Small signs of resilience

Here in Berkeley, the weather has been lovely. So despite shelter-in-place orders, people take walks, whether it’s for the benefit of their dogs or themselves. Where I’ve decided to create my remote classroom–on our dining room table–I have a view of neighbors strolling by. Most have cloth masks with sturdy elastic ear pieces. Some have fashioned a scarf or bandanna, and a few have surgical masks. On foot, scooter, bike, or with the aid of a cane or walker, a parade of people pass my window, all at least six feet apart.

When I venture out myself, I’ve been sporting an old n95-respirator leftover from last year’s wildfires. I know–it’s undoubtedly beyond its original capacity to protect me from 95% of the dangers lurking in the air, but it surely keeps any droplets that might emanate from me from landing on others, which is the main objective.

On a recent walk–always veering out of harm’s way when presented with another human also taking advantage of a clear, sunny day–I went on a bear hunt. People have placed teddy bears and other stuffed animals in the window for children to look for on their outings. And there are also rainbows–drawings, paintings, or printer-produced stock photos–hanging in the window for kids to spy on rainbow walks. But my favorite addition to this surreal COVID-19 landscape are the colorful chalk drawings accompanied by encouraging suggestions, such as “Take Care of Each Other.”

Yes, the world is different. It’s not as safe as it was just a few months ago. The sandlot at our closest park has no toddlers vrooming Tonka trucks, nobody is sitting at the umbrella-ed-tables at our local tacqueria taking advantage of Taco Tuesday, and all the theaters are dark. Patient grocery shoppers wait outside in a stretched-out queue before they are allowed to enter the Safeway where Plexiglas has been erected to make interactions with cashiers safer.

But we’re still out here, albeit in protective garb, waving to neighbors from the other side of the street, even calling out hello because they can’t see us smile under whatever face covering we’ve chosen. We’re writing and reading messages on the sidewalks. And we’re looking for teddy bears and rainbows.

To quote one sidewalk chalk artist: “We got this.”

Shelter-in-place: Day 27

The day before the City of Berkeley was instructed to shelter in place was the first day of my spring break. We had planned a vacation in Chicago to see theater, go to some museums, and visit friends. Instead, we were relegated to our home, except to shop for groceries or get take-out.

But I vowed to make the best of the situation. I had big plans to read a lot and accomplish numerous projects.

I really thought I’d have finished more books, but I’ve mostly read the New York Times, Daily Kos, and Berkeleyside–all online news. I am compelled to follow the death count of COVID-19 cases, both regionally and world wide. (Spoiler alert: the numbers just keep rising.)

I also imagined myself organizing countless closets and drawers. I was sure my sock drawer would be picture worthy by now. Maybe tomorrow…

I’d also planned to do some serious house-cleaning. But when it occurred to me that nobody was going to see it anyway, it lost all appeal. I do occasionally vacuum, but Ruby’s hair keeps growing and shedding at such an alarming rate that is impossible to keep up with.

What I have done is played way too many hours of Two Dots on my phone, watched about a hundred hours of movies and TV shows, logged in more Facebook time in 27 days than I had in the previous two years, and consumed an impressive quantity of alcoholic beverages and Mexican cokes.

And I won’t deny it: I slept in on a regular basis.

Something I rarely did before COVID-19 was watch clips on YouTube; yet this morning I watched several minutes of Berkeley High grad Andy Samberg in a compilation of his many appearances on “Late Night with Seth Meyers.” Just because I could.

And of course I’ve washed my hands 273 times. (Okay, I haven’t actually kept track, but that seems to me a fairly reasonable estimate.)

On the plus side, I’ve not only gotten to eat most of my meals with Dave–my husband and soulmate–but we’ve solved many crossword puzzles together.

And I’ve played my guitar more regularly, written two COVID-related songs, and started a neighborhood tradition: we have a sing-along every night at 6 o’clock where we stand at least 6 feet apart. (Hmmm…should we call it 6X6 a la SXSW?)

In addition, I’ve joined Dave and the pups on more dog walks, though our choices have become more limited with the dog park being shut down.

And I’ve enjoyed a lot of snuggle time with Rumpus, who seems completely unperturbed by the whole quarantine situation.

Ruby, the fur-shedding machine (left) and Rumpus (right)

So if my off-work hours have not been as productive as they could have been, I’m okay with that.

It’s not like watching Andy Samberg is a bad thing…

Dr. Fauci (Take two)

I decided to learn the chords on the guitar and record the song I wrote about in my last post. But I don’t have the upgraded version of WordPress to upload the video here. So I’m just letting you know that if you are one of my FB friends, you can see it on my page. (I’m sure there’s a way of embedding the link here, but I haven’t figured out how to do it…)

Another corona virus song!

Our neighbor Barbara thought that “Let It Be” would be a good tune to create another song about our current situation. And she wanted to honor Dr. Fauci at the same time as reminding people how to avoid spreading the deadly virus. But she was not used to writing songs, so she asked me to take a stab at it.

And this is what I came up with.

Dr. Fauci

Now that we’re in times of trouble Doctor Fauci has the key

He’s got all the answers for me

When I need an expert who will tell me what I’m s’posed to do

I hear Dr. Fauci–don’t you?


Wash your hands, stay inside. Let the doctor be your guide.

Speaking words of wisdom–Dr. Fauci

I will not touch you–don’t touch me

And in our hour of darkness, do not stand there right in front of me

Keep a six-foot distance, if you please


And when the broken-hearted people listen to the CDC

We will stall the virus–you will see

For though we may be parted, there is still a chance that we will be

Standing on this planet, virus-free.


She played the violin during surgery?

Recently NPR, the Washington Post, and several other news outlets featured a fascinating story about Dagmar Turner, a violinist in the Isle of Wight Symphony Orchestra, who serenaded some doctors at King’s College Hospital in London while they removed her brain tumor. This was not just a grateful patient attempting to entertain her surgical team, however. She had been instructed to play the violin during the operation so that surgeons could ensure that she retained the fine-motor skills in her left hand. After all, it is the left hand that holds down the strings to produce different notes.

Reportedly, Turner’s playlist included Gershwin and Mahler. (It was not clear whether members of the team made any requests.)

But before any surgeon lifted a scalpel or she lifted her bow, the team studied her brain painstakingly for two hours so they knew which nooks and crannies she relied upon to make music. NPR reporter Merrit Kennedy explained that “doctors are now able to map the patient’s brain activity in great detail before the surgery using an imaging technique called functional MRI.” So this was no generic model of the human brain they were consulting; this was a personalized brain mapping.

Apparently this type of craniotomy, during which the patient is awake in order to provide crucial feedback, has been performed for decades. According to Brad Mahon, a cognitive neuroscientist at Carnegie Mellon University, an accountant was once asked to solve a math problem during surgery to make sure those areas were left intact. Usually, however, the patient’s participation is simply answering questions to check language function.

The surgery was deemed successful, as 90% of the tumor was removed, and the fine motor skills in Ms. Turner’s hand were not compromised in any way.

Amazingly enough, Dagmar Turner was not the first musician to play during her own brain surgery. In 2016 a music teacher was given his saxophone under similar circumstances, and in 2018 a professional flutist in Houston played through her surgery and a man in South Africa strummed a guitar during his.

All of this brought to my mind many questions: Could these four musicians perform as a quartet while their respective surgical teams were also working? And how they would manage someone who plays a stand-up bass? Or a pipe organ?

Daily delight for 2/21/20

One of several plum trees at Capistrano & Miramar in Berkeley, CA.
Petals are just starting to fall.

I love the few weeks in the year when these trees on my street here in Berkeley burst into masses of pink blossoms. They had not bloomed when I looked a few days ago, but today there they were in all their glory. I’m glad I caught them before the petals blanketed the sidewalk, which is pretty too, in its own way.

I mistakenly thought these were cherry blossoms for years until our neighbor George identified them as plum trees.

Note rounded petals of the plum blossom.

I decided to find out what the differences were between plum and cherry blossoms. Despite its less-than-perfect English, this Japanese travel and culture website clearly spells it all out. Apparently you can’t tell them apart by the color because both plum and cherry blossoms come in a range of colors from white to dark pink.

See the split petals on this cherry blossom? Rikugien Park , Tokyo. Photo: Tadashi Okoshi Flickr/Creative Commons Licensing.

The main distinctions involve petal shape, leaf color, and the bark. Petals on a cherry blossom are split on the end, whereas the plum’s petals are fully round. The plum tree has reddish purple leaves, as opposed to a cherry tree’s foliage, which is green. And the bark of the cherry tree is lighter and has horizontal lines.

The shape of the buds and the fragrance differ too, but who needs more than three things to look for?

Here you can clearly see the red-purple leaves of the plum tree.

Originally I had planned to simply post a picture of the plum tree in full blossom and not write a thing, allowing the beauty of the flowers to speak for themselves. But after learning how to differentiate the two, I wanted to share what I’d learned because maybe I wasn’t the last person on Earth to know how to tell the two apart!

Looking at the sky through the plum branches.

The Cutest Little Sucker

Rumpus came into our lives last August. We’d gone to an adoption event with our friend Andre, who was ostensibly searching for a doggy companion. We’d had to put down our beloved Cartwheel February of 2019, and I was sorely missing feline company. So while Andre went in search of the perfect pup, I headed for the kitten van.

That’s where I spotted him–our new kitty. Partially because our dogs’ names are Rufus and Ruby and partially because Where the Wild Things Are is my favorite children’s book (Let the wild rumpus start!), we settled on the name of Rumpus.

That first day we kept him separated from the dogs in the only place in the house other than bathrooms that had a door that would stay shut. I stayed with him for several hours in the guest bedroom, where he mostly slept on my chest and vigorously purred. At some point he started sucking on the collar of my shirt, no doubt an instinctual leftover from nursing. I thought he might give up after a while when he realized he was getting no nourishment, but he kept going.

Rumpus grew way too fast. It seems like his kittenhood lasted only a few weeks. Technically he’s still a kitten I suppose, since he’s less than a year old, but he’s much bigger now, especially with his long, fluffy tail.

Despite his size, he becomes a kitten once again when he leaps on top of me each evening, planting his paws on either side of my neck and burying his head into my pajama collar. He used to dig in with his claws, and sometimes he still does; but he’s gentler now than he was at first. (While he’s there, I usually take the opportunity to clip his nails.) Sometimes I hold his paws, which seem to generate a great deal of heat all by themselves.

To be clear, this regular event is less a drowsy kitty dreaming of his mama and more like a furry vacuum sucking vigorously with such focus that you’d swear he’d discovered a secret vein of catnip elixir.

And then, often as suddenly as he appears, he leaps down, curiously sated. Unlike Cartwheel, he doesn’t generally sleep with us at night. He often hangs with one of the dogs on the couch or appropriates one of the dog beds for himself.

Until around 6:30 a.m. when he starts knocking items off my bedside table, which is my signal to wake up and feed him.

He’s trained me pretty well.

Andre never did find a dog that day, but I came home with my new best friend.

A Year of Delight

Customarily I have started personal projects at the beginning of the year. Eating lunch at every restaurant on Solano Avenue and trekking every path in Berkeley were two such projects.

But this year inspiration didn’t strike me until February 15th, so that is the official start date of my Year of Delight project.

I was at the gym listening to a podcast of my absolute favorite radio show, This American Life, that originally aired on January 31. Ira Glass had handed over episode 692 to guest host Bim Adewunmi, who had come across Ross Gay’s book of essays, The Book of Delights, and had fashioned a whole hour of pieces connected to that topic, titledĀ  appropriately, The Show of Delights.

I was, in a word, delighted. I had launched Surviving the Trump Era, the most recent iteration of my blog, to counteract the feelings of doom and helplessness that resulted from the devastating presidential election in November of 2016. And in the disappointing aftermath of the unsuccessful impeachment, I was yearning for a positive thread to hold onto.

As my body followed the elliptical machine automatically, my ears acted as conduits to my psyche: this little radio piece genuinely made me feel better about the world. As I squeezed and pulled apart my thighs on the machine whose stirrups vaguely remind me of the set-up at a pelvic exam, I smiled, imagining Ross Gay on the airplane with his little tomato plant–the subject for one of his essays. As I twisted from side to side holding the six-pound ball, I laughed out loud listening to Act Two, “Squeals on the Bus.” By the time I was gently pushing my knees down into a butterfly, I was entranced by the nighttime zookeeper who described her job as the best in the world. And, hearing the affection in her voice as she recounted her relationship with the rhino, I believed her.

Spending a lovely hour with Bim as I exercised would have been good enough, but as I walked home, I didn’t want to leave The Show of Delights. And that is when I decided to extend the experience and make it personal.

So this will be my own year of delight, in which I plan to make note of at least one moment of delight each day. Some I will consider and expand upon; others will just be tucked away in my notebook.

I hope that by writing about moments of delight rather than attempting to recount survival techniques to maintain sanity, I will be actively promoting positivity and improving my outlook.

Join me here if you feel inclined to seek out delight.

Living the Shuffle–a Master Solo Work

The Marsh has snagged a major talent for a limited run–Robert Townsend performs “Living the Shuffle” on its Berkeley stage. This marvelous actor/director puts on a tour de force one-man show that recounts his early life as a living breathing TV Guide and continues through his journey into show biz. Adept at both drama and comedy, Townsend not only tells entertaining anecdotes from his Hollywood career but shares difficult episodes from his life that include a near-death experience and a painful divorce. Townsend wrote, directed, and performs the show, which was co-produced by Marsh regular Don Reed, a master solo performer himself.

Do not miss this rare opportunity to see Living the Shuffle on the intimate Marsh stage. Once word gets out, it may be harder to score tickets. So go buy them NOW!