Titanic

I keep thinking about the film Titanic as we begin to absorb the public health and financial impacts of hitting this coronavirus iceberg.  First there’s the feeling of nothing much happening, or maybe it’s something, but we’ll all be fine. Awareness that the ship is going down creeps in at different paces to different people, and reactions vary. Quick-wittedness, denial, altruism, selfishness, desperation, calm. The entire panoply of human nature unfolds while the orchestra plays on.

What sticks with me the most from the film are the parents in steerage, cuddling with their children in cramped metal cots. Mothers and fathers know they’re all doomed, but they do what they can– speaking in soothing tones to their still-oblivious sons and daughters, telling stories, performing the ritual of nightly prayer, holding them tight. Love creates a cocoon of security: False, but also true.

Psychotherapists call this “felt security.” It reflects not so much the dire dimensions of the actual situation, but the reassuring sustenance drawn from the relationship with a loving, trustworthy, and reliable caregiver. Those parents in steerage send the message, “I am here with you right now, and in this moment together we are okay.”

A lot of us, even those who are not parents, have been doing a lot of that recently as we try to maintain a sense of normalcy and well-being in the midst of a global pandemic and economic meltdown. Posting pictures of sunsets, flowers, the family dog, funny memes; poetry chain letters; neighbors opening their windows to sing, clap, or howl; sewing masks for front-line workers; donating to especially hard-hit groups; buying gift cards from our favorite restaurants and small businesses; moving our normal activities like school, yoga, fitness, book groups, phone banking, work from real life to Zoom—all help knit together a sense of security.

Titanic also depicts a society similar to ours in terms of class and economic inequality. The rich are the most protected while the poor suffer, even though they’re all in the same boat. The unsinkable Molly Brown, a member of the privileged class, decries the entitlement and selfishness of her peers, urging them to make more room on the lifeboats to save far more people. Her plea goes largely unheeded.

We are seeing the same dynamics play out now: just look at the back-and-forth of the recent $2.2 trillion relief bill passed by Congress. Thanks largely to Democrats, more room was created to help the most vulnerable. Far more will be needed.

Just as not everyone perished in the Titanic, we will somehow survive this. But whether or not we view all as deserving a place on the life boats will determine who and how many.

Marriage Story: On the Screen, in Politics, and IRL

I’ve seen the film Marriage Story twice. Following the uproar over a conversation Warren and Sanders had in 2018 about whether a woman can beat Donald Trump feels like watching it a third time.

Two couples: The fictional Nicole and Charlie, an amicable but divorcing duo with an eight-year-old son who want different things, and the real-life Warren and Sanders, like-minded good friends and political colleagues who both want to be president.

Befitting their long histories of mutual admiration and affection and their desire to protect what matters most (a child, a progressive movement), both couples initially observe non-aggression pacts: mediation instead of divorce lawyers for Nicole and Charlie, close policy alignments and no bad-mouthing for the presidential rivals. But as differences emerge and each seeks advantage in order to prevail, initial vows give way to some definite hot-mic moments.

So it goes in movies, in politics, and in life. The same experience is rarely received or recalled in the same way.

Given that a woman’s electability against Donald Trump has featured prominently in so many political conversations over the past three years, it’s entirely plausible that Sanders told Warren that a woman couldn’t win the presidency in 2020. Or maybe he just pointed out how a lying, sexist Trump would weaponize gender in a society riddled with outright misogyny and unconscious bias. It’s also entirely plausible that Warren heard his words correctly. Or that she didn’t, but understood the implicit message, “better not try,” a warning women hear all the time.

In Marriage Story, Nicole hears this warning, too, and for a long time heeds it. Every time she tries to implement their initial agreement to try living on both coasts, Charlie dismisses her wishes. After all, they are a New York family, with a flourishing theater life there. Besides, LA, television . . . Seriously? Nicole continually acquiesces, losing herself in the process until she has had enough. No wonder she is susceptible to the ruthlessly empathic and effective divorce attorney Nora, who knows exactly how to fashion Nicole’s inchoate dissatisfactions and longings into the story of a reclaimed self.

The shift from acquiescence to “Enough!” seems abrupt, excessive. But it comes from tolerating a lengthy accumulation of insensitivities, intended and inadvertent injuries, and the preeminence of others’ needs and desires until finally we reach a tipping point. Suddenly, we’ve had it.

Getting fed up is at the heart of so much conflict and also of so much necessary change, both personally and socio-politically. It drives not only Nicole’s and Warren’s persistence, but also the #MeTooMovement, Black Lives Matter, Sanders’s (and Trump’s) political appeal, and the success of so many women candidates in the 2018 mid-terms.

“Enough!” It drives a great many of us. For better and for worse.

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A slightly different version of this piece initially appeared in NCSPP’s Impulse, a publication for therapists. The topicality of the Oscars and the political spat is past, but the themes are timeless.

Medicare for Me

A lot of people dread turning 65, but not me. Ever since a cancer diagnosis in 2012, there’s nothing I’d rather do than tick off the years toward old age. I’ve eagerly awaited certain milestones:

  1. 60 for most senior discounts at the movies
  2. 62 for the lifetime pass to National Parks (I lucked in at the $10 rate just before it increased to $80—still a steal!)
  3. 65 for Medicare
  4. 66 and two-thirds for collecting 100% of my Social Security.

This month, I achieve Milestone #3, and I couldn’t be happier. Not just because it means I’m still alive and well, but because of the hundreds of dollars I’ll save every month for the same insurance and doctors I have now.

Don’t get me wrong—as a self-employed cancer survivor, I was thrilled when the Affordable Care Act passed, and pre-existing conditions could no longer be used as an excuse to deny people coverage. I was lucky enough to have good coverage pre-ACA through my husband’s employer. But my husband felt he couldn’t leave no matter how unhappy he became as the job grew more stressful. Employer-provided health insurance, which we were fortunate to have, equaled golden handcuffs. The ACA changed all that. My husband, also a cancer survivor, was thrilled to join me in the ranks of the happily self-employed.

We paid through the nose to keep our good coverage through Covered California, and it was a privilege to do so (in all senses of the word).

Still, as great an accomplishment as the ACA is, it highlights the problems in our for-profit healthcare industry. It’s why single-payer, universal coverage, the public option, and Medicare for All are so front and center in the 2020 campaign. Democrats have varied but serious proposals about how best to improve healthcare, while Republicans continue to sabotage an imperfect but substantial reform, even threatening to eliminate the ban on pre-existing conditions altogether and putting healthcare out of reach for tens of millions of Americans.

Medicare for All has always struck me as a way to borrow a catchy name and a popular program as an umbrella description of our aspirations for universal coverage. There are different ways to skin this cat. My personal preference is to initially lower the age at which Medicare eligibility starts (a proposal that Senator Joe Lieberman thwarted in 2009), funnel much younger people dropped from their parents’ coverage into it, and allow an opt-in for everybody by expanding the public option—essentially the glide path described by many Democrats to achieve Medicare for All. I understand the appeal and economic rationale of a rapid and far-reaching overhaul, but a more gradual transition avoids the risk for major implementation glitches and has far more buy-in from voters.

Which brings me back to Medicare for Me, my “OK, Boomer” achievement that moves me higher up the ladder on which I was already born—a ladder whose bottom rung swings far beyond the reach of so many.  I am glad to have reached this milestone, which makes my life easier and more affordable. I will be gladder still when Medicare for Me becomes Medicare for All.

For My Mother, on the Eve of the Public Impeachment Inquiry

My mother was glued to the television every minute of the Watergate hearings when PBS began broadcasting them on May 17, 1973. I was a senior in high school then, and although I’m sure I must have left the house from time to time that summer before college, I was often alongside her, riveted. My mother had spent a lot of the preceding years chain-smoking and cursing every time Richard Nixon showed up on TV, and I lived with equal parts admiration and fear that one day her turquoise glass ashtray full of butts would go hurtling across the living room and shatter the screen.

The testimony itself proved shattering enough: John Dean’s complicity turned into conscience; Alexander Butterfield inadvertently revealing the White House taping system that eventually led to the “smoking gun” tape proving Nixon’s direct involvement in the cover-up and obstructing justice. I don’t remember at what point we put a bottle of champagne in the fridge in anticipation of celebrating the president’s demise after invincibility slowly turned to inevitability. But I remember popping it the night of August 8, 1974, when Nixon announced his resignation, effective at noon the next day.

Those times seem long ago and in a galaxy far, far away. They’ve been beautifully captured by James Poniewozik, chief television critic for the New York Times. I’ve been aching for my mother all day long, and his account makes me ache even more for a time in which accountability and truth mattered.

My mother would have turned 96 just last month, but she’s been dead since 1995. I often look up into the stars at night and think, “Thank God you’ve missed this, it would kill you.” I was grateful that my mother died with her adoration of Bill Clinton intact, unsullied by his impeachment scandal. I could imagine ashtrays hurtling once again through the air when the Supreme Court declared Bush the winner in 2000. Although I’m sorry she missed the Obama years (she would have been equally thrilled by Hillary), I was thankful she missed 9/11, Iraq, endless wars. Trump’s election would surely have finished her off. (I feel that way myself much of the time, and do not have my mother’s habit of smoking to relieve the anxiety.)

But I do wish I could have her on the couch right now, riveted, alive with fury. I love to imagine her devouring then adding to her shelves all the books about Trump (and his fall) to her extensive Watergate library.

Right now, the prospect of popping champagne seems dim. But if and when it comes, I’ll raise a glass to you, Mom.

Let Us Eat Cake!

Five minutes after the power came on after a three-day outage, I started baking an ice cream cake. Not the usual kind, with yummy layers of Mocha Almond Fudge and hot fudge sauce layered into graham cracker crust and left in the freezer, but my own invention–a variation of “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

Fans of Shrinkrapped may recall that our emergency preparations for the “safety” power outages PG&E implemented as fire control mostly involved grabbing a spoon and enjoying our dozen or so pints of premium Haagen Dazs. We lost our power a bit before 8:30 Saturday night, and since I failed to set my alarm to get up at 2:00 to dig in, my Sunday breakfast consisted of a fantastic, very thick Chocolate-Chocolate Chip and Cookies and Cream ice-cold milkshake, rivaling the Creamy Dreamies we used to get at the Lagunitas market on our way back from a day at the beach.

Jonathan, insufficiently committed to self-destructive acts for the greater good, left most of the dirty work to me. But between the two of us, we managed to polish off close to three pints while the ice cream was still in this near-perfect state of soft serve. I nobly continued for another pint or so after the melted stuff resembled chilled creamy soup. But hey, if people get excited about vichyssoise, what’s the difference? Eventually, however, even I had to admit that suffering indigestion and weight gain for this salvage operation might not be the best idea.

“It’s mostly cream, isn’t it?” Jonathan asked as we forlornly surveyed our losses. “Couldn’t we use it to make cake when the power comes back on?”

Right away I thought of my recipes that used milk. The one that uses the most—chocolate chip cake—is also Jonathan’s favorite. I figured the melted ice cream also contained a fair amount of sugar and butter, so before we could reset our clocks, I was measuring out ingredients. I wanted to get that sucker into the oven in case we lost power again.

“I’m not making the frosting until we know how it’s turned out,” I told Jonathan. We had a test slice after dinner—our first meal not cooked on our Coleman camp stove in three days. Yum! I wasted no time in making the frosting to complete my masterpiece. Unfortunately, I had only one-quarter of the amount of confectioners’ sugar required—not because of power outages, but because of a lapse in my usual hoarding of staple ingredients (i.e., anything used for baking). So I made glaze instead of frosting, and the cake was even better. The only improvement would be to serve it up with a big scoop of ice cream.

Which, unfortunately, we no longer have.

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Here’s the original recipe, with comments for how to improve it, with or without salvaged ice cream:

Real Chocolate Chip Cake—12 servings (make in a 10-inch high-quality Bundt or tube pan; if poor quality, there’ll be hell to pay in the form of a lot of yummy chocolate-laden cake top sticking to the pan, which you then have to pry loose and patch onto the rest of the cake. Or eat from the pan, and call it a day.)

3 cups flour                                                 1 tsp. vanilla

3-1/2 tsp. baking powder                          1 cup butter or margarine, softened

`1 tsp. almond extract                                ¾ tsp. salt

1-1/3 cups milk                                          1-3/4 cups sugar

4 eggs                                                        12 oz. semi-sweet chocolate chips–mini best

Preheat oven to 350. In small bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and salt; set aside. In large bowl, combine butter and sugar. Beat in eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Mix in vanilla and almond extracts. Gradually add in flour mixture alternately with milk. Stir in chocolate chips. Pour into greased and floured 12-cup bundt or tube pan (approx. 10-inch). Bake at 350 for 60-70 minutes (I recommend checking at 50—it’s invariably overbaked if it goes for a full hour). Remove from oven and cool in pan 10-15 minutes. Then turn onto serving plate. If you have failed to use a high-quality pan and it doesn’t come out in one beautiful piece, enjoy the patching or gorging job ahead of you. Cool completely, then top with chocolate frosting or glaze (I recommend either doubling or at least increasing by 50% for good coverage of the cake; or, if you use less sugar to keep it at glaze consistency, you can attractively drizzle it over the cake assuming you don’t need to disguise broken cake from using a cheap pan).

Chocolate Glaze: Combine ½ cup semi-sweet chocolate chips, ¼ cup boiling water, ½ tsp. cinnamon, and 1 cup sifted confectioners’ sugar. Blend until smooth. I find it easiest to do in a food processor or blender, but if you double it, be careful so it doesn’t blow chocolate liquid all over your kitchen. (I doubled all the ingredients before I realized I had very little confectioners sugar, so only used about half cup of that–it made a fine glaze, though good to refrigerate it a little bit before topping cake so it isn’t so runny.)

Waste-Not, Want-Not Adaptation: Instead of the milk, I used 2-1/2 cups melted Haagen Dazs ice cream (I used Cookies and Cream, but any vanilla-based ice cream should do. You’re on your own if you favor minty or fruity flavors.) I used only one cup of sugar, and about 12 tbsp. of butter. I baked it for 60 minutes, and wish I had taken it out at 50 or 55 minutes—it will bake a bit longer as it cools in the pan.

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Also, the best things to have during a power outage: a portable solar phone charger; a Coleman stove; a sense of perspective; and a profession that doesn’t depend on electricity–in my case talk therapy.

Emergency Preparations

We’re a little bit on edge in California these days, what with earthquakes, Trump’s vendetta against the state, and, of course, wildfires. Massive numbers of alerts arrive telling us our power may or may not be shut off, for some indeterminate length of time. Lines for gas and bags of ice are long. Ire at Pacific Gas and Electric, the utility everybody loves to hate for good and not-so-good reasons is mounting.

We live in an area where the power rarely goes out, and we can make a dash by foot and be at the main drag in 30 seconds if necessary. Last night we practiced opening our garage doors manually. I pointed out the easily evacuated boxes of Christmas tree ornaments I’ve been collecting for the past 30+ years, and Jonathan rolled his eyes. We determined that our battery-powered lanterns are dead, but located three flashlights, put out a bunch of candles, found our solar phone charger and respirator masks, and have a full tank and a full charge for our cars. We have about 30 bags of chocolate chips in the downstairs cupboard. And maybe a can or two of tuna, plus several cans of beans. Our mostly empty go bags are at the ready, which probably indicates that our evacuation plan involves looting rather than preparation.

BUT, we’re totally ready to observe the #1 rule of power outages if you kind of ignore the one about not opening your refrigerator and freezer: Grab a spoon and eat all that ice cream before it melts!

Stay safe, everyone.

In Remembrance

Candle in the dark

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I wrote this post on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, and offer it again today in commemoration. I hope we can some day live in a world where the best of humanity prevails.

As usual, I went to yoga Sunday morning, the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Mostly I go for the effect on my muscles, not my spirit. But on this solemn day my yoga teacher lit a candle in remembrance, and invited us to practice Tonglen, breathing in all that is troublesome in the world, acknowledging it, then transforming it into compassion and peace on the exhale. After a few minutes, the class continued with its typical focus on backs, necks, and hips, or, as one member put it, “the usual overall soreness.”

At the end of the class, after the stretching and the Namaste, another member shared what happened to her Turkish and Egyptian friends ten years ago. They owned a restaurant in Manhattan, which they managed to keep open after the towers fell despite the chaos and lack of customers. Late at night three white men came in. They trashed the place. One of the owner’s friends managed to slip away and call the police. Soon the men who had destroyed the restaurant were apprehended and brought back to be identified before they could be charged.

“Yes, those are the men,” the owners told the police, who were eager to throw the book at them.

But the owners refused to press charges.

“This is a difficult day,” they said. “We understand their grief and rage. Let them go.”

Incredulous, the police did so reluctantly.

A few hours later, the three men came back with some of their friends, pressing upon the owners fistfuls of cash for the damage. The men helped clean up as best they could, and continued to come for the next several weeks until things were put right again.

Sometimes forgiveness is the most effective kind of justice. It is much more likely than hatred or revenge to spawn atonement. This is the lesson so often lost in our decade of fear and grief and war. But it is one worth remembering as we light a candle; breathe in trouble and sorrow; breathe out compassion and peace; and seek to ease the overall soreness of the world.

Break (almost) from Reality

“It’s so surreal hiking through these meadows in the morning then reading about mass shootings in the afternoon,” remarked my husband, Jonathan.

We were in Mt. Ranier National Park, which had no cell phone service and very spotty wi-fi only at the visitor center. It took forever to download anything because of all the hundreds of tourists, including us, not quite sold on the idea of a totally unplugged vacation, desperate to log on. We persisted until the crowds thinned, triumphantly downloading email and the New York Times. That’s how we knew about the murders in El Paso and Dayton. That’s how we knew why the flag in front of the visitor’s center was at half-mast.

Hell might have been breaking out, but here we were in Paradise. That’s what this main area of Mt. Ranier National Park is called. And it truly was. In case you need a break from the real world, enjoy!

Jonathan said it looked like Mt. Ranier was projected on a blue screen. The mountain loomed everywhere we looked. We were walking around in a 3-D postcard. I felt we had stepped right into the pages of my Sierra Club engagement calendars, which always feature the unbelievable flower meadows carpeting the flanks of the sleeping volcano.

There were lakes and more flowers . . .

. . . and even some wild (and not so wild) life:

We spent several more days in the Sunrise area of Mt. Ranier National Park:

With more incredible wildflowers:

Alas, after ten days, we needed to return to reality. Which reminds me of a great T-shirt I saw on the trail–very helpful for the transition back to what we now face:

Moon Dreams

Moon and poppy collage (colored paper and toner, hand-cut and layered in quarter-inch strips), early work by my artist daughter

Fifty years ago today, I was 14 years old and standing with my parents in central Copenhagen, looking up. So were thousands of others–Danes and tourists from all over the world, jammed into the streets, craning our necks to see.

Our collective gaze fell not on the moon (it was the middle of the day), nor on a TV screen (there were no nearby stores with banks of televisions, and Jumbotrons hadn’t been invented yet). Instead, we were plugged into the moon landing through one of those electronic billboards flashing the news, the pixellated words chasing each other around the top of a skyscraper.

The crowd gasped, and my parents and I were caught up in the excitement. Only slowly did it dawn on us that we didn’t exactly know what was happening. We could make out obvious cognates like “Apollo” and “astronauts,” but we had no idea if the men had crashed or landed safely.

There was no confusion about the unity of the crowd, however. Even though the Apollo mission was born out of intensive nationalistic rivalry, all divisions and ill-will ceased to exist in that moment. We were one people–fearful, hopeful, awestruck–transcending the bounds of petty earthliness.

This is what I remember of the moon landing. That unity, good-will, and collective purpose feel scarce today when we need it more than ever. I dream of its return.

April, Before She Goes

“April is the cruelest month,” T.S. Eliot

“April, come she will,” Simon and Garfunkel

April did indeed come, and with certain cruelties this year: acts of violent hatred around the globe, from Sri Lanka to a synagogue near San Diego; another devastating cyclone in Mozambique, and the climate catastrophe it portends; the daily anxieties of a harrowing news cycle in a fracturing nation and world. And for us personally, a dear friend died unexpectedly.

April may be the cruelest month, but it is also the month of spring wildflowers. This year’s ample rains in California have yielded a magnificent display, and we’ve been taking full advantage. They’ve provided respite for us, and here are some highlights should you, too, be in need of respite.

Big Sur Coast to Cambria Area:

Sunol Regional Park/Ohlone Wilderness. This is one of our favorite Bay Area parks. It holds special meaning since it was where our friend spent a wonderful day doing what she loves before dying from a stroke.

Jenner Headlands Preserve–except for the ridge line, it was totally socked in, so we’ll have to return. My husband got a pretty good shot of the ghost cows, though!

Oat Hill Mine Road in Calistoga. This is one of our favorite hikes–we return every couple of years. This year’s wildflowers were spectacular. Oat Hill Mine Road and most of Calistoga escaped the fires of 2017, although we could see a lot of fire damage in other nearby parts.

Skyline Park in Napa:

And, because there’s no place like home: