Bad Focus, Good Focus

Last week’s post was a real downer. This week I’m feeling much lighter.  Why?  See below.  I know I will have down days; most of us do, but they will pass.

I’ve been back from the UK for a month now.  In the last few days, I have started having flashbacks of my time there.  Well, “flashbacks” is too dramatic a word.  An example: I was sitting in my living room reading yesterday and suddenly I had the strongest image and sensations of being in the living room of “my” house in Oxford.  I could see the blue curtains, feel the breeze coming through the window, and noted the objects on the shelf above the telly.  This has happened a few times.

Then, yesterday in my yoga class, I had the feeling of floating above my own body during the ending meditation.  The instructor wasn’t doing anything different than she has in the last three or four years since I started taking classes with her.

Am I just really focused on the moment these days?  Maybe that’s why I feel less anxious and am having fewer catastrophic thoughts.

I haven’t been trying, but I hell, it’s summer.  I am fortunate to have the time, so I’ve been getting out for long bike rides and walks.  Here’s a view of Pig’s Eye Lake with a train in the foreground and the St Paul skyline way off in the distance.  I stood there for the longest time, waiting as the train slowly crawled toward the coupling yard.  I can hear the smashing sounds of the coupling at night in my house, two miles away.  I wanted to get the red Canadian Pacific Railroad car in the frame.  It’s not that exciting, after all, but the point is that I stood and did nothing but observe for a good 10 minutes—an eternity in our times.

Children help me stay in the moment.  Add nature and bubbles helps break the focus on generating worst case scenarios.

Being around children usually involves laughing.  I took my nephews for a bike ride.  The nine-year-old tried to do a trick and fell sideways.  It could have been disastrous, but he sprang up, and there was this message spray painted on the wall over his head.  “I guess lord Jesus saved me!” he joked.

Finding amusement, and time with friends, helps.  I found this cache of classic BBC sets that can be used for Zoom backgrounds and played around with them during the weekly Friday happy hour I join with UK friends.  Thanks to the time difference, they are drinking G&Ts while I drink herbal tea.

(That’s the interior of the Tardis from Dr. Who, in case you don’t know.)

Speaking of things that feel silly but are really good therapy, I do a couple of no-weight arm workouts every other day.  I don’t know if they are actually “toning” my arms, but something about waving my arms furiously for even five minutes makes me snap out of any funk I am in.

I’m brushing up on my Spanish using Duolingo, taking an Introduction to Classical Music course from Yale, and looking to add a birding course. And it’s all free!

All this leaves little space for worrying.

So I totally forgot that last week, I ended my depressing post with the promise to research why people think in terms of catastrophes.  The article that came up most frequently, oddly, was from Business Insider: What Catastrophizing Means and How to Stop It.

I was relieved to read, “Nobody is born a catastrophizer … Babies are not born catastrophizing… it’s a protective mechanism, because we think ‘if I think the worst, then when the worst doesn’t happen I’ll feel relieved.”

Whew, I had worried I was wired to worry.

Catastrophizing can become a habit, especially if you’ve had a bad experience that you didn’t see coming.  That makes sense.  Every person on earth has had that happen of late.

Catastrophic thoughts need to be deconstructed with logic.  If you can’t do it on your own, call a clear-thinking friend who can help you to untwist them—preferably a friend who will also laugh at you.

Catastrophes, Real and Imagined

I just got a new laptop after procrastinating for over a year.  My old one was 11 years old.  They say that’s like driving a 1958 Buick.  I would have kept the old device forever except that my internet goes down about once a week and when it came back on, the old laptop couldn’t reconnect to wifi unless the router was rebooted.  The router in the apartment above me.  It’s kind of embarrassing, having to text my neighbors and ask them to reboot the router.  I felt like a loser.

Technical stuff does not come naturally to me.  I spent hours researching which laptop I should buy, then just asked one of the tech guys at one of my client organizations for a recommendation, then just bought it.  It is not the cheapest but it’s far from a high-end model.

I kept expecting something to go terribly wrong as I set it up.  How would I ever get support?  I bought it on Amazon and it was shipped by Sunflower Tech Store, which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

But nothing has gone wrong.  I gave myself two weeks to make the transition, but my old laptop lost the wifi signal again today so I plunged in and dealt with everything—buying Office, transferring files and bookmarks, re-entering user names and passwords into every single website  I use regularly, etc.  Much of it looks slightly different.  The keyboard has a number pad so I have to get used to not typing on the right.  And I have.

So after almost a year of angst-ing and procrastinating, I’m basically good to go after a couple hours.

But I still expect something to go terribly wrong.

Here’s something I’ve noticed about my thinking since the pandemic began and was then layered over with civil unrest, financial uncertainty, and living in a crime-ridden neighborhood where sirens and gun shots and fireworks and hot rods and loud music are blasting day and night.

I have always been good at imagining worst-case scenarios, but now the tendency is magnified.

I have a portable fire pit that I never use so I’m going to give it to my brother.  Every time I think about it, I immediately see my six-year-old nephew tripping into a bonfire and being burned over 85% of his body.  I try to think happy thoughts, like about taking my granddaughters to northern Wisconsin in September for a cabin weekend.  Immediately, my mind goes to  a vision of the nine-year-old being abducted by some  creep-o who lives in a shack in the woods. I imagine head-on collisions when I’m driving, coming home to find my house burglarized and ransacked, or falling down the basement stairs when I’m doing laundry and having to lie there with a broken hip for days.

There must be a psychological explanation for this catastrophizing.  Is it an (irrational) way of feeling in control, of “knowing” what is going to happen in such uncertain times?

There have been coronavirus spikes around the US lately, so far not in Minnesota.  The Wall Street Journal editorialized that headlines trumpeting a resurgence “are overblown.”  Many new infections are connected to prisons and meat packing plants, and hospitals are not overwhelmed, they say.  I want to give them the benefit of the doubt.  I want to believe they are not saying it’s okay to sacrifice prisoners and slaughterhouse employees to keep the economy going.

I have always perused the obituaries on Sundays.  The “Irishman’s sports page,” they are sometimes called.  These are a few I caught that were Covid-19 related deaths.

This one was particularly poignant.

Some have said it’s “just old people” dying; they were going to die anyway.  Some have “joked” about how much money we’ll save on Social Security if all our seniors die.

But I wouldn’t wish a Covid-19 death on anyone—alone, in a medical coma, with a tube down your throat, catheterized, on IVs, flipped head down. Tended by people who look like aliens in their masks.

I know, I should look away.  No wonder my brain is generating intrusive disaster scenarios.  I will research the phenomenon this week and let you know what I learn.

Pandemic, Protests, Panic Attacks

Three people I know have had panic attacks lately. They all thought they were having heart attacks.

I may be next.  No, not really.  But I do feel the stress.  A number of people have said, “Being locked down isn’t that different from my life before.” They live in comfortable homes, have access to limitless entertainment, and have the means to get whatever they need delivered to their door.  They haven’t been impacted financially.  They don’t live near the protests.

“It’s psychological,” a friend said yesterday as we were socializing on his deck.  “I’m playing pickle ball in a Covid-19 ‘pod’ of six guys. I’m an introvert anyway.  I’m retired, so staying home shouldn’t bother me.  I Skype with my mom, but I won’t be visiting her any time soon.”

His mother, in India.  Her short-term memory is gone, but her face lights up when she sees her son.  He was visiting every two months.  It’s a grueling trip with long flights and ground transport. I thought he would be relieved to have an excuse not to go, but no.  He’s a good son.

“In the UK, they talked about BAME people dying at much higher rates from Covid.” I said. BAME is black, Asian, and minority ethnic.  And by Asian they mean Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Indian.

My friends looked a bit thrown.  Should I not have said anything?  “They don’t know what the causes are.  It’s doctors dying, not just poor people.”

“So it might be genetic,” my friend said.

“Or something to do with darker skin blocking Vitamin D absorption, which supports immunity?  Or that Asian families tend to live in multigenerational housing in densely populated areas?”

“It’ll probably turn out to be a complex set of factors,” he said.

I am still doing contract work from home.  My duplex is comfortable and the weather has been great so I can get out and walk at a distance from a friend or ride my bike.

I am going to have my granddaughters and nephews once a week (separately).  I want them to have a wonderful summer.  There’s no reason they shouldn’t as long as we can be outside or in the car with windows rolled down.

I took the girls on an unintentional tour of Minneapolis due to a detour.  Every storefront is boarded up or charred.  On the plus side, there is a lot of great street art.  I explained what had happened in very simple terms.  The nine-year old said, “But that’s not right. That’s like what we learned in school last year, about Martin Luther King.”  I thought it went over the head of the four year old, but days later she said, out of nowhere, “Cops killed a guy.”

I’ve decided to move.  Again.

My neighborhood was dodgy before Covid and the unrest caused by the murder of George Floyd.  Many houses have been bought by investors and filled with registered sex offenders, including one kitty corner from me which must have 5-6 guys in it.  It must be very lucrative.

Then there’s the noise—in spring, the punks tear up and down the streets in their extremely loud hot rods.  You would think my neighbors who lived through the Vietnam War wouldn’t be fond of fireworks, but you would be wrong.  Several nights a week, the BOOOM, Booom, Boom goes on until one or two in the morning.  I’m not talking firecrackers; I’m talking industrial grade fireworks.

Then Covid came, and an area with lots of people in low-wage jobs became an area with lots of people with no jobs.  The uprisings began.  I’ve seen numerous cars without license plates, this one was abandoned at the end of my alley for days, even after I called it in to the police.

There was the incident of the cops with assault rifles surrounding my house.  Finally, two nights ago, I woke to the sound of a dozen gun shots.  Sirens and a high speed chase ensued, then a CRASH in front of my house, then the police shouting through megaphones, “Come out with your hands up!”

Seriously? This does not align with my brand.

I’ve got a lead on a condo-sitting gig near the Mississippi in St. Paul. Fingers crossed.

Surreal, Unreal, for Real

When I began blogging in 2014, it was because my son, Vince, had been sent to prison on a 50-month sentence for drug possession. He admitted he was a drug dealer and that the police had found drugs in his motel room. He also claimed they had moved his wallet from his pocket to near the drugs, so they could more easily seize his money.

I believed him, and the recent murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and subsequent protests has me thinking how much worse it could have been if Vince had been black, or if his arrest had taken place in Minneapolis instead of Rochester.

But it’s more complicated.  Since 2000, 109 white people have died in “fatal encounters” with Minnesota police.  That’s twice the number of black victims.

I get it—numbers are one thing and percentages are another.  Fifty-six percent of the victims were white, whereas white people comprise 83% of Minnesota’s population. Twenty-seven percent of the victims were black, whereas blacks make up only 6% of Minnesotans.

Still, 109 dead people is a lot of humans.

And 68% of the killings occurred outside of Minneapolis or St. Paul. Here’s the data if you want to play around with it.

As the mother of a white son who had his share of run ins with the law, I don’t know how I could have worried any more than I did before he turned his life around. I cannot imagine how mothers of black and native sons, in particular, live with their worry on a daily basis.

(Credit: https://www.mother.ly/news/george-floyd-called-for-mothers-everywhere)

But I worry when the problem is reduced to only a racism problem. Racism is a big part of it, but it’s also a police problem. It’s a male problem (96% of the victims in MN were men and the vast majority of cops are male).  It’s a poverty, drug addiction, mental health, and cultural problem.

I’m not saying it’s so complex, so let’s not make drastic changes.  I’m saying, let’s make drastic changes on multiple fronts.

People followed along as Vince’s and my stories unfolded in the blog.  But what I got thanked for was transparently expressing my grief, rage, and shame.

I felt then, and I still do, that since race was not a factor in Vince’s arrest, people believed he deserved what he got, and maybe it was my fault.

I am reliving a lot of the same feelings these days, plus anxiety and ennui and a sense of unreality.

Today is the last of 14 days of quarantine after returning from the UK.  I have become “institutionalized,” a term normally used for prisoners and others who are released after many years locked up.  I went inside a grocery store last week; I had to buy food.  I shambled, blinking, through the store wearing my mask, startled when people got too close,  overwhelmed by something I have done a thousand times.

In my work I come across some surreal stuff.

There was the story about Merritt Corrigan, USAID’s new deputy White House liaison.  She wrote an article last year in The Conservative Woman, where she said, “It’s time for women to return to the home, where we rightfully belong and where real joy and fulfilment await.” Corrigan’s role at USAID includes working with the White House to place political appointees at the agency. Also of note: USAID’s newly-appointed religious freedom adviser has a history of making anti-Islam comments on social media.

I saw a $600,000 US Government grant opportunity for “Mapping Russian Disinformation and Propaganda in Sub Saharan Africa.”  The Administration knows Russia is doing this in the USA, right?  They are working to fight it here, right? Probably not, since Russian disinformation and propaganda helped elect Trump.

Maybe Russia was behind bogus social media stories that the KKK was marching through Minneapolis last week, or that only people from out Minnesota were looting.

Meanwhile, it’s unclear which Federal agency ordered the Predator surveillance drone that circled over Minneapolis during the protests.

Unreal!  But it is real!

Or is it?

So there you go, a fractured but honest account of my state of mind and emotions.

Does any of this sound familiar to you?

Welcome Home, Home on Fire

I want to go back to the UK now.

A week ago I was trying to enjoy my last day in Oxford without wasting by fretting about traveling during a global pandemic.

It’s hard to explain certain things to people back home, like how cramped and close together people live in a place like Oxford.  I had wanted to take this photo for some time—if you look through the picture window of the house across the street you can see through to my neighbor Wendy’s back garden. I wanted to get a shot early in the morning when—I hoped—she wouldn’t see me.

It seemed to matter at the time.

I took a walk.  How had I never noticed that enormous Monkey Puzzle Tree, now laden with what looked like seed pods?

Were these juniper berries?  If I filled my pockets with them could I make homemade gin? These were my pressing questions.

None of the things I had worried about happened.  The bus to Heathrow had five passengers, all widely spaced and wearing masks except for That One Asshole.  This was Heathrow.

Here’s the main shopping and dining atrium in T2.  Usually my biggest concern is whether the Cath Kidston store will be open (it was not).

Almost everyone was wearing a mask and everyone practiced social distancing.  The plane was about 25% full.  This was going to be fine!

Obligatory farewell photo.

I played with the newfangled window dimmer button. There’s no window shade anymore.  Is it the magic of nanoparticles, I wondered, having worked in a nanoparticle lab years ago.

I watched movies: Rocket Man, Witness for the Prosecution, Book Smart, and Jojo Rabbit.

Every time I removed my mask to sip some water my mask and ear bud cords got tangled up.

We were served food as usual but there were no alcoholic beverages or coffee on board.

Beautiful Chicago.

Re-entry to the US was uneventful.  Public Health Service officials collected my contact details, took my temp, and handed me this.

O’Hare seemed like Heathrow at first.

But here were the C gates, with flights headed for Mexico City, Indianapolis, Washington DC, and Minneapolis.  I spent four hours here.  It was impossible to social distance and only about half of the people wore masks.

My first views of Minnesota on a hot muggy evening.

I retrieved my bag and found my car, which my son had parked in an airport ramp the previous day.  The next morning I would get a grocery delivery which I had set up while still in Oxford.

Phew!  After almost five months in the UK, I was home, with no dramas!

As I was driving home, a man named George Floyd was being murdered in the street by Minneapolis police just a few miles away for the alleged crime of trying to pass a counterfeit bill.

Protests erupted the next day.  The killer cops were fired but not arrested.  The protests turned violent Wednesday night and escalated each night.

Those who wear badges that say, “To Protect and Serve” (the police) abandoned the people of the Twin Cities and let looters run wild.  So far 255 businesses have been looted and/or burned.  Post offices.  Restaurants.  Pharmacies.  Gas stations.  Barber shops. Liquor stores.  Libraries, for god’s sake!

Institutions like the Town Talk Diner.

Nonprofit organizations like an Indian dance company, a Native American youth center, and an arts-funding foundation.  The grocery that delivered my food four days ago is now closed indefinitely. We are living under a curfew.  The national guard has now been called in, and Trump is even being consulted about sending federal troops.

The Minneapolis and St. Paul mayors did nothing but make polished, kumbaya speeches.

The cop who knelt on Floyd’s neck was charged with murder on Friday, but the ones who stood by and did nothing must be charged as well.

There have been rumors that the looters are all extremists—anarchists and/or white supremacists. There have been some people from other states among those arrested, but as of what we know now, most are Minnesotans.

I am in shock.  I have to find a way to get involved and keep moving.

Meanwhile, Minnesota passed the milestone of 1,000 Covid-19 deaths.

Doing the Next Indicated Thing

In 24 hours I will be on a bus headed from Oxford to Heathrow.  I hope.  Of all the legs of the trip home, this is the part I’ve been most anxious about.

What if … the bus zooms past me at the bus stop?  What if it doesn’t stop at my stop anymore?  What if the bus stops but the driver cuts off boarding at me, because they are only allowing 10 people on the bus v. the usual 50?  What if the service is cancelled completely?  They did that with the route to Gatwick airport.  I have a return ticket from my last flight—but should I buy a new one online so I can reserve a seat?  Service is down from every 20 minutes to every two hours.  If I miss the bus, the next one wouldn’t get me to Heathrow until 20 minutes before my flight takes off.  A taxi would cost about $100.

I suffered heart-thumping anxiety for years, now have been anxiety free for a decade except for the occasional work deadline.  Now it’s  back, in a milder form.  It’s a bit annoying, but given the state of global affairs, it would be kind of weird if I wasn’t anxious.

I have learned to Just Deal With Things that induce anxiety.  So I called the bus company.  The customer service guy, Josh, answered after two rings and assured me that ridership was so low I would have no problem getting a seat on the bus, at my stop, and I could use the ticket I already had.

He sounded bored.  I think he would have been happy to chat for a while.

I felt reassured for about an hour, then the What Ifs started up again.  What if he didn’t like my American accent so he purposely gave me the wrong information? What if he was new and didn’t really know the right answers? What if they changed everything right after I called?

I waited a few days, feeling dumb for continuing to worry, then emailed the bus company with the same questions.  Josh replied almost immediately with the same answers. Oh no, how embarrassing! Did he know it was me?  Did he wonder why I was asking the same questions again?  I usually thank customer service people, but I didn’t this time because I would have felt compelled to explain why I didn’t trust his answers the first time.

This second set of answers—maybe because they were in writing—erased the anxiety.

I may sound loopy but there it is.

My last day in Oxford.  I am doing laundry, cleaning the house and the chicken run, and fiddling around with packing.  I will go for a long walk later. Where should I go?  Into the city to gaze at the medieval colleges?  Along the Thames Path to see the waterfowl and other ramblers and the canal boats?  Up to Iffley lock and the church where I have watched the seasons change and enjoyed so many quiet moments?

This was my last view of Scotland last week.  Friend and driver Bob stopped the vehicle so I could hop out and take a snap.

I visited Iffley Church the next day.  The churchyard was strewn with wildflowers and an English robin perched on a headstone.

The next day I walked for hours through town, taking photos or just appreciating things I’d never noticed because I was trying not to bump into the 5,000 other people on the sidewalk.

Will I ever return?  The longing to live here forever see-saws with the excitement of the return journey and arriving home after four and a half months in the UK.

I gave the garden a good pruning, then sat and read the Sunday Times Rich List.  I should have gone into online gambling or started a hedge fund.  But then, I probably wouldn’t spend much time relaxing in a garden.

Here is a good question from HSBC.

I was born in New York, grew up in Minnesota, and feel at home in England—and most everywhere else I’ve sojourned.

Once I am on the bus, I will exhale and feel at home.

Returning

So much for this being a travel blog!

After house sitting in Oxford for three months, the plan was to travel all over Europe, with a finale of meeting friends in Crete.  I would try to get around without flying, since flying leaves such a huge carbon footprint.  I spent days mapping out train and bus routes, checking fares and timetables, poring over maps and guidebooks, and making lists of sites to see in each location.

It was all I thought about for a couple weeks.  I felt tension as time passed—I needed to book things now or prices might go up!

I tried to pay for a tour of Bulgaria but the website wouldn’t cooperate.  When I contacted the company they asked me to call their US office the next day.  I don’t recall what exactly was announced that evening on the news, but something clicked in my head and I realized the tour would never take place.

But I could still travel around the UK, right?  Wrong.  Inexorably, the plan closed in until I deleted my itineraries, crumpled up my paper lists and burned them in the fireplace, and shelved the guidebooks.

Well boo hoo, I’m still better off than 99% of the people on earth.

After a month in Scotland with Lynn and Richard and four dogs and two cats and what sounds like dozens of mice having a fiesta in the walls of my bedroom every night, tomorrow I will return to Oxford.

Yesterday I went for a last walk across the fields near the house.

In a span of 45 minutes, the sun was so hot I had to strip off my hat and scarf and gloves, then dark clouds raced across the fields, the temperature plummeted, and it rained.

I will miss the wide-open spaces, the pure air and water, the quiet.  And of course, the company.

I’ve lost track of how many times I have been to Scotland.  Each time I leave, I wonder if I will ever return.  I try to really focus on the here and now so I can dial up memories of the land and people if I never come back.  So far, I always have.

I haven’t worn makeup for a month.

Well okay, maybe a little pressed powder and eyebrow filler.  But that’s nothing to what I used to plaster onto my face.  I think I look okay.  Is this a case of finding my natural beauty, or of lowering my standards?

I booked a flight to return to the US on May 25.  My first two flights were cancelled and I am trying to mentally prepare myself for this one to disappear too.

I try to think through all the “what ifs” that could go wrong and what I can do to prevent them.  I’ll need to get from Oxford to Heathrow airport.  In normal times there was a bus that ran every 20 minutes, all day, every day, to Heathrow.  Now it’s down to once an hour.  The 25th is a bank holiday.  What if the buses stop running? What if a bus pulls up and it’s already full, since they are only allowing one quarter of the usual number of passengers?  What if I have to hire a taxi to take me to Heathrow?  Will there be one available?  How much would it cost?  Maybe I should try to get to Heathrow the day before, just to be on the safe side.  Are any of the airport hotels still operating?

And on and on.  I’ve got a week to figure it all out, but even so, much of it is just unknowable.

I feel like I have already written all of the above, and maybe I have.  It feels like I’ve devolved from telling interesting travel stories to essentially writing diary entries.

“Dear Diary: Today I combed my hair.  I feel so proud of myself!”

I hope you are well and keeping up your spirits.  I hope we are all traveling again and telling stories soon.

Scrambling, Scrabbling

Week six of UK lockdown is behind us.  Tonight Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, will outline changes to our restrictions.  The Sunday papers have already broadcast what those are likely to be: once-a-day outdoor exercise will become unlimited exercise, it’ll be okay to go to the beach, garden centers will open (all of these assume two-meter distancing).  Boris is likely to advise the wearing of face coverings in shops and public transport.  A mandatory 14-day quarantine for people entering the UK and stiffer fines for violating the rules will likely be announced.

For me, nothing much will change.  It’s snowing in Scotland, but I would be unlikely to request a day on a North Sea beach even at the height of summer.

As I wrote in another post, my flight home was cancelled by Delta.  I scheduled a new one; it was cancelled the next day.  I will be issued a credit, but Delta has ceased flying to the UK so I can’t use the credit to get home.

There are no more direct flights to Minneapolis-St. Paul from the UK.  I prefer not to stop over in New York or Chicago, where there are coronavirus outbreaks.  I found an itinerary on Icelandair that would take me through healthy Reykjavik but my gut told me to wait a few days before booking it.  Two days later, Icelandair was no longer flying to the UK.  I thought about flying from Scotland, which has less coronavirus than the UK south, but Scotland’s airports are shut down completely or offer only two-three stop itineraries.

As I see it, every stop, every additional flight or airport, is a new opportunity to catch the virus if it’s present.

I continue to get updates from the US State Department.  The latest informed me that Heathrow has closed three of its five terminals.

Today was the day I was supposed to join Lynn and Richard and two other friends in Crete, after traveling through France, Switzerland, Bulgaria, and other points unknown and never to be known.  It’s hard to believe that just a few months ago my biggest concern was whether to take the Eurostar to Paris or get off in Calais and take a train down to Bergerac to meet a friend.

Wah, wah!  As usual I pinch myself that I should have such “problems.”  I keep thinking about the Ethiopian refugee camps I visited three years ago for work.  There was no running water.  People lived in tiny cinder-block houses with half a dozen others.  Activities were carried out in groups, sometimes very large groups.  I feel helpless to do anything but “hold them in my thoughts,” which doesn’t mean a thing and just makes me feel guilty.

Meanwhile the days pass, fast but slow.  Until today the weather was fine, enabling outdoor projects and hikes.  On one hike I saw a giant slug crossing the road.

“Now, if this was a turtle, I would pick it up and deliver it safely to the other side,” I thought.  “Isn’t the real test of compassion whether I care for creatures I find repulsive?”  I kept walking.  Another thing to feel guilty about.

Richard and I hiked to Wormy Hillock.  It’s shaped like a donut was pressed into the earth, then removed.  It was probably built by Picts, and probably prehistoric (which just means before there was a written language).  Its purpose is unknown.  Worship?  Sacrifices?  Entertainment?

Back at the house, I moved my finger around on the local map and chuckled at the names: Knappert Knows, Little Riggin, Green Slack, Bogs of Noth, Muckle Smiddy Hillock, The Lumps, How of Slug, Darnie Heuch, Mairs of Collithie, Buried Men’s Leys, How of Badifoor, Grouse Butts, Shank of Badtimmer, Slack Methland, Hill of Glack-en-tore, and my favorite, the Glen of Cults.

Another day, Lynn and I visited a neighbor across the road who maintains the garden her late husband—the former head gardener at Cambridge University—created.

Lynn’s garden is coming on as spring progresses.

A visit from the fishmonger was a highlight.

My award for most creative pastime goes to a friend who has been playing x-rated Scrabble over the phone with friends.

Stay well, and don’t forget to laugh!

Things that Change, Things that Last

A month ago I wondered if I was the proverbial frog in the slowly heating water.  Was I oblivious to the worsening coronavirus situation all around me in the UK?

Yup, I was.

The UK now has the dubious distinction of vying with Italy for second-rank for COVID-19 deaths; we are about 400 deaths shy of Italy’s total, 28,710.  Of course, different countries count deaths differently.  The UK just started counting COVID deaths outside of hospitals, so our number jumped.  I don’t know how Italy counts.  Regardless, it isn’t good.

However, it’s not as bad as the US.  Here’s a graph we see on the daily briefing.  It shows the US trajectory going up, up, up.

In two weeks, I’ll return to Oxford, an overcrowded city.  After 10 days I will—probably—fly home.  My flight was cancelled once, although I only found out accidentally.  I’ve rescheduled, but I don’t relish the thought of being on a bus, then at an airport, on a plane, in another airport, another plane, a taxi, then being quarantined for two weeks.

Who knows where that trajectory will have taken the US by then.

Meanwhile, I am safe in Scotland.  Here’s a view of Lynn and Richard’s house from halfway up the hill behind it.

We had great sunny weather for 10 days and now gloom and “Scottish mist” have set in.  Fortunately it’s a large enough house that one never feels claustrophobic.  I can’t imagine how it must feel to be stuck inside an apartment with kids and no garden or even a balcony.  Kudos to the people who are handling that well.

Here’s a little history and tour of the house.

The original structure was probably built in the 17th Century as a defensive outpost to guard the road and collect tolls from people traveling between Huntly and Gartly.  It was built into a geographic bowl, so there is a ditch all the way around.  Think of it as a moat without water.  Any attackers would have had to run down hill, where the occupants would be waiting for them, muskets pointing out of “murder holes.”  Below, the ditch viewed from Richard’s office and the kitchen.

Kirkney Water, a stream, runs around two sides, there is an acre-long wall on another, and in front is a very long lane lined with ancient trees; so no one could “sneak up.”

Whether or not the original structure was incorporated into the house built in 1847 is not known.  All the surrounding land was owned by a branch of the Gordon clan, headed by the 4th Earl of Huntly.  The family lived in the house, where I am sitting now.

There was a game-keeper’s cottage up the hill, a farm, and what are called “steadings” across the road—stables and laundry facilities and so on—all of these are now modern single family homes.

This is the Gordon-tartan-covered door in the front hall.

The Gordon family had to sell the home because the two sisters who lived in it had no heirs to whom they could leave it.  One brother had been killed in WWI.  The other was disinherited for marrying an Irish actress.  The ladies had not been able to find “suitable” husbands; that is, men of their class, since so many men had been killed in war and they lived in such a sparsely-populated area.

Here is the old stove in the kitchen—it’s way too heavy to bother removing.  Next to it is a small stove probably used by servants to prepare smaller meals when the family was away.

Here is the next generation stove, the Aga, used only in winter.  There’s a third generation, too.

These are the bells in the kitchen that would ring when the family wanted to summon a servant.  Disconnected by a family who had four teenage boys!

There’s a dumbwaiter in the corner, and to the right of it, a proving cupboard for breadstuffs.

Here are a few more vignettes from around the house.

Whiskey decanter set.

Reindeer skull hat rack.

Victorian taxidermy.

No Scottish country home is complete without an old dog snoring in the library.  This one’s name is Parker, fondly referred to as Lord Parker.

 

Slogging Along

I have begun to long for home.  By “home” I don’t mean my family or friends—who I wouldn’t be able to visit anyway—but my bed.  For some reason, it symbolizes all that is familiar and safe and comfortable.

Not that I’m not safe and comfortable.  In Scotland, at Lynn’s, I am more safe and comfortable than 95% of the world’s population. I have a spacious room with my own bathroom.  There’s a library full of books.   There is even a sauna!  There is plenty of space for us to do our own thing.  We come together at mealtimes or for a G&T on the patio or to watch a movie at night.

I have projects, like scraping and repainting a wrought-iron patio set.  The more I scrape and paint, the more flakes of paint I discover.  It’s a great way to kill the hours and medicate my obsessive compulsive tendencies.

I clear dead stuff out of the garden.  This involves sitting on a foam mat, reaching in to grab a handful of dry twigs or grass, and yanking them out.  Repeat, repeat, repeat.  Then I gather it all up—being careful not to snag myself on any rose thorns—cram them into a bucket and haul them to the brush pile for burning.  It’s very satisfying.  One morning this classic Led Zeppelin album cover popped into my mind:

Why not do what all those cleaver people on social media are doing, and recreate this with found materials?  So here I am, looking just like the album cover except I have a wheelbarrow, and I’m wearing a lime-green jumper and pink sunglasses, and I do not have a beard.

It was good for a laugh for a few minutes.

I go for long walks.  This is the Clashindarroch Forest, where I hiked for two hours the other day.  Even though it hadn’t rained for an unseasonable 10 days, the mossy path was still so springy it was like walking on a memory foam mattress.

So physically and socially I couldn’t be in a better place.  But I think the pandemic and lockdown are taking a low-grade toll on my psyche.  It’s subtle, but it’s probably cumulative.  If I am feeling it, how much worse must it be for people living in precarious situations with no financial means, no internet, or no access to nature?

There are nagging worries, as there always are in life. I haven’t received my stimulus payment from Donald Trump yet due to an Internal Revenue Service foul up.  I’m not too worried about it, yet.

It’s been a month since I tried to get cash from two cash machines in Oxford and was given the message, “We’re sorry but we cannot process your request at this time.”  But they had processed  it on their end, so I am out $260 until it gets resolved.  I’m not too worried about it, yet.

This quote from the New York Times sums up my situation:

“Those who had assumed they could stay overseas, and wait for the pandemic to ebb, now face an unnerving choice: Either stick it out, and prepare for the possibility they will be infected with the virus and treated in foreign hospitals, or chance catching it on the way back home.”

I thought I had secured a small victory when I got through to Delta and re-booked my return flight from one stopover to as direct.  One less airport, one less plane—this could reduce my risk.  Then I got an email from the US State Department informing me that only three airlines are still flying from the UK to the US, and Delta is not one of them.  So another call to an 800 number is in my future.

In the before times, I worked two part-time gigs and had a to-do list with 17 items on it every day.  Now I feel like I am wading through thigh-deep pudding.  I feel victorious if I manage to remember why I came into a room.  This must be what dementia is like. Or maybe I am getting dementia, coincidentally at the same time as a global pandemic.

I hope you are well!