Category Archives: daily life

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.

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!

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!

Safe in Scotland

Greetings from Scotland, where I am a house guest of Lynn and Richard’s.  Lynn, my friend with whom I have traveled in Japan, Italy, Prague, Colombia, Berlin, and road trips across the UK and US.

I weighed the pros and cons of relocating from Oxford to Scotland carefully.  I would get a ride with a friend who has homes in both locations. He drives back and forth once a month anyway.  But would I be violating the law? The guidelines for the UK lockdown are pretty unambiguous: Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives.  Don’t leave home except for exercise, to shop for food or medicine, or to work if you can’t work from home.

Would going be irresponsible and selfish? The Scottish chief medical officer had just resigned in shame for not observing her own advice; she’d been driving back and forth between to her two homes.

Sure, the chances of my giving the virus to, or catching it from, anyone as a result of the nine-hour drive across the length of the country were slim.  But could my friend expose me to the virus, or vice versa, during a whole day in a vehicle together?  Could one of us pick it up from the petrol station pump or the bathroom door handle in the rest stop?

Was I in denial?  Did I just want to go because I wanted to go?

In the end, I reasoned this way: In Oxford, I had to go shopping almost every day in order to keep enough food on hand.  I couldn’t order home delivery because I don’t have a UK bank account.  I didn’t have a car so I couldn’t do a bulk shop—I could only buy as much as I could carry four blocks, which was where the closest store was.  In Oxford, the stores are tiny and cramped.  There were employees at the doors allowing only one person in for every one who exited, and the floors were marked to keep people two metres apart, but there were plenty of people who ignored these measures.  It made me nervous.

Here in the highlands, I can Stay at Home for a month. There are deliveries by a bread man, a milk man, and a fish man, although the latter didn’t show yesterday.  Lynn can order meats and other basic products from the local butcher, pay online, then stop in front of the butcher shop while they load her order into the back of her vehicle.  For everything else there is an enormous Tesco where it is easier to observe the six-metre rule.

The house has two water supplies, one of which is dedicated to the house.  There’s a massive garden where a profusion of vegetables are growing.  The river can be fished for salmon and trout.  Richard has enough wood and peat stored up to keep the house’s dozen fireplaces roaring for months.  Richard hunts deer and game birds.  The guns will come in handy when the zombies try to come up the drive.

I hope that’s still funny a month from now.

The UK has extended its lockdown for at least another three weeks.  How do you pass the days in a country house?  Some days I feel like I’m in a dream where I’m trying to run through thigh-high pudding.

But mostly, the days fly by.  I used to get up early—6:30, say.  Today I slept until 8:00.  I used to snarf my breakfast down.  Now, with people to talk to, we might spend an hour chatting away over coffee.  I’m still doing my remote work and have seen funding opportunities shift from malaria control and water sanitation and human rights training to COVID, COVID, COVID.  I wonder how far it will go.  Will there eventually be no funding for anything but COVID?

I go for walks in the hills.

I have been assigned a project—to scrape and re-paint a wrought iron set of outdoor furniture.  I take yoga classes on Zoom.  I spend hours talking to friends.

I proposed  a creative activity of making plague masks out of papier Mache.  I think Lynn and Richard thought I was joking.

And now, some delightful daffodils.  Hang in there!

Pandemic Reading List

We are finishing up week three of our lockdown in the UK.  When it was announced, the Prime Minister said it would be reviewed after three weeks.  Signs are, restrictions will not ease up anytime soon.

I limit myself to scanning the headlines of the New York Times, BBC News, and Minneapolis-St Paul Star Tribune every morning.  I can literally feel my heart start pounding faster and my palms sweating, so after reading one or two articles, I force myself to move on to something else.

Later, I can’t resist tuning in to the Downing Street Daily Coronavirus Briefing.  You may have heard that the PM, Boris Johnson, was hospitalized for coronavirus.  He was just the best-known figure outside of Britain.  Every day there’s a different line up of authorities.  One day the chief medical officer for England is on tap, the next day he’s gone because he’s got the virus.  Ten days later he re-appears, but in the meanwhile he is replaced by the health minister, who disappears and is replaced by the secretary of state for health and social care, who disappears next, and so on.  It’s a bit disconcerting but also gripping television drama.

Every evening they show a series of graphs. I don’t know if this is being done in the US.  I can’t bring myself to watch he-who-shall-not-be-named.  Reading about his gaffs and lies the next day is bad enough.

When I look at the trajectory for US deaths, it looks bad, right? This is one of the things that compels me to watch the briefing—I want to see if any of the lines have changed course.

It could be worse.  In the past year I happened to read two books and a short story about post-apocalyptic worlds.  I made a list of all such books I have read, and here it is, in case you are looking to scare the b’Jesus out of yourself—or make yourself feel better about the current pandemic.

Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel. This is the book that most closely resembles the current situation, except that the virus has a 95% fatality rate.  Lots of food for thought about how we would survive, physically and socially, once the grocery stores were looted and empty.  One of those books I was still thinking about months later.

Blindness, by Jose Saramago.  As the title implies, this is about a plague that causes 99% of the population to go blind.  Similar to Station Eleven, themes are about how we would survive physically and socially if we could not see.

Memories of the Space Age, by J.G. Ballard. The title of a short story and collection of similarly-themed short stories.  Lately, I find I only have enough concentration to read short stories.  This one is about how man’s intrusion into space causes a plague-like time-slowing effect that starts at NASA and advancing through Florida until the entire state has to be shut down and emptied of people to stop the spread.

The Word for World is Forest, by Ursula K. LeGuin.  Humans have depleted every natural resource on Earth and are now plundering other worlds.  On Forest, they meet their match in the natives, who eventually drive them off but not before their innocence is defiled. Not a plague, but post-apocalyptic and not so unbelievable considering our rampant destruction of our planet.

The Man in the High Castle, by Phillip K. Dick.  This novel has been made into a TV show starring one of my favorite actors, Rufus Sewell.  In this scenario, the plague is fascism.  Again, not that farfetched, I’m afraid.  The plot: Germany and Japan won WWII.  The Germans are exterminating every person in Africa and chasing down the few Jews who slipped through the cracks.

On the Beach, by Nevile Shute.  A nuclear holocaust has exterminated the human race except  in Australia.  They know it is just a matter of time before the radioactive clouds reach them and cause them to die in agony.  By far the scariest scenario because they know their plague is coming.  I couldn’t finish it.

And now, a beautiful view of Oxford’s spires from a hilltop on a spring day.

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.