shopping cart filled with toilet paper or corn flakes or 1000 island dressing or a dozen gallons of milk, a woman grabbing every can of tomato sauce off a shelf while waiting customers stand by watching, people hoovering up supplies to resell them online at ridiculous prices. We could do a study of hand sanitizer episodes and see if we can draw any conclusions, aside from the obvious ones, about our fellow humans and their capacity for empathy. Of course, people are fearful, greedy, seeking the comforts of bountiful supplies and monetary gain.

We heard about the missing hand sanitizer from a close friend, at our next to last dinner out last week, in New Haven at a Thai restaurant, September in Bangkok. The place is modern, spacious and very clean; the waitresses wore blue rubber gloves as they wiped down tables after customers left. People were still venturing out, so there were maybe 20 customers; the servers, who all appeared to be young Thai or at least Southeast Asian women, were smiling and attentive. That reminded me of how kind people can be, even if they’re quaking with anxiety inside. The atmosphere was subdued to be sure — we all I think sensed what was coming. But the food was fabulous and the company and opportunity to get out so welcome.

Our friend is in her early 80s and living alone since her husband died last November. He was 93 and a dear friend of 25 years, blunt and funny, an artist and intellectual who thought a lot about religion, faith and matters of the soul. Born into a Jewish family in Brooklyn, he wound up a hybrid Buddhist/atheist who did not shy from speaking about death, especially after his ailments started to catch up with him in recent years.

The loss is of course hard for our friend. She gets terribly lonely; though, she admits to being liberated from what had been a long and trying time taking care of him; he was not always an easy patient, partly because of his personality, partly from the effects of whatever drugs he had to take to treat his COPD and other issues. Fortunately for her, she has good friends and neighbors to stay in touch, help her out around the apartment, and take her out (until now, that meant frequent trips to the Criterion for good movies, and Shabbat dinner on Fridays with her zany friend the rabbi). She has a nursing student from Yale living with her, and so an evening companion and someone to help when a health issue arises. A great tenant, a music teacher, lives on the second floor. (The third-floor tenant is a Yale graduate student from China, who went home during winter break and can’t return, but who is still paying his rent.) And thank God for services like Uber and Uber Eats — they really enable her to continue living in her three-family, in familiar surroundings.

So, the hand sanitizer incident intrudes on this. Someone familiar, someone in her life network, while cleaning her house, a regular gig, has a dark turn of mind. She could have been going about her business, and maybe picked up the bottle to swipe clean the bathroom shelf, held it in her hand and just stopped, a moment, thinking: I could just take this. I can’t find this stuff anywhere now; I need this for my family, to protect me as I go around cleaning other people’s homes, because I’m really, really scared about this virus thing. In that moment, did she think about the elderly woman whose home she was cleaning, her health, her worries, her vulnerability? And when our friend asks her about it next time she comes around, if she comes around, will she lie, and say she never saw it? Or confess?

It’s possible our friend simply misplaced her bottle of sanitizer. We’ve all been there. But if she did, still, the suspicion crept into her mind. A side effect, a kind of vapor floating out there, looking for a host.

We all make small decisions every day — pick this up, put that down. Start a conversation, avoid one; make that call, write the letter, buy that thing. Look at something this way, or that way. Now it all comes with a bit more of an edge.


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Banning Plastic Bags, One Town at a Time

(First published on State of the Planet on Feb. 20, 2019)

The WalMart in Guilford, CT, offers recycling for single-use plastic bags. The town is considering an ordinance banning plastic bags altogether. Photo: David Funkhouser

Since plastic carryout bags were introduced in the 1960s, people have used trillions of them, and, for the most part, thrown them away. And whether they’re sitting in a landfill, hung up in a tree limb or floating around the ocean, the bags don’t biodegrade, and they’re not going away anytime soon. They’re free to consumers, convenient and cheap for stores to use. But they have joined billions of tons of tossed-away plastic packaging materials and products to cause a variety of environmental problems. And in a growing number of communities, citizens have decided that they’ve got to go.

More than 300 municipalities across the United States now ban or charge fees for single-use plastic bags. California, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and American Samoa have banned them, as have 55 countries. Thirty-one more have imposed a fee.

It’s unclear how effective these laws have been overall. In some places the bans are barely enforced, particularly poor nations with weak or nonexistent waste collection systems. But in many places, usage has dramatically declined, and litter and its associated problems have been reduced.

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How Much Do Renewables Actually Depend on Tax Breaks?

A wind farm in Texas, which leads the U.S. in wind energy production. The U.S. produces more megawatt hours of wind energy than any other nation. Photo: U.S. Department of Commerce

(First published on March 16, 2018, on State of the Planet.)

Wind and solar energy production are growing faster in the United States than any other source of electricity, and falling prices are making them more competitive with fossil fuel-driven electricity. Meanwhile, natural gas has surpassed coal as the prime fuel for power plants. Those trends helped drive down U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2017 to their lowest level since 1991, according to a report for the Business Council on Sustainable Energy.

That’s good news for anyone concerned about climate change. The shift to renewable energy is a key part of the global effort to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other earth-warming gases and slow down climate change by reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. But critics argue that this growth wouldn’t be possible without financial support from the government. How much do renewables actually need tax breaks and other subsides?

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Puerto Rico Faces a Long Road to a Sustainable Future

Rebuilding Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria is expected to cost tens of billions of dollars or more. Source: Wikipedia/Creative Commons

(First published on Nov. 30, 2017, on State of the Planet.)

In Utuado, a town in the hills of central Puerto Rico, “very little works.” That’s what Delsie Gandia, a resident, told me several days ago via email during a rare opening when she could connect to the internet.

Since Hurricane Maria’s 150-plus mph winds scoured the island into a mass of rubble and smashed infrastructure on Sept. 20, residents have been showering in the rain and washing clothes by hand with spring water, she said. Electricity had been restored to Utuado proper, but, said Gandia, “As I write, we have been plunged in darkness once again.” Roads are washed out or blocked by debris; damage to the local communications tower and unreliable power hampers phone and internet services. Many people were cut off from relief, emergency health care and other services. Utuado’s mayor, whose rural home was destroyed in the storm, hacked his way into town with a machete, she was told.

“My impression was that all systems collapsed,” she wrote. “The government simply couldn’t cope.” (Gandia, an economist and a relative of mine, has studied the economic and environmental impacts of global warming since the 1970s.)

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