A letter to the Class of 2020

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Dear Class of 2020,

I watched Saturday’s bittersweet national TV special salute to you torn between wanting to applaud the idea of the program and wanting to shake my fist at the fact of its necessity.

In the great scheme of things, you may well see a canceled commencement as pretty small potatoes. The graduation parties that go with it, maybe not so much. You are, of course, a portion of the larger American society. One that has been profoundly affected by this pandemic emergency, its shadow cast over hundreds of thousands who have been stricken by the virus as well as millions who have been thrown out of work in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. As the slogan goes, “We’re in this together,” despite some shrill protestations to the contrary.

Earlier last week, an old friend posted on social media some photos of her daughter in an elegant evening gown. Months before, mother and daughter had spent weeks on outings looking for that perfect dress in the usual excitement anticipating the coming spring’s prom.

Now, the best that could happen was for your classmate to dress up for some photos on the day the prom was supposed to have been held. Maybe some of you thought of that, too. Despite the warmth of those pictures, individually and with her family, I wondered what was really going on behind her smile, as I did about her smiling older brother whose first year at a university in another state had been cut short.

It occurred to me: You are members of a generation — dubbed Gen-Z — whose whole lives have been filled with uncertainty and vulnerability. You have been sent daily into school buildings that could, in an instant, become a killing field. Some of your most important lessons were learned in “active shooter” drills. Many of your families have been hurled into a financial tailspin  — perhaps for a second time in a dozen years. And now, you are forced to choose between incurring backbreaking debt to further your education or limiting your career opportunities.

For your entire young lives, you have been a captive audience to the dissembling hypocrisies, moral passivity and intellectual paralysis of adults who have supported, consented to or looked the other way while unapologetic greed and selfishness have displaced integrity and responsibility. Who repeatedly voted for leaders who have methodically looted the economy as well as the public till. Who stood by while our system of government became so corrupted that it made possible the election to the presidency of a vacuous and vicious bully — the type of person, when you were in middle school, nobody wanted to be around.

I have found myself wishing I could gather a group of you into a room somewhere and ask: What do you really think about all this? Is there anybody you feel you can really trust? Standing at the threshold of the rest of your lives, what do think you really see? And mostly, what to you really think of us — the adults who are supposed to be running the show — the same people who currently can’t even agree on what “safe” means?

Looking back on my own coming of age in The Sixties, I have long hoped that I would never see a time when anyone would ever have to live through the kind of monumental tragedy, chaos, sorrow and bitterness of that time. Class of 2020, my heart truly breaks for you.

One of the themes of Saturday’s program was that you were “born to make noise.” I sincerely hope so. Do it. And don’t ever stop. Please.

Oh! Thinking about food leads to food for thought

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It was 6 a.m. as I steered my car into a cold, gloomy supermarket parking lot the other day. The sun wasn’t even up yet. During the 15-minute ride from my warm bed, a single, dispiriting thought kept running through my mind — “So . . . it has come to this!”

Just another in the parade of what I call “Oh! moments” that have cropped up during life in time of quarantine. Now into a second month of this situation, we have already been shown in no uncertain terms that so many habits of daily living — those routines and patterns that used to get us through the day without having to stop and think about them — now have to be changed. Also, how much thought that can sometimes take.

Don’t leave your house unless absolutely necessary — Oh!

Keep your distance when you do go out — Oh!

Watch what you touch — Oh!

Watch how you touch — Oh!

Watch who you touch — Oh!

Wash your hands after you touch something or somebody — Oh!

Don’t touch your face or your hair — Oh, no!

Now, wash your hands again — Oh, $#*% !

And that’s just the starter set. Add no visiting friends or family. No going to restaurants. No going to bars. No going to the mall. No going to the gym. No going to the movies. Only “essential services” remain, thank you very much.

Which brings me to the lengths that have become necessary just to grab a gallon of milk, a bunch of bananas and a loaf of bread. On that dark morning, I was joining the Senior Hour. It is the hour from 6 to 7 a.m. that has been reserved for those over age 60, as well as others with “at risk” medical conditions, such as compromised immune systems and heart disease. Check, check and check.

Getting up before 6 a.m. has never been my idea of a good idea. I’m not a morning person. For me, 9 a.m. is early and, like some lizard on a rock, I usually don’t get busy until the sun gets warm around noon. Being the wise guy that I am, when this seniors’ hour was first advertised, I thought it laughable. But I stopped laughing after a highly uncomfortable shopping trip the week before.

I got to the supermarket on that day about 10:30 a.m., early for me but obviously prime time for others. It was all pretty much shopping as usual. Aisles slowed to a crawl with comparison shoppers. People passing within bumping distance in two-way traffic. Deli counter huggers. Clueless solo men — some darting around like they’re driving in rush-hour traffic, others leaving carts blocking the aisles while leisurely perusing something on a shelf. Even the handful of people sporting face masks largely didn’t appear to be mindful of the new courtesies.

Meanwhile, I was becoming nervously aware of the limited space in aisles, as well as the number of big sale displays, BOGO and two-fer signs, and impulse items spaced around the store that slow shoppers down for a second look. Then it dawned on me —  grocery stores are not designed for social distancing.

Oh!

No store is, really. That’s why most of them are closed in the first place. And that’s why I ended up making my predawn raid on the grocery shelves.

In all, things went much better. Shoppers were mannerly. With fewer people in the store, it was easier to maintain the social distancing standard without bowing to the kind of impatience that a crowded space can engender. For my drowsy troubles, I was able to get enough stuff — including a package of nine giant rolls of 2-ply — to hold us for awhile.

We are now being informed that staying out of the store altogether is the best strategy. But that is not so easy where I live in Delaware. Most stores have stopped their curbside pickups. Home deliveries are overbooked. If you’re lucky, you’ll get your order in a week — “at the earliest.”

Meanwhile, the state has imposed sharp limits on the number of customers allowed into stores, a strategy catching up with New York state, where I am from. In a preview of what is likely coming my way, I am told by friends back there that Wegmans now specifies one-way traffic in their aisles and has set up a single line to await checkout complete with stickers on the floor spacing six-foot intervals.

Characteristically, I wasn’t sure at first how I felt about all this. A few days ago, however, while I was getting cranky about all the changes to my habits being dictated by this emergency, I heard the voices the of parents, my wife, trusted friends — even my shrink — over the years all repeating the same question: “Why are you unable or unwilling to adjust to a situation just the way it is?”

Oh!

The Quarantine Song

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(To the song “Peggy Sue” by Buddy Holly)

Quarantine, quarantine

I’m home in self-quarantine.

OMG! I’m in quarant-eh-eh-eh-eh-ine.

Getting dull right now

being here in quarantine.

Quarantine. Not serene,

staring at the TV screen.

Oh spare me! I’m in quarant-eh-eh-eh-eh-ine.

Couch potato now,

bottled up in quarantine.

Quarantine. Quarantine.

eerie, freaky, nasty, ugly quarantine.

Lord save me! I’m in quarant-eh-eh-eh-eh-ine.

Getting lonely now,

in this dreary quarantine.

Quarantine. Feeling mean.

Just about to make a scene.

God help me! I’m in quarant-eh-eh-eh-eh-ine.

Really boring now.

Really tired of quarantine.

Quarantine. Quarantine.

timeless, endless, futile, ceaseless quarantine.

Lord save me! I’m in quarant-eh-eh-eh-eh-ine.

Need a lift right now

while I’m stuck in quarantine.

Quarantine. How obscene.

Searching for my Thorazine.

Oh, mother! I’m in quarant-eh-eh-eh-eh-ine.

Feeling trapped right now

going nuts in quarantine.

Well, I love you so,

but I’m here in quarantine.

And I need  your love,

but I’m stuck in quarantine.

OK, Boomer! Getting a grip on my demographic

So . . . . I don’t know about you, but I’m not very sanguine about being a member of the high-risk age group club, something I am being reminded of several dozen times daily.

It’s not that I’m foolish. It’s not that I’m dumb. It’s not that I subscribe to some wild conspiracy theory about the origins of this pandemic. And I have certainly had my share of serious illness during the past 20 years. In fact, it is not about who I am at all. It’s about what I am.

I’m a Baby Boomer.

I am a senior member of the largest generation in American history, the prodigious output of a pent-up Greatest Generation that came of age during the privation of The Great Depression and World War II. A demographic tsunami that washed through society the last half of the 20th century leveling any idea, tradition or institution that stood in its path.

We are the first truly affluent generation. Our every want and desire has been eagerly catered to by advertisers who assured us “you can have it all,” so let’s “go for the gusto,” because “you only go around once.”

We are the fitness generation jogging, 5K-ing, 10K-ing, marathoning, iron-pumping, iron-manning, kayaking and cycling on macrobiotic, low-fat, low-carb diets on our way to, if not living forever, leaving a good-looking corpse.

We are the Woodstock Generation. The generation that brought the world sex, drugs & rock ‘n’ roll. The soundtrack sung by Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, The Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, The Doors, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” was our anthem then. Dylan’s  “Forever Young” is our anthem now.

But lately this rockin’ playlist keeps being rudely interrupted by health professionals, government officials, even my children reminding me that I am, to put it bluntly, old. That my immune system is fast running out of gas and that the pleasant cashier, the lively waiter or the nice lady in the pew in front of me at church may be the Grim Reaper in disguise.

It’s not that I haven’t seen this situation coming for some time now. In my 50s, I found people addressing me as “sir” with noticeable frequency. Bills at restaurants automatically showed up with senior discounts. In my 60s, I found people rushing to open doors for me. For most of that annoying decade, I at least enjoyed delivering the tart reply, “Thanks for helping an old guy!”

Now in my 70s, I am wary of doing something that will label me a geezer. Like saying to my wife, “We had one of those,” while browsing in an antique shop. More and more, when I drop something, I pause to think about whether I actualIy need it. And it has become increasingly apparent that the saying, “you’re only as old as you feel,” is uttered almost exclusively by young people.

Despite all that, there is a scene that plays out at least once a week. I’ll be standing at the bathroom mirror getting ready for the day — brushing teeth, shaving, combing hair — and the whole time my brain is screaming, “What happened to you?”

I’m know I’m not alone in this struggle, as I continue to hear the old yuppie silliness that “60 is the new 50” (No, it is not. The naps cancel that out.) Or some 60-year-old insisting they are still “middle-age” (So . . . how many 120-year-old people do you know, pal?)

Friends I talk to about this agree that our brains have this odd habit of thinking they are 25 years younger than our bodies know they actually are. It is under this pathetic delusion that too often the day ends with a visit to the emergency room (what happened to you?).

I’m not sure how to sum up my feelings about this state of affairs. While sifting through some sources for this piece, however, I stumbled across the title of a 1976 Jethro Tull LP titled “Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die.” Why don’t we just leave it at that for today?

TAKE NOTE: Please don’t mistake my humor about the virus as a lack of seriousness or concern. Laughing through hard times happens to be how I got through my whole life.

My wife and I are self-quarantining. And I take very seriously the dire threat that the virus can cause for people in this age group. I sincerely hope everybody reading this will, as well.

Stay safe. Stay sane.

Forget the TP – things have gotten serious

art beverage blur caffeine
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Pardon me for my gloating past.

I confess I have been condescendingly amused by the shopping sprees we have been witnessing in recent weeks. Panicked Americans awaiting supermarkets and big-box stores to open in lines matched only by Black Friday door-buster sales or tickets for Rolling Stones concerts. Most at the ready to zero in on the paper-products aisle with the precision of a ground-to-air missile.

Who hasn’t seen pictures or videos of harried shoppers in checkout lines, carts filled with pick-up truck-sized loads of bathroom tissue? Of course, all kinds of punchlines come to mind. One of the milder ones is: “You think Corona-virus is scary?”

My complacency is borne of the experience of living for 37 years in the Central New York region near Syracuse. Where winter isn’t a season. It’s an occupation. Where it hasn’t “really” snowed until there’s more than six inches on the ground. Where storms dropping between 12 to 24 inches of snow come with great regularity. Additionally, the generally rural countryside leaves many people more than 20 miles away from the nearest grocery store, bank or wholesale warehouse. So overbuying and packing in extra items on the shopping trip becomes a way of life there. 

However, about the second week into the shopping shortages, the panic finally seized me. To that point, I had been smugly breezing past the empty packaged meat counters, the barren bread shelves and, of course, the always present unnerved shoppers staring forlornly down the paper products aisle. I even smirked a bit when I surveyed the depleted dairy cases. That was until I went looking for some creamer for my coffee.

Well — half & half, to be exact. For more than a week now, there has been none. All gone. Sold out. Zilch. Nada. Not even a sign telling us when more might be expected, as is usual in calmer times when a product is in short supply. Not encouraging at all. Yes, there were flavored creamers to be had. No apparent shortage of those made with coconut milk or soy milk, either. But good old, down-home, plain, nothing-fancy, no-frills, generic, nondescript half & half? Please!

Life in time of pandemic had suddenly become serious.

As with so many Americans, I love my coffee. There’s nothing fancy about it, however. I don’t frequent coffee emporiums, whether Starbucks or local. And when I do, it is still a no-nonsense order. Regular coffee in the biggest cup ya got, leave some room for — well — half & half.

I have regularly been accused of being a coffee rustic. Those who fancy themselves connoisseurs call me a slob for gumming up the real coffee taste with — well — half & half. The Starbucks sophisticates awaiting their espressos and lattes in sizes they specify in foreign terminology simply roll their eyes when they see me reach for — well — the half & half.

What my recent shopping forays has begun to reveal is that that there are apparently more of us in the Half & Half Club than advertising and fancy shops (with free wi-fi and leather easy chairs) had led me to believe. It also suggests that perhaps the mass panic shopping is over — for the time being, at least — leaving the store to a different kind of shopper .

Friday, I arrived at the nearly empty coffee creamer section of the dairy case looking for some sort of real cream that I could mix up with milk as a “make-do” alternative to the half & half famine. I encountered a man and a woman having an animated discussion, each gesturing toward a half-dozen pints of heavy whipping cream. Figuring the two were weighing the merits of a make-do themselves, I told them about the mixing formula (quarter cup heavy cream to three-quarters whole). The woman, however, made plain she wasn’t interested in some low-rent makeshift solution. She was looking for quality of life.

“I want to use this stuff straight up,” she said. We all laughed.

And it occurred to me that besides panic shoppers, here was another group of shoppers, of which I am evidently a member. We are like a bunch of hungry bears — or maybe the Geico raccoons — foraging the landscape for targets of opportunity, whether berries or salmon (or half a cheese steak). If it’s there, go for it.

With all the pictures of the shopping frenzy just days ago, as well as the continuing uncertainty of the emergency in which we find ourselves, it was reassuring that there are still people able to laugh in the face of it all.