Righteous

The familiar voice triggered the all too familiar feelings of disgust, my brain exploding like popcorn in a microwave. Trump was pontificating in front of a political gathering in North Carolina. NPR covered it, as I know they must, but hate that they do.

However, it wasn’t his boasts of return which disrupted my early morning rendezvous with my first cup of coffee…but his calling on the righteous to take back the America they love. Righteous: acting in accord with divine or moral law: free from guilt or sin. This coming from the man who boasted about grabbing women by their pubic hairs.

 I have barely returned to listening to the news when I first awake in the morning, now again I am hesitant. Vaccinated, my life is returning to a post Covid normalcy, though I still wear a mask in public. Less and less people are coming to our public health vaccination clinics. In the last few weeks, with the exception of 2nd dose clinics, our numbers are in the single digits while our staffing stays the same. Four hours, three to five nurses or doctors, three National Guard medics, and two to three volunteers for registration and vaccine education. We trade stories, play on our phones, doze and mutter about the irrationality of folks not wanting the shot.

I worry that post Covid normalcy might include more trauma and suffering merely postponed by the pandemic. West Virginia is giving free guns and rifles to people who get vaccinated. I guess if they don’t die of the virus, they will just kill each other with their new toys!

Did You Turn Off The Stove?

Alzheimer’s, dementia, senior moments. We start to hear of friends and neighbors suffering from the first two, and joke nervously about the third. Mine started with notes to myself between my bedroom and the computer, detailed grocery lists, and now a fancy sign framed and sitting on my counter next to the stove.

Several years ago, my son-in-law installed fire alarms in every room of my apartment, but the slightest whiff of burnt toast set them off and, after a period of false alarms, he dismantled most of them. When I moved into my new digs, he only installed one. However, it was a pricey style that needed no batteries, so it would always function.

I discovered that enduring a few sleepless nights, rather than taking any kind of sleep aid, improved my cognition dramatically—especially in terms of recalling words or names. My migraines affect my frontal lobe and short-term memory, but I handle this problem with meds that I take the instant the light show starts, which signals an oncoming headache. I still remember a trip to the hospital when, during the questioning (name, DOB, address, etc.), I was asked who William was. “My father,” I replied truculently, tired of all the questions and my inability to answer them. “Not your grandson?” my daughter asked. “What grandson?” I replied.

For all those of a certain age, I recommend getting a job that involves data entry. That’s what I do at the health department when we are not out cajoling people to get their Covid-19 vaccination. I’m dyslexic on the best of days, so data entry really exercises my brain. I figure that, if exercise is good for the body, why not the brain?

Free Choice in the Time of Covid

I thought I had successfully handled her questions about the safety of the Covid-19 vaccination. “Surely they were developed too quickly to be safe,” she had insisted. I explained how scientists had been working on this kind of vaccine since the SARS epidemic a decade ago and needed only to make some tweaks to fit the new virus. No go!

Her body language shouted a definite not buying it. “But why?” I asked. Arms folded across her chest and chin pushed forward, she replied, “People have been telling me what I can and cannot do all my life. I’m tired of it. It’s my choice.”

Absolute free choice is a myth, but we do reserve the right to be free to the extent our behavior and choices do not impinge on the rights of others. In those circumstances, we give up some freedom to in order to enhance our freedom from. For example, drinking and driving is restricted in order to enhance others’ freedom from potential accidents. It took decades and a coalition of activists, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, MADD, to give the idea teeth and make it law. In the meantime, we cajole, educate, and beg to get people to make similar decisions about drugs and pregnancy, automatic weapons, cigarettes, vaping, and now Covid-19 vaccinations.

I also know that, even in a free society, choice is relative to your situation. The more resources you have, the more choices you have. Simple math. My public health team and I were sitting in the over-stuffed common room of a battered women’s shelter. A dozen kids ran around grabbing snacks and asking us questions. The director, and owner of this private shelter, had made vaccination mandatory for residents. She had contacted our outreach program to schedule an on-site event. One by one, we cajoled five of the six eligible residents to take their first dose of Moderna. They nervously protested a bit, like many folks we have been vaccinating, after hearing the recent news about J&J; some were just plain scared of needles. Because they felt they either had no choice, or actually believed it was the right thing to do, they filled out the consent form, rolled up their sleeves, and took the shot.

I’m hoping that our one resister changes her mind and chooses to be vaccinated. Maybe she’ll relent when we return to administer the second dose in twenty-eight days. And although I want her to do it for herself, for her community, for all of us—I get it. Her anger and resentment at not having a choice is deep, palpable, and real.

Lesson for the day: None of us has free choice, and many of us have no choice.

The Myth of Choice

Your heart beats,

You draw breath,

Your blood flows.

All automatically, without conscious choice. Even nature leaves nothing up to choice.

WHY ARE YOU SURPRISED?

“But contrary to some expectations, most of those charged in the riot come from areas of the country that are not dominated by Trump supporters. According to an analysis from the Chicago Project on Security & Threats, a majority of the alleged rioters came from counties that President Joe Biden won in the 2020 election.” (https://www.npr.org/2021/02/09/965472049/the-capitol-siege-the-arrested-and-their-stories)

The reporter on the radio was describing the domestic terrorist connection of people arrested in the January 6 attack on the Capitol Building in D.C. when he quoted this finding. His voice echoed surprise at the conclusions. I sat straight up in bed, morning coffee in hand, and thought—surprise? No, not a surprise. The people who feel most threatened by increasing minority and liberal voters are therefore more likely to be motivated by the inference of make America great again, i.e., white and Christian.

They feel viscerally a loss of power and control. They see their status as the majority reversed. They believe that they are paying the price for diversity and affirmative action—and they have seen and felt this intensify for decades. So, I’m not surprised. I think this is the underpinning of Trump’s power base—those white folks in general, middle class folks and rich folks who see their status threatened—who don’t want to share, who view the world as a zero sum game.

Their prejudice runs deep and primordial—its etiology in our genetic history stretching back to pre-historic times. I’m not surprised and not optimistic, unless our national leaders can stop pretending they know who the enemy is and address the real problem—us.

Empathy in the Time of Covid-19

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Burnout and compassion fatigue destroys one’s capacity for empathy.

Once fully vaccinated (two Moderna shots 28 days apart) and working for the public health department as a Community Response Representative, I, like the weather, became sunnier and happier. Also, my behaviors are now more normal. I’m quite certain that the elevation of my mood got an assist via the absence of Trump from my daily news digest. Nevertheless, I hadn’t recognized until the pandemic roared across the Indian sub-continent, killing thousands, that not only my depression but also my ability to empathize were gone as well.

I never wanted to be that person who could be satisfied if her or his own tiny corner of the universe was okay, so the heck with everyone else. I paid attention to the news; I contributed to relief efforts; I volunteered, petitioned, and protested. I even adopted a Cambodian orphan when I learned that she was likely to soon be sold to a brothel.

But these days, I’m content to tire myself out on my job so that I barely make it to bed after nine p.m. I treat myself to expensive ice cream and even drive thirty minutes out of my way to get an authentic English scone and cream to reward myself for—I’m not sure what for—surviving when so many have not?

Like Alice, I’ve lost my “muchiness,” and I need to get it back.

The Hajj

In the summer of 2004 I traveled with friends to Iran to an ancient city called Estefan. We went to visit relatives and see the wonders of old Persia and modern Iran.  My friend’s family is Muslim, some quite religious, others more secular in their observance.  I am Jewish…I am an infidel…I am an American…I am a woman. Any one or all of these factors put me outside of this community.  My exclusion was minimal, because the family with a few exceptions by the more religious members, embraced me warmly as Jaleh’s friend; and I assumed certain behaviors that allowed me to fit into the wider community. For example, I rarely wore a Hijab, headscarf, in the house; but dutifully put one on to go outside or to any public place. I experimented with all kinds of scarves since most often I looked like a Russian babushka (grandma)...not very glamorous or attractive. Muslim women seemed to have the knack for looking gorgeous even when covered from head to toe in a black Chadoura, the outer garment worn in Iran by observant Muslim women! Frustrated by how I looked in a scarf, I took to blasphemy under my breath as I donned my scarf, “Allah is great, Mohammed is his prophet and they hate me”!  It was incorrect of course but allowed me to vent my displeasure with forced clothing restrictions that included not only a head covering but also, long outer garments which added to my discomfort with the high heat of the Iranian summer.
There was one uncle, Salam Khale Joon, a robust man in his mid to late 60’s, who because I was an infidel, would not touch me (shake hands or hug).  In everything else, he was gracious and friendly.  One morning, Reza, my friend’s father, told me this uncle needed US dollars for a Hajj, a religious pilgrimage. The last time he had exchanged money, he was cheated; given counterfeit bills. Therefore, they decided to ask me if I would exchange some of the traveling cash I had with me for Iranian money.  Why not! I was still anticipating a few days shopping at the old bazaar and would need to exchange dollars anyway.   The Uncle and Reza took my cash and went off in a corner to figure out the exchange.  I sat quietly unconcerned on the couch reading.  When they finished, Uncle wanted to know if I wanted to count the money to be sure they hadn’t cheated me.  I stared at him…thinking to myself “How in hell would I know…I don’t have clue what the exchange rate is or even how to read Iranian money, the Rial”! But to him I said, “No, I have no need to count it, I trust you completely.”  In the next moment, I was squeezed in a massive bear hug, my breath coming in ragged heaves against his chest. He held me so tightly I could hear his heart beat…Uncle was smiling broadly as he made me a member of the family, of the community.  The entry fee into this community was not money; it was TRUST.

The Cubby

The staff ushered me into a small, albeit not tiny, achromatic gray cubby. I was amused that my purposely conservative and low-key business casual outfit is a similar shade of gray. The HP monitor is large, but the keyboard is not ergonomic. I’ll have to get used to it or bring in my own. Keys dangle from the empty cabinets waiting for supplies, and a soft cushion tops my comfortable desk chair—inviting me to sit. Office supplies are lined up neatly on the desk: multiples of everything from Post-it Notes to shiny silver paperclips. The Kleenex box is full and the wastebasket empty. 

Boxes of copier paper are stacked in the corner, left over from when the office was uninhabited and available for storage. I don’t know whether part-timers should personalize their workstations. It’s only my first day, so who knows how it will all work out? I kind of like the uncluttered, anonymous vibe . . . so different from my overly curated home. 

I arrived at 8:20 a.m., on time for my HR interview, then had a short one-on-one with the program administrator followed by a shorter session with my immediate supervisor. I returned to my cubby to familiarize myself with a stack of forms, set up my e-mail and computer accounts, and tried to memorize the code to the employees’ restroom.  By eleven o’clock, I had nothing to do, but I had to stay for a 2:00 p.m. Zoom meeting to go over some routine HR handouts that I had already perused.

The break room is just across the way from my cubby. A Keurig coffee maker stands guard next to a large stainless steel refrigerator. Everything is spotlessly clean, efficient, and welcoming in a hygienic sort of way. I can hear the department’s operator in the cubby next to mine switching effortlessly from English to Spanish as the caller’s need dictates. She speaks softly and does not disturb me. I think I need to not disturb her.

The Zoom meeting was predictably boring. My video didn’t work, so I connected to it on both my computer and my iPhone, causing the volume to go all funky. It’s hard at my age to care about starting a 401K, and I doubt I’ll be on the job long enough to qualify for a pension. I left a “well done” message for the HR lady and signed off.

I found a route home that avoided the humongous trucks and reckless lane jumpers on the interstate, picked up some pre-made mashed potatoes at a convenience store for comfort, and arrived home hungry, tired, and looking forward to my next day at the office.

We Will Not be Deterred

With all the uproar about Georgia’s new voting legislation and other states considering enacting their own voter suppression rules I decided to share my experiences in Cambodia with their first democratic election following the 1990 Paris Peace Accords ending the reign of terror of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot.

Days of Reckoning

Dawn was barely breaking when I arrived at my provincial electoral office. I was a District Electoral Supervisor, DES, and a UN volunteer on leave from my university in Ohio.  It was the first day of the election, and United Nation’s, UN, whole gambit in Cambodia had come down to this. There would be three days of voting before a two-day break in the five-day voting cycle. The UN wanted time to adjust if anything went badly during the first three days.

In the words of Meatloaf, I was “glowing like the metal on the edge of a knife.” I was down to one hundred two pounds, my fighting weight.

I ran an uphill marathon all morning. A Cambodian PO, short for Polling Officer, had come down with malaria; people forgot to take water to the polling sites, and fluorescent lights broke. Eventually, everyone was stationed and voters stood patiently in long lines in the intense heat and humidity. Cambodians would not be denied their election.

Other than the few polling stations set up in pagodas, most of them were located in schools. But the picture was always the same—long lines of people, young and old, waiting eagerly in the hot sun for their turn to cast their ballot. Dozens of rusty bicycles stood against trees or littered the ground. Even a few oxcarts and water buffalo were parked among the many motorcycles. The UN Civil Police and UN soldiers (in my province, Tunisians) checked the registration cards while our POs inked fingers, collected cards and settled any disputes. The International Election Observers, IPSO, sat in the shade if they could find any, gulped down bottles of clean water and, when they weren’t gossiping, kept an eye on the party agents.

By the end of the first day, fifty percent of registered voters the province, Poŭthĭsăt, including my district, Bakane, had cast their ballots, as well as thirty percent of Cambodia. The POs returned to the office. “No attacks, no landmines,” they cheered. “But Momma (what my local staff called me),” one PO reported unhappily, “some of the ballot boxes have broken seals.” The radio crackled just as they were giving me their news. The ballot boxes were being delivered to the Tunisian’s compound, where I needed to go to check the seals. Party agents would meet me there to verify that there had been no ballot tampering.

A staffer handed me a clipboard saying, “You’ll have to complete a broken lock report, and the party agents will have to sign it.” I stood in a hot fog of humidity, the big field lights attracting swarms of insects.

I took the clipboard. Ballots in tubs, made of flimsy plastic with thin wire locks, were stacked five deep in a big 8-wheeler truck parked in front of the barracks. In the damp and mud, my neck and shoulders covered with crickets and grasshoppers, I checked all of the locks in full view of the party agents. Flying insects attacked my eyes and midges crawled up my nose. Holding up five fingers, I reported, “Pram locks are broken.” The party agents shook their heads and sneaked peeks at each other, as if to assure themselves that no one opposed my count. In unison they all said ban, confirming the number.

I wrote with one hand and waved the other like a wild woman, trying to protect my face while finishing the report. When I felt something crawling down inside my shirt, I shook with spasms. Several of the Tunisian soldiers clustered around me, vainly trying to pick the bugs from my head and shoulders while I put new seals on the boxes. I was in a scene from The Temple of Doom.

The agents signed off and left the compound. I headed for home, in the dark, hardly slowing my vehicle through two Cambodian military barricades. Although my heart was still racing from the attack by an army of flying insects, I somehow managed to stay calm and play along with the soldiers’ usual charade about landmines on the road. After handing out cigarettes at each stop, I searched in my rearview mirror to make sure that no guns were aimed at my departing car. I didn’t want to tempt fate and wind up dead on a bridge. I wanted to go home.

The second day of voting saw a repeat of long lines and ended without incident, except for another broken lock on one of the ballot boxes. By then, the assistant UN provincial head of elections, had devised a system to replace the boxes immediately, so aut panyaha (no problem). I checked them off in front of party agents before they were loaded onto a truck and shipped to Phnom Penh for final counting. No swarming insects would ravage me again.

My car crawled back to my house in Poŭthĭsăt. I was tired; my head pounded and whacked, as if an African drummer were stuck inside it. Dinner was on the table. Without stopping, I walked toward the bedroom, telling Veata, my housekeeper, “Aut nambye tinai knei. No dinner tonight. I’m not hungry.”

Veata grasped my arm, pointed at the food that she had prepared for me and sat me down at the table. Then she pushed opened the shutters. The night air smelled faintly of jasmine, which mixed with the aroma of the dish—noodles with onions, cucumbers, yams and peanuts along with a plate of fresh mango. Surprised at her insistence, I picked at the food until she was satisfied that I had eaten enough.

Usually, Veata grudgingly left me a thermos of hot water in the kitchen so that I could fix instant coffee. One the third day of voting, however, she stood by my bed before dawn with a cup of coffee in one hand, gently shaking me awake with the other.

I picked up the IPSOs at an unholy early hour and delivered them to the Bakane office. From there, Civil Police escorts drove them to their polling stations, exactly as the provincial UN office had instructed. Then I sat in the office with the remaining Civil Police, discussing whether the relative calm of the past two days would continue. We were convinced that it would not.

“Echo Charley Bravo 1. Come to Metuk polling site; several dead and injured from an explosion.” By the time that I arrived, voting had come to a standstill and chaos reigned in the street. Victims lie crumpled in the road. Someone, likely a Khmer Rouge soldier, had fired a rocket into the market not far from where people were lined up to vote, killing six and injuring three.

My job was to keep the polling stations open, not play the role of a triage. The locals would have to comfort victims, transport the injured to a nearby clinic and take on the ghoulish task of removing the bodies and debris. I could only survey the carnage and hope that the explosion wasn’t a portent of events to come.

Calming down the two Tunisian IPSOs at the scene was a challenge in itself. They refused to stay, demanding that I return them to HQ immediately. Luckily, a couple of officers from the Tunisian battalion had arrived to secure the area and search for evidence because the UN wanted to know who had caused the havoc. Claiming that I needed a strong man to help me, I flattered one of them into promising to protect the IPSOs when the polls reopened. Satisfied that their Tunisian countrymen would keep them safe, even if I couldn’t, the IPSOs relented and voting resumed.

Before I left Metuk to return to my district office, the lines were even longer than before the attack. Cambodians would not be deterred.

I returned to HQ at the end of the day to a buzz of conversation. A polling station in another province had been attacked in the afternoon. There were explosions and the station was closed early, but details were sketchy at best. Our UN military advisor was reminding everyone in the room that, unlike Poŭthĭsăt, the province of Kampong Cham hadn’t moved its polling stations to the province’s main roads.  Rather, polling stations were set up throughout the districts, some accessible only by boat because of the early rains. Earlier, I had convince my bosses to use a strategy I learned as a police officer in Atlanta—THOR, target hardening, opportunity reduction. We only had polling stations along the main road in the province. The people residing in our districts would have to travel miles through jungles, swamps and rice fields to vote.

The sun shone brightly on the final two days of voting in Poŭthĭsăt. Registration cards had been collected with only minor resistance. By the last day, ballots had been cast by ninety-eight percent of its voters and pretty close to that rate throughout Cambodia. Other provinces had suffered attacks but, for the most part, Cambodians had risked everything to vote. The UN had lucked out and would claim success. The turnout had exceeded all expectations, but the outcome—who had won—wouldn’t be known for several days, perhaps longer.  The ballots that had been shipped to Phnom Penh daily were being tallied by hand.

With the election over and polls closed, the local staff would sleep at the polling stations in order to collect and return equipment to the district office the next morning. Wired from the overall success of the polling, I was ready to go home and pack for my imminent departure.

I was up at the crack of dawn, ready to go. After performing my last official act, which was getting the IPSOs on their bus for a two-day holiday at the beach, I returned to my house to finish packing my few belongings.

As I left Poŭthĭsăt and headed toward Phnom Penh to begin my long trip home to the States, I shouted out the window, “We’ve done it.” With my free hand, I pushed the call button on the radio and said to no one in particular, “Echo Charley Bravo 1, I’m out of here. So long, and thanks for all the fish.”

Legislators can make all the voting restrictions they want, but in the end, it is up to each of us to get to the polls and cast our ballots. The Cambodians did it, traveling on foot, ox-carts and bicycles through jungles and swamps despite cruel heat and even crueler Khmer Rouge guerillas. Surely, given the stakes to our democracy, we can too.

New Job Jitters

The text message from a long-time friend said, “Remember when we used to be afraid of first days?” I typed back, “No worries. I’ve got this covered. But I do remember the butterflies and sometimes full- blown panic.” That was just bravado.

She wanted me to visit her on St. Simons Island for a holiday that would include a few days of painting or sketching. “No, I can’t; not right away,” I said. “I start my new job and have no clue yet about my schedule.” She was appalled. She scoffed. Why would I give up my hard-earned freedom and flexible schedule to take a job?

Why indeed? It’s with the public health department, working as a community outreach representative. It’s a soft-money, COVID-related part-time position assisting people register to be vaccinated. I applied for the position after my second Moderna shot. It was, I thought, just the thing to emancipate me from my yearlong incarceration and give me the opportunity to act with purpose. I hadn’t considered that taking a job would interfere with other options that my vaccinations would allow.

As my first day of work approaches, I have a migraine headache and an upset tummy; I’m fidgeting so much that I can’t sit in my recliner and watch my shows.  I’m not feeling remorse for missing out on a short holiday with my friend, as I’m sure we will manage to schedule another time once I have a work schedule. No, I am indeed afraid of my first day!I have the jitters of a schoolgirl, even though my seventy-ninth birthday is only a few months away.

I Googled “new job jitters.” About 5,080,000 results (0.89 seconds) populated my computer screen. According to LinkedIn data, 80% of professionals suffer, some for months. Most of the sites on the first couple of screens suggested making a to-do list to minimize the trauma. The one that appeared most often was have a lunch plan and keep a snack in your purse. Since my first day was just a two-hour morning orientation and submitting the twenty pages of documentation required for employment, I figured I didn’t need a lunch plan. However, even though I had made a trial run weeks ago, I put the office address in my iPhone, set my alarm for 6:30 a.m. to give me enough time for coffee and meditation—and use a curling iron, if necessary. Then I threw a protein bar into my purse, chose an outfit to wear, and hung it on the handle of the closet door.

Now I just have to get a good night’s sleep. Ha.

Never Too Late To Learn

How could I have been alive for three quarters of a century, earned a PhD, and only recently discoveredquite by chance—words that have been my mantra since early adolescence? Thomas Paine, the idol of my high school civics class and author of Common Sense, wrote, “The World is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.”

How did I learn of this statement? In a most unlikely novel by Deborah Harkness in her Discovery of Witches trilogy. It is actually mentioned at the end of the newly added fourth book. Nonetheless, there it was. I sat straight up in bed, my Kindle shaking in my trembling hands. These were the words I live by.

Although I consider myself a rather erudite person, I thought that this creed was the philosophy of my father, passed on to me at a young age prior to his premature death. He must have been a scholar who knew the works of Paine.

I am constantly amazed and surprised that I have as much to learn as I have forgotten. At lunch, my granddaughter asked me if I knew the word for throwing someone out a window headfirst. “What?”  Everything I thought of was either rude or cruel. It turns out that the word is defenestration—a practice in Prague, among other places, in lieu of the guillotine! I quizzed my Messenger pals and got about a recognized the term, although most had long since forgotten the word.

Now Disney+ and Marvel have a new series called Falcon and Winter Soldier. I was eager for it to begin. However, the premise of bad guys and flag smashers trying to rid the world of national boundaries and unify it into a community of equals is anathema to me. I think they are the superheroes, not the avengers.

Ah, so much yet to learn and do . . . and so little time.