31 July 2020

You Ain't Goin' Nowhere

Five decades ago, at the end of July, I am living at home with my parents and my big sister and my younger brother. My father has given me the task of reading the map and navigating him on the long journey to our holiday home on the coast in Denmark. This means that I can sit next to him in the passenger seat and not get carsick in the back. I love reading maps. I love school, I play the piano, I sing in a choir and I am so much looking forward to our seaside holiday where I can read all the books I packed. My parents are making jokes about how many.

Four decades ago, at the end of July, I am living with R in a tiny attic flat in Heidelberg and I have just decided to drop out of university with four months to go to my final exams. I know I never want to teach, research or lecture, instead I am working at the hospital, mostly mopping floors and sterilising bits and pieces. R is working for a landscape gardener. In the evenings, we sit by the river making plans about cycling all the way to Ireland. My parents stop talking to me.

Three decades ago, at the end of July, I am living in a small bungalow with a corrugated tin roof in a  tropical African country. I am married to R who is teaching chemistry and biology at the capital's polytechnic, our seven year old daughter is climbing trees and diving for crabs. My job as a business manager at a government training scheme has just come to an end and I am giving away/selling our things. In a few days we will move on to spend some time in India. Back in Germany, after my mother's latest suicide attempt, my father is preparing to run away in the middle of the night, he will be in hiding for several months.

Two decades ago, at the end of July, I am living in Germany again. We have just bought a house very similar to the one I grew up in, R is teaching and our daughter is preparing to move on to study and be an adult. I have just started my new job at the university medical faculty and at the obligatory health check-up for newcomers my blood works have come back with troubling results. I decide to ignore this and instead get ready for a three week long bike trip across Germany with R. My mother is dead, my father rejoicing, now that I am finally where he feels I belong, in Germany and at a university.

One decade ago, at the end of July, I am mostly at home resting in our house and garden. R is still teaching. Our daughter, after years of study, travel and work on several continents, is beginning to settle down on the other side of the planet.  By now, I have been out sick for 11 months and I am in no shape yet to go back to work. I am beginning to accept the reality of a livelong chronic illness. I buy an ebike and slowly begin cycling again, first minutes and hours, then a morning, a day, and eventually, after another year, a whole week. I have started to blog. My father is refusing to understand chronic, but tries to be helpful.

Today, at the end of July, I am still living with R in this house near the river. I am still working at the university, but part time and since mid March, from home during this strange pandemic. R is a retired teacher and a busy gardener. Our daughter is living with her small family on the other side of the planet and the pandemic has cut a big gash through all our plans and dreams. I am a virtual grandmother, my grandchild sings with me via social media. I cycle along the river. My father is in a retirement home. He is unwell and angry.

I blog. Some nights I sleep poorly. I am comfortably resigned. My energy is limited, I am not much in pain. I could miss a lot. I could complain, I could shout at the moon.

I read maps, there are places I think I still want, I still need to go to.

24 July 2020

the keys to paradise

"Putting something called Nature on a pedestal and admiring it from afar does for the environment what patriarchy does for the figure of Woman. It is a paradoxical act of sadistic admiration."

". . . the belief that humanity will soon become involved in a deep and abiding worldwide partnership with nature. Millions of us will commit ourselves to reversing the long legacy of environmental degradation that threatens to destabilize the climate as well as the great ecologies that sustain life on Earth. We must develop a vast stewardship initiative, which will become the great work of our time. Fortunately, there are as many ways to serve the Earth as there are people willing to engage in this vast restoration project. It includes nothing less than stabilizing the planet’s climate as well as saving ourselves."

We could if we wanted to. But, ahh, distraction, distraction. Two days ago, I got sidetracked while I was searching online for a specific white cotton vest for my father and before I knew it, I was contemplating purchasing various underwear items I did not need to restock. I refrained, because: size charts, how do they work? Since then, this link keeps popping up to a site listing "the 10 female clothing items men hate". I am not even tempted, what do I care. As a form of interweb punishment I have since received an invitation, I kid you not, to view bargain funeral cars. There could be a message here.

19 July 2020

virologists rule

If you read just one more article about corona, read this whole interview with Dr. Fauci on Medscape
 One quote:
"Two things. One, I just try to express how much I admire the real heroes on the front line for getting in there every day and essentially putting themselves at risk. I'm operating from a different vantage point where I am, but I almost miss the days of being in the trenches with you. So that's the first thing.
The second thing is that, you know, this is so stressful for all of us. I think we have to remember that we're gonna get through this. This is not something that's gonna be forever. We're gonna get through it. It's gonna be over. And we're going to look back and hopefully say we really gave it our best shot. And it's gonna be over from two standpoints: It's going to be over from a public health standpoint if we get it right, public health–wise.
But I think science and good biomedical research are also going to come to the rescue because we're going to get a vaccine, hopefully sooner rather than later, and we will get effective therapeutics. So for the people on the frontlines and in the trenches, hang in there with us. We're all in it together and we're gonna get through it. So that's my message to them."

Apparently, the number of medical students applying to specialise in virology has quadrupled in recent months. At least at the university where I work. 

17 July 2020

home office

So there I was early, very early one morning, long before day break and even earlier than the birds, too exhausted to go back to sleep. The woman from the corner house, the painter who howls at the moon, had just shattered another glass bottle onto her driveway, throwing it out of her upstairs bathroom window with many curse words and threats. She is not boozing, several time that night it was empty water bottles she threw out, an expensive French brand, volcanic source, with a 1 Euro refund per bottle.

I lay there contemplating again if I should do something, go over and ring her door bell and offer my help and risk getting a bottle whacked over my head. Once again, I reprimanded myself for not having done that weeks ago, before she started with the throwing of glass and china and that walking over there in the dark would be tricky what with all the shards on her garden path. And then I started worrying whether I should wear a mask or not and well, I fell asleep again, dreaming of my mother.
The way she would climb onto the upstairs window ledge threatening to jump because we didn't tidy up our room.

In the morning, I wrote an email to the social psychiatric helpline about the scenario, bottles and howling and cursing and please, please, no police, and ended it with asking for a call back. Then I tried to delete the email but too late.
An hour later, someone called me, one of these firm female voices, professionally emphatic, and we had a decent enough talk and she took down notes and described the possible steps, i.e. a letter offering help, followed by a house call, no pressure, all voluntarily, but possibly not until sometime in August and that we should only consider calling the cops if she keeps it up with the bottle throwing and noise disruption at night and while I tried to frantically pedal back explaining that there was a lot more noise from neighbours revving their expensive cars and leaf blowers and hedge cutters and that it was her safety I was concerned for, the police arrived. I almost started to cry but it turns out, another neighbour was responsible for that and she never opened her door and stayed quiet as a mouse. In fairness, the professionally emphatic female on the phone seemed to get my point and we exchanged numbers and decided to keep an eye on things. Whatever that implies.

Why do I do stuff like that? That woman did not have the time of day for me in all the years we lived here and I have one bad dream about my mother and cannot keep my mouth shut.

In other news, I am officially on holidays. In fact, while busily working from home since mid March, due to pandemic measures, I have lost touch of my holiday entitlement and now must take at least one week every month until the end of the year or else. Also, I was informed by HR that since the beginning of my pandemic related home office confinement I have worked far more than my contract hours and must stop doing that as home office and overtime are mutually exclusive concepts. I reacted by collapsing into a deep semi coma of exhaustion and have now told R that I intend to sleep for the next three days. At least. Seriously.

The video above is the free entertainment laid on for us on the patio. The one below is music for a Friday.

10 July 2020

Surprise, July so far has been cool and wet. Cool-ish and wet-ish. We are holding it together at the fort here, plenty of gardening and housekeeping and home office to bring in the dough.

I sort of lost it for a bit after I read about the risks to airline travel regardless of whatever air filter system gadgets and seat spacing. One of the eminent virologists told a reporter that he would only go on an airplane at a push and then wearing a protective suit and those super duper masks and for the life of me, I cannot see myself on a 33 hrs trip geared up that way, never mind the stop overs. Maybe on a couple of cargo ships? And I read the bit about mild cases who after a speedy recovery have developed neurological symptoms (tremors, balance loss, encephalitis, more here) and then the findings of how the virus attacks heart cells (more here).

Before that, I was skipping about asking people to dig deep into their creative thoughts and to come up with positive stuff and no more hankering after our has-been normal life and moaning about what we cannot change. Acceptance, I shouted with a smile. Should have known I was way over the top.

This is something that happens to other people in other times; something you might imagine, might read about – not experience. But it is real, it is happening. The plague is back. It never went away. Welcome to the future. No, welcome to the present, to the reality of an ineradicable highly contagious and sometimes fatal virus. There might be a vaccine for it at some stage, as there is for measles. There might not be, as there is not for HIV. A reliable treatment might be developed, as there is for HIV. Or it might not be, like measles.

In any event, there is a gap between what we know about our situation and what our gut believes, a gap that creates confusion, promotes outrage over inconveniences, complacency after early successes. We “know” what’s happening, but we don’t quite “feel” it. Our collective gut is still telling us normality is just around the corner. The reality has been slow to sink in because it’s beyond our privileged experience.

As you will yourself into the reality you perhaps start to understand how the millions before you didn’t understand either, didn’t read the signs, didn’t grasp calamity unfolding, were unprepared, were lost in history’s turmoil, thought their mass grave impossible even as they dug it. We’re out of practice. Mass disasters don’t happen here, not in our lifetime. The plagues and total wars and famines and deaths in the thousands and millions are confined to television screens. Even our hard times remain relatively soft in the broader, longer scheme of things. Other people’s individual tragedies have gone on regardless. In groups sometimes, in planeloads. Communities when fire or flood or landslide tear through. Bad, terrible, but this, this indiscriminate imposition … on everyone? And slowly the comprehension comes – it has always been everyone.

The single diagnosis and mass verdict, the individual execution and the genocide: Each one, one person, however many. One person facing mortality. We’re born to this. We will get used to it. Adapting is what we do best.

07 July 2020

We have a bit of a drop in temperatures, even a few heavy showers. But summer, nevertheless.
After the last month's heavy cluster of infections in the meat packing plant and the expected media frenzy about animal welfare and underpaid seasonal workers from Eastern Europe, we wake up to the news that in a neighbouring town, several members of the local Baptist church got symptoms and the entire congregation has been tested and all (!) are positive. All the singing and praising, well done, 500+ people are now in quarantine.

My father has been moved to a geriatric intermediate care facility for the next whatever how many weeks. He is still angry but slowly realising that he has to work on his cunning and charm to make do. The virus restrictions are complicating matters, he thinks we are all scared ninnies but has resigned to play along for a while. Anyway, picture a 91-year old in bed, unable to stand or walk for the next 12 or so weeks if at all, with his phone in one hand and his tv remote control in the other. He has a nice sunny room with a balcony all by himself, meals are served at his wish and a string of physiotherapists, doctors and carers are coming and going, like a hen house, he tells me.
When I call him, I don't get a word in one way or another, I listen until he declares the call finished and afterwards I search my soul for feelings.

Here is a picture of the cycle path along the river, looking north. That spiky church tower in the distance on the left, that's as far as I'll cycle, then I am almost home.

A few weeks ago, one of our big weekly papers asked seven leading experts in the fields of virology and epidemiology (from Germany, the UK and the US) six questions on the corona pandemic.

The last and sixth question was:

When do you think our life will be the same as it was before the pandemic?

These are the answers.

Expert no. 1: I wish I could answer that. I'm afraid we'll have to live with restrictions for quite a while. It will probably only be really normal again if we have an approved vaccine and a good part of us has been vaccinated.

Expert no. 2: Only when we have a vaccine and enough people have been vaccinated to achieve herd immunity. But I also want to ask people to think about what kind of normalcy we want to return to. In many countries, a large number of older people have died in care facilities. I want to ask people to think about the circumstances that led to it. This also includes the underlying problem of neglecting older people. As a society, we can and should do better.

Expert no. 3: The corona pandemic has made many people aware that, despite technological developments, there can still be uncontrollable events that come from outside bringing, in addition to significant medical consequences, also economic and social cuts. A bit of the "lightness of being" has been taken away from modern society.

Expert no. 4: Never.

Expert no. 5: I believe and hope that in some areas, our life will not be the same as it used to be. Perhaps in the future there will be less travel, less presence culture, fewer meetings and more home office and overall improved local structures? The pandemic has shown many inequalities and many weaknesses in our existing systems and I think it should serve as a wake-up call.
I think that many of the good things in life, like close social contacts, being with a lot of people, festivals, big weddings, going out, going out to eat, celebrating, will probably only be possible with a vaccine with the "old" lightheartedness.

Expert no. 6: I think the pandemic will have a lasting impact on our social interactions, on closeness and distance to other people, and on attitudes towards hygiene in our lives. People will be more careful with each other for a very long time, many will avoid mass events for some time and travel differently. We will be ready to invest a larger proportion of our economy to prepare and prevent further pandemics, which will affect different professional groups. Hopefully there will be an intensive debate about media, information, influence and truth - and there will be a fresh exploration of the basis on which social decisions are made and should be in the future.

Expert no.7: Life goes on. After this pandemic, we will have developed a new culture of dealing with each other that will change us in the long term. I sincerely hope that as part of this new culture we will be able to redevelop ease and impartiality.

03 July 2020

songs and pictures

Today, Friday, music day, I have the same song in two versions. There is a third version, which is the one I have been singing to my myself all day.  To the extent that R has politely asked me to cut it out.

And at the end of the week I am also tired. So just some pictures of and from the garden. The raspberry harvest is massive, the freezer is packed, R is making jam and clafoutis.

this year we have a massive raspberry harvest

The blackcurrants are already soaking in gin.

The onions are now drying in the wood shed

and that patch of wildflower is the square experiment, I insisted on leaving a section of the lawn go wild and with a little help from a seed packet, this is what happened. Apart from the poppy, there are eight other different flowering plants - so far.

The grapes ripen while we watch,

the lilies are just lilies

and the feijoa tree is somewhat camera shy, but it is simply loaded with blossoms and every morning buzzing with bumble bees, giving us hope of some fruit eventually.

02 July 2020

imagine the world anew

I try to cycle for while every day, always the same long loop - as we call it -, about 10 km, 35 mins at best. I check the sky for rain and get on with it, despite aching joints or that gruesome tiredness (fatigue, my doctor calls it, ever so proper). First I wind my way southwards through our suburb, past the string of old village houses, timber framed, medieval, low roofs, the playground, the fish shop, the pharmacy, the school yards, the park where elderly men wearing masks play boules, the villas from the Wilhelminian era with their high windows and fancy stucco fronts and topiary framing the garden gates, and so on until I turn sharp left and roll down towards the ferry and onto the bike path along the river. If I needed to, I could cycle north on this path all the way to the Dutch coast or south all the way to the source in Switzerland, always with the river beside me, on and on - I have almost done it both ways. It's nice but tedious in places.
But at that spot, here where the ferry crosses and I have rolled down that small hill, it's gorgeous. The river is like a sheet of blue green wavy glass, swans and ducks and barges and rowing boats, there are the castles on the top of the hills on the other side amid thick forest, the light, the clear air, and I could sing it's so lovely and expansive and pleasant. And I fly all the way back, pedalling faster and faster.

Listen to this short text by Arundhati Roy.
I think more and more that we are facing our one and only chance as humans to find our real potential at last. Provided we can shake off the distractions from these nasty old men and their empty dreams of money and power.

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.