Reserving Judgment: a Path to Joy

Took a trip to the Winter Park Publix on Friday morning to get supplies ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Isaias.  Almost everyone wore masks in obedience to store policy.  Older folks seemed baffled, as usual, by the directional arrows on the aisle floors.  I encountered several wrong way cart-pushers.  I steered as far over as possible and went on my way.  One woman rounded a bend in frozen foods, ditched her cart and strode straight toward me.  I must have given her a sharp glance.  She sputtered an apology, “I’ve been up and down this aisle three times and can’t find what I want!”  I looked over my shoulder after she scurried by and saw her rooting in a frozen dessert freezer.

I looped back to the magazine/school supply/hardware aisle.  It had been crowded the last time I passed it.  Halfway down the aisle, I encountered a seventy-year-old woman pushing a cart toward me.  She held a poodle on a leash and wore a plastic face guard.  The guard looked like a transparent welder’s shield and did not close off her nose and mouth.  The dog didn’t wear a service animal vest.  I thought, “She’s the whole package of blind stupidity.”

The lady blocked the aisle with cart and dog and seemed oblivious to my presence.  I moved forward anyway.  I’d been dodging the wayward and no longer had patience to wait her out.  She finally noticed and murmured, “Here Ruffles.” She pulled the dog a foot to the side.  I held my breath as I squeezed by.

Judy sat on the front porch when I pulled into the driveway.  As I began to unload the groceries, she asked me, “How was it?”

I said, “Okay.  The cashier and the bagger were friendly this time.  The credit card worked in the reader.”  Then I told her about the unmasked poodle lady.  Judy caught the irritation in my voice and said, “Maybe she’s one of those people who can’t breathe when they wear a mask.”

My mind cleared.  A burden of irritation fell away.  I said, “Thank you for saying that.”

My wife has a talent for finding the good in people, for believing that folks are doing their best.  My portion of forbearance is meager by comparison.  I married her, in part, to live with someone who wouldn’t confirm my darkest suspicions.

We recently discussed “The Book of Joy,” a profile of the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu.  The two share a friendship marked by humor and mutual understanding.  Both men persevered as spiritual leaders during hard times.  The book considers how the two are able to live in joy despite their troubles.  Maintaining a positive attitude is one of the skills they foster.  Their deep contentment comes from the cultivation of an attitude that seeks to reserve judgment and expect the best from others.  They are not naïve, however.  They just insist on dwelling in loving hope.

Shelter: Go to a Happy Place

My mother used to tell me that she didn’t need to watch tough movies. Musicals, comedies and romances worked better for her. She’d lived through hard times, sickness in the family, a world war, the troubled 60s. She didn’t need vicarious drama in her life as life had already provided plenty of the real thing.

I used to think the opposite: tough movies were the only ones worth watching. They had depth and multiple layers of meaning. They touched heart and mind and made me rethink values and priorities. I found the shock of harsh stories invigorating.

Now I’ve drifted closer to Mom’s attitude. I watch musicals, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart comedies, and occasional Humphrey Bogart dramas. Happy endings are fine. The screenwriter should never kill off a lovable character in the third act. Roughing up protagonists is acceptable as long as they find ways to triumph in the end. Give me a redemption story. Keep slow motion train wreck plots to yourself.

A lyric in a Doors song informs us that “No one here gets out alive.” Yup. That’s right. But what about the time we do have? What do we do with it? I feel the responsibility to make life less miserable for those around me. I know that I need to stay informed about the latest phase of the ongoing disaster. But I hit the mute button when the news show talking heads drill deeper and deeper into misery. I tell them, “Yeah, I got it.”

I read, a few months ago, that the most popular movies during the March/April shut down were apocalyptic films about pandemics. Couldn’t rearrange my mind in harmony with these viewers. Now I wonder whether they found strength by facing dramatic representations of their fears. When a bedraggled band of men and women survive until the end credits, when they stand on a plateau and watch a bright sunrise herald in an epoch of renewed hope, the viewers might feel that they too have a chance to make new lives for themselves.

But I’d rather not participate in ersatz quests. I’ve got no taste for fighting second hand battles for survival. Instead, I want to find shelter in a few moments of peace.

I made protest paintings during the Iraq war. I needed to express outrage at senseless killing. Now I’m working on a painting of abstract flowers. Now I’m making a cardboard sculpture of a doggy.


Taking a Breather from Worry

Daughter Annie called Saturday morning to propose an outing to Kraft-Azalea, a small park north of downtown Winter Park. She wanted to get baby Ava out for fresh air and time with grandparents. We met midmorning and found that a good number of the locals had the same idea. The parking lot was nearly full. The dock, shoreline, paths and shady areas beneath the cypresses had visitors.

Small groups hung out near the semi-circle of Greek columns. (The lakeside columns are popular backdrops for graduation and wedding photographers.) But most folks maintained distance and donned masks when they drew near to others. An air of reserved friendliness dominated.

Two pregnant women, escorted by uncomfortable looking husbands, posed beside cypress trees for formal photographs. Other couples, who didn’t look like they were expecting anything more than quiet together-time, lounged on benches. Boaters, kayak and board paddlers crossed the lake near the shore. One family sat on a blanket on the grass. Mom and Dad watched their five-month-old push up from her belly to look at all the pretty sights.

Baby Ava, at nine and a half months, loved to walk (with assistance) in little black booties across the grass. She collapsed onto her butt at random moments to seize tufts of grass, pick up leaves, pine cone needles, Spanish moss and strips of bark. One had to be vigilant to prevent her from stuffing collected items into her mouth. She occasionally noticed a white egret stalking bugs at the base of a stand of cypress trees. She babbled a stream of words at a fountain. Some sounded like slobbery gutturals, but “Mama” and “Dada” came through clearly at irregular intervals.

We found an open bench near the lake as our visit came to a close. A fresh breeze blew across the water sending waves lapping against the shore. Ava watched the surface reflections shift and move as a motor boat passed. She dove from her mother’s lap to mine and back. She sometimes fixed me with a piercing stare not unlike a border guard examining the bearer of a suspicious passport. I jollied her by zooming her up and down. She responded with a gracious smile that acknowledged my renewed worthiness as her grandpa.

We said our goodbyes. I turned on the car’s air conditioner as the temperature had soared in an hour from the low eighties to around 90. Traffic seemed heavy for a Saturday morning, but no one tried, on our way home, to kill us with reckless or aggressive maneuvers. Had an unannounced truce been declared?

Judy and I retreated to our favorite slumping places after returning home. We felt tired but refreshed. A clean gust had cleared away the stale air of isolation. Thank God for parks and babies.

Captain Oblivious, the Unmasked Man

I pulled into a Publix parking lot Saturday afternoon. Looped around until I found an isolated spot beneath a tree. Donned mask, sanitized my hands, and picked up a package bound for the UPS store.

A few folks lingered on the sidewalk outside a Chinese restaurant. They wore masks but huddled fairly close together as they waited for take-out orders. I kept my distance from them.

Ceiling lights illuminated the UPS store, but the door didn’t open when I tugged the handle. I peered inside and saw a young, masked man seated behind a back counter. I had time, as he walked forward to unlock the door, to read a sign prominently posted in the window. It politely asked customers to don masks before entering. The request echoed recent Orange County orders requiring folks to wear masks in public places. (Coronavirus cases had violently spiked over the last week, each day bringing record peaks in new cases.)

The clerk invited me inside and cheerfully asked how he could help me. “Just a drop-off,” I answered. He took the package behind a counter and tapped on a computer.

I said, “So, the locked door is your way to keep occupancy down?”

He replied, “Yes.”

I said, “Well, it sure worked on me.” He smiled and handed me a receipt.

I turned on my heel and discovered that a twenty-something wearing shorts, a tank top and flip flops stood near the door. He had sneaked in after me. He wasn’t wearing a mask.

I swerved around him to exit. The clerk greeted the interloper cheerfully, calmly. He must have to deal with these fools all the time.

I went to a Walgreens on Monday to pick up prescriptions for my wife. The aisle clerk wore a mask, as did I, but we still veered to avoid coming close. Waited at a mark six feet away from a lady standing at the pharmacy counter. A fiftyish man wearing a soiled work shirt, long pants and boots trudged up and slumped in a chair behind me. He didn’t wear a mask. He pulled out a phone and began to harsh-talk. Some idiot on the other end of the line had apparently screwed up an order.

The pharmacist and clerk jumped, startled by the sudden bark of the man’s voice. I edged further forward to put extra distance between me and Captain Oblivious. The pharmacist came over to wait on me. A white-haired lady, crinkly faced and delicate, joined the line behind me. Captain Oblivious still sat in his chair nearby. She squinted at him and meekly asked, “Are you next in line?” “Naw,” he said. He turned back to his phone. She took a ginger step away him.

On the way out of the store, I made a conscious effort to release the tension building inside my head. Dropped the prescriptions on the back seat, wiped off my hands, took off my mask. Judy had waited in the car while I went inside to fetch. (She had been cooped up in the house for nearly a week.) She asked, “How was it?” “Fine,” I said, “except for the idiot who sat behind me yelling at his phone. The dumbass wasn’t wearing a mask.”

We took the long way home. We passed by the elementary school our kids had attended and a new development scarring land that had once been a forest. We reminisced about raising our children and commented on the butt-ugliness of the newly built cracker-box condos. By the time we pulled into the driveway, I had almost forgotten about Captain Oblivious.

I sat down in a recliner and leaned back. The AC kicked on, and cool air wafted around my legs. I took a deep breath and slowly released it. I wouldn’t have to run errands for the next few days.

Finished (?)

Front porch with screens.

Lightning struck directly over head two weeks ago. Our land line phones stopped working: no dial tone; no charging. The router would not power up and reboot. Judy tried a customer service number with her not-so-smart flip phone. She ended up in limbo. She couldn’t get hold of a useful live person. The robot voice communicators seemed willfully obtuse. We had to ask our son, Alan, to communicate on his computer (on a separate service) with our provider. He contacted a helpful customer service employee who responded with constructive advice. Alan also ordered us new phones and a router after we figured out that the damaged ones couldn’t be repaired. We could still contact folks on our cells but had no access to the internet.

The router arrived a few days later and offered extremely slow uploads. Our new phones arrived several days after that. They emitted angry buzzes and clicks instead of dial tones.

During this incommunicado period, I spent a lot of time working on the front porch. I began to enclose it last July but hadn’t managed to make much progress since October. The absence of internet distractions allowed me to focus. I managed to staple screening to the posts, add painted wood strips to cover the seams, plane a door that expanded and scraped in damp weather, and seal gaps on both sides.

I flirted, every day, with heat exhaustion. My hands, back and neck ached when I finished work. I nodded off to sleep in front of the TV well before my bedtime. But now we can sit on the porch, catch a breeze, and watch frustrated mosquitos buzz on the other side of the screens.

I started to feel some satisfaction this morning. Two days ago, I finally cleared a clogged laundry/kitchen sink drain line. We could wash dishes and clothes again without wondering whether we’d have to resort to bucket bailing. Daughter and family came by yesterday for our first in person visit since the beginning of March. A repairman showed up early today and discovered a “hard short” in the phone line. He replaced a burned out fuse in the outside box restoring phone and internet service. Things were looking up.

Then I decided to flush the AC drain line. I’d been distracted the last few weeks and hadn’t poured vinegar and hot water down the pipes to clear algae. The water happily gurgled out of the outflow. I assumed that I’d crossed another item off my list. Then the AC wouldn’t come back on. I found backed up water in a sensor tube. Got out the shop vac. Poured more hot water down the plumbing. Sucked at the outflow with the vac. Sweated, swore, fed mosquitos lurking in the bushes near the drain pipe.

Oy. Too bad I’m out of beer.

Postscript: Judy pitched in and helped me to thoroughly flush the AC drain line. It’s been running normally for the last hour. Fingers crossed.

Publix, Toilet Paper and Social Distancing

Went to the local Publix this morning. Cleaned my hands with sanitizer before leaving the car. Saw an employee pushing carts inside. She wore rubber gloves. A man at the service counter welcomed me into the store. One could almost assume from his cheery greeting that normality still reigned.

Went straight to the paper products aisle and saw paper towels, facial tissues and…and…TOILET PAPER at the end. A large woman piloted a motorized cart down the middle blocking my passage toward bathroom bliss. I managed to sidestep her but had to hold my breath as I passed through the air space she’d just tainted with a cough. I picked up a 9-pack of mega roll Charmin.

Also found eggs and white flour but no yeast. A few days ago, I would have exulted in getting just the toilet paper, but the mood in the store compressed happy feelings until they disappeared with a piff. Maybe it was the hush. Folks didn’t stop to chat or ask a clerk a question. They rushed about as if caught in a trap. Where’s the exit? Where’s the exit?

Noticed that some folks wore gloves, some masks, and some both. The cautious ones had been scattered about the store the last time I shopped. Now about a quarter had taken steps to ward off contamination. Whenever I turned a corner and unexpectedly encountered a shopper, we both shied away as if we’d blundered upon a leper. Eyes didn’t meet eyes. But we gave each other side-long glances to judge the nearest person’s state of health.

Maintained a six foot distance from an old couple in line ahead of me at the check-out. The lady looked over her shoulder to check whether I had crept closer. Her husband breezily chatted up the cashier. He asked when she’d be getting a sneeze-guard at the register. The cashier shrugged and said, “I don’t know when, but it’s only going to come this high.” She held her hand about five feet off the ground. “It’s not going to do any good,” she concluded. The man maintained good cheer. He thanked her and her colleagues for the job they were doing. She replied graciously.

The cashier ran through my groceries slowly. I remembered that she plodded at her job but was amiable. She got to the pile of meat and said, “You’ve got three packages of chicken here.” I said, “Is there a limit? I didn’t see a sign.” The meat aisle had been fully stocked. She said, “We had a limit of two packs per kind of meat. We ran out of beef. Then it was the chicken. But maybe they got a load in and took down the sign. Let’s just pretend they did.” She gave me a warm smile and rang up all the chicken. Almost fell in love with her.

Cleaned my hands with sanitizer after I loaded the bags into the car. Unpacked the groceries in the kitchen where I washed the washable in soapy water. Used a sanitary wipe to clean the outside of boxes. Started lunch: boiled one chicken breast in a pot and braised the other in a skillet. I decided to make peas and reheated garlic noodles to go with the braised chicken.

Retreated to my bedroom to play solitaire for a few minutes. Before disappearing I told Judy, “I’m gonna crash for a bit. Publix was stressful.”

Judy gave me a sympathetic look and said, “It was.”

Not So Great Expectations

My wife received a call last year from the corporate offices of a pharmacy chain. A pleasant woman asked Judy if she’d like to enroll in a program designed to bunch her prescriptions into one pick-up date per month. Judy happily agreed. I run lots of errands each week, and she wanted to eliminate multiple trips to the pharmacy.

The only problem with the plan: it doesn’t work. Judy will get a message stating that three prescriptions are ready. When I arrive at the pharmacy, the tech will inform me that two are ready. I’ll have to wait a day or two to pick up the third. Or that there’s been a hold up getting a doctor or an insurance company to okay a renewal of a prescription that Judy’s been taking for years. Or that no prescriptions needing refills are listed on the current schedule.

I sometimes stew when informed about the latest miscommunication. But this Sunday I found a way out of the mental trap. Judy wanted to get out of the house, so we drove together to the pharmacy to pick up two prescriptions. She browsed while I waited for service. The tech informed me that only one prescription had been filled. We could pick up the second on Monday. I explained the situation to Judy as we walked out of the store. I ended by saying, “Don’t worry about me having to go back to the store. Let’s forget about whether that program works or not. The thing that bothers me the most is the expectation that the prescriptions will be here when they say they will. If I just assume that they’ll screw it up, then I’m all right.”

This morning’s visit tested my resolution. I waited an extra day to pick up the drug assuming that the pharmacy wouldn’t have it on Monday. The tech told me that no prescriptions had been filled for Judy. I recited the history of the prescription-gone-AWOL to him and said, “They told me on Sunday to pick it up Monday. It’s Tuesday. If it’s not available, then I’m very confused.” The tech said, “We can’t pre-fill that prescription, but I can do it right now. It’ll take ten minutes.”

I sat on a chair, watched the pharmacist and techs work, and listened to an ancient woman ask for the location of baby powder. (Aisle 17–near to, but not on, the baby aisle.) I stayed calm. My low expectations blocked out negativity except for brief spasms of manageable irritation.

Just before the tech presented the order to me, a man timidly approached the counter and asked whether the store had face masks. The tech told him no, but there’d be a new delivery on Friday. As the man walked away, I wanted to run after and tell him to wait until the following Monday.

The Breakdown of Cause and Effect

Edward Gorey, the author, illustrator, set-designer, playwright, and puppet-show master, thought that life occurred as a series of random events. He suspected that the principle of cause and effect had a cracked foundation. “The Object Lesson”, one of Gorey’s illustrated books, floats from one scene to another as a man crosses over a nearly deserted landscape. One thing happens. A second, third, fourth thing happens. But the only element tying them together is the man witnessing the events. The object lesson of the story: life is pointless. There are no connections. Events, people, things spring into being…then disappear.

I sat at a light this morning waiting to take a right-on-red. The heavy traffic gave me time to notice a man standing on a nearby corner. He wore a tailored coat and head phones. He gestured, pointed and gave directions to folks who apparently weren’t there. Then I noticed a man at his side. The man paid no attention to the “director”. Then a 30ish woman walked toward the director while holding the hand of a four-year-old girl. They stopped when they came to within fifteen feet of him. They appeared to listen to the director but would come no nearer. The little girl looked apprehensive. Two men bearing shoulder-mounted cameras and a third man holding an equipment bag joined the woman and child in a huddled group. They suddenly stepped forward to meet the director and his inattentive sidekick at the corner. The director continued to gesture, point and call out directions, but I couldn’t tell if his charges understood him. They milled around sluggishly like dispirited ants from a disturbed ant hill. The light finally changed. I turned right and left them behind.

I went to an appointment with my chiropractor. Everything proceeded according to normal routine in the doctor’s office. But when I tried to pull out into traffic to head home, a long procession of cars and trucks lumbered past. I finally got a break, but a yellow-painted mini-bus lurched out from a side street just to my left. I paused to let it pass. White letters splashed across the bus’ front hood. They read: “BONE-X”. I pulled out behind it and saw another slogan on the back: “The Power Of Woman”. A painted golden flower surrounded the word “ORGASM” on the rear window.

I drove home wondering whether Gorey had somehow pulled me into his world.

Mold, Mold, Mooooolddd!

We’ve had a lovely Christmas break. Guests and family filled our house. We overate, exchanged presents, talked, and passed around my three-month-old granddaughter.

Judy and Ava on Christmas Day

And we watched “White Christmas” one night. The kitschy musical had no message besides the following: middle-aged weariness confronted by unexamined attraction leads to happily-ever-after marriages. A few obstructions (that could have been easily avoided if open and constructive communication had been practiced) formed the plot line.

One of the songs, “Snow, Snow, Snow!” definitely did not apply to our holiday season in Florida. Our temps hovered in the high seventies and crested at 80 degrees one day. The lows bottomed in the mid 60s. Greenery abounded. A few plants flowered. I wore a Hawaiian shirt on Christmas day.

A high pressure system situated east of the Bahamas streamed hot, humid air from the Caribbean onto Florida. Skies clouded over. Rain fell. Neither the heat pump nor the air conditioner adequately addressed the situation. Rain water slipped between the edge of the foundation and the cinder block wall of the back bathroom creating a bath mat-soaking minor flood. Mold grew on the back side of my bedroom cabinet and night stand. A dark, gray-green patch spread further across a panel on the uncompleted porch enclosure.

I hummed a few bars from “Snow, Snow, Snow!” this morning for Judy’s benefit. Then I broke out with, “Mold, mold, mooolddd! We’re living in a place that’s filled with mold. Moooo-old! My face, my hair, my hands and feet smell like mold.”

Friday Morning

Went to the ATM near the Publix where I buy subs for Judy and me. Felt a bit nervous as I fed checks into the machine, but no one lurked close by. The lady at the sub counter expressed astonishment that the contents of Judy’s sandwich were a whole wheat roll, turkey, lettuce. She looked at me with doubt in her eyes and kept asking whether she should add mayonnaise and cheese. I’ve grown tired of explaining Judy’s food sensitivities to strangers and kept insisting on simplicity. I gave her some relief when I asked her to load up my sub.

Walked back to my car parked by the ATM and saw a tall man leaning against a tree for shade. He had big doe eyes and springy dreads. Drove to the lot exit and waited for the light to change. The same man walked across the cross walk in front of me, turned around and slowly made his way down the queue of cars behind me. He walked tentatively as if each step required a series of decisions. He stopped to ask a man in a sedan for something, received an abrupt dismissal and tried at another car window. The light changed.

I pulled into a gas station at the opposite corner and parked at a pump. Went inside to pay cash. A balding sixty-ish man stood ahead of me at the counter. He turned abruptly and almost bumped into me, placed a can of soda five feet away on a ledge in front of a candy display, and turned back to the counter man. Ordered five cash-for-life lotto tickets and carefully sorted them into his wallet.

Pumped my gas and saw the lotto man get into a silver sports car beside me. He beat me out of the lot, popped the accelerator, burst forward. He sped nearly out of sight before I got up to speed. “Adrenaline junky,” I thought.