The Coronavirus and Friendship

In recent weeks, many people have been losing friends, questioning their friends’ morals, or finding their friendships strained because friends are taking social distancing less seriously than they are.

“Friends Are Breaking Up Over Social Distancing”
Ashley Fetters, The Atlantic, April 2020

The excellent Atlantic article quoted above is about how people are ending friendships over differences in attitudes regarding the pandemic and social distancing and how to avoid it. It’s well-written and worth the read. As I was reading through it, I thought of my own friends and family and it got me wondering why this is happening, and what, if anything, we can do about it. What matters, and what doesn’t?

The last two months have been a lesson in human nature. This novel coronavirus is hitting our humanity. There is a lot that is unknown about this virus, and we humans freak out about the unknown. And we freak out differently.

Social distancing is a pretty simple concept. If we stay away from each other, the virus can’t spread, and if it can’t spread, then eventually the virus will abate. Social distancing is the method we in America have decided will slow the growth of the number of cases and will give us a fighting chance to find treatments and eventually find a vaccine.

Everyone values social distancing differently. I have friends who are hunkered up at home, getting stuff delivered, and who do not go out at all. Personally, I shop for things we need and I wear a mask and try to stay away from people, and I wash my hands and have hand-sanitizer at the ready. But I have friends who poo-poo this whole thing, do not do any social distancing, and get together for social activities, despite stay-at-home orders. The Atlantic article addresses these differences in attitudes toward social distancing and how it can end friendships.

There is a factor that I believe makes these differences more perilous: we are not seeing our friends in person. We may talk on the phone, or even from time to time put together Zoom meetings, but more likely we are interacting on social media and/or chat programs. We try to understand each other and try to get others to understand our points of view, but we are not doing it in person. We are not talking to each other. We are looking at flickering letters on a screen with an occasional picture. We are isolated.

We are human. We are meant to be together, in person. We go to coffeeshops or restaurants by ourselves just to be with people, even people we don’t know, even if we are introverts. When we are with friends, we can have conversations, or we can watch a movie or concert, or just hang out. If we have conversations, they are less important than just the fact of being together.

And when we do have conversations, the conversations are immediate. We don’t just talk; rather, we see, we “read the room,” we are aware of body language and tone, and we see all these social cues because we are together. Tempers may flair on controversial topics, but we see this happening in real time, and we generally know when to back off and change the subject: “how about those Dodgers, eh?” A blown-up discussion can be diffused, and the clouds clear. Because we are together and because we are friends and we love each other, even when we disagree. It’s not about the conversation. It’s about being together, and about being friends.

No two people will agree on everything. Add more people to the mix, and the areas of agreement become fewer and fewer. This is life. This is human nature. Some disagreements are minor, such as whether pineapple belongs on a pizza. Some are fundamental, such as whether or not God exists. Friendship transcends these differences – it must, because no one agrees completely with anyone else.

Friendship endures because people are not their opinions. Opinions and beliefs can change over time as you live your life. You may find that, hey! Pineapple is not so bad. Or that, yes, you can make barbecue with beef as well as pork. Or that the death penalty may not be such a great idea. If you change your mind are you a different person? No. If anything, you are more complete. Or perhaps more jaded. But you are still fundamentally you.

A person is a soul put on this earth to try to get along and do the best he or she can, trying to do good in a world that’s hard to know what doing good is. Everyone is imperfect and is imperfectly dealing with life’s trials and struggles. Life goes on with its tragedies and victories, and we in our imperfections do what we can to do the best we can. Every person is on their own epic journey. Each person’s journey is worthy of a novel.

I believe that when you come across someone and get to know their core goodness, that person can become a friend regardless of superficial beliefs or opinions. You recognize the genuineness of their soul, and that’s what matters. Friendship is therefore honoring and respecting your friends’ souls, regardless of their opinions or beliefs.

Enter social media and enter the isolation in which social media puts us. Social media connects us, but it only does so through words on a screen, intermingled with pictures and memes. Social media gives the appearance of connection, but not the reality of connection. It is a cliché that Facebook and Instagram show the highlight reel of our lives. But it’s true. Even when true grief is shared on social media, real connection is not there. You are not there in person to hold someone who just lost their husband or child. All you can do is type “so sorry for your loss” and press Enter. Words on a flickering screen.

Social media forces us to write. Worse, it forces us to write in short bursts scattershot to a multitude rather than in long letters written to an individual or to a family. Writing is difficult in the best of circumstances when you have the space and time to fully flesh out what you really want to convey. A good writer can capture emotions and convey genuineness and can console a person to the point where it is as if they are in the room with you, consoling you in your grief, and easing your pain. Ninety-nine years ago, William Allen White, the editor of the Emporia Gazette in Emporia, Kansas, wrote an obituary for his young daughter who died in an accident. It is an amazing piece. Here is a father, writing about his daughter who was taken away too soon, and he was able to wring out the grief completely and leave us with hope and love. It’s one of my favorite pieces of literature. The singer and songwriter John Prine died just a few weeks ago, taken by COVID-19, and his death hit me hard. And yet a song he wrote called “When I Get to Heaven” made my own grief easier to bear. I can see him up there smoking his nine-mile-long cigarette, and it makes me smile. William Allen White and John Prine are writers, and as writers, they can take the insane complexity of humanity and put it into words. They are exceptional because they could write so well.

However, most people are not writers. And yet social media forces us to write, and worse, to write in small tweet-sized bursts. It is impossible to convey humanity and connection in tweet-sized bursts.

And now we are confronted with existential problems none of us have seen in our lifetimes. We are enduring events that have changed our lives in an incredibly short period of time. Over a million and a half people in this country have been sickened by a disease that we didn’t even know existed at the beginning of the year. As of this writing, one hundred thousand people have perished in the United States, a third of a million world-wide, all in just a few months. Because we have to fight this disease, over thirty-eight million people in the US have lost their jobs just in the last two months. Thirty-eight million! That is unbelievable. And in this period of true human suffering, because this disease spreads easily by human physical contact, we have been asked to stay apart from each other. To be isolated. To stay home, stay out of school and out of work, stay away from parks, from theaters, sports events, and even from our friends’ houses. Even from our loved-ones’ funerals.

We humans need physical, in-person, interaction. Even introverts like myself are missing real connection with people in person. This virus is forcing us to stop doing what we as humans must do: to be together. And this change happened in a flash.

We, as the human race collectively, do not have the full picture of exactly what this virus is and will do. We don’t know exactly how it spreads. We don’t know if someone who recovers is now immune. We don’t know if we can make a vaccine for it, and if we can, when it will be available. We don’t know exactly how to treat COVID-19. Experts who dedicated their lives to epidemiology and virology and emergency medicine do not yet have a handle on this, and that creates a huge gap of knowledge that we humans cannot tolerate. We need to know, and we need to know now! But we don’t know, and because we don’t know, we are prone to grasping at straws. And there are people who just love to provide those straws, even if they have to invent them. What we do know is, we are all affected by this, and we want it to stop.

While we are all facing this existential threat, we are all affected in different ways. The coronavirus is the root of this threat, but it spawns existential threats of its own: Isolation and lack of connection. Uncertainty. Conflicting messages. Loss of income and property. Loss of businesses, some of which will never reopen. Doubt about how it’s being addressed by society and the government. The daily increase of the number of people who died. This thing is hitting us from all sides, and it’s hitting us at our core values. We end up having different opinions about which type of hit is worse.

Except in cases of sociopathy, no one wants people to be sick or die. No one wants people to be out of work, or to lose their livelihood, or their home. Or their sanity. No one is trying to make a case for evil – certainly not our friends. Each of our friends wants to do the right thing, and address this in the best way they can. Each of us is operating on the data we have. Each of us is experiencing our own level of pain and desperation. And we will disagree on these existential threats that are unprecedented in our lifetimes, and which are hurting us now.

Because we can’t be together physically, we can’t do what we would normally do to work this out: argue at the dinner table, argue at the pub or cigar lounge or coffee shop, or argue in the public square. We can’t hug it out. We can’t even fight it out. Our human strength of working things out in person is not available to us. Even those people who are protesting stay-at-home orders in public aren’t working it out in public. The people they need to work it out with are at home. We are isolated from each other. Isolation, uncertainty, and the real threat to our lives are making us crazy, some of us more than others.

We try in earnest to figure out what is going on, to fill in the gaps, to find a way to get through this, and to disseminate what we think are the best ways to get us back on track. And we can’t do it in person.

What are we left with? Social media. Where we as mostly non-writers are trying to work out core-value fears in texts, tweets, and memes, broadcasted out to the world.

The best writers write thousand-word opinion pieces rather than try to make their points in one hundred and forty characters. Forcing important thoughts into a brief paragraph or meme squeezes out the nuance and complexity of the issue. Our opinions cannot be fully expressed in a tweet. Instead of a post being exactly what we mean, it becomes kinda what we mean – and it can and will miss the mark. It is a shell of what we really believe, because we are complex beings, not paper dolls. This inadequate shell of a post becomes a straw man when someone argues against it, to the point where we argue past each other, leaving us to struggle to explain what we really meant, sometimes to people we don’t even know. We are all arguing from a position of doing the right thing, but we differ on what “doing the right” thing is. We are forced to use small-paragraph bludgeons that are stereotypes of our real opinions to make our points. But our written opinions are incorrect because they are incomplete. To fully complete our opinions requires time, space, and effort, and we don’t do that.

The result of people with passion arguing existential ideas in word bursts online is what we are seeing on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, WhatsApp, etc.: sincere people and an army of trolls, all misunderstanding each other. When we are forced into this mode of communication with our good friends, friends we’ve known for years, who’ve been there for us in times of trouble and triumph, well, we get lost in a tangle of words, and we lose sight of our friends’ humanity, complexity, and genuine soul. And unfortunately, this can result in losing the friend.

I have strong opinions, and my friends have strong opinions, and our opinions can be vastly different. And yet we are friends, because we recognize and respect each other’s genuine soul. We love each other. We’re there for each other. I can say that my friends saved my life. Social distancing and stay-at-home orders have disrupted our being together at a time when there is not one of us who has not been adversely affected by this damned virus. My friends and I are experiencing genuine pain, and/or fear, and/or anger, and we can’t all be together. We can snipe at each other on social media, though. This crisis has taught me that social media is not really social at all.

As I look over the surreal world we have been chucked into just a few weeks ago, and as I look at the shocks we are enduring, the threats to our humanity, and especially at the fact that we are forced to be apart to better our chances of survival, I have to come to one conclusion: we have to refuse to lose each other. We can’t let our being forced apart break us apart. We have to stay human to each other especially now that we can’t share a hug or a handshake. Right now, our friends and our family need us, and we need them. Especially now. We need to give our friends and family a break. Friendship and love are more important and deeper than any disagreement we may have. Be there for them now, and give them a hug when it’s all over.

Our humanity will get us through this.

The Hardest Thing about Growing Older

I listen to a lot of podcasts these days. Even shows that are shows meant for radio, such as most NPR podcasts, are podcast-ified radio shows. “This American Life,” “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” Alex Baldwin’s “Here’s the Thing” are all radio shows that also have a supporting podcast. But I don’t listen to the radio – ever. Sirius-XM is an exception, but even it is not technically radio, isn’t it? It’s satellite, and anyway it is better than radio in my mind because there are no commercials.

I have a set of twenty-seven podcasts I listen to on a regular basis. Twenty-seven! Needless to say there are only a few of those I listen to regularly, and I find that I binge on some for a while, and then move to another. A week’s worth of “This American Life,” followed by a week of “Radio Lab,” followed by, say, Planet Money’s “The Indicator” and “Planet Money” itself. My regulars include the amazing “Revisionist History” by Malcolm Gladwell, “WTF” by Marc Maron, and, since I love cigars, “The Cigar Authority.” I wouldn’t normally name-drop so many podcasts, but I have friends who have asked me which podcasts I listen to, so there’s a few.

I love podcasts. I do a lot of driving, and walking, and working around the ranch, and I am a very curious man, and I love the ideas and thoughts and the takes on life that my little subset of podcasts impart to me.

Pre-podcast, of course, there was really only radio, which I listened to back in the day. The problem with radio shows is that they are on a schedule, and there’s no information about the show when it is on. I’m not into setting my schedule based on when a show is airing, and if you happen to get in the car at, say, 10:15, and you enter a show mid-way, well, you miss the intro, and even what the show is that you are listening to. It just doesn’t work for me. And it leaves me with hearing some interesting facts and insights that I find amazing – but I have no clue who said them, or who the host is, or many times what the name of the show is. While I appreciate the insights, it is frustrating to not have the full picture or context of the conversation.

One such conversation was an interview with Sylvester Stallone that I listened to on the radio about ten years ago, on, what? NPR? Fresh Air? I have no idea. In the interview he was speaking about his career and his life, and he said something that stunned me: “The hardest thing about growing older is saying goodbye to your friends.”

That quote almost stopped my heart. I was not expecting that, especially in a celebrity interview, and not from Sly Stallone. Now Sly is smart and a thinker even though he is known for action movies like Rocky, First Blood, and Judge Dredd, but, I did not expect something as profound as this. When I heard it it rang so true to me that I had to stop listening and just ponder that statement.

“The hardest thing about growing older is saying goodbye to your friends.”

Oh, that is so true. I heard this show shortly after I lost my best friend to a bicycle accident and my step-father to melanoma within a month of each other. I lost two good friends to cancer and another to an enlarged heart a few years before. These were people I loved and laughed with, and who were no longer with us. The quote brought all that into focus, and it became very clear to me: that is indeed the hardest part of growing older.

Bill Cosby was one of my favorite comedians before his scandals ruined it all. But his comedy albums of the 1960s were pure gold, and even now circumstances of life will remind me of some of his great sketches. I remember a sketch where he talked about his grandfather reading the paper. He only read the obituaries: “I wonder who died today?” It was funny of course, but isn’t that true? My parents and my grandparents said the same thing. “Oh, I see Janet passed away. That’s such a shame.” When you are a kid you don’t have any context about this. You don’t know who these people are, and they are (or were) older than dirt anyway, and in youth, death is incredibly far away. In youth, life fills you so much that death is impossible. I think back to when I was a teenager in Los Angeles, and how I would ride my bike down Angeles Crest Highway or Topanga Canyon Boulevard, sans helmet, passing cars, and I think to myself, what the hell was I thinking? Yes. No death. No one dies.

When I was twenty, I was super strong and super healthy. I worked construction and since I had no actual construction skills, I would stock drywall by taking 4×12 sheets two at a time from the front of the job site to the various rooms where they were needed. All day long. I’m sure I could have lifted a Volkswagen if I needed to. At school, I would leap down staircases one flight at a time. It didn’t seem like much at the time, but looking back…

When the soul and the body are young, the soul is clueless and the body is strong. As we grow into adulthood, into middle age, and beyond, our souls get wiser and our bodies wear. Our friendships go from new and sparkly people we just met and love to hang around with to friends we have known for decades and with whom we have weathered storms. Even if we meet someone new (like, say, only five years ago instead of forty-five) these friendships become stronger than in youth because we have decades of common experience.

And then we lose one. We lose two. When a death happens when we’re in our thirties, it’s a fluke – a “Big Chill” moment. Fuck! People die? No! Our mortality becomes real. Then, we lose a good friend to cancer. Or to an accident. My best friend died riding his bicycle down Vermont Avenue just below the Greek Theater – riding helmetless, just as I rode back in the day. Oh, that was hard. I lost my wife, which was almost unendurable. Our lives develop voids. We grow older. We lose more friends. We lose more family. We lose more people. I climbed mountains with my friends. Shot the shit. Got into trouble with them. Worked with them. Went to their weddings. Welcomed their children. Grieved with them when they couldn’t have children. And said goodbye.

My mother is eighty-three. My father, eighty-five. Most of their friends are gone. When we talk, we talk of events that happened long ago. What does that tell us? I’ll tell you what it tells me: the goal is not to ignore the now and try to make it to eighty or one hundred. The goal is to live life now. To take the time to just be, and connect, and enjoy the world you are in and the people you are with now. In the snapshot of time we are in right now, we know and love people who are here right now and who may not be here tomorrow. And to whom we’ll have to say goodbye. Or, if we are first to go, will have to say goodbye to us. I think we should make it a point to say hello hundreds of more times before we have to finally say goodbye. Because saying goodbye is the hardest thing.

The Chain of Memory

The mind is an interesting thing. The other day BTO’s “Blue Collar” popped up on my Spotify Discover playlist. This is a song that I love, and I hadn’t heard it in years. The song reminded me of a similar song that my stepfather, Larry Steely, turned me onto and which came out around the same time, in the early ’70s. He had the album. The album name was eponymous, and I remembered the cover was blue, and I remembered the artist was a brother to another known musician. I  remembered the song itself was jazzy, in the mode that “Blue Collar” is jazzy.
But I could not remember the damn album name, the artist’s name, or the freaking song, for the life of me!
At first, I thought it was Edgar Winter’s brother Johnny Winter. So, I looked up Johnny Winter songs and albums, and no joy – not even close. So I thought – who else? Well, Greg Allman – “Allman” – hmm, could be the one. So I looked up to see if it was Duane Allman. So, again, I looked up Duane Allman records and albums. No Joy.
It was bugging me! Who could it be? I tried Googling “albums with blue covers” and saw a whole bunch: Joni Mitchell’s “Blue,” of course, and many others. No Joy.
So, I thought, after about a half-hour of futzing around, well, maybe it’s lost forever. Larry passed away twelve years ago, so I couldn’t ask him. It looked like I hit a dead end.
Larry once told me a trick he learned from a guru when he was in India: if you need to get an answer to a question, ask yourself the question before you go to sleep, and in the morning, you’ll get the answer. This – or something like this, anyway – is something that I have done over the years. Get the “unconscious mind” or the Universe, or whatever, working for you. Sometimes, there is something you can’t just get to that’s right under the surface, and just by asking yourself the question, somehow, the mind’s magic kicks in, and later, up pops the answer.
Today, I thought “Mark Allman.” Hmm. Now, I know there was no Allman brother named Mark, but I went to Youtube and searched anyway… And lo and behold, YouTube’s search-fu came up with it. But it wasn’t “Mark Allman.” In fact, it was not a famous brother to anyone. It wasn’t even a person’s name; it was a band name: Mark-Almond. Mark-Almond!
Mark-Almond was a jazz-rock band made up of Jon Mark and Johnny Almond. The album had a grey cover, not blue. My memory added color when there was none. The song? “The City”. Such a great song, which I hadn’t heard in decades.
The chain of memory is fantastic. Here’s one song, BTO’s “Blue Collar,” which kicked off the process of digging out from somewhere in my soul “The City” by Mark-Almond.
It’s a wonderful thing.

I Still Have Her Meds

My wife has been gone for six months now. Conscious magical thinking has turned into internalized magical thinking. Early on, it was as if she was just in the other room, or was on vacation and would walk back into the house at any time. I knew this was not correct, of course, but the feelings were still there. As I write this, I know that six months is still “early on” but things do morph. One of those things is that it no longer feels that she is on vacation, or just around the corner. It feels like she never left, but just isn’t here.

It is so embedded in me that she is part of my soul that when I watch a movie, it is as if we are both watching the movie, instead of just me. Or that the room should be in a certain way because she likes it that way. Or that she will need her clothes. I just don’t want to be final about this. It is less conscious now than it was at the beginning that she is really gone.

Back when Jenny still had her transplant, one thing that became a ritual before we left on any trip was to be sure she had her medicines. When you have a transplant, the drugs you have are the drugs you need, and you cannot screw it up. And, they are not off-the-shelf. We once went to Canada, and Jenny didn’t bring a key medication with her, and it was a big problem to get her covered. So, we put in a requirement that before every trip, no matter what, we had her meds. We can get anything else on the road, but meds are sacrosanct.

The medication list for Jenny was extensive – thyroid meds, stomach meds, prednisone, and a whole litany of anti-rejection meds. The horrible thing is that these same meds ended up killing the kidney they were supposed to protect. Once your kidneys go, your life is not normal ever again – even with a transplant.  After years of being on these meds, her adrenal glands were burnt out. As a result, she was on a litany of drugs even after the transplant failed. They were awful, but they were required. Therefore, even after the loss of the kidney, her meds were first on the list of things to bring, always.

Jenny had a pink pill box she had since I first met her. It is a box that has four compartments per day, with sliding covers that opened allowing access to each compartment. Since she had AM and PM meds, each day’s slots contained two sets of AM and PM meds. Every two weeks she spent some time filling it up with the correct dosages for each slot. I still have the box, and it has the remaining dosages.

I also have one unopened package of Creon, an expensive medication that we regularly fought with our insurance company to cover properly. We have bottles of heparin, which is used in dialysis to thin the blood so that it does not clot during treatment. Jenny has a rolling med/dialysis cabinet with the jars right there, at the ready, along with alcohol wipes, some needles, and some paper barriers, at the ready. We have bottles of “binders,” which are drugs she took to reduce phosphorus, since dialysis does not remove phosphorus from the blood.

Within a week after Jenny passed away, we removed all the dialysis equipment and supplies from the house. The unit picked up her machines, the dialysis chair, and the boxes of dialysate, and cartridges, and fluid warmers, drain tubes, and all the rest. I knew I had to remove it asap and try to reduce the reminders as much as possible, this for my son’s sake, since nightly dialysis was so much a part of our lives. Having the dialysis machine in the living room gathering dust awaiting a person who would never return – no, that was not an option.

But for some reason, the medications were different. These were such a lifeline, in a different way than the dialysis machine was. We could always go to the unit or the hospital and dialyze if needed, but the meds were joined at her hip. To not have them was risking illness or death. Jenny has been on overnight trips without her dialysis machine, but never without her medications.

On her night stand was the unopened package of Creon. The bottle was in the pharmacy bag, the bag stapled shut. A few days ago, I happened to glance over at it, and I realized: I need to let go of this. The insane feeling of “this needs to be here, because she needs it” is hard to not feel. It’s involuntary. Looking at the rows of heparin bottles – they were a life line. They were part of her survival kit. Now, they are all scaffolding to save a life that is no longer in need of saving. It’s like looking at an eggshell from a bird that has hatched. Or like listening to an alarm blaring out from a building that has already been evacuated. The alarm is for no one – or rather, for a person who has already escaped.

Yes, I still have her clothes, too, and shoes and glasses and make-up, but they are not the same. These are things I can donate or give away to friends and family. These are completely different from her medications. If I got rid of all that stuff, and she walked back into my life tomorrow, we could always go and get more at the store. But if she walked in tomorrow and those meds weren’t there, she wouldn’t be able to stay. I know that that is crazy, but it’s true. I also know that it is not true.

It feels true, though. These medications were her lifeline, and now they are acting like a lifeline for me – a lifeline with no one on the end, because she’s the bird that flew away, leaving the nest and the broken egg shell behind, in unopened packages and nice neat rows of jars.

This last weekend, I started cleaning out the room. I got a bag out to put her meds in so I can take them to the pharmacy for disposal. I put in the bag the unopened package of Creon. I’m going to keep her pillbox.

 

We See Dead People

When I was a teenager, we had a neighbor next door who lived in the same house since the mid-1930s. She had a sister who was a pack rat, and subscribed to magazines and news papers, and never threw them away. Rather, she put them in the garage. After fifty years of this, the garage was full. Since my neighbor’s sister passed away, my neighbor asked me if I would clean out the garage for her for a sum, and said I could keep whatever I found in the garage.

The house was a nice thirties-style California house, two stories, with stucco and a Spanish tile roof, and three huge avocado trees in the backyard. The garage was detached, and was just big enough for a decent sized DeSoto if it weren’t for the fact that it was fully stuffed with newspapers and magazines. Over the next week, I attacked the garage.

The garage was a time machine. When I opened the garage door, I was confronted with stacks and stacks of relatively recent newspapers. Most of what I found was, at least to me, just a bunch of papers, and so I recycled virtually all them. However, I hit pay dirt when I got to the 1930s and ’40s, which was about 80% into the garage. I found dozens of copies of magazines like GQ, Look, Liberty, Life, and others. I kept a lot of them, and sold a number to used book stores in Hollywood.

The magazines I really prized, and the ones I still have today, were from the ’30s: The first few years of “Look” magazine, and a pile of “Motion Picture” and “Photoplay” mags. These magazines were so beautiful! The colors of the covers were so rich, with pictures of the stars, like Deanna Durbin, Olivia De Havilland, Delores Del Rio, Sonia Henny, Gary Cooper, and Clark Gable. I fell in love with the glamor that was 1930s Hollywood. All the stars were dressed to the nines. They all drove huge Duesenbergs, Cords, and Lincolns, and smoked Lucky Strikes (with the green pack), or Camels, or Chesterfields. They all smiled, and when they were not smiling, they were fighting over some man. It was a walk into a world that was vivid and alive before me, but which no longer existed.

I have a box set of movies that won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The first few movies were from the years 1929 through 1937: “Broadway Melody,” “Grand Hotel,” “Mutiny on the Bounty,”and “The Life of Emile Zola.” “Broadway Melody” was the first sound picture to win Best Picture. It won the Oscar eighty-seven years ago.

These four movies are worth watching. It is interesting to see how movies changed during the “Golden Age,” but more importantly, at a time when Hollywood was cranking out movies by the trainload, these were the best of their time, and are really well made, and entertaining.

As I watched these movies, I realized that everyone in them or involved in making them is dead now. Every actor, every extra, all the sound men, all the camera men, the screen writers, the directors, the producers, the caterers, everyone. And yet, here they are, alive, on the screen. You see and hear the actors. You hear the words of the writers, you see the direction of the directors, and the cinematography of the cameramen. They live on, even though they are no longer here in the flesh.

A few years ago I realized that technology has given us a gift that I don’t think people really understand. And that is: we are the first people who can see and hear what generations past really looked like and sounded like. Photography first started in 1839, and sound recording started in 1877, so we have records of people going back to the nineteenth century – all of whom are now dead. But movies with sound came into being in 1927, less than one hundred years ago. While photographs and sound recordings are great, movies bring people to life. It fascinates me that we can see people on the screen, and they are alive! And yet they are no longer with us.

We as human beings naturally put our generation and our era as the pinnacle of times. We know so much. We are dealing with problems no one ever heard of before. The ’70s, the ’60s, the ’30s – oh, it was so much simpler then! So much more innocent! They never had to deal with the problems we have now. How did they ever live without ATM machines or mobile phones? But I don’t believe there ever were innocent times. Humans are brutal and we tend to focus on the good and gloss over the bad when we cast our memories back to those “simpler times.”

When you you look at motion pictures from decades ago – ideally the best ones, but even the worst ones, you are forced to recon with the fact that these people really were alive. They breathed and they lived and they married, and mourned, and lived in fear, and triumph – and you know that these people, these generations now dead, had the same fears and aspirations, and desires, and faults that we have now. We have the benefit of hindsight – we know what happened after these movies were made, and we know what happened to the actors and the players in them, thanks to IMDB and Wikipedia. At the time, we didn’t know how the depression would end. Considering that other countries resorted to fascism and communism to attempt to solve their economic challenges, and given where Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s head was at, we could have easily become a socialist state. No one knew at the time. We do know that they partied and enjoyed their good times when they had them. It seems every generation thinks the old folks were stodgy and that they are the first generation to have fun and stay out all night. But we know that’s not true. We know because we read, but we really know because of the movies. The song “Lullaby of Broadway” won the Oscar for Best Original Song in 1936 – and it was about people who stayed up all night partying on Broadway:

When a Broadway baby says “Good night,”
It’s early in the morning.
Manhattan babies don’t sleep tight until the dawn.

If you clicked on the link above and saw the Busby Berkeley clip of all those dancers tapping in the movie, you have know know that virtually all of them are no longer with us. But they were alive! And every single one of them had their dreams and aspirations of making it in Hollywood, and every single one of them was flesh and blood. Whatever life they ended up having after this clip, it is over now.

Then we look at something like this, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing to “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” and marvel at how beautiful and poetic it is, and how alive Fred and Ginger are, and how even then people were desperate, had money problems, were discouraged, were suicidal, and:

There may be teardrops to shed
So while there’s moonlight and music and love and romance
Let’s face the music and dance.

We are human beings and yet we are so quick to forget that there have been human beings for thousands of years before our generation, and that every generation in every country, and on every continent, in every era, in every station of life, lived and loved and bled and hurt and died. And we have documented it now. The previous generations are no longer figments of  history books or snippets of novels about rich people, or books of quotations. We can see them, alive, on the screen, even though they are long dead.

I find it reassuring. I don’t feel alone in my experiences. While whatever we are dealing with now is real and urgent to us, it is comforting to know that other people faced similar and even worse situations and lived – at least in the aggregate. It is reassuring and sometimes frustrating to know that history has echoes. You can look at the fight Humankind has had with ignorance, want, and evil, and be discouraged that we still have to fight ignorance, want, and evil. And yet, while we have had horrific experiences as a species, we are still here, and we have won the major battles, albeit with casualties. We have dodged nuclear war, so far, when the odds were against us. We have become more tolerant over our existence even though there are still deep pockets of intolerance. We are winning the fight to transcend primitive tribalism, even though there are those that are grasping onto it with both hands. We are incrementally better. But we were also pretty damn good back in the day, as well. And now we have the proof we didn’t have before.

Beautiful Disaster

The first snow in Central Oregon was December 5th. I live in Sisters, near Bend, and we are in the high desert. The dry, cold air makes for nice powdery snow. The snow was beautiful! I was prepared: I bought a new set of snow tires for my four-wheel-drive F150. The truck even with regular tires is good in snow, but the snow tires make it stick to the ground almost like driving on bare pavement. And I put the snow blower on the tractor.

The snow first started west of town – about five or six miles toward the McKenzie Pass. It was threatening in Sisters all day, and you could see that the mountains were being hammered, but in the town itself, it was cloudy, but no snow.

Finally, toward the evening, it came, and when it came, it came down in big, fluffy, flakes. It was beautiful, and just the thing for the Christmas season.

It kept coming! We had a lull the next week, and then, we got hit on the 15th. A good foot of snow, or more, and it was cold, and the snow stayed. And it was beautiful!

I love it when it snows. The snow is quiet, and yet there is so much going on. The snow absorbs whatever ambient sound there is so it makes the world quieter than usual. It covers up all sins. All the things that are undone around the ranch, and anything that is out of place, is covered with a nice blanket, making it look like everything is perfect and orderly.

The usual cycle is to have a nice snowfall in December, and another in January or February, with the snow melting in between. This year, we had several snowfalls from December 5th through the second week of January – and it stayed cold. Each snowfall layered itself on the last one. By mid January, we had five feet of snow fall on Sisters – and virtually none of it melted. This five feet compressed down to about three feet on the ground, and on the roofs.

We had a storm early in January that dumped another 18 inches on top of what we already had. This was the final straw. Up until this point, the snow was still a wonder, at least to me. I love snow, so having it around was fun. It was still manageable. We could still navigate around the paths, and I could still park easily in front and back. But the last storm dumped so much snow on what was already there, that we were smothered.

I took the snow blower out seven times over the course of several weeks, each time clearing from six to eighteen inches of snow. The last few times I could only clear enough to provide access to the horses and the barns. Everywhere else we had at least two and a half to three feet of snow. As I write this, the snow is still there.

We started to get worried about the snow load around the new year. We already a few feet on the roofs, and the last storm took the snow load over the top of some of the buildings’ design limits. Two of our neighbors lost their RV sheds – they just collapsed under the weight. Some of our neighbors had snow and melting ice damage their interior drywall. We had one of the rafters split in a lean-to shed. In Bend, there were a number of collapsed roofs: a school gymnasium, a grocery store, a manufacturing plant. There were damaged roofs galore: the main FedEx facility, grocery stores, and lots of residences.

And, all through this, the snow was beautiful! The snow collected the trees like a National Geographic nature movie. The mountains wore a mantle of white, and when it was clear, the alpenglow in the mornings when the sun hit the mountains was breathtaking. Clear, and beautiful, and cold, and clean, and bracing. It is wonderful. But it just became too much. The amount of snow was no joke, and as beautiful as it was, it was dangerous and destructive.

My house is pretty rugged, but I was not willing to put it to the test. My friend, my son, and  I climbed up and started to shovel the snow off the roof. Oh my! I am out of shape! We had an impressive amount up there. You take the shovel and carve off a piece, and fling it off the edge of the roof. Over and over. For hours. We moved an easy ten tons of snow off the roof of the house.

Finally, last week, it warmed up enough for the snow to start to loosen up. The trees are made for this. The big ponderosas and junipers shed their snow like starlets shedding their mink coats. You could hear “whooshes” every minute or two from various parts of the property as a branch freed itself of its load. By the end of the day, all the trees were bare.

We could see signs of relief. The tons of snow on one of the buildings started to slide – just a wee bit, with the snow and ice hanging over the bottom of the roof like a frozen ocean wave, and a foot or two of the roof clear at the peak.

The next morning, the snow came off our barn. I heard the “whump!” from the house but didn’t know what it was until I went back there. The three feet of snow on the roof became a fifty foot long ridge of snow over seven feet high. This was quickly joined by another pile from the stalls across the way.

In three days, the snow was was finally loosing its grip on the structures. The snow came down in sections – never all at once. I would be outside and hear another “crash!” as a section of snow fell. Since I cleared the roof, I could hear the “thuds” of snow hitting the roof from the trees above. It’s like the the whole world said “Okay! We’re done with this.”

But, no, not quite yet. We are not done. The snow that is here has not yet melted. One morning I went into the kitchen and noticed that the range top was wet. I didn’t know what happened – I thought someone spilled something. But, no, it was snow melt coming into the kitchen from the exhaust vent. Once more onto the roof! We cleared the ice dams.

Six feet of snow is a heck of a lot of water. And sure enough, as it melts, it floods. More so in Bend, where is warmer generally than in Sisters, but here too. The roads have been pretty mucky. And then it freezes at night. We’ve had people skating on the streets. And some cars were skating without wanting to. A friend of mine had a perfectly good minivan skate into his truck. Thankfully, no injuries.

We were in the midst of all this over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. I thought of how we are dealing with this slow-motion freak of nature. There is a lot of damage, but it’s not as fast and furious as hurricanes, tornados, or earthquakes. We did not make the news. We had a few days where it was minus ten and twenty, but national news picked up the midwest disasters and cold snaps over us. I had disaster envy!

Some of my friends said “I did not sign up for this!” Some seemed to be seriously considering moving back to the warmer climes from which they came. I thought of the refugee Californians and Arizonans who recently moved up here. They were having a hell of a time! I wondered how many would remain.

This snowfall is a record event. Central Oregon had seen nothing like this since 1972. Everyone is afraid this may be the “new normal” but it unlikely to happen again for a while.

Martin Luther King’s day reminded me of the Northridge Quake, which hit the Los Angeles area on MLK day in 1994. That was a disaster. Over sixty people lost their lives. Major freeway overpasses were felled. Who knows how many structures damaged or destroyed. I was there, and I will never forget driving to work the next morning. I lived near Pasadena and worked in Simi Valley, which meant I had to cross the Valley to get to work. I left the house at around five to avoid traffic. As I drove down the 210 freeway entering the San Fernando Valley, I saw something that stunned me: the entire valley was without power and was pitch black, with the darkness dotted here and there with the light from fires. As I descended into the Valley, I thought that the last time anyone would have seen the Valley so dark was maybe one hundred or more years before. I knew I would never see this again.

As I drove across the Valley floor, there was flooding from broken water mains, and there was one spot where the street was on fire from a broken gas main. I felt I was driving through armageddon. Some of my friends and co-workers had PTSD from the shake. One friend would jump sky-high if someone stepped too hard on the floor or moved a piece of furniture too roughly. He lived in the Valley and his whole apartment shook apart around him.

I thought of this on MLK weekend. I thought, there is not a place on this planet that is immune from being humbled by Nature. And I thought: I’ll take the snow.