An Orphan Elephant Inspires

Each morning, I stumble downstairs to retrieve a newspaper — or even three on Sunday, and possibly more written material clogging my neglected mail cubby — and reflect on this masochistic attraction I seem to have for keeping up with the news during these still mostly depressing times. But one recent morning, back upstairs in my apartment, coffee poured and comfortably settled with that day’s New York Times, I was surprised to find myself smiling over a sweet story about a baby elephant found alone and helpless on a riverbank in Africa.

Smiling? Has the paucity of feel-good news these days turned me into some kind of heartless news junkie? I hope not. No, Elizabeth Preston’s story quickly got into a heartwarming account of the efforts by villagers, schoolchildren, wildlife authorities locally and around the world, international animal welfare organizations, and DNA experts working to assure the elephant’s continued health and safety, and even perhaps enable the orphan’s return to the wild with her biological family.

Some of this seemed vaguely familiar. sending me to my travel journals from African trips in 2004 and 2009 when I accompanied my cousin Dorothy Woodson, then curator of African collections for the Yale University library, now retired. Why haven’t I written more about those wonderful experiences? Senegal, Mali and Burkina Faso in West Africa and South Africa, Mozambique and Namibia in the south.

And where was it that I learned about the annual migration of elephants traveling from near the border of Burkina Faso 1,000 kilometers to Duenza in Mali? It is thought to be the longest journey conducted by elephant herds and welcomed as a sign of the coming rainy season.

Reading Ms. Preston’s article, I came to the happy realization that I have been close to the very place where rescuers brought the young elephant after finding her in 2017 wandering alone near Bonomo in Burkina Faso. Only two or three months old, she had been separated from her family just a day or two, according to wildlife experts who said she would not have survived otherwise. When orphan elephant calves are rescued, Ms. Preston wrote, they are usually found near a mother’s carcass, but in this case, no one knew of an adult that had been killed. “Although elephant mothers are extremely attentive, [this baby’s] family left her behind for some reason — perhaps at a nighttime river crossing that the tiny elephant couldn’t manage.”The villagers sought help from the local wildlife authorities who took the elephant to a pen outside their headquarters in Bonomo. There, “local residents pooled resources to buy milk for the elephant, and a drugstore donated powdered infant formula. But the young elephant’s appetite, unlike the funds of the humans helping her, was bottomless, The humans needed help.” Ms. Preston wrote. They reached out to the International Fund for Animal Welfare for help, and the group took charge of the elephant’s care.

Local schoolchildren named the elephant Nania, a word for will and visited daily, along with a black and white sheep named Whisty who became her best friend. DNA analysis indicated that Nania and her relatives are forest elephants, recently recognized by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as a distinct species, separate from Africa’s larger and more numerous savanna elephants. It also declared them critically endangered. With that information, the project became “about more than just rehabilitating one young forest elephant, but ensuring the future of her species.”

In February 2019, weaned and no longer requiring bottles of milk, Nania moved into a home specially built for her inside the nearby national park Deux Balés where, Ms. Preston wrote, she could start learning how to be an elephant. It includes a stable where she stays at night, and a large fenced pasture called a boma. Also living there is the “loyal sheep friend Whisty and four keepers who stay in pairs, a week at a time. Each day, the elephant spends six to eight hours roaming the park with her keepers in an effort “to help map the wilderness in her mind and learn where to find water and tasty fruits.”

It is unclear from the Times article whether Nania even realizes yet that she is an elephant. Hanging out with a sheep and her keepers, trying to run after visiting schoolchildren and join their play, and barging into the building where her milk was being prepared — none of that helped in the realization process, and the article says the first time she encountered a herd of wild elephants, she fled.

Orphan elephants have been accepted into herds of non-biological relatives, but the choice is up to the family. “Nania might have a chance to join not just any family of wild elephants but her own,” Ms. Preston wrote, explaining that only about 40 wild elephants pass through that park, and the team from the International animal welfare fund figured that Nania’s family could be among them. To find out, they began sending samples of elephant dung to a lab at the University of Washington in Seattle for DNA testing. The results were startling: According to the lab, “One of the sampled elephants was not just a relative, but almost definitely Nani’s mother.”

Any hoped-for reunion will have to wait now the wild elephants have migrated out of Deux Balés for the rainy season that will end sometime in October when, the Times article notes, “Maybe Nania — a little bigger and fatter, a little more confident — will be ready for the returning elephants.”

And if Nania eventually joins a family — her own or a foster one — the Times article observed, “the international fund team plans to follow up with tracking and more dung sampling to make sure she’s safe — and to learn whether, against all odds, she has found her mother.”

(Boromo is located a few hours southwest of Ougadougou, the country’s capital, where airline scheduling problems caused my cousin and me to stay longer than originally planned. Local people recommended a side trip to Bobo. Heading back to Ouago, as the locals call it, we decided on another side trip to Banfora, about halfway there, where, about 10 kilometers off the highway is the national Parc des Deux Balés where elephants come to get water. At the end of a long dirt road, we found an encampment at the river’s edge with a long deck built over the water and set with tables, chairs and a bar. We stopped for lunch and learned from fellow diners that about 60 elephants had come by a few days before but none since. Had we ventured farther into the park, might we have encountered a young Nania walking with her keepers? One can only dream.)

Recall: Another Weird California Tradition

Recall: Another Weird California Tradition

 

After five cross-country moves, I’ve voted in many California elections. But this is the first time for me to experience an election to recall the state’s governor. The last time, in 2003, I watched from New Jersey as Californians voted to oust Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, who was succeeded by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. “What gives with your sometime state?” friends asked. “Beats me,” I’m sure I responded. This time, I put the question to a California native who told me the state’s recall tradition reflects its residents’ strong adherence to populism.

Other observers have called it crazy, nonsensical, undemocratic, even unconstitutional. Also unnecessary and a waste of taxpayers’ money. This year’s effort is expected to cost $276 million.

The California Secretary of State’s website informed me that there have been 179 recall attempts of state officials since 1913. “Eleven recall efforts collected enough signatures to qualify for the ballot and of those, the elected official was recalled in six instances. One recall effort is currently qualified for the ballot to be held on September 14, 2021.”

Even before receiving my vote-by-mail ballot sent to all registered voters, I was confused about how it all worked. First of all, unless an incumbent is found guilty of a crime and needs to be removed from office immediately, — or dies or just quits — even then, what’s the lieutenant governor for if not to step into the top spot when needed? That was part of the appeal to me for Newsom’s election last time. I figured he’d had some on-the-job training or at least knew what to expect.

And, why go to all this trouble to replace a governor whose term will end in a little more than a year? And who are all these 46 candidates I heard were lining up just to fill out the recalled governor’s term? And how did they make it onto the ballot in the first place? If you think all of this is complicated, wait till you hear the answer to that. They must obtain signatures from a percentage of votes cast in the last election for the office, which obviously is a figure that changes from election to election. This time it was 12 percent, which for the current recall, it was about 1.5 million signatures.

I got those figures from an online piece by longtime Los Angeles Times political columnist George Skelton who examined the argument made by UC Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky “about possible legal flaws in California’s 110-year-old recall system,” [one in particular means] “it’s possible that Newsom could be recalled…by a bare majority of votes…he could receive 49.9 percent of the vote and still be dumped…Then…his successor could be elected among the large field by a small plurality of, say, only 25 percent.”

Skelton concludes, “So, Newsom could receive nearly twice as many votes as the winner but still lose.” Huh?

The arrival of my ballot only added to the confusion. I puzzled over the rules as I examined its two separate sections. The top section required merely a yes or no vote on whether the current governor, Democrat Gavin Newsom, should be removed from office. If my vote was to be no, I was home free. If I voted yes, then which of the 46 listed candidates would I prefer? And to complicate matters more, there was a space at the bottom for writing in a candidate. I was glad to go online at LA Times.com and see I was not the only one confused. Some people wondered whether in order to assure the governor’s remaining in office, they should write in his name. I had pondered that until I found these words somewhere on the ballot instruction: “Do not vote for more than one person.” So that would rule out writing in Newsom’s name after, in effect, checking the no recall box. According to LA Times’ Skelton, it would invalidate the ballot.

Since returning to live in California, once more, I have surprised myself by becoming a fan of mail-in ballots. As I wrote in Time for Vote By Mail, my conversion came about during the coronavirus pandemic when Milwaukee voters were forced to stand in freezing cold rain for hours to vote because of reduced facilities, one of many shenanigans perpetrated in recent past elections throughout city areas, especially, to make voting difficult. This has been done, as Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia has explained benignly, because “Some people don’t want some people to vote.”

So, after puzzling over the confusing recall ballot and signing up for tracking service – if it’s important enough for packages from Amazon, it’s certainly worth the same for my vote – I walked over to the nearest drop-box as I had the last time and began checking until the email message that assured me “Your ballot has been collected and your vote recorded.” Good. One less thing to worry about.

Political columnist Skelton continues to join others fretting about the state’s recall system. A more recent column was headed, “California recall system must be reformed. It’s bad for taxpayers and, some say, democracy.”

Do Not Disturb. Woman Languishing.

So that’s what to call it, “languishing,” this feeling  of inertia that’s lasted for more than a year. As described recently by organizational psychologist Adam Grant in The New York Times, it may turn out to be “the dominant emotion of 2021.” Swell. Those of us hoping the tide would turn as the early months of the new year unfolded and life began to resume some semblance of normalcy might be in for disappointment.

The first I heard the term “languishing” used in this regard I immediately pictured a 19th century woman, corset cording cinched too tightly, back of one hand pressed to her forehead, and heading toward her fainting couch. No corset lacing and no fainting couch here, but I did like the term. Better than my usual description of my own slug-like behavior this year.

My wonderful huge unabridged edition of The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, which sat in a place of honor atop a mid-century modern version of a roll-top desk everywhere we lived now is relegated to the kitchen table, where it provides height for zoom sessions on the laptop. Retrieving it from under that location, I opened the book to read all the definitions of languishing, starting with “becoming languid in any way…” Okay, what about that word, languid: “1. drooping or flagging from weakness or fatigue, faint (the couch!)… 2. lacking in vigor or vitality, slack…3. lacking in spirit or interest, indifferent…”

Most of that sounds like me during pandemic-related lockdown. When I would report to a daughter how little I had accomplished that day, she assured me she was hearing similar stories from many of her friends, much younger people with work-from-home jobs and regular paychecks. The early days of COVID-19 were truly frightening. Even if you were fortunate enough to escape actual symptoms, awareness of the dangers exacted a toll. Mr. Grant, the Times’ author, writes that “as the pandemic has dragged on, the acute state of anguish has given way to a chronic condition of languish.” Calling languishing “the neglected middle child of mental health,” he wrote, “it’s the void between depression and flourishing — the absence of well-being. You don’t have symptoms of mental illness, but you’re not functioning at full capacity…” 

“Languishing,” his piece continues, “dulls your motivation, disrupts your ability to focus and triples the odds that you’ll cut back on work. It appears to be more common than major depression, and in some ways it may be a bigger risk factor for mental illness.” An antidote may be found in a concept called flow, “that elusive state of absorption in a meaningful challenge or a momentary bond, where your sense of time, place and self melts away.”

I remember that feeling, and I miss it. Sitting alone with my thoughts was helpful to me as I adjusted to a  changed lifestyle, but I think it’s time to take the advice offered in this article and get on with the task of transcending languishing. Among suggestions offered: Tackle a challenge that stretches skills and heightens resolve. Like finally getting back to regular blogging on this long-neglected website.

A Two-Panettone Year

On Christmas Eve afternoon, after dropping off the second half of my Christmas letter mass mailing at the nearby post office, I continued a few blocks to my Walgreens to pick up a couple needed items to get me through the holidays. Just inside the door, a stack of large square boxes, bright yellow with red printing that announced the presence of panettone, a dessert that shows up in American stores around the holidays.  

Grabbing a box as I headed to the checkout counter, I confessed to the young woman waiting to ring up my purchases, “I already bought one of these here last week.” She agreed with me that the year just ending justified my purchasing a second one. She had the good grace not to ask if I’d eaten the entire first one myself.

Grabbing a box as I headed to the checkout counter, I confessed to the young woman waiting to ring up my purchases, “I already bought one of these here last week.”  She agreed with me that the year just ending justified my purchasing a second one. She had the good grace not to ask if I’d eaten the entire first one myself.

The store was, like the post office and the streets outside, sparsely occupied so we were able to continue our discussion of panettone. “It’s Italian, isn’t it?’ she asked. “Yes,” I replied, “and I’m half-Italian. But I don’t remember it being a fixture on my grandparents’ holiday table except only occasionally, perhaps brought to them as a gift. I was sure I wouldn’t like it, so it was not until way into adult years that I learned I’d been missing something. A dessert not too sweet, with a consistency somewhere between cake and bread. “How do you eat it? Do you heat it up?” she asked. “No,” I answered. “I just grab off chunks and eat it with a glass of chilled white wine before dinner.” ( However, in the past I’ve been known to eat chunks of it in the car, without wine, while driving home from the store.)

“Do you like fruit cake?” she asked, alluding I guessed to the glazed fruit pieces in panettone. “Fruit cake? Only sparingly and only if it’s loaded with nuts to make it interesting,” I said.

“I’ve only tasted the one with chocolate , but I guess they didn’t order any this year,” she said. “No,” I told her,  “there’s a separate stack of those down that other aisle,” and I pointed over my shoulder.  “I appreciated they kept them separate so I wouldn’t grab one by mistake. I’m a big chocolate fan but not in panettone. I’ve never tried it, but it seems wrong somehow.  A desecration of both foods.”

“You should write about it,” my new acquaintance said.

“Funny you should say that, I said. “That’s what I do, write.” (Except when I don’t.)

I’ll have to go back and show her this. And ask if she tried the panettone without chocolate chips.

‘. . . for the People’

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Kamala Harris, during her first appearance as Joe Biden’s choice to join him on the  ballot, revealed that through her many years as an elected prosecutor in various California courtrooms, she routinely approached the bench with these introductory words, “Kamala Harris for the people.”

Makes a pretty good slogan, don’t you think? For a campaign. For a life, actually.

Yes, I know, those formal words are issued pro forma in courtrooms routinely, but with the emphasis Kamala Harris gave to those words, you just know she took the double meaning of “for the people” to heart.

Even without the hoopla of past years and no applause lines, I loved every aspect of yesterday’s low-key campaign pandemic launch.

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Even more, in the hours following the virtual launch coverage, I found myself involuntarily smiling or tearing up along with women of color who have been working so hard and waiting so long for today’s acknowledgement of their importance to the party. The field of possible alternates to Harris, each handled her own disappointment when being told in personal calls from Biden with grace and class, immediately pivoting to pledge to do all possible to assure a Democratic victory in November.  I have never been more proud. And, you know, we’ll be hearing from many my fellow Democrats, men as well as women, before this ordeal we’ve been going through has ended. Our bench is way more impressive than theirs. Especially since all the firings!

Having been immersed in the details of what felt like a presidential campaign with no discernible end, to be told election day will be here in 83 days was a welcome relief. But Good Grief! Is there nothing the current administration will not try to gum up the works?

Photos: Daniel Acker for New York Times; Carolyn Kaster, for Associated Press

Inching Up To Meatless-Ness

A friend from my previous neighborhood called last evening just as I’d put a pot of rice on the stove-top in an admittedly late start to dinner. Turning the heat under the rice very low, I picked up an already-poured glass of wine and moved over to a comfortable chair to talk. The conversation quickly turned to food, perhaps what I was cooking for myself that evening and how I could resume preparing the dish once the rice was done. I have been accused, since living alone, of being able to rattle on into the phone about next-to-nothing to any willing listener. But at some point, I mentioned trying to do without meat these days.

“Why?” my friend asked. 

His question was so direct to be off-putting, and I found myself stumbling about with various reasons, some culinary, some health related, some ethical,  some political, none very articulate.  I brought up the Midwest slaughterhouses being declared essential services so endangered workers must continue working in spite of their location in counties the White House declared coronavirus hot spots. What are we doing?

I needed more time to think. And right on cue, the next morning my New York Times Sunday edition gave me “The End of Meat Is Here” by Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Eating Animals and We Are the Weather. Like me in lockdown with time to consider these things, he writes that the situation “has inspired many Americans to consider just how essential meat is. Is it more essential than the lives of the working poor who labor to produce it? It seems so.”

In recent years, Ed and I both consumed a lot less red meat, not that it kept him from lethal lung cancer or me from heart surgery. We turned more to chicken and fish – and increasingly, to interesting vegetable-based recipes. Our New York daughter has been a vegetarian for years, adding fish to her diet with marriage to a man from Sweden. Both are excellent cooks, as was Ed, particularly in New Jersey where an expansive vegetable garden led to freezers full of meals and a larder filled with home-canned foods. Because our guests increasingly included non-meat-eaters, I began making our large batches of spaghetti sauce without meat so it could be served with anything – and to anyone –  from the freezer, as needed.

I used to joke that I could be a vegetarian if it weren’t for bacon. That was over even before I read that now because plant shut-downs due to sick workers “has led to a backlog of animals,” Foer writes, so “some farmers are injecting pregnant sows to cause abortions. Others are forced to euthanize their animals, often by gassing or shooting them.” Foer notes,  “It has gotten bad enough that Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, has requested the Trump Administration include mental health resources to hog farmers.”

Parts of this Times piece are difficult to read. Years ago, something I learned convinced me to never order veal from a restaurant menu and, if at all possible, not to eat it anywhere. This just reinforced my conviction. Even so, I continued to enjoy an occasional hamburger cooked on an outdoor grill, telling my hosts, “If you only have one cheeseburger a year, it tastes really, really good!” Even though I know about global warming and the effect of greenhouse gases emitted by cows. (“If cows were a country, they would be the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world,” Foer writes.) 

And then there’s the matter of pandemics, which the author claims are inevitable as long as we continue to eat meat regularly.  While much has been written about wet markets the author points to “factory farms, specifically poultry farms…(as) a more important breeding ground for pandemics.” 

The author of this article is not an anti-meat scold. Rather, he acknowledges the importance meat has “in our culture and personal histories in ways that matter too much, from the Thanksgiving turkey to the ballpark hotdog.” In an earlier blog post, I wrote about my Aunt Tine, a life-long vegetarian who married into the Italian-American side of my family. I told her how my cousins and I learned to hate the cruel teasing aimed at her and Uncle Philip during Thanksgiving dinners. In what I viewed as a remarkable display of tolerance,  she said, “You have to understand how hard it was for immigrants to this country to have achieved the ability to put meat on the table daily if they wished, not just at a special holiday dinner, and then have one of their sons reject it all.”

I guess. But it’s taken me a long time to get to this place myself: Meat? Don’t need it, thanks just the same.

Time For Vote By Mail

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If ever there were a perfect time to switch to mail-in voting, that time is right now.  Even before onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic and my subsequent lockdown as part of the at-risk demographic (old, with health issues) I’d been re-thinking the importance of voting by mail, particularly this year. I’d even checked out the deadline for requesting the proper ballot. But then Gov. Gavin Newsom took care of it for me last week with an order that ballots be mailed to all 20.6 million California voters. That makes the state the first in the nation to do so, though more will follow, I’m sure — unless Congress could be persuaded to miraculously fall in line quickly and make our national elections truly national.

Giving up a long-held tradition like in-person voting is hard and very much out of character for me. Especially when it’s something that Ed and I practiced faithfully over close to 60 years of life together in communities on one coast or the other. When we returned to California — cross-country move Number Five —  some of our Los Angeles neighbors seemed surprised that we did not, as they did, vote by mail.  I had the impression our insistence on going to the actual polling location reflected to them some unnecessary, outdated East Coast oddity, one of several, no doubt.

Looking back at all the skulduggery – not  to mention outright illegal acts — perpetrated by one political party against the other over the years, I wonder what took me so long to join what is a growing consensus. It was the sight of Wisconsin primary election voters braving cold, rain and the threat of coronavirus for hours last April that did it for me. I’d tried to follow all the machinations leading to the chaos of that day in Milwaukee where fear of contagion kept so many older poll workers away that only five of 180 polling places were open. Five polling sites!

Had any of the voters that day become ill, I’d been wondering. I found the answer in this excellent New York Times Magazine article by Emily Bazelon titled “Can Democracy Survive the Pandemic?” (The online version now reads “Will Americans Lose the Right to Vote in the Pandemic?”). To my concern for how those hours outside in line might have affected voters, Bazelon writes, “In the weeks after the election, “Milwaukee health officials traced at least 40 cases of the virus to in-person voting.”

As more than one commentator has declared, “No one should have to choose between exposure to a potentially fatal disease and exercising the right to vote.”

So there’s Reason Number One to vote by mail, particularly during a pandemic.

Others that come to mind: Safety from hacking by nefarious outsiders. Ease of voting for the elderly or disabled persons. Increased involvement and interest in our government. Support for our beleaguered postal service.

The only people on earth who do not think foreign entities are already planning to disrupt our 2020 election are those who loudly claimed for the past three years it didn’t happen last time. And they now just as loudly claim vote-by-mail is unsafe. They are wrong.

Think how fearful so many of us are about identity theft or just plain theft from our bank accounts. We’re advised to change passwords frequently and to keep watch for unusual online activity.  Think how frequently you hit the wrong computer key or send something off into cyberspace in error. We have become so enamored with computerizing everything, simply because we can.

There currently is a movement for requiring paper ballots in elections. I signed a petition in favor but wished I could add a codicil requiring the completed ballot then be put into the mail. With a copy kept behind for reference. I can’t even begin to imagine how hackers could change the results of an election conducted with paper ballots mailed from secure locations all over the country. But there’s Reason Number Two.

As for my Reason Number Three, assistance for elderly and/or disabled voters,  it goes without saying that making the voting process easier for everyone is beneficial to democracy. What if a person, having intended to go to the polls, wakes up on election day too ill to leave the home with deadlines past for obtaining a mail-in ballot?

When I’d contemplated obtaining a ballot myself as a precaution this year, I found the rules in my district fairly simple. But regulations differ from state to state, and some are quite byzantine. Some states require absentee voting applications to be witnessed by another person, and even in some states notarized. And only certain excuses will pass muster. During Wisconsin’s April fiasco, voters complained the ballots they’d requested never arrived. I suppose some of those would-be voters could very well have ended up in line that day.

Exercising the right to vote should not be a grueling enterprise with hurdles thrown up along the way to be overcome. And we’ve certainly seen enough of that in recent times, starting with ridiculously gerrymandered voting districts. Along with insufficient numbers of polling stations, how about those placed far removed from any possible public transportation access? Or with polling days or hours that make it impossible for those without flexible work schedules? Another lousy choice: Lose a day’s pay or get to exercise your right to vote.

If the actual voting process could be made less onerous, more people would participate and become more interested and involved in the workings of our democracy. I would think our current president and others would be embarrassed to admit out loud that they prefer elections in which fewer voters participate because they think their side fares better. C’mon, really? Well, there you go: Reason Number Four.

And finally, Reason Number Five, support for the U.S. Postal Service, which our current president denigrates at every turn, calls “a joke,” and hopes to privatize into oblivion. When I first began thinking of this post, I planned to head it “Ben Franklin Must Be Rolling in His Grave.” But I learned that while the multi-talented Franklin was brought in to help with improvements to our emerging country’s postal services, many others among our founders and then leaders through ensuing years are credited with building the service into an envy of the world.

While I was thinking that all this deserved more time and space, and perhaps for another day’s post, Saturday’s New York Times jolted me with an article by Ted Widmer, a professor at the City University of New York, titled “The Postal Service Is Not ‘a Joke.” (Online, the title became “The Postal Service Is the Most American Thing We’ve Got.”)

I commend it to you and urge you to join me in becoming informed on the urgency of saving this worthy service, which, he writes, “was never supposed to be a moneymaking enterprise, or a political football. The founders understood that the reliable delivery of information was basic to democracy.”

Most alarming to me as I have been meandering about the subject of mail-in voting, was this observation from Widmer’s article:  “Without major new funding, the service will run out of money in September, well before the November election — whose success may depend on a huge mail-in effort.”

Is that enough to get you moving? To be safe, find out what’s required in your state for mail-in voting and prepare yourself. Please.

The first time I voted in Pasadena was for this year’s May 3 primary election. As I stood in line admiring the beautiful architectural details in the second floor hallway of the old City Hall, volunteer poll workers appeared from time to time to give updates on the expected wait time both in the hall and once inside the room set up for voting. They also offered to accept any mail-in ballots voters had with them, sparing them further wait. That interested me; I guess the postmarked date was unimportant if you brought it right there on election day.

A new touch-screen computer system was being introduced, and once the line had moved close enough, I could see a young volunteer excitedly moving from one machine to another offering assistance. “He’s having fun, isn’t he?” I mentioned to the man ahead of me in line.  I hoped the tech enthusiast would still be at it when my turn came to use his help. He was and he did.  It all went quickly. “See you in November,” I told the volunteers. And then we all went into lockdown, and in-person voting became, at least for now, moot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Like, A Very Smart Person’

From the first mention of Donald Trump as a possible candidate for the presidency of the United States, I have wondered how my father would have reacted to the news that his fellow Wharton School alumnus harbored such ambitions. Charles Alfred Keyser, Class of 1931, died in 1970 in Montclair, New Jersey at age 60, still to my knowledge intensely proud of his connection to the prestigious University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business. That and his Delta Tau Delta fraternity chapter there. My siblings and I used to grumble about the long hot rides in a car with no air conditioning before the Garden State Parkway and other toll roads existed  because the dentist or doctor or someone else was an old school friend from Penn. Of course, as a Northwestern Mutual life insurance agent, there probably was a business benefit to maintaining those old contacts. As kids, we didn’t see that.

My father taught me all the words to the song disparaging Penn’s rival university, Cornell: “Far above Cayuga’s waters there’s an awful smell . . .”  It was probably good that I chose a different midwestern university’s school of journalism to attend when the time came.

Charles Keyser, nicknamed Whitey by his boyhood friends in Nebraska in reference to his very blond hair, was born in Lincoln, the son of a horticulture professor and a conservatory-trained pianist. The marriage ended in divorce, with Charles and his mother moving to the town of Wayne, where she offered piano lessons in her home. My father spent his first two years of college at the local state teachers college before transferring to Penn. When I suggested a similar approach as a money-saving move for myself, he said, “No, it’s much better to spend the entire four years at the same place.”

After graduating, my father moved to New York City and found work at a large company, with which he shortly became dissatisfied, planning to leave as soon as he was able. (When I saw the film, “The Apartment,” the scene of actor Jack Lemmon’s workplace – row upon row of identical desks occupied by identical men all identically dressed and robot-like pushing identical-looking papers – it reminded me of my father’s description of the place. For all my life I heard from an uncle on my mother’s side of the family about how my father quit a perfectly good job during the Depression.)

I don’t know how my parents met. I picture them as young people do, making the best of a bad economic condition, sharing cheap wine and food with equally strapped friends. My mother had returned from a wonderful year in France where she’d  attended the Paris branch of the New York School of Fine & Applied Art (Parsons). Back in New York, she found work as a fashion illustrator with the designer Muriel King. Following a wedding in the backyard of her parents’ home in Orange, New Jersey, the newlyweds moved to a rented apartment in Jackson Heights, Queens. I came along eventually and lived there with them until the aforementioned perfectly good job did not lead to another, and the three of us were forced to move to the third floor of my grandparents’ home in Orange.

That is a very long-winded explanation of how little my father had in common with our current president: Wharton and some exposure to Queens, though I can’t imagine the Jackson Heights neighborhood holding much interest back then for the young playboy developer. However, after my father died (playing chess at the Montclair YMCA) my brother and my husband went to the Northwestern Mutual offices in Newark to pick up his belongings. All his co-workers expressed sorrow, with many agreeing with the colleague who declared, “Charlie Keyser was one of the smartest people I ever knew.”

But I never heard my father say anything like that about himself. Out loud, for all the world to hear.

Oh, and he was a Republican, I’m sure. That’s another thing I’ve wondered about in the time of Trump. Would he still be?

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Photo: Wiki Media Commons

St. Patrick’s Pandemic

For the first time in the 82 years since the maternity nurses at New York’s Columbia Presbyterian Hospital convinced my parents it would be almost unpatriotic to give their newborn daughter any other name when the huge annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade was marching down Fifth Avenue, my birthday took place in a truly surreal time.

(I have always been grateful to those New York nurses, not to mention St. Patrick, even though an ancestry.com DNA Ethnicity Estimate a few years ago indicated I am just five percent Irish.  The rest of me is pretty evenly distributed between Great Britain and Italy.)

The thing about having a name and a birthday like mine makes it hard for friends and relatives to forget it once the day arrives and one way or another mention of St. Patrick gets made. This year’s news mentions tended to be limited to parades cancelled and bars and restaurants shut down. So again this year, and especially this year, hunkered down in my small apartment where public health authorities recommend older persons with medical conditions sequester themselves, I spent the day talking on the phone, answering texts and email, never changing from the scruffy old sweatpants and shirt I throw on to pick up the newspapers each morning.

Any plans for celebrating my birthday changed from day to day as COVID-19 news grew more frightening with the numbers of those infected steadily growing along with deaths. And as we learned more about this brand-new, never-before-experienced virus, with no advanced warning symptoms, some of us began to realize we could already be infected.  At first, I told my Los Angeles daughter that I really didn’t feel like going out to a restaurant or inviting other friends to join us that evening, but it turned out by the time of the 17th, many restaurants here were not serving diners at tables anyhow. She was disappointed and offered to look into nearby restaurants offering take-out meals that she and her husband could bring to my apartment.

That morning, lying in bed I re-played in my mind video she had shown of her husband playing with his new grandkids, delighted laughter of all serving as soundtrack. No, they can’t come here, I thought. I could be a carrier, especially as I’d spent the afternoon before at the DMV renewing my drivers license. I sent a text, but she insisted she had things to deliver. She would alert me from the elevator and hang a bag on my door. I was talking on the phone when a soft knock and the sound of the birthday song from a mobile phone sent me to open the door. My daughter and son-in-law stood  the required four feet back, smiling and wishing me greetings. Thank you, I said, now go home.

In the bag she’d brought were a few grocery items I’d mentioned and four packages of Hostess cupcakes that she, who doesn’t eat chocolate, had searched for. The cupcakes, especially the coconut covered Sno-Balls® are a junk-food tradition for my birthday. On the east coast the coconut is frequently green for St. Patrick’s Day, but here the best she could find was pink. I assured her later when I called thanks, pink is the new green.

Even my birthday cakes are downsizing!

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Time to Woman Up

Okay, enough of this nonsense. I’ve allowed the current frightening times to scare me from speaking out. When two friends on opposite sides of the country wrote within two days wondering why this website has been even more than usual devoid of blogging activity, I guess I can’t continue to describe it as a site that nobody looks at. There’s two anyway.

Knowing my inclination toward news addiction, particularly political and particularly now, they rightly assumed I’d been riveted to TV coverage of November’s House Impeachment hearings and the subsequent swift Senate trial of the president, with its disappointing results, perhaps my two web followers hoped I’d have a properly snarky comment designed to lighten the ensuing horror. I’m sorry, can’t do snarky right now.

The morning after the Senate vote when only one brave Republican dared to honor the oath each member took at the proceeding’s outset – let’s hear it for Mitt Romney’s conscience and vow to cut him some slack on that hopefully now abandoned practice of driving with his dog in a crate atop his car – I stumbled downstairs to retrieve my newspaper in a masochistic urge to relive it all. A fellow tenant, a man in my demographic age-wise as well as political leaning, asked, “How are you this morning?” and I knew he wasn’t inquiring about my health. Shaking my head morosely, I answered, “Sad. I am so very sad for my country. And fearful.”

I went on to tell my neighbor that the only telegram Ed and I ever sent to the White House in more than half a century of marriage and shared daily consumption of the news, was in response to the Nixon Administration’s Saturday Night Massacre. I remember feeling proud and patriotic, and perfectly safe, knowing it was our Constitutional right to do so. Now, signing petitions, placing phone calls and demonstrating to express my opinions, I do it with a degree of trepidation: Am I opening myself up to being tracked? Harassed by people who disagree with me? Getting on a list of some kind?

A guest on Rachel Maddow’s program recently quoted another person who said this feels like Germany in 1939. I’ve always wondered how Hitler and Nazism happened in that advanced and richly cultured country, and yet in recent times it’s become more apparent. When friends ask how I can stand following the news, so much of it unpleasant, any answer I can give about our nation and history sounds priggish and certainly not conducive to continuing conversation.

I replied to my two web followers that every night I climb in bed, my mind buzzing with ideas and a determination to blog about them. But in the morning in front of the computer, I chicken out. And curse the situation that makes me afraid.