May 5 2020

Over social

I woke up Sunday morning with bright sun shining on the blackout shade. My eyes were all gravely, my voice felt hoarse and my body had absolutely no desire to move. I was totally drained. I looked over at the clock on the wall and saw it was already 10 am but I decided to lay there a while longer and put off getting up. I had time…no plans until the evening. I wasn’t hungry for breakfast yet. I picked up my phone and checked Facebook. After 15 minutes of scrolling through miscellaneous posts, I clicked on my email app. 

What!!

At the top of my inbox was an email from my friend containing the link to the meeting she had scheduled for a group of us to meet… today…at 11 am! I remembered helping to plan that meeting but I also thought that we were going to do it in the early evening. The meeting was with 2 girlfriends I used to do GNOs with before one of them left Stockholm. Now I had half an hour to get ready. So I threw on the clothes I had worn yesterday (and maybe the day before and the day before that). I hobbled over to the kitchen, made a cup of instant coffee, buttered a piece of toast and sat down at my computer still only half awake and barely mobile. My terminal glasses weren’t helping much to see the screen as I logged in. 

This pandemic that is sweeping the world right now is going to be the death of me.

While here in Sweden, we aren’t under an enforced lock-down, we are nevertheless expected to practice voluntary self-isolation and to stay-at-home as much as possible. This is not a hardship for me since I like staying at home. I don’t go out to movies. I don’t attend concerts or dance recitals. I have no interest to try out the latest new restaurant in the neighborhood either. Did I say how I like staying at home? I am not a complete hermit though. I do go out. And meet friends. Occasionally.

Before Covid 19, I would meet a group of writer pals every other week at a charming cafe; we would chat for a while, then write for an hour and then chat some more.

Before Covid 19, I would attend board meetings once a month or so, at the home of the chair of a small Jewish organization whose board I am a member of. I can see her apartment from my apartment window and it only takes 10 minutes to walk to the meetings. I have been on this board so long that all the other members have become my friends and the chair makes great soup for us to eat before the meeting. 

And before Covid 19, a friend would sometimes manage to talk me into going out to have dinner with them as long as it wasn’t too far from my home. And sometimes I got tempted into seeing a movie (as long as it was sci-fi) with a group of other like-minded friends.

But now…because of this pandemic, no one is going anywhere or at least not anywhere outside of their house, unless it’s to the grocery store to try to stock up on toilet paper. All my board meetings were cancelled.  My writers group…cancelled. The few organized activities that I had planned on attending have been cancelled. I cancelled both a doctor’s checkup and my dentist appointment. My google calendar which is never really all that filled up anyway is now totally empty. Instead of going to a restaurant for dinner, going on a walk with a friend in the fresh air is the new way to hang out…as long as you keep your distance from everyone. 

In spite of all this anti-socializing, I’ve been meeting old friends and even making new ones more now than I usually did in pre-Corona times. I was never this social before Covid19 arrived and I am not sure how well I am going to survive this sudden social upswing even though I’ve been able to do it without needing to travel further than to my living room. I don’t have to put on my shoes because I can walk barefoot to my computer screen. Most of the time I don’t bother with putting on my face. I do try to remember to put on pants. Once I was wearing my nightgown but from the shoulders up it looks like an ordinary knit shirt with stripes so no big deal. My new frenzied social life is all the fault of this app called Zoom.

My recent stress started on Thursday evening in a zoom meeting with 2 of my writer pals who I haven’t seen for awhile because all our writing evenings were cancelled. We spent over an hour discussing plans for virtual writing workshops and we got to meet a very cute cat. Then a few days later on Saturday afternoon I had a zoom meeting with a couple of old co-workers. We used to get together a couple of times a year for dinner but this time we just sat around in our homes and caught up on how things are Coronating in different parts of the world. Later that same night or rather morning, I attended a Zoom party held by a friend in New York City. It started at 7pm NYC time which is 1am my time. She was a friend to both me and my husband. He dropped into the party long enough to say hello and then goodbye. I stayed for the next 2 and a half hours! There was one other person at the “party” that I knew but all the rest were strangers. When I signed off at 3.30 am, I saw on Facebook that one of them had asked to be my new Facebook friend. It took me a while to finally wind down and fall asleep. After a few hours I woke up to discover the unexpectedly early new Zoom meeting that I mentioned at the beginning of this post. By Sunday afternoon my introvert self had had enough.. This was just too much talking and socializing for me. I found that I couldn’t remember what I had said to who and who had said what to me. I hadn’t had enough time between conversations to process everything. I felt like I had gotten hit in the face with a ping pong racket. Five virtual social events in 4 days – I needed to look for a dark room somewhere.

All this virtual viewing reminded me of a book by Isaac Asimov that I had read way-back-when as a teenager – The Naked Sun.  It was the second in his sci-fi detective trilogy staring Elijah Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw, a human-looking robot. While the first book in the trilogy takes place on an overcrowded Earth, most of the action in this book happens on a planet named Solaria that has a small human population and a huge robot one. People live isolated on huge estates that are hundreds of miles from each other and are taught from birth to avoid personal contact. They almost never meet in person. Even married couples who live on the same estate have their own parts of the home so they also rarely meet in person. Face-to-face interaction, referred to as “seeing” is considered dirty and the idea of being in the same room as another and breathing the same air makes them almost physically nauseous. But the inhabitants of Solaria are not hermits.  They socialize by “viewing”, a kind of 3D two-way teleconferencing that was so advanced that you can go out for a walk on your property, contact a friend and view/talk with them as they are walking on their own estate and barely notice the difference in backgrounds. 

We aren’t there yet. The quality of the Zoom app experience depends to a great deal on the quality of your WiFi and the state of your computer or smart phone. Mostly people just sit there in front of their video camera and hopefully you see their whole face and not just the top of their head. One friend did take me on a tour of her new house and neighborhood but as soon as she got out of reach of her WiFi the picture started to break up. 

I have been video Skyping with my best friend Roz, from college, for many years now. Our Skype calls have become as humdrum as a phone call. The fact that it was free made it even better. However the use of Skype just never seemed to catch on with anyone else I knew in the States. Zoom on the other hand, with a kick from Corona, seems to suddenly be everywhere and used by everyone. Timing is everything, I guess. 

I admit that the appeal of being able to sit in my pajamas and meet a friend without leaving my home has its charm. Just being able to see everyone while Zooming with a group of friends who all live scattered around the world is really fantastic. But what happens when all this virtual socializing runs its course? Humans are touchy-feely. We need to breathe each other’s air, pat a back, give a hug. When these Corona times let go of us and we can go out once again a Zoom call will pale in the face of a real face-to face date. And even this introvert will put on her face and some clean clothes and go out into the world again. Occasionally. 


Apr 27 2020

Life and Death in the Country

Its morning. Full daylight. I can see white edges of frost along the back of the deck chair through the corner of the bedroom window. I’m in bed, barely awake. My eyes feel dry and teary at the same time. The sun has not yet risen above the eastern treeline so it must still be very early. I want to stay in bed but I have to pee so I open the bedroom door and go out into the main room of our country house. On my way to the bathroom I note the absence of cats.

I close the bedroom door on my way back to bed. The barely visible sun is silhouetting the trees now. The clock on the living room wall said 6am. No need to get up yet. I lay back in bed, calmly tallying up all the little aches and pains that seem to have become my normal. My eyes are closed but my ears are awake. A cat is softly meowing on the other side of the door. I try to remember if their food bowl was empty. The meowing continues. It’s probably Coco, she’s the whiner. Do I want to get up? We keep the bedroom doors closed because we don’t want the cats to run in from outside and transfer all the ticks they have picked up on their fur on to our bed. Or to deposit dead animals onto the bedroom rug at our feet while we are still asleep.

I drag myself out of the warm blankets and open the door expecting to see a cat lying down in front of the door jamb waiting for me. Nope. A sleek brown shadow scuttles past my feet into the bedroom and immediately pushes her way behind the door, searching. We store a large window screen and an insert that enlarges the dining table there. Coco is very determinedly trying to poke her nose behind all this stuff.

Shit!! She is hunting!

Custard and Coco on the hunt

I carefully move the screen to the other end of the wall. I move the top of the table insert a few inches away from the wall and look down behind it. A tiny grey shape is crouched next to the baseboard, equidistant from each edge of the insert. I didn’t even see him run in. I hear the cat door open and Custard saunters in, joining Coco in looking behind the door, one on each side of the insert.

“We have a mouse!” I yell.

My husband is still in bed, staring at his phone. His poor hearing means he is completely oblivious to all the excitement.

“There’s a mouse in the bedroom!”

“What?”

“Behind the door!”

“You have to chase it out of the room or catch it. Do you have a plan? You have to have a plan.”

I have no plan. Håkan starts to get his pants on and prepare for a hasty exit. While the cats keep watch on the mouse I go and get the broom from the living room. I angle the insert towards the door and start to brush the mouse in that direction. It moves closer to the door but then suddenly does an about-face and runs under the bed, two cats in close pursuit.

“It’s under the bed now,” I say.

“What are you doing about it?”

“Nothing. I’m letting the cats take care of it.”

I hear the tippy-tap of tiny feet and the rustle of plastic bags from under the bed. The cats are making mad dashing sounds. I stand along the wall and wait. After a few minutes Coco emerges from under the bed, the tips of her fur bristling with pride and a still moving clump in her mouth. She carries it out to the big room and puts it down under the dining table, waiting for us to praise her. It lies there, nothing moving except its rib cage, in and out, in and out, a mile a minute.

I stand there, uncertain. Before I can decide what to do, Coco picks up the mouse, gently, like she would a kitten and carries it out through the cat door. I lock the cat door behind her and watch as she brings it down the steps and on to the lawn where she again puts it down. Custard joins her on the lawn. He lies down and makes himself comfortable as he watches her start to play the eternal game of cat and mouse.

I stand on the deck, a heavy fleece jacket wrapped around me, watching them. After about 10 minutes of the Coco vs Mouse match, our tiny prey makes a mad dash past Custard and glides in under the planting boxes, safe from Custards grasping paws. I breathe a sigh of relief. Yea, mouse.

Epilogue
About an hour later, after I have breakfasted on a slice of Håkan’s home-made bread, I hear the cats trying to get in through the cat door. I never unlocked it. I walk over to the door and look through the glass. Both cats are sitting there. A very dead mouse with its head eaten off is lying on the door mat.


Apr 5 2020

Corona times

We are living in strange times now. Corona times.
For many weeks the Corona virus has been traveling – on a world tour – starting in China, spreading through Asia, running around Europe, and jumping the fish pond over to America. And yes…it’s here in Stockholm too.

We are not yet under lockdown like Italy and Spain. But most of my younger, still-working friends have been ordered by their employers to work from home, my son included. Universities and all high schools have been closed & are trying to do online teaching instead. I have no idea how that’s working but I saw a funny video on YouTube about that. Schools for children who are too young to stay at home alone are still open but if their parents are home, often the kids are kept home too, regardless. The thinking about keeping schools open for younger kids is that the government wants the parents who work in the healthcare field & have young kids who need minding, to be able to continue going to work.

All the activities I had written in my calendar, such as writing workshops, board meetings, plans to meet friends and any other miscellaneous events have been cancelled. I cancelled my doctor’s appointment that had been booked over 6 weeks ago because who wants to go to a place all the sick people go to? All activities in the Jewish community are cancelled except burials, food delivery to old people and some Saturday morning services. All the big Seders are cancelled. My annual J.A.P.S. Seder, gathering my Jewish/American/Swedish gang, is also cancelled due to the fear of passing the virus from hand to mouth along with the chicken soup. I went to Bajit, the big new Jewish Center, on Friday to buy matzah. The place was empty and only 1 person at a time allowed in the shop. Me & the other 2 people on line all waited our turn far from each other. Hand sanitizer was everywhere to use while we waited.

And speaking of hand sanitizer, I can’t find it to buy in any of the stores. And Håkan has looked on-line. Nadda, nothing to buy there either. I can understand that. In these plague days it works better than lamb’s blood. But toilet paper? What’s the big deal about hoarding toilet paper? I can not understand that at all – it’s not a plague of diarrhea.
Dare I say it??? People are idiots.

But key words these days are definitely “social distancing” and “self-quarantine”. Or in other words STAY AT HOME!

But I do get out. My friend Barbara, working from home and living on Kungsholmen, walked over to Reimers last week and we took a long walk together on Långholmen. We foot-bumped first, keeping safety in mind. There were other people also out walking but everyone kept their distances. We stopped at the Långholmen värdshus in need of fika. We had the whole place to ourselves and enjoyed coffee and a bulla. There was lots of hand sanitizer there too.

I still go to my local grocery. I see people from my neighborhood there – but everyone keeps their distance – this is Sweden after all. Nobody hugs or talks to each other anyway, a simple nod is enough if you meet someone you recognize. Even in normal times, people sit as far away from you as a park bench allows. This is not Italy, France or Spain. Swedes are not huggy types, they are good at aloneness and don’t need much encouragement to isolate.

And it seems neither do we – Håkan, Bevin and I. My little family hardly notices the new societal rules operating now. All three of us are introverts and staying cooped up in our home doesn’t seem to be a problem for us – that’s how we usually live. I am mainly the only one who goes out now and its just to the grocery store. Occasionally I will walk the 20 minutes to Hornstull and go to the large Hemköp grocery there or maybe the drugstore. Once I also went to Clas Ohlson because we needed good glue. Hemköp has started special early morning hours for seniors but the way I figure it, I’m retired, I no longer have to (or want to) get up super early in the morning. Especially not to do grocery shopping! I try to go later in the morning or early afternoon when its not too busy and we customers can keep a decent distance from each other.

Bevin, a programmer at Ericsson, has been working from home now for the past 3 weeks and his longest walk is from the kitchen to his bedroom. He spends his evenings and late into the night socializing online with his pals around the world. No worries about catching anything that way except maybe a computer virus.

Håkan spends most of his time sitting in front of his computer screen, commenting on Facebook or watching TV programs there. He is busy devising all kinds of plans for growing sweet corn out at our country house this summer, ordering necessary things online. For weeks now, he has been bugging me about completely moving ourselves out to the countryside, trying to justify the move by saying that we are supposed to self-quarantine. He is so happy to finally have society on his side. But I am resisting. It’s still too early for me and too cold to turn the water on yet. But we have been out there a couple of times already just for day trips to plant potatoes and to get his corn seeds started in his new mini-greenhouse. Easter weekend will be our first overnight stay.

So this Stay at Home directive hasn’t changed much for us personally. My apartment is not a bit cleaner! I haven’t painted new colors on the walls of any room. My freezer is still mainly filled with ice instead of enough food to last months. And my kitchen cupboards are still cluttered, as are my closets. If I am not laying about on the sofa to read, then I am laying on the bed. And I only have enough toilet paper and paper towels to last for the next week. I spend a lot of time looking at Facebook but that is just a distraction from what I should be getting done on my computer. And just for you dog lovers who have been spreading nasty rumors around social media about cats, our cats are exceedingly happy that we are all home. Coco wants to always keep Bevin company by sitting on his keyboard, so during his working hours he has to close his door. She lies patiently outside, waiting for him to open it.

But as I said we are all introverts here – we need others to plan activities that can entice us out of our homes. And I admit, looking at my empty Google Calendar is a bit depressing. Though, secretly, I am happy not to need to put on makeup or get dressed in clothes I haven’t worn for the past 4 days. Putting on my Extrovert Coat in preparation to leave my home and venture out there in the wider world takes energy. So I have started calling people instead of just texting. I have been using Skype to talk to friends and family in the US. And I have participated in two Zoom meetings! I think a lot of self-isolated folks must be doing that now – there is not a web camera to be found, either in stores locally or even online!

So us introverted folks are coping OK but what about all my extroverted friends out there? You know who you are…all those of you who have kept inviting me to do things with you out there in the world even though 60% of the time I say I can’t (because I don’t want to leave my cozy shell) and yet thankfully you keep asking. Life now is probably harder for you guys. So while this is going on, give me a call and let’s talk…either by phone or Zoom or Skype. Drag me out for a walk in nature too – I promise to keep my distance.  I hope you all are also doing OK and I promise to say yes next time you invite me to eat dinner with you, or even just fika, after this is all over.

I know that a lot of people out there are feeling anxiety or fear due to this pandemic sweeping the world. I don’t really know what to say that could make them feel better. But my go-to advice that I like to keep in mind, is taken from one of my favorite books, Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. I like what Ford Prefect tells Arthur Dent, when Arthur finds out that the Earth is about to be demolished to make room for a hyper-space bypass.

“Don’t panic,” he says, “and always know where your towel is.”

Stay healthy everyone.


Dec 14 2019

Calling Mom

December 14 would have been my mother’s 93rd birthday.

She died about two weeks after she turned 85. I was with her the last month as she progressively passed away as the result of a no longer functioning pair of kidneys. There was no birthday cake served on that birthday, neither was her very favorite treat, ice cream. She didn’t really know that it was her birthday as she lay in her bed surrounded on both sides by hospital bed bars. The hours passed quietly that December day in the middle of New Jersey. A few friends called me but other than that the day itself went unnoticed. The next day, my uncle Wally, mom’s little brother and his wife Rosemary came out to us with a cake. My cousins Ed and Nora came too. Rosemary brought a lovely cake she made for Mom. We showed it to her but she was in her own world by then and couldn’t really notice it. We went out for Chinese food – mom stayed in her bed serenely unaware that we had been there.  After we came back we ate the cake together, without Mom, in the small staff dining room near her room. When Wally and Rosemary and Nora and Ed left, I gave the cake to the staff to share.

Today here in Stockholm, was a cold, grey day full of rain. The kind of day you don’t really want to go outside in, unless you absolutely have to. The kind of days we have had a lot of the past two months. I needed to go to the grocery store so, there you are…I had to go out. As I walked trying to avoid muddy puddles, my hood up against the rain, dragging my shopping cart behind me, I found that the day seemed to suit my mood. I thought about how long it had been since I last called my mom and told her about the weather here in Stockholm. Eight years. Hard to figure. I have spent my entire sixth decade without my mom.

She had spent her entire sixth decade without me, except for the two weeks a year that I came home to visit. I moved to Sweden when she was 61. Back in those days international phone calls were expensive and thus infrequent. Did she ever tell me that she was sad that I had moved so far away. That she missed me and wished I was there? That she loved me? Not really. Those were not the kind of words that passed between members of my family very frequently. I know she did though – miss me that is…and love me. I think she was happy that I had finally found a guy who was willing to put up with me and marry me. That he dragged me across an ocean was something else. And then we had a kid and made her and my father grandparents. That made her happy too. The once a year visits to help my parents get to know their grandchild were always too short. Then SKYPE happened and we could do more frequent calls and she and Bevin could actually look at each other when they talked. That made the distance less.

The last years before she moved to her independent living apartment at Monroe Village, I called her a lot. We didn’t really have much to say. She wasn’t so interested in talking about the past and the future was so uncertain. We talked about dinner and weather and how Bevin was doing in school. She frequently asked when we would next come to visit. I kept saying we would come visit but later. After a while, the reason I called her every day was to make sure she could answer the phone. After she met Marty, I didn’t have to call so often. She was busy and not so alone. There was someone there who looked after her. And I think she looked after him. They kept each other company.

But today, on her birthday, as I walked in the rain, I really felt like I wanted to call my mom, to talk to her. To say hi, to tell her how I was doing, how we are still trying to get Bevin to move into the apartment he bought, how life was going.

I lived far away from my mother for so many years. But I always had in the back of my mind that she was just over there, out of sight, but just a phone call away. I am an expert at procrastination. So as I walked, trying to keep my boots from getting too muddy, I said to myself, I’ll call her tomorrow.

And tomorrow, I will say it again.

Me and Mom eating Chinese food at home in Stockholm. 2006


Nov 2 2019

My Mini High School Reunion

I graduated from high school fifty years ago! I find that hard to believe. It goes along with realizing that fifty years ago my generation went to Woodstock and fifty years ago human beings walked on the moon.

This past July, a group of fellow former seniors from West Morris Regional High School in northern New Jersey attended our class’s 50th reunion. A reunion committee had spent almost a year planning the event and I admit to feeling a bit nostalgic as I kept getting planning updates. But I didn’t go. I rarely travel back to the States during Swedish summer – my husband and I have a country house that the only time we can be there is in the summer.

Only fifteen years ago, the majority of my classmates had become just dusty memories from an old yearbook. The last time I actually met – in person – anyone from my New Jersey school days, was 40 years ago when I attended our tenth reunion. But now, many of my former schoolmates are friends on Facebook and even though I haven’t met them in real life, I’ve seen pictures of their grandchildren.

A few years ago, I finally had the chance to unpack a load of books carted over here from New York City and never seen again in almost 30 years. My high school yearbooks were among them. Opening the books was a walk down memory lane. I discovered, much to my surprise, that my senior class had had an exchange student that year who came from Sweden! What a weird coincidence, I thought. I had not shared any classes with him so didn’t really know him. I had a vague memory of sitting in at a talk he gave about Stockholm with slides showing pictures of the city but that was all.

Britta Jacobsen was a high school friend who had Swedish parents, something I gave little thought to, even when she came into school wearing the most unusual clogs with perforated white leather tops that she got on a trip back to visit her parent’s homeland.  Her mother and brother eventually moved back to Sweden – but to the Gothenburg area, not to Stockholm, so we have not had a chance to meet. As part of the reunion planning committee, she messaged me last year, asking if I could try to track down our former Swedish exchange student, Lars Göran Thambert. Luckily, he had a rather unusual name and I was able to locate him on LinkedIn. I wrote to him there, explaining who I was and about the reunion. He never wrote back and I let it drop. I did however send his LinkedIn info to the reunion committee and Wayne Myers also sent him a message. This message landed just when Lars was on one of his rare visits there. He wrote back to Wayne and eventually made a video about himself that was shown at the reunion. Lars also discovered my letter to him and answered me. We exchanged a few emails and decided to get in touch and meet for Swedish Fika in Stockholm after the summer. I told him I would let him judge for himself how good my Swedish had become after living here for over 30 years.

We planned a date in the middle of October at my favorite cafe here on Södermalm near where I live. I wondered how I would recognize him, a person I never knew all those years ago but I took another look at the video he made to get an idea of what he looked like today. We exchanged phone numbers and I figured if we couldn’t recognize each other we could call the other’s phone and listen to see who in the cafe’s phone was ringing. Modern times!

Its been along time since I’ve been on a blind date but I still remember that feeling of worrying if we would have anything to talk about. Lars had said in his video that he was an architect, so I figured conversation could flow no matter what. Back in high school, the two career paths I was considering were either Fashion Design or Architecture. I choose Fashion but after two years at Pratt, I switched to Commercial Art/Illustration. I had been scared of choosing architecture because I felt math and science were not really my thing. Once I got to Pratt, it turned out that many of the guys I became best friends with were from the architecture program anyway. And many of them told me that math and science were not their thing either. Go figure.

The day came and I sat myself down at a table in Vurma with my latte, a cardamon bulla and with my yearbook clearly visible.

This is how we looked in 1969

I recognized him immediately as he came in the door and gave a wave. He ordered a sandwich and we started talking. We started off by looking though the yearbook, pointing out people who we had been friends with and just reminiscing about life in NJ all those years ago. He is still in touch with the family that hosted him back then. I told him about Art School. He told me about the architectural projects he has worked on here in Stockholm, some of them quite large projects. We both have had our own companies and agreed we like being able to choose who and what we work with. I told him my story about how I landed here. He told about his grandchildren and I told how I am still trying to get my grown son to move into his new apartment. We discussed art and architecture and design. The almost 3 hours flew by. I had to finally go home to make dinner for my family and he was about to meet his daughter to go to see an exhibit of furniture design. We said good bye, agreeing to keep in touch.

I am so glad I met Lars. It was a lovely afternoon. But more than that, knowing that there is someone here in my adopted homeland who shares a part of my long distant past is somehow comforting. The world is a big place and when you are young you never know where your life will take you. For some people the journey is not very far while for others like myself you end up a long way from where you thought you would be. And that just proves that in spite of its size, the world can be a very small place indeed.