To put the U.S. coronavirus crisis in perspective, consider that its toll has surpassed the 58,220 deaths of American servicemen in the Vietnam war. And to think, it would have been much worse if we hadn’t hunkered down, even as the virus continues to multiply.
Yes, I know it’s premature to expect our social lives to be returning to “normal” anytime soon, but let’s keep the hope alive.
Here are ten things I’ll say we’re missing.
Worship. Gathering together, not just solo meditation. Followed by hugs and handshakes. Even weddings and funerals are on hold. Don’t overlook regional board meetings, annual sessions, community suppers, or big festivals, either.
Live public events. Let’s start with concerts, theater, dancing and dance, sports of all sorts, both as players and fans. Add festivals, graduations, political rallies, public lectures, governmental meetings. The things that bring us together as a community.
Swimming and the gym. For me, this includes the daily banter with fellow swimmers I’ve come to know and the lifeguards, too. It’s like workout partners and trainers at the gym, so I’ve heard. Long walks just aren’t the same.
Eating out and meeting for a drink. Let’s throw in catching up with a friend over a cup of cappuccino or stopping off somewhere while off on that stroll. A phone call is a poor substitute.
Shopping. Yes, we can still go to the grocery (kind of), but many other places are closed. As for yard sales, where we find some of our best stuff without them? I’ll put banking in person here, as in being able to walk into the lobby.
Beaches, parks, playgrounds. I couldn’t even harvest seaweed for garden mulch this year. Seriously.
Health care and grooming. How much can we put on hold? OK, I don’t need a barber these days, but my cardiologist would like some blood work at the lab and our rabbits need their nails trimmed, which has been happening at the high school’s animal sciences center, or was.
Travel and transport. As I posted about not going to Boston recently or noting friends stuck without cars (and we can’t really offer them rides, either). Add to that airlines, not that I was planning on flying. But we really would like to get away from the house for a weekend breather.
Libraries and museums. Special sanctuaries.
Community care. Things like the soup kitchen and fundraisers. And places with public restrooms when I’m out on those long walks.
Schools I’ll set aside as a whole special category.
One bright spot in for me in this Covid-19 self-isolation has been the Metropolitan Opera’s nightly streaming of a Live in HD performance from its archive. As I mentioned in a March 23 posting, these are free and available until 3:30 the next afternoon. Better yet, the series is continuing. I’ve now seen more operas this way than I’ve seen live and in concert combined.
As I mentioned in “Spending nights at the opera on my laptop,” watching these performances is quite different from listening to them on the radio, and some of the things that stand out for me are the extraordinary level of the acting, by not just the principal singers but everyone on stage, leading to the important presence of the chorus in its role as actors and not just voices, and the brilliance of the opera’s dancers, who I’ll argue are highly underappreciated – they even move much of the set around during some productions. Yes, and those sets and costumes are amazing, even with all of the excessive luxury, expense, and unbelievable perfection that the video cameras catch even when those in the audience are oblivious at their distance. This is as close to the ideal, overall, as anyone could ever expect in live theater.
The backstage videos and interviews have also deepened my appreciation. Many kudos.
That said, let me note ten more distinctive things that are jumping out for me as I watch:
The oath. Or, in far fewer instances, a vow. I hadn’t notice this before, but in at least 90 percent of opera, the entire drama revolves around a sworn declaration – often forced upon someone, as in a deathbed scene, but sometimes from youthful outbursts. Watch for this, as I am now. And then, swear not, as Jesus counseled. It always leads to trouble.
The physicality of the singers. Gone are the days of lining up the big voices and the chorus behind them. Nowadays, they’re running and jumping and dancing while singing the most incredibly difficult music, even when they get a break to drop back on their backs. Look, to sing like this you need a LOT of breath (try to follow them as they sing and see where they pause to inhale) and then think about all of the other demands on their air. Got me? It’s amazing.
The swordfights. Remember, this is live, with no room for a retake. And it’s convincing.
Dancing or miming the overture or prelude. The opening music has often seemed like a spacer to establish the mood while latecomers arrive. Something like a mini-symphony, to spotlight the instrumentalists, before we get to the real stuff. Some of the newer productions, however, are raising the curtain by the time the conductor enters the orchestra pit and feature dancing or acting during the introductory music. It’s like showing a movie scene before rolling the credits, and even more impressive. Why haven’t we always done it this way?
Updating the action. Trying to reset the historical setting of the story is always tricky, but when it works, it’s brilliant. Note the Met’s “Rigoletto,” move to gambling Las Vegas, which we’ve not yet viewed. But everything I’ve seen so far along these lines has been brilliant. “Macbeth” as a ‘ 50s rebellion definitely fits, once we take it out of Scotland. As does Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutti” in Coney Island, though I wish they had swapped the couples at the finale – this production had room for that feminist power reintrepretion.
Appreciating the subtitles. I love that these are contemporary translations, unlike the tortured Victorian-era lines I tried to follow way back when. As an exacting editor, I appreciate their high quality (only one or two places I’d object as a grammarian), My sole qualm has been in religious references when these drop into “Biblical” language, the “thee” instead of “you” line of speech, even in Drudic and Hindu instances.
On-stage touches. Everytime I see flames in a scene, I wonder how they got that bit past the fire marshal. Not just cigarettes or cigars (hope they don’t inhale, it’s bad for the voice) to candles and torches and fireplaces and conflagrations that level a village. The use of puppetry is incredibly effective, as we’ve seen especially in “Butterfly.” And then there are the wigs, even for the chorus. (More than 2,000 a season, as we learned in a backstage interview.)
The animals. Yes, dogs, horses, donkeys, and more … on stage!
The collegiality of the cast. The days of the infamous prima donna is largely gone. Singers today are generally professional and respect the work of others, even when they tackle the same roles. It’s apparent in the interviews.
Conducting. It’s not the same as leading a symphony, and I find these maestro’s motions much harder to follow. For one thing, they’re way ahead of the beat. Even so, the Met band is glorious, a far improvement over the rough-edged ensemble before James Levine’s tenure. The audience doesn’t start applauding as soon as a big singer ends an aria, either, but waits for the final orchestral note fades.
Is there anything that’s making this period of shelter-in-place somehow special?
So here we are, spending too much time online digging for the latest in the Covid-19 deluge. I know I’m not alone there. The mere fact that so many sources for updated reports from around the globe are available only a few keystrokes away feeds our obsessive googling and scrolling – for many, a morbid fascination, for sure.
Having pretty much self-quarantined (in part at my wife’s nudging), I’ve been trying to continue generally as much life-as-usual as possible, which you’ve seen reflected in the posts here at the Red Barn. Admittedly, my life since retiring from the newsroom and turning my attention fulltime to a writer’s discipline has meant generally limited face-to-face social interaction anyway, but even I’m getting a bit antsy without my Quaker gatherings or daily swims at the city’s indoor pool or even dashes to the bank or grocery.
Still, I sympathize with those who have never undergone a discipline of doing without – as in fasting, leaving electronics behind for a backpacking or camping expedition, or even enduring an extended power outage. (As for the toilet paper, don’t get me going. That’s truly a First World problem!)
So while I’m treating these restrictions as an opportunity for reflection and renewal, here are ten things to make the best of it. And remember, if you’re sharing this hunkering down with a mate and/or children, try these together.
Starring in the kitchen: Usually we’re too busy running around to actually take the time to cook attentively. You know, maybe from scratch. So reach into the backs of your cupboards and actually use ingredients you put aside for someday. When you don’t have everything a recipe calls for, be inventive. How does homemade bread sound right now? Pancakes? Your own pretzels? (Oops, I’ve got to check on that pork broth simmering on the stove!)
Guilty reading: Got a pile of books or magazines gathering dust? Kick back and open a page. Don’t overlook ebooks, either. They’re easily downloaded … I have a few I’m recommending.
Arts and entertainment: You might be surprised what’s being streamed, not just on Netflix or Amazon Prime. I’ve been watching a different Metropolitan Opera production for free at dawn every morning. (Often while I’ve been doing one of these other activities.)
Deep cleaning and reorganizing: Revisiting old files in my cabinets or on my laptop and purging many of them is feeling so liberating. It’s allowing me to refocus, too. Think about your closets and drawers. Parts of the barn are going to be next, weather permitting.
Seed planting and yard work: Hey, you can’t stay inside all the time! And when you do, you can get some of those seeds started.
In-house exercise: The gym and indoor pool may be closed, but you can still go for walks or clear a space on the rug for yoga or pushups. I had forgotten we have hand weights, which I found while cleaning. Inhale, one, exhale, two …
Games and puzzles: Get out the decks of cards or a board game. How long’s it been? Puzzles can keep you busy, too, solo or with everyone’s help.
Phone calls and emails: Yes, keep in touch. I’m really behind here!
Rest: What’s wrong with napping or staying abed longer? How often do you get a chance to do THAT? A deep, long hot bath is another soothing option.
Prayer, meditation, and reflection: Many churches have mobilized streaming events on this front. Check out their websites.
Here’s hoping you and yours aren’t showing any virus symptoms.
What would you suggest adding? What are you discovering … or rediscovering?
When I say “we” here, I’m acknowledging a widespread sense of loss voiced by friends and neighbors. Some of these places I know by reputation only, though I still see signs where they were. And others are places I valued.
When I first came to New Hampshire more than 30 years ago, Portsmouth still had a funky feel through much of its downtown. But real estate prices have been soaring, and that’s taken a toll. Ouch!
The J.J. Newberry’s store. A real old-fashioned five-and-dime emporium with its classic soda fountain, knickknacks, and distinctive aroma downtown. Its closure meant many items could no longer be purchased within walking distance.
Seavey’s Hardware. This was one of those family-owned hardware stores where you could find just about anything you’d need if you owned an old house. They could find old fixtures in original packaging and offer it to you for a fraction of what you’d have to pay, if you could locate it at all anywhere else. Alas, when a new generation failed to step up, the buildings were sold … for a constantly changing lineup of boutiques.
Ciabatta bakery and café. Yes, real bakers rising way before dawn to create artisanal breads, pastries, and cakes. And great coffee long before Starbucks was anywhere near our corner of New England. Again, owning its own building helped. But the toll of long hours with few breaks finally led its owner to move on. Boo-hoo. I see it as an emblem of many other dearly departed eateries. Sakura, a small Japanese spot, and the inexpensive Stock Pot overlooking the harbor (great pies, by the way) are two I especially miss.
A real downtown grocery. I don’t remember its name, but it was handy, especially if you were about to go out on the water or wanted an impromptu picnic in the park.
The Pick’n Pay. Within walking distance of downtown, this family-run grocery built a loyal following for all of its special little touches and its personal sense of a social gathering spot. Everybody seemed to know everybody, so I’m told. Many still lament its sale in 1999 to the Hannaford chain after five decades of independence.
Funky, cheap stores. The storefronts have almost all gone upscale now. How many pricy clothes do people need, anyway? How many souvenirs and gifts? How many real estate brokers?
The old Prescott Park arts festival. Yes, the programs continue but they just don’t seem the same. Is it the lineups? Or just us?
Community spirit. Something in the laissez-faire bohemian air I recall has turned bourgeois, even puritanical. The children’s museum had outgrown its original space but was rebuffed repeatedly before leaving town altogether for Dover a few years ago (Hallelujah!), but the pattern continues. We hear story after story of sourpusses and grumblers who are upset by the ice skating rink at Strawbery Banke (it’s pure Currier and Ives, for goodness sake) or the self-deputized posse searching brown paper bags at the Prescott Park concerts and calling police. It’s the old “we got ours, now get out” attitude that will soon make the town unwelcoming even to itself.
A small-town scale. One historic neighborhood, just north of downtown, that didn’t escape urban renewal long sat as a bizarre quasi mall in the middle of a big parking lot. The houses it replaced had been, I’ve heard, elaborate Victorians whose craftsmen builders had filled with stone carvings, fantastical woodwork, and fanciful windows. What was left, admittedly, was an eyesore. Initially, nobody seemed to object when plans were announced to redevelop the site. What’s gone up, though, is a few square blocks of relentless four- or five-story rectangular structures befitting a big city but alien to the architectural character it borders. These monoliths with national chain retailers and eateries on the ground floor and residential condos above just don’t fit in. Well, considering that the city also banned buses from downtown – to get one to Boston, for instance, you have to take a “cute” trolley out to the transportation beside Interstate 95 – you just might start wondering how long it will be before someone tries to convert the whole place to a gated compound.
Easy parking. Yes, the parking garage has long been a sanctuary, considering the shortage of street parking downtown, but now even that’s usually overflowing, especially in tourist season.
Some of these no longer exist, other than in my memory. And while some are expensive, others are quite the affordable but deserve kudos for skillful preparation and good ingredients.
Big Night, Dover. Anything Chris and Linda did here or in their later incarnations in South Berwick, Maine, was always masterful, often with a French or Mediterranean base. Small-scale, as in a two-person operation, can truly be beautiful. They’re the standard by which we now measure all others.
Fore Street, Portland, Maine. On a larger scale and an industrial style room, this is simply great food. We had a sauvignon blanc that was delivered with very little markup from retail simply because the owners thought this would be perfect for our meals – and we’re still searching for another bottle that comes close. My wife will rattle off the details of our meal and why we were so thoroughly impressed.
North, Providence, Rhode Island. Another small setting – 18 seats, plus a small bar – this Asian fusion laboratory was a revelation with tastes I didn’t know even existed.
Gasperetti’s, Yakima, Washington. A small setting – about 48 seats at the time – this was considered by many to be the best Italian restaurant in the Pacific Northwest when we lived there.
A tiny Japanese restaurant near Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Four tables, as I recall on my first and only visit to the city. My introduction to raw fish (shashimi), sake, and plum wine. Heavenly.
PB Boulangerie, Wellfleet, Cape Cod. Wonderful French with a chef proprietor from Lyons.
Little Saigon, Worcester, Massachusetts. I love Vietnamese, and this one most of all.
Lobster in the Rough, York, Maine. Many fine Sunday afternoons here with a cover duo and families playing bocce. They knew how to make fine onion rings and French fries, in addition to haddock and lobster. And don’t overlook the slaw. Straight-forward fare like this can be a tough test for many restaurants. We really admire the ones that pass with flying colors.
Wonderland Café, Watertown, Massachusetts. Unpretentious Chinese cuisine that demonstrated the importance of fresh ingredients. This was takeout that was welcome a two-hour drive away a day later. ’Nuff said?
Ta-boo, Palm Beach, Florida. My first truly upscale restaurant experience, thanks to my girlfriend’s parents. Had my first raw oysters and first orange flambe while being entertained by a Yale glee club. After that, everything’s a delirious swirl.
So how about your favorites? And what makes them stand out?
Of course, this is totally unrelated to the theme. Just another thing on my mind.
What a pivotal year 1969 would turn out to be. Hard to think that was 50 years ago now – seems so long ago and yet, for those of us who experienced it, still so vivid. The hippie movement spread from a freakish fringe happening and out across the nation. So much of its impact we now take for granted, and so much remains to be accomplished.
Fifty years! That’s the jubilee, if only we’d have the corresponding release promised in Scripture.
Here are ten big things that happened that year.
Richard M. Nixon becomes president of the United States. And we had thought Lyndon Johnson was bad? We were in mourning. January 20.
The Beatles final performance. Where would rock go? January 30.
Chappaquidick Affair. U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy loses control of his car and plunges into a pond. A woman’s body is found later in the vehicle. The Kennedy magic ends. July 25.
First moon landing. “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” as astronaut Neil Armstrong says as he first walks on the surface. Anything is now thought to be possible. July 29.
Charles Manson cult murders five people, including the Hollywood actress Sharon Tate. Are these villains hippies? August 5.
Not the only big music festival that year, but the most famous. Suddenly, hippies have come out of the woodwork and are visible everywhere. August 15 to 18.
First message sent across Arpanet, precursor to the Internet. Little does anyone know of the life-changes ahead. For me, it’s emblematic of the far-out thinking that accompanied the hippie revolution. October 29.
March on Washington to protest the war attracts 250,000 participants. The largest demonstration to date. November 15.
Draft lottery instituted. Young men now have a clearer idea of their chances of being conscripted for military service. Will this defuse the antiwar fever? Many did utter a big sigh of relief. December 1.
Altamont Speedway Free Festival. Event marred by Hells Angels, violence, and deaths. December 6.
Other significant events include the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Stanley v. Georgia declaring “the State may not prohibit mere possession of obscene materials for personal use” (April 7), the black students’ takeover of Willard Straight Hall at Cornell University (April 19), widespread police crackdowns on student protests elsewhere, and the Stonewall Inn gay club riot in New York City (June 28).
In my novel Daffodil Uprising, similar pressures are building in the hills of southern Indiana. Look how chaotic these events remain when viewed together.