Fallen White Oak & Pandemic Progress

July 24, 2020

I’ve been working on a coffee table project and my garage workshop is tinged with the distinctive smell of white oak, an olfactory delight that conjures a primal knowledge of earth and sky and time. This morning I read of the passing of a majestic white oak tree, 230 years old, planted by George Washington on his Mount Vernon Estate. Caretakers heard it fall around midnight on a windless night last November; it just released itself from mother earth and laid down unexpectedly. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2020/07/24/washington-tree-mount-vernon/)

Woodworking can be a bit like acting as God; transforming the “dead” wood and giving it new life as a piece of art/furniture. Portable sawmill operators went to work immediately cutting the Mount Vernon Oak Tree into lumber and the wood was already earmarked for several significant projects. May the hands that work the wood honor the life lived by this special tree!

Five years ago my friends, Sandra and Mark, called to tell me that SDGE was planning to cut down a tree in the canyon behind their house in an older part of San Diego. Fungus had weakened the Aleppo Pine about seventy years old and it threatened some power lines. On cutting day, I showed up with borrowed truck, pumped up the tire pressure as high as I dared, and gave the crew a few bucks to cut a prime chunk of the trunk and crane it onto the truck. Later, I enlisted the help of a student from the Palomar College saw mill to come to my house and the two of us chainsaw milled the log into manageable slabs. I kept two book-matched slabs and donated the rest.

The seasoned slabs (shown “rough” above, about 4’x4′ in size) have now been glued together, shaped and sanded, and are ready for finishing. Meanwhile the sculptural “base” of white oak is well under way. Stay tuned for photos of the finished product which will be my first major piece with a “natural edge”.

Meanwhile, we just marked six months since the first reported case of Covid in the USA. There are now over four million Americans who have contracted the virus and over 145,000 dead. The epic failure of our country and our leadership to manage the pandemic is now painfully obvious. With little leadership at the top and little trust at the bottom, we seem resigned to making each other sick and enduring the economic hardship that results. These pitiful conditions cry out for a unifying vision.

And if the pandemic isn’t enough, the recent torture/murder of a black man on the street by a nonchalant police officer in Minneapolis, documented by a citizen video, has ignited activism on the very deep roots of slavery and racism in the American story. The Black Lives Matter movement has gained new life and has, for the first time, attracted many non-black citizens to learn about and protest the profound racial injustice embedded in our social fabric. And if the pandemic and the protests weren’t enough, the executive branch has been taken over by a corrupt mafia boss with sycophants now in place throughout many levels of government. Unidentified federal troops in full riot gear have been dispatched to cities where they are kidnapping people off the street with no regard for constitutional rights.

The George Washington Oak Tree had a cross and a star carved in the trunk by troops during civil war times. One-hundred and fifty years later, the scar was barely discernible. The tree survived and the young country survived. The mighty tree lived long enough to witness the birth of America, see the civil war come and go, see forty-five presidents come and go, see generation after generation pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. After going through all this history, I wonder why this wisened tree-elder decided to quit life now? Rather ominous. In these unsettled times may we gain the vision of an acorn and the perspective of an ancient oak. Amen.

Earth Day at 50

 

IMG_7151

April 22, 2020

On the first Earth Day I was 18 years old, living with my parents and attending San Fernando Valley State College as a freshman.  Little did I understand that I was coming of age during an amazing shift in cultural consciousness that reached a tipping point when the first photographs of earth from outer space came out.  The blue marble was so striking, so obviously different from other planets, so wondrous: a living planet.  And we are a part of it; we can point to where we live!  Mind-blowing image.

This shift in collective consciousness spawned “Earth Day” which was the largest political demonstration in US history!  Twenty million people, 10% of the population, participated.  With the incredible energy generated by this grass roots event, amazing political wins were achieved in America:  EPA, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Endangered Species Act.  As Earth Day grew older it gradually became a merchandizing slogan and reason for a litter campaign.   For the last few decades the landmark laws have been under steady attack , and they are now being shredded as I write, deemed impediments to economic growth and profit.  The “shift in consciousness” has had a bumpy ride.  And that brings us to…CovidWorld.

The flora and fauna seem to be enjoying CovidWorld.  I take daily excursions on the bike to observe and document this strange new world that seems suspended in time.  The trees relish the fresh air, the birdsongs ring clearly,  the critters that scurry about seem to sense the moment.  The great pause is having a rejuvenating effect on the natural world that surrounds us.  It’s a striking contrast to the pain and suffering that so many humans are going through at the same time.   Bittersweet.

The pandemic is now roughly five or six weeks old in America and the first wave has hit several areas, and has flattened in some.  Our unpreparedness and fumbled response is not getting much better. The lack of coordination, the flood of misinformation and the rise of conspiracy theories, are leading some to sabotage efforts to fight the virus.   Unfortunately, because there is still not adequate testing so we can “test, trace and isolate”…mass stay-at-home orders are all we can do.  That makes people crazy after a while.  Sadly, it looks like we will be hunkered down for a long time while enduring wave after wave until the ones practicing “social-closeness” learn.  Covid doesn’t care about the political spin and crazy lying.

 

Local cycling in the Pandemic

April 14, 2020

Up until yesterday I have savored cycling around town, mostly alone, seeing first hand what the shut-down looks like.  Truth is, it’s cyclist heaven out there:  few cars, no blasting exhaust, nice fresh air and fresh skies; everything lush and green after ample rains; spring in full swing.  And it’s out-of-the-house!!

It’s been so amazing to travel all the old familiar places and see them empty and closed.  If I’d been dropped from the sky to this scene, I’d guess that some kind of a neutron bomb had gone off…leaving all the property intact, all the flora and fauna intact, but erasing a huge percentage of the human population. The remaining people I see from my roving saddle, seem to be calm and deliberate…no obvious trauma from whatever event had taken away all the others.  The presence of face masks is the only clue readily noticeable.

Yesterday I cycled to the station and caught the Coaster (commuter train) downtown in the morning.  I shared the train car with three others who got off in quick succession and left the whole car to me for the rest of the trip.  I am riding my touring bike with a handlebar bag, a rear pannier and a safety triangle.  I don’t appear to be a recreational rider on this machine with fenders, and racks front and rear, more like and old guy going to the pharmacy for his medications!

There was a steady drizzle, and somewhere to shelter became the immediate priority, no easy task in a pandemic.  I settled in to a parking garage and kicked back against a pillar to write some field notes; but security had a different idea.  Noodling over to Balboa Park, I took cover under a giant Oak. The official-types manning a key entrance to the park close by kept giving me stink-eye glances, but they didn’t chase me away.  

Since my almost daily rides for the last sixteen days, I have seen the lock-down become tighter and tighter.  Today there are people manning key locations to keep people away or shoo them along.  Nobody is lingering anywhere, everyone moving.  I packed a lunch but damn if I could even find a place to sit down and eat!  In a very remote corner of Mission Bay, a table had my name on it, and I spent a couple hours eating and writing letters.  

But the ever-tightening closure is not looking as interesting now; it’s starting to feel creepy.  I wanted to get home and stop venturing out on the bike any more.  

Hello God?

Me:    Hello God?

God:  Always here ya know!  Please, call me Shekinah. (Goddess)

Me:  OK Shekinah.  I have a few pandemic questions.  Do you have a minute?

Shekinah:  Oh.  Maybe you should talk to Adonai.  He has a lot of experience with plagues, knows ’em inside and out.

Me:  Can I just ask you since you’re here?  And besides, I’m a little afraid of Adonai, seems like his temper is over the top sometimes.

Shekinah:  Ha!  Well maybe you haven’t appreciated his great sense of humor, and he is quite loving in the end.  But I understand, he can sometimes come off as a scorched-earth-badass!

Me:   So I’m just wondering what’s the plan with this pandemic?  Can you give me an idea of where we are headed?  Lots of people are suffering terribly you know.

Shekinah:  Well Joseph wasn’t a happy camper in the slave-trader’s pit.  But how else could he get to be Pharaohs right hand man, and save the starving Jews?!

Me:  So there’s going to be a good outcome?  What can we expect?

Shekinah:  The outcome is up to you.  We’re co-creators remember!  You’ve been given a chance to stop, consider, and make new choices.  Hurdling off a climate cliff is not cool.

Me:  Climate Cliff??

Shekinah:  Of course.  Covid is only to help you deal with the climate crisis.  How else could the whole world be made to stop, consider options, and make changes?   Humankind hasn’t been able to stop the train-wreck on its own, ya know.   A little intercession became the only option.

Me:   …So you sent us Covid!

Shekinah:  Well Covid, however terrible, is not the real enemy!  The real enemy does not come from the outside, but from within.  The enemy is not the virus….but your response to the virus.

Me:  And America is the poster child for bungling the response!

Shekinah:  Indeed.  How have you been doing in America caring for the needs of the most vulnerable in your midst.  That’s your job you know.

Me:  Well Covid is making most of us vulnerable, even the wealthy.

Shekinah:  Let the President and his friends  protect the wealthy, the least vulnerable.  You protect the poor, the sick, the homeless, the refugees.

Me:  Oy vey, tall order.

Shekinah:  Humankind will either have to accept a world of division and scarcity…or…imagine a world of oneness, justice, compassion and love.

Covid and Climate Crisis

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If we are ‘all in this together’ for Covid, we must be ‘all in this together’ for the climate crisis!  Covid will eventually pass away; the climate crisis is at or beyond several tipping points, feedback loops that scientist say will spiral out of control.  Imagine if the medical personnel in NYC decided to stand down in the battle against Covid because they noticed that other areas were not doing as much.  “Why should we have to suffer the personal hardships that are required to fight here, while you are lax over there, and will undoubtedly spread more virus to us later as a result!”

That translates to, “Why should we curb fossil fuels in America when they are building coal plants over there?  Why should our economy suffer?  Everyone’s carbon is pouring into the same air, land and sea that comprises the blue planet where we all live.  Some would point to a leak in our planetary lifeboat, and dismiss it because it’s at the other end of the boat.  But Covid is teaching us that we must work together…or sink.  If Covid is an “all hands on deck” moment for the world, how much more so should it be for climate change?  The stakes are far greater when talking about the climate crisis.   

The great pandemic “pause” (to use Governor Andrew Cuomo’s terminology) may be a blessing in disguise.  Rabbi calls it the Great Shabbat.  Seems like everything is up for consideration now.  I am holding out for a shift in human consciousness…one that will allow us to create governments and businesses and systems and communities that will serve everyone best.  As Bernie Sanders said yesterday announcing his non-candidacy, his core beliefs are healthcare justice, economic justice, racial justice, environmental justice…and the understanding that we are all in this together.  None of that happens without a shift in collective human consciousness.  Covid is providing the opportunity to “reset” many of our institutions and systems, an opportunity that won’t come along again soon.   Maybe they’ll reset for better; maybe they’ll reset for worse.  I’m acting as though it will be the former!  Tikkun Olam!

Teaching the 10 plagues when we’re in one. Passover and Pandemic Milestones.

April 9, 2020

 Quiet out on the coast highway

Last night was the first day of Passover.  This year many seder services normally held at home were conducted via internet.  For the grandchildren…and us adults…its quite a moment to learn about the ten plagues while in the midst of one!  Of course, the most significant teaching from Passover is the transition from slavery to freedom.  Seldom talked about though, are the slaves who stayed in Egypt, fearful of joining those leaving into the unknown.  Yes they were slaves, but at least it seemed like a secure “job”.  I think we have more than a few like this today.  CovidWorld is creating new choices to be free.

A month ago pandemic awareness really began to ramp up in the USA among the general population.  In the last three weeks sixteen million Americans have applied for unemployment benefits.  The economy is contracting dramatically. Meanwhile, essential services like medical care, food, medications and transportation continue to operate, with accommodations.  

Unemployment numbers aside, two other events mark this point in the pandemic as it unfolds:  Bernie Sanders dropped out presidential contention and John Prine died of complications from Covid. 

John Prine (1947 – 2020)

John Prine has been described as the Mark Twain of American singer/songwriters.  I agree.  Blue collar, rooted in Kentucky and suburban Chicago, army veteran and mailman, his songs cut right through any layers of social strata to speak to deeper truths within us all.  We saw him perform a couple times with Bonnie Raitt.

I’ve listened to his last album, “Tree of Forgiveness” regularly over the last couple years, but yesterday I listened with “new ears” knowing he’s just died.  WOW.  Every song delivered a fresh punch. Some were downright prophetic.  Perhaps he set us up, putting out songs that would play like messages from the other side once he crossed over. (“When I Get to Heaven”, “God Only Knows”, and “Summer’s End” with its plaintive refrain, “…just come on home.”)      

The album title is from the song When I Get to Heaven in which  Prine describes getting back into show business once he reaches heaven, and opening a club called, “The Tree of Forgiveness”.  He invites a “few choice critics, those syphilitic parasitics”, and offers them a beer.  Yes, he could turn a phrase.  I think he’s hit upon the thing that the world is silently crying out for; the thing we need to gain higher consciousness, the thing that squeezes the heart and sticks in the throat: forgiveness.  We need a big “truth & reconciliation” process, followed by forgiveness. RIP John Prine.   Please open that club…and send some invitations our way.  Amen.

https://youtu.be/OaDGYFNmt

“What Mean ‘WE’ Kimosabe?” ( Tonto to the Lone Ranger with Indians on the left, right, front and back.)

The catchphrase being thrown around everywhere these days is, “We are all in this together!”  It’s true and always has been.  When potable water comes out of the tap, when the electric light turns on, when food shows up at the store…our complete dependency on one another is obvious.  But CovidWorld has taken this to a new level.  I am responsible for your health and you are responsible for my health.  Our connectedness and vulnerability to one another is clear and becoming more apparent every day.

But I can’t help but wonder about the people who ask the tough questions:

Are we all in this together when you claim healthcare is not a human right?  Are we all in this together as you (federal government executive branch) are in court right now trying to have the Affordable Care Act entirely scrapped?  Are we together, waiting six hours in line to vote?  Have we all been in this together since 2009 when the minimum wage was last adjusted?  Have we all been in this together as we imprison people (mostly minorities) at ten times the rate of any other countries?   Have we all been in this together watching vast numbers of our children living in poverty?  Are we all together drinking toxic water and breathing polluted air?  Are we all in this together when the income gap grows and homelessness abounds?  Will CovidWorld change our thinking about any of these issues?

“We’re all in this together,” during the bad times.  In “good times”…not so much.

 

 

Mom

April 2, 2020

On the bike ride, approaching Colorado and enduring Kansas (least-liked of the ten states we traversed), Mom had a stroke and was hospitalized.  Her right side was paralyzed, and I began considering how I might leave the ride and fly home.  At ninety-five years old, I figured this would be the start of a quick decline and probable death.  She had been living at home with a daytime caregiver; now everything was up in the air.

Mom had been receiving postcards from the road on a quasi-daily basis, and we talked by phone several times a week.  I could create a postcard on my smartphone with a photo and short message and it would be printed and sent by Postagram.  On a phone call before the stroke I shared my anticipation to reach the great Rocky Mountains very soon after more than forty days on the road.   She suddenly sounded wistful and said, “Do you remember that song,  ‘When It’s Springtime in the Rockies’ ?”  She had a little singsong in her voice like maybe she fell in love listening to this song once upon a time.

Later I googled the song and learned it had been popularized by Gene Autry, the “singing cowboy”.  Really hokey listening.  The version that I came to love, the version that I put on my phone and played for days on end, the version played directly to my hearing aids as I pedaled away the hours, was one in the Smithsonian archives.  It was an interview with “Leadbelly”.   He told about how he learned of the song and then broke into his rendition.  Something about the raw naked simplicity of his plunky guitar springing to life under his hand, something about his transition from speaking to singing, something about the soulful voice seasoned by a lifetime, and the lyrical image of coming home just shot like an arrow right to my heart.  Tears flowed easily while drinking in the awesome beauty of  “Springtime in the Rockies” playing out before my eyes…and ears!

LeadBelly recording…

https://music.apple.com/us/album/springtime-in-the-rockies/951247083?i=951247248

I thought about Mom and started composing her eulogy.  Mom stabilized and came home; I abandoned the eulogy and continued on to Wyoming, the most beautiful state of the trip.  Mom turned 97 in November.

Mom&Susan

 

 

The whole mishpucha celebrated Clarie’s 97th birthday.  Mariachi’s sang Happy Birthday and Mom is shown talking to her niece, Susan.

 

 

 

I just got off the phone with Mom.  She’s at a new level of weakness today, not able to walk but can shuffle around with the aid of a caregiver on each side.  The three days spent at the hospital last week with aspiration pneumonia and sepsis took its toll.  Hoag Hospital did not allow any visitation while she was there and now back at home, doctor’s orders say no visitation whatsoever!  Yette, her devoted primary caregiver, told me in so many words that the isolation is an emotional drag on Mom.  She’s losing her will to persevere as she has done for the last 22 months since the stroke.  She gamely did her PT, she gamely did her OT, she gamely started using her left hand!  And she would still get nicely dressed with hair/makeup/earrings for the rotating visits from her three sons and occasional others.  Now she might be right at the stage of becoming bedridden.  And no visitation.

The immediate family shared a Zoom call with Mom yesterday afternoon, not her peak time but it was what we could all manage.  To my hospice-eye, Mom seemed to be in early transition to “active dying”.  The unspoken understanding on the session was that this could be a final conversation.  This is certainly not the way I ever imagined it would be after more than a decade of hospice volunteering and after hosting a dozen “Death Cafes”.  The pandemic has meant people dying alone, no final goodbyes and no chance for family and friends to grieve together.  Our practices surrounding death and dying have been shredded.  Stricken without warning.  Surely one of the learnings from CovidWorld will be a re-examination of our relationship to death and dying.  It’s painful and it’s long overdue but our humanity will be greatly enhanced by the process.  Love will grow.

 

 

 

 

PANDEMIC ~ APRIL, 2020 ~ CALIFORNIA

I have not posted in this blog since August of 2018 when my TransAm bike ride ended in Oregon after 4200 miles of pedaling.  After letting the experience marinate for the better part of two years, and with the sudden rise of the CovidWorld, it’s time!

What was learned from riding coast-to-coast is just now coming into focus.  It was not for nothing that I took a ride of such length and scope, having never done any self-contained bike touring before.  Yes, I put myself through this experience…an experience I called a “quest”;  but the lessons weren’t readily apparent at the end.  There was only the idea that I had taken on a big challenge and ended up doing it.  The more profound underlying lessons have taken time to emerge.  And perhaps the pandemic has served to focus the mind.  Please join me as I document the unfolding pandemic and integrate my learning from the ride in the posts that will follow.

 

April 1, 2020   

Where do I start?  It’s the great pandemic of 2020.  Twenty-four days ago Barbara and I drove to a timeshare in Napa with plans to visit friends and family in nearby San Francisco.  We had heard about Covid-19 of course, but we felt like we’d be low risk to catch it since we were not getting on a plane or using public transportation. 

Quarryhill Botanical Gardens, Sonoma County

In Napa everything was wide open, no closures, wineries and restaurants filled, lots of people walking the downtown streets at night.  We joined them.  So much for delusions of “low risk”.  Napa was beautiful in the early spring, lush and green from plentiful rains and the rolling vineyards pruned bare.  I’d arrived with a cough that I’d had for weeks but it suddenly worsened.

One by one our planned visits got cancelled as a result of creeping Covid and my uncontrolled coughing.  Barbara suggested we head home and see a doctor.  We left the San Francisco Bay the same day a cruise ship with 24 Covid-positive passengers docked in Oakland after negotiating with authorities for days.  This is the ship Trump famously wanted to reject so they wouldn’t make his numbers look bad.

My doctor had just switched to telephone visits due to Covid precautions, so I had a phone appointment while driving home and started antibiotics the next day.  A few days later I was diagnosed with pneumonia, presumably the good ole-fashioned bacterial kind.  They DID test me for Covid-19 however, and it came back negative after five days.

The severity of the pandemic dawned on us in stages.  Six counties in San Francisco issued “shelter-in-place” orders just as we left. Within days, additional Bay area counties started issuing similar orders and a couple days after that the governor made the policy state wide.  Suddenly we were “sheltering in place” but taking liberties such as seeing the children and grandchildren.  Then the parks were closed, the trails were closed, the beaches were closed.  The WHO declared an official “pandemic” and the wild ride of CovidWorld suddenly began.   

On cable TV, the hapless president was desperately trying everything in his playbook to deal with the pandemic: denial, spin, blame-shift, deflect, attack the media, roll out a conspiracy theory, bluster and bombast, alternative facts…everything that has worked for him throughout his life.  But Covid is having none of it.  The president stands naked, exposed as a malignant narcissist, unable to summon up genuine empathy, seemingly unable to connect with his heart, alone with nobody he can trust, and so fearful.  And totally incompetent as a crisis manager.  

If CovidWorld becomes overwhelming, maybe there’s a chance the president will have a “come to Jesus” moment and be struck by the light of love.  Maybe we will witness the Scrooge storyline play out, with a tiny virus serving as Trump’s ghost.  Maybe he will appear on TV in tears, repenting, asking forgiveness, offering amends…a profoundly changed man.  Or maybe not.

 “Man plans, God laughs”

The president is only a bit player in CovidWorld. Covid has brought the whole world to it’s knees. Rabbi asks,

“To what question is the coronavirus the answer?  The implication, of course, is that the virus has something to teach us — collectively and individually.”  Indeed.