Author Archives: Breaking Free

Lockdown Diary

Today is the 14th day of the UK’s three-week lockdown.  There’s been no indication of if the measures will really be reversed, or how.

Most people I know think the lockdown will be extended.  A couple think it’ll all be over in a few weeks.  I tend to agree with the majority.

For now, it will take mental, emotional, and physical discipline to get through this time.

Mental, because without outside stimulus the brain quickly becomes disoriented.  What day is it?  Who am I?  What was I going to do?  This is very common among elderly people who are moved to care homes where there is nothing to do.  Now we’re all fighting in it together.

Strategies that have helped me:

Making a to-do list.  I write it on a post-it note, so it’s not a long list.  But if I don’t write things down I forget them.

Talking to at least two friends or family members a day.  Not messaging, talking. There is something about hearing the human voice that makes it more intimate.

Limiting news and social media: I scan the news headlines each morning and limit myself to reading 1-2 articles.  I have to admit; checking the daily “scoreboard” of how many cases and deaths have been recorded in every country is a fascination to me.

I read an article, “What you should know before you need a ventilator.”   I read it because it was in the New York Times and written by a doctor.  I should have known better.  Do Not read it.

I turn off my laptop and switch my cell to silent, then do something mentally absorbing, like crossword puzzles.  I brought this pile with me from home, threw them in the recycling bin when I hadn’t looked at them after a month, then frantically dug them out of the bin when the lockdown was announced.  Whew!

Baking is mentally absorbing, especially for me because the measures are different here.  You measure things by weight in grams and in millilitres, not cups.

My first attempt was tapenade-filled yeast rolls. They didn’t look great but they tasted wonderful.

As a bonus, I use the weights holder, which totals about five pounds, to workout.  Normally I would do shoulder presses with about 15 pound dumbbells.  Now I just do a ton of reps.

The highlight of my day is getting outside for a walk, rain or shine.  Even passing strangers at a two-metre distance somehow helps me to know I still exist and to believe we will all be together again eventually.  This was the last meal I had in a pub, a fish pie at The Head of the River.

This was my dinner a few nights ago.

I do cook fresh, but in times like these, crisps are also called for, especially when watching the Downing Street Daily Briefing.

I am so lucky to be in a British beauty spot.  I live a few blocks from the Thames, which has a wide path along it that—if I only had a bike!—I could follow all the way from London to a place called Kemble.  The water has turned a lovely green.  Is this because there is less effluent being dumped into it, and less boat traffic?

Those are garden allotments on the opposite side.  People who have allotments are allowed to go dig around in them.  Sigh.

In addition to walking and weight training I am taking yoga classes on Zoom twice a week.  It is hilarious to see people’s cats standing on their backs and toddlers imitating their mothers’ downward dogs.

Emotionally, all of the above helps—staying connected and not overdoing the news or social media.  Also, not fighting battles unless I have the strength.  For instance, I have been trying to get through to Expedia for three weeks.  Two days ago I was on hold for two hours and had to give up.  There will be some sort of reckoning for Expedia and other companies that have so massively failed.  I realize the times are “unprecedented” as we hear over and over, but still.

I hope you are well.  I would love to hear what you’re up to.

Now, some photos of beautiful things.  Enjoy!

Missing Things, Noticing Things

What are you doing with all your time at home?

You would think I would be writing 10 blog posts a day, but I’m not.  I’m too busy with other endeavors!  I am working on the novel I’ve always wanted to write.  I spend at least an hour a day on mastering German verb forms.  I spend another five hours using online resources, like a class about the philosopher Nietzsche (“That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”) to tours of the World’s Greatest Museums to the Complete Works of William Shakespeare performed online by the Royal Shakespeare Company of Peoria, Illinois; I’m learning how to play the didgeridoo from YouTube videos.  I don’t have a didgeridoo so I have to mime it.  I make sure the curtains are closed first.

Seriously, I’m not doing much.

Most of what I have written about the You-Know-What has changed.  I got this notice yesterday.

We are allowed to go to stores for food and medicines; all other stores, pubs, restaurants, and other venues are now closed.  We’re also allowed to get out for exercise once a day.

It could be worse.  Starting on Monday, 1.5 million Britons got notified that, because they have underlying conditions, they must stay in their homes for the next 12 weeks.  For this “shielding operation,” the government is also recruiting 250,000 volunteers to ensure the home bound have food and medications.  I just signed up.

I take a long walk every day.  There are many routes to explore in Oxford, especially along the Thames.  My favorite encompasses Iffley Village, a quaint village with thatched-roof cottages just 10 minutes from me.

Iffley’s Church of St Mary the Virgin was built in 1160.  It’s unusual looking for an English church.  If you want to read why, here you go.

I was fortunate to get inside before everything shut down.  It’s tiny.  I admired the modern stained-glass windows.

They had a blind organist for 40 years!

The vicar was setting out prayer books on the benches.

“Can I ask a dumb question?  How do I tell if a church is Church of England or Catholic?”

I noticed he didn’t say, “That’s not a dumb question.”

“Look for things that are missing,” he said.  “No images of Mary.  No stations of the cross, no holy water fonts.

“But the main factor is the age.  Anything built before the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII around 1540 is going to be C of E.  Catholic churches all relatively new, because they were banned for over 200 years, until the late 18th Century.”

I know this has nothing to do with Coronavirus and that’s kind of the point.  I am looking for other things to keep my mind occupied and at peace, but things that don’t require a lot of concentration.

I walked around Iffley yesterday. This sign greeted me at the gate.

The church is closed now so I sat in the churchyard.  It was quiet before but now it was silent except for the birds, which I had not noticed before.  No airplanes overhead, no street traffic.  For a jarring moment I felt like I was in a movie set in the 1910s.

I walked around the church, looking up, and saw this Where the Wild Things Are face for the first time.

Back in the street, I stopped to admire a classic Morris Minor.  It’s much smaller than a Mini Cooper.

I stepped into the tiny community shop, surprised it was open.  The elderly lady at the till seemed nervous; was that sheen of sweat on her brow a symptom of the virus!?  Another woman appeared in the doorway, looked at me, and asked, “Do you have a guardian?”

I panicked.  Did I look like I needed a guardian?!  Was the government coming to take me away and lock me up?  I rushed out of the shop, then I realized she was looking for The Guardian newspaper and she had thought I worked there.

Thankfully this was steps away, and restored my sense of humor.

I snatched the toilet paper.

Just kidding!

Let’s all try to notice things around us—beautiful, strange, and ab fab.

 

Boat as Bolthole

As I was cleaning up my work area because, well, now I have all the time in the world to do that, I came across a program from a piano recital I attended at St. Hilda’s College about six weeks ago.  I had written a few notes to myself because the visiting performer, a professor from some university in the US, said things like, “the piece I am about to perform place exemplifies the dystopian and utopian poles of Beethoven’s variations on Sonata No. 32 in C Minor.”  As I sniggered at this rarefied language, people around me where murmuring, “Ah, yes, so interesting.”  I’m glad someone knew what the hell he was talking about.

My life—and probably yours—has suddenly become dystopian.

In my last post I laid out the reasons that the UK had not closed schools.  Last night Boris Johnson announced schools would close indefinitely starting at the end of the day on Friday.

I attended my usual free lunchtime concert at the old church in town on Monday.  The program, two Beethoven sonatas, was performed by a visiting Japanese pianist.  There were about half the usual people in attendance, and we were all seated as far as possible from one another, until at the last minute an old man shuffled into the pew behind me and proceeded to cough and sneeze.  Maybe I should have moved, but I kind of wish I would just get the damn virus so I could get it over with.

At the end of the performance the vicar announced the series would be suspended indefinitely.  I felt sad.  How will I know what day it is now?  No more Monday concert, no Wednesday Pilates at the gym, no Friday yoga class at the community centre.

Am I the proverbial frog in the pan, the one that’s oblivious to the rising temperature until it’s too late?

While I get urges to just go home, my rational mind says I am safer staying put than getting on a bus to Heathrow, hanging out in an airport full of tourists from all over the world, then spending eight hours packed into a plane—potentially surrounded by people who have the virus.

I keep imagining myself with the virus, slumped against the plane window coughing and sweating while my fellow passengers glare at me and contemplate throwing me out the emergency hatch.

I haven’t been able to get through to Expedia for three days, and my duplex is sublet until the end of May, so leaving is sort of a moot point anyway.

I walked for three hours in the rain on Sunday.  In Oxfordshire, the Thames is unfortunately called the Isis.

I thought this graffiti under the train bridge beautiful.

Also this boat, one of many narrow boats moored along the Isis.

I had lunch at a pub near the lock where I crossed to the other side of the river.

Every time the server came to my table I thought, “I could be giving her the virus right now, or vice versa.”  In the UK, we hadn’t yet been encouraged to avoid pubs, but now that’s changed.

On another walk, I was thrilled to stumble upon this outdoor gym, since I will not be going to my real gym any time soon.

There will be no grand UK tour as described in my last post.  I searched Air BnB for boats and there was one—one I had passed many times—for rent.  I booked it for a week when my house sitting ends.

I may have to cancel it, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

After that?  Anyone’s guess.

At night I watch the news, transfixed.  Bertie, the affectionate cat of the trio for whom I am responsible, creeps up onto me seeking love.

“I can see you, you know,” I tell her.

She kneads me with her paws, then sinks her claws in, at which point I shove her away and we start the cycle again.

I watched University Challenge one night.

The pianist who specializes in Beethoven’s dystopian and utopian themes would have done well.  I didn’t get a single answer right.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Is this it?  Is this the moment I will look back on in a month or a year and ask, “Why?  Why didn’t I get out of the UK while I could!?”

There so much loaded into that question.  Half a dozen people have asked me a version of it.

“Are you worried about being trapped there?”

“Are you okay there?”

“Are you staying there?”

“Are you coming home early?”

From the people from whom I am house sitting: “Do you need us to line up emergency cover in case you have to hot foot it back to the US?”

I think these questions are a reflection of the askers’ anxiety, and I totally understand.

I too feel anxious, but I feel safe here.  Would it be better if I took a crowded bus into London, spent time in a massive airport, and eight hours on a plane?

I wrote a version of the following on Facebook so some of you will have seen it already.

Britain is doing things differently. For instance, they are not closing schools. The thinking is, if schools are closed, 20% of the NHS workforce won’t be available for patient care because they’ll have to stay home to take care of their kids.  Also—and I have seen this backed up by the head of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) at the University of Minnesota—kids just don’t get or pass the virus on the way adults do.  There is also the panic-inducing factor, which I have begun to see among my American family whose children’s schools are closed.  “They’re closing the school?! This must be even worse than I thought!”  Fourth reason: This won’t peak for 10-12 weeks; schools closed now may have to stay closed for months.

Is the UK getting it right?  Time will tell.

In this interview with Mike Osterholm, head of CIDRAP, he describes in lay terms how it is thought the coronavirus is transmitted.  “Think about the last time you looked at the sunlight coming through the windows of your house, and you saw all that material floating, that dust, and you think, ‘Oh my, my house is dusty.’  That’s an aerosol; that just floats.  That’s not falling to the ground.  And we now have increasing evidence that coronavirus is likely doing the same thing.”

I honestly think I am better off “sheltering in place,” an option international organizations deploy when there is a security threat.

I may be wrong.  This morning’s news is that American Airlines has cancelled all its long-haul flights except two a day to Heathrow and Narita.

Is the noose tightening?   Will I have to take the Queen Mary home? That’d be okay, assuming I could afford it.  It’s on my bucket list.

In 1918, two of my grandfather’s sisters died in the global flu pandemic. They were 5 or 6 years old.  In the early 40s, my mother attended her cousin’s 5th birthday party and within hours he and another little boy were dead from meningitis.  My mother’s family was isolated for a week with a QUARANTINE banner circling their house and yard.

I Do Not wish for our elders to die. But I am grateful that the current pandemic doesn’t kill children and young people. Can you imagine the additional panic if children were dying? And the grief of parents and others would last for decades.

As an aside: When my mother’s family was quarantined, Mr. Goldenberg, who ran the five-and-dime store down the block, would deliver groceries at the back gate, then run back down the alley.  Yesterday I knocked on my next door neighbor’s door to give her my phone number.  She’s an elderly lady who lives alone.  She reciprocated.  We agreed, we hope we won’t need to call on one another for food deliveries, but it’s good to know that we can.

This morning, I found a note slipped through the letterbox.  Another neighbour has organized a “Charles Street Connected” group.  It’s meant to help us connect, pool resources, and support each other.

Look out for one another so that a month or a year from now we may look back on some positives that came out of this.

Coronavirus – What Else?

I haven’t written for a while because life has just been … normal.  I’ve been working, going to lunchtime concerts, to the gym, tending the cats and chickens, and trying to plan five and a half weeks in Europe after my house sitting gig in Oxford ends next month.

I was on the verge of booking a tour of Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria.  I was going with Responsible Travel, a company with which Lynn and I toured Colombia two years ago.  They’re UK based and I had to call their American branch to book.  The branch didn’t open until 4pm my time, and I got distracted with other things.

Then I watched the news.

Coronavirus has been the top story here in the UK every night save one or two for over a month.  I don’t recall what the particular news was on this night, but I crossed “Book Tour” off my to-do list.

I’m not worried about getting the virus.  Of course I am taking all precautions but if I get it, I get it.  I do worry about being in Bulgaria and my return flights being cancelled.  I worry about being banned from the UK, from which my flight home departs.  I worry about being quarantined in a 2-star Hungarian hotel and having nothing but pork hocks to eat.

I worry that my cousin Molly and her husband will cancel the trip they’ve been looking forward to for months—to Oxford and the Scottish Highlands—scheduled to commence a week from tomorrow.

To their credit, as of yesterday they were saying they would come, knowing the worst case scenario was they would be “stuck” in the UK or be sick here.  In my opinion, the UK would be a good place to have the virus.  The NHS seems to have been very aggressive with quarantines, testing, and public health messaging.  While there has been a run on loo paper and pasta (photos below of my local Tesco store’s pasta section), there is still plenty of food to be had.

Yesterday after taking a long walk along the Thames I sat perusing a travel book at the Eagle and Child pub with a pint of local ale and a bag of salt and vinegar crisps.

Here’s a book I didn’t buy:

My advice to any Brits who think Kansas sounds exotic is, “Don’t do it!”

The book I bought is, Europe on a Shoestring.  I hoped it would kick start my plans, but I wasn’t feeling excited.  I can’t afford to lose significant money if my plans are cancelled.

I noticed that—ironically given Brexit—the book included the UK.  I flipped to that section to see what it said about Oxford, then kept reading, and began to feel excited. Why not just stay here and see the places I’ve never been?  I started yellow highlighting and making lists of “base” and “day trip” destinations.

I awoke this morning to messages from friends and family informing me that all travel from Europe to the US has been banned. This is idiotic on many levels but it confirmed my gut feeling that I would limit my travels to the UK.

The ban is muddled and, I believe, will exacerbate the worldwide economic downward spiral into another recession or even depression.

When communications are unclear, people panic.  For instance, the ban does not apply to Americans returning from Europe.  Why?  Don’t we carry germs?  The UK is exempt from the ban.  Why?  Heaps of people pass through the UK all the time on their way from Europe to the US.  Are they magically cleansed of contagion as they pass through?

Trump called coronavirus a “foreign” virus and Mike Pompeo, head of our State Department, calls it “Wuhan” virus.  This “pure” us vs. “dirty” them language will ratchet up the xenophobia already rampant around the world and probably motivate foreign leaders to ban on US travelers.

Meanwhile, back in Oxford last night, my yoga instructor, who I think is Canadian and the most miserable-looking yoga instructor ever, encouraged us to “feel your bioenergy harmonizing with the universe.” I couldn’t feel it, but I felt grateful not to have a cough or fever.

Breathe in, breathe out.

And wash your hands!

Torture and Gremlins

Despite the title of this post, it’s been a really good week.  I put in many hours of editing on proposals that will yield a couple million dollars for my former employer to carry out torture rehabilitation.  It’s that time of year where I get to read things like this:

(Skip this if you think it will upset you.)

Clients reported beatings with heavy or heated metal rods and guns, and beating while hands and legs are tied to a pole of while hung upside down. Other abuses included threats, humiliation, or other psychological torture; deprivation of food, water, or other necessities; being forced to watch someone else being tortured; forced labor; forced postures, stretching, or hanging; rape or sexual abuse; wounding or maiming, including being shot; sensory stress, such as exposure to extreme temperatures; asphyxiation; burns ; and electrical shock.

I share this because it’s reality all over the world today.  America did lots of these things to suspects in secret detention facilities overseas and at Guantanamo Bay.  It’s sobering.  It makes me feel even more grateful for my cushy life and more determined to continue “being political,” despite my urge to stick my head in the sand.

Then there were the gremlins.  It is weird how things happen all at once.  In the space of five days, the shower in my house stopped working—abruptly, while I was standing in it.  It’s proving difficult to find an electrician to replace the pump.  For decades now, young people have aspired to master’s degrees in International Studies, not apprenticeships in the trades.

I put a new filter in the water purifier and it worked for one day then quit.  I can buy a new apparatus.  But the water is really hard here, so I’ve got to do it soon.

I couldn’t get the printer to work. My laptop is on the ground floor and the printer is two stories up.  I would hit “Print,” then stick my head out the door to the hall to listen if I could hear any action upstairs—being careful not to allow cats to slip past.  I heard nothing, so I ran up the two steep flights of stairs to check.  No joy.  I repeated this five times, shutting down and rebooting, blah, blah, blah.  Now today it worked.

I was suddenly unable to access my work email on my phone, after years of no problems.  I fiddled with it until I was ready to throw it across the room, then left it for a couple days, and now it’s working again.

I had a really great yoga class on Friday.  As I was walking home—in front of the Black Swan pub—my right calf suddenly seized up.  I had to hobble home, about 10 blocks, like a wounded bird.  Was it the yoga?  All the stair climbing?  Who knows.  I spent the next 24 hours wondering how I would get by if I couldn’t walk for the next two months.  Oxford is not a city for sissies. But the next day it was better, and now I keep forgetting it even happened.

So many things do work, so it’s hard to get upset about the gremlins.

Brits keep telling me “It’s not spring!” But to this Minnesotan, it sure feels that way.  There are more and more 50F + days (10C).  There are blooming things everywhere.

And it’s green, green, green.

I try to enjoy the moments, like this cat v. chicken stare down in the back garden.  The cat lost, distracted by me.

At the store, I chuckled over this product name that sound like a villainous Star Trek race.

In the US, this box of Ritz crackers would be a single serving.

I must find one of these for my car.

If I am in the locker room, am I a tart?

I made wild mushroom soup.

And had dinner with an Aussie friend at a Palestinian restaurant.

The highlight of the week was when “my” Polish house cleaner gave me an Avon-like beauty catalog.  It’s her side hustle.

The world-famous couturier Valentin Yudashkin has provided me with so much entertainment I feel compelled to buy something, anything.

The Hours

The days roll by.  How can time go so fast when I don’t feel like I’m doing anything very exciting?

There is a phenomenon of time moving faster as you get older.  I turned 60 last week.  It doesn’t get much older than that!  Well, let’s hope it does.

A friend and I had dinner at the Randolph Hotel, a posh place that was reasonably priced.  I had gnocchi and it was okay.  But the room was splendid and the company was good, and they brought us complementary prosecco and birthday cake festooned with red currants, so it was very nice.

After dinner we walked next door to the Oxford Playhouse and saw the play Educating Rita. It’s also an old movie with Michael Caine and Julie Walters.  This version starred Stepehn Thompkinson, who starred in Ballykissangel and lots of other TV shows.

Educating Rita is about a young woman from a working class background who is thirsty to learn.  Tompkinson plays her crusty alcoholic tutor.  It was an appropriate theme for Oxford, I think, since the vast majority of the students here are from upper class families and everyone else is literally and figuratively shut out of the 38 colleges.  By that I mean that the campuses are all surrounded by high walls and the gates are guarded by porters who won’t let you in unless you’ve got some official connection.  Some colleges do promote tours of their campuses.

Then there are the free concerts, which I attend about twice a week.  I can walk up to the porter’s lodge, say “I’m here for the concert,” and they wave me through.  I enjoy walking past the hordes of proles craning their necks to get a look inside.

I’ve attended concerts at Christchurch Cathedral most often.  In one of the naves (I think that’s what it’s called, is the Lady Chapel.  It’s named for the patron saint of Oxford, Frideswide.  She was a nun born around the year 650 somewhere along the banks of the  Thames.  Her miracle—every saint needs to perform miracles—was restoring sight to the blind.

Poor Frideswide caught the eye of a king who wouldn’t take no for an answer.  You know, the age-old “Me Too” story.  There are multiple versions, but he abducted here, she got away, she hid in a forest, he ended up going blind and falling off his horse and breaking his neck. That may not have been the exact order of things, but you get the picture.

I thought this stained glass window in her chapel was particularly colorful.  A volunteer guide cornered me—not for the first time, and not that I minded—and gave me a mini Master’s Degree in the fine art of stained glass window design and production.

Another day I attended an organ concert there and we sat in the pews, which are richly decorated with carved “grotesques,” like griffins.

I’m not sure what this scrawny fellow is but he makes a nice contrast to the enormous organ in the background.

It must be an organist’s dream to play here.  The program said, “The organist has permission to play loudly” and he did.  Sadly there were only six people in attendance.

As I wrote last week, in contrast to the city centre my walk to the gym is through the low-rent district.  But I manage to find beautiful and interesting things along the way, and it’s not like I’m in any danger.

What a charming street name.

And what a cost-effective way to make more room for parking—instead of spending billions to widen the streets, just repaint the parking lines up onto the sidewalk!

More and more trees and shrubs are blooming.

Back at the house, I do my laundry, hanging it to dry in the spare room.  I have stayed in a dozen British homes and even the few people who own tumble dryers, as they call them, have an aversion to using them.

There are non-working fireplaces in the living room and dining room; originally there were probably fireplaces in every room, including the kitchen and bath.

The three cats do … cat things.  This day they were having a stare down.