Archive for June, 2020

DEATH, POLITICS AND GUILT

I have bad news, good news and more bad news. Also an apology.

The initial bad news: The COVID-19 death toll of Americans stands at 124,000.

The good news: Last Sunday, American daily deaths dropped to 275.

More bad news: Daily deaths rose to 833 on Tuesday and 766 Wednesday. Yesterday, Johns Hopkins University charted 2,467 deaths, although this includes figures from New Jersey of indicate COVID-19 deaths previously not recorded. Also yesterday, a record 40,000 infections were reported.

My apology: Sunday’s plummeting death toll left me disappointed. I’ll explain.

The occupant of the Oval Office is so perverse—and his Republican enablers so selfish and malicious—that only a continuing high death toll might convince enough Americans of the incompetence and lack of humanity defining Donald Trump.

Last Saturday, the president told a rally crowd “filling” a third of Tulsa’s BOK Center, “I said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down, please.’” Talk about magical thinking! Fewer tests equate to fewer infections—if you lack commonsense and decency.

Several of Trump’s senior advisors stated that the president was joking. Believable—if you lack commonsense and decency.

Chris Rock and Sarah Silverman, stand aside. Donald Trump can now claim to be one of the nation’s premier stand-up comics. For example, he hails the novel coronavirus as the “kung flu,” emphasizing its origin in China. Even presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway, champion of alternative facts, found “kung flu” offensive—in March.

Not funny: Tuesday, Trump said he wasn’t kidding.

More unfunny: A day earlier, Trump tweeted that the upcoming presidential election is “rigged.” He claimed that “millions of mail-in ballots will be printed by foreign countries, and others.” I didn’t bother putting this in all capital letters as he did. I will bother to inform you that Trump VOTES BY MAIL.

Let’s get serious: Trump is setting up an excuse for defeat. The prospect of voters turning him out cannot, in his twisted thought processes, be possible. But a recent Fox News poll—Fox!—showed Trump trailing Joe Biden by 12 points. A recent New York Times poll put Biden’s lead among registered voters at 14 percent. Polls can be sketchy, particularly this early. But if Biden wins, Trump will deny responsibility for defeat.

More threatening, Trump’s tweet recalls the line in the 1964 film Beckett based on the play by Jean Anouilh and spoken by Britain’s King Henry II. At odds with Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Beckett, Henry asks his barons: “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” Media-savvy for his time, Henry could claim he never ordered Beckett’s assassination. Just thinking out loud.

I’m thinking that Trump is dog whistling his followers to disrupt a “corrupt” voting process. Gather with guns near polling places. Damage collection boxes. Delay the proceedings of the Electoral College.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 shows no signs of slowing down. Southern and Western states that rushed to reopen their economies and resisted mandating face masks see infections spiking at alarming rates. While Election Day is more than four months off, it may be that even if Trump-stoked violence arises, the pandemic and our continuing economic meltdown will result in the president’s very legal removal from office.

How sad that it might take 150,000 or more dead Americans to disinfect the Oval Office.

Just before I posted this, Vice President Pence held a news conference during which he praised Trump’s and the administrations efforts to control the pandemic. He didn’t wear a mask. One of us inhabits another dimension.

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DRYDOCKED

The Boat sits in drydock at Clement and Fifth Avenue far from the waterfront. Its captain is giving up the helm. But someday—soon, I hope—it will set sail as it has for 38 years.

Jesse and Roberta Fink opened the Toy Boat Dessert Café in 1982. Carolyn and I had been living in San Francisco for eight years and were settled in a flat on Twentieth Avenue, then with two kids. A terrific new brand of ice cream had been introduced to the City—Double Rainbow. The Toy Boat served it. (Jesse’s brother Steven and his partner Michael founded the ice cream company.)

Given that the Boat offered so many flavors plus pastries plus coffee plus a mechanical horse for the kids and so many cool toys for purchase, we found our way there. After we moved into our house on Fifteenth Avenue late in 1983, a third child now part of the family, we walked to the Boat with some frequency.

In 2004, I moved my office home from downtown and went out to lunch every day. That meant a sandwich, wrap or salad at the Boat once or twice a week. Jesse, whose family once had spent time with mine at the Calistoga Spa, became a friend who’d sit down and talk about—anything.

The Toy Boat long has been a fixture on Clement Street. The desserts and toys—Pez containers, pink Spaldeen rubber balls and stickball bats like we played with as kids (Jesse’s from Brooklyn) and a variety of tin and, later, plastic super-hero figures—may have drawn people for a first visit.

Jesse kept them coming back.

Whether his customers were locals, the legendary Robin Williams, people from across town or visitors from across the country and, indeed, around the world, Jesse schmoozed with everyone. The Boat became a social gathering place. As host, Jesse asked where you were from and what you were doing and made you feel like the center of the universe.

I, a functional introvert, couldn’t have done what Jesse did. “I’m not sure I’m an extrovert,” he says, “but I am outgoing. I’ve become a lot more sensitive to others over time, so in the store, I wouldn’t be nice to someone simply for business reasons.” Outside the store, he’s much the same person.

Jesse long served as what I termed “The Mayor of Clement Street.” But the COVID-19 pandemic put retailers in a bind, especially small ones, which make up almost all the Richmond District’s stores and restaurants. When the City proclaimed its first shelter-in-place order, Jesse closed the Boat on March 16. “I figured we’d be closed only for a week or two.” The City kept extending the order. Jesse let go most of his staff. He gave thought to retiring.

He was 67. When he put the Boat up for sale, he’d been home with Roberta for two months and enjoyed their time together. And, he confesses, he’d been thinking about retirement since January. The pandemic sealed the deal. “My mother used to say, ‘Moments of decision choose themselves.’”

Jesse hopes that the new owners will maintain the Boat’s uniqueness. Me, too. As he says, “Like the Grateful Dead, we weren’t the best at what we did. We were the only ones.”

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MY HAIRCUT

COVID-19 has taken its toll. Now, people are getting back to some familiar routines from working to dining out. But new opening-up regulations don’t compel us to do so. Witness my haircut.

I, too, was getting scraggly. I had my last haircut on March 12. My particularly oily hair badly needed trimming. I can’t see my stylist, Regina, yet. But I have a pretty good substitute at home.

Monday, Carolyn cut my hair. Two weeks earlier, I’d ordered clippers with guides. Watched videos. (What isn’t on YouTube?) I relayed what I learned to Carolyn. She was a natural.

Okay, I prefer Regina cutting my hair. Pre-COVID, I visited her salon every four weeks. Looked great and maintained neat hair until next time. But during a pandemic, the “other woman” is your wife.

We set up in our bathroom. I covered myself with an old poncho. The fun began.

No, not that kind.

I attached the adjustable guide and set it to #10, the longest, to avoid mistakes. Then I started trimming the sides of my head to show Carolyn how the clippers work. Bingo, she was on it. Finished the sides and went to the back. Then the top. Fine-tuned with scissors. Used the clippers to clean my neck.

I admired her handiwork. Then I used the clippers to touch up a spot. Naturally, I cut a bit of a hole in my right side. Doesn’t look bad. Not too. No more of that. Why cut your own hair when you have a talented semi-pro at home?

Don’t think our relationship—in September we’ll be married 51 years—is a one-way street. Despite movie, TV and commercial production being shut down until today, June 12, Carolyn’s had more—I repeat, more—auditions than ever. All self-videoed or self-recorded. Audio, Carolyn handles in a studio set up in our guest room closet. A small closet. I put in the sound-dampening panels.

For videos, I usually get cinematography credit. Using Carolyn’s iPhone, I frame the shots, move the camera when needed and, on most occasions, feed her the other characters’ lines. I also offer tips on reads and pieces of business. Why not? I wrote, produced and/or directed a lot of radio and TV commercials in my day. Disclosure: That day is long past.

Another disclosure: Carolyn and I are not rushing into San Francisco’s reopening. I’ll be 76 in a month. My health is great, and I’m uncommonly fit for my age. But as a physician wrote a few months ago, organs that have been around for 76 years are 76 years old. Now, reports have emerged of a correlation between type A blood and higher COVID-19 death rates. No, correlation is not causation. Yes, I’m type A.

Fortunately, our lives are comfortable. I write. Carolyn takes online acting and singing classes, does auditions. We both watch TV and read. We also walk in nearby parks, take in fabulous views of the Pacific and Golden Gate. Mountain Lake is two blocks away. And we bring in meals from a great Turkish restaurant, Lokma, Clement and 19th Avenue.

If we’re cautious, you can understand. I’d like to be 77 in a year. Hopefully, I’ll celebrate with my favorite chocolate cake and a haircut outside the house.

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THREE IMAGES, MANY QUESTIONS

A Minneapolis cop kneels on the neck of a black man, George Floyd. Peaceful protestors kneel on pavement. An unidentified young African-American woman carries an armload of bras out of Victoria’s Secret. How do we make sense of these images?

Last Saturday, my friend Ira asked: Doesn’t Judaism have anything to offer about the racism endemic in America? Yes, it does. Start with Leviticus 19:18: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But this “simple” verse raises complex questions.

Love: A general good feeling about others or a commandment to take action when others face difficulties or injustice? (Cain kills Abel then asks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”—Genesis 4:9).

Neighbor: Family and friends only? A religious congregation? Co-religionists only? Those who live near our home? And whom can we reject because of their race, religion, politics?

Yourself: How many of us truly love ourselves, are happy with the kind of person we are? If we consider it obvious that each of us engages in self-love, why does our society endure so much alcoholism, drug addiction and suicide? Can you love and mistreat yourself at the same time?

That said, do we define Leviticus 19:18 to our own liking and use it as a pretext for creating out-groups whom we have no obligation to love? What if we believe that the Bible instructs us to subjugate all who are “different”? What if cherry-picked verses, bent to our own purposes encourage us to forcibly convert others to our own religious and political practices or remain perpetual second-class citizens? Or take their citizenship away?

Slavery is a blot on America’s collective conscience, but some Americans still believe that slavery treated black Americans better than freedom ever has or could. Before and after the Civil War, any number of Christian ministers extracted from the Bible verses they attributed to God advancing the cause of separation of the races. Isn’t that a euphemism for oppression?

Black Americans—all Americans—have both a right and a duty to protest racism directed against anyone and seek meaningful changes in our society. Most protestors have peacefully exercised that right during what has also been an incredibly violent week while COVID-19 deaths continue. That said, I’m still overwhelmed with questions:

Will the violent minority hijack the cause of the peaceful majority? In November, will voters on the fence turn to Donald Trump as their Richard-Nixon-law-and-order candidate? Will others pass on voting for Joe Biden because another Democratic candidate isn’t the nominee? Or will they engage in a pragmatic electoral protest against an intolerable racial situation and a president whose Attorney General had tear gas and rubber bullets used to clear space in front of Washington’s St. John’s Episcopal Church for his boss’s photo op holding—but not reading from—a Bible?

Will a new president make a difference? Can changing laws also change hearts?

Walking/running/driving/birding/breathing while black can never be considered criminal or even undesirable. Can we as a nation find the strength and will to keep our eyes on the prize and work to end the racism that pollutes our society? Are we willing to fall short of a perfect solution?

Here, the Mishnah (Pirke Avot 2:16) offers guidance: “You are not required to complete the work, but you are not free to abandon it.”

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