Twenty Weeks in Isolation; 144 Days, or, a Gross of Days. When Will the Rats Return and Liberate Us?

Call it isolation, quarantine, or lockdown. It all feels like a leash or a probation department ankle bracelet. We do this of our own choice, not by order of Dr. Fauci, George Soros, the Chinese embassy, County Judge Lina Hidalgo (wrong county but I would do anything she asked of me), or, heaven forbid, Gov. Greg Abbott.

The latter, Gov. Abbot, was a late comer to the mask mandating business. Per his order of a month ago, you are only required to mask if there are 20+ active cases in your county. Presumably if you had twenty positives living and three hundred formerly positive, now dead, your county would be exempt.

Hermiting (gerund form of the verb, to hermit) has allowed me to dig in and enjoy my inner obsessive compulsive drive. I do not consider it a disorder if I can channel it into healthy addictions.

I have directed my OCD into treadmilling since no one can walk outdoors in Lake Jackson’s heat and humidity in July and August. We regularly experience “feels like” temperatures of 110 F. plus in the daylight hours. Even in early evening when the sun is setting, it will often feel like over 95 degrees with the humidity over 60 per cent. But the treadmill lives inside in air conditioned space under a ceiling fan. I can walk as long as my bones will bear it.

So, I have made it my goal to abandon the sedentary life by walking a minimum of 7,000 steps a day. That is a modest amount of exercise but, done regularly, it keeps me from feeling like one of those vegetables left too long in the bottom drawer of the fridge. My goal, pushed along by my OCD, now has me up to 42 consecutive days. (I have permitted myself two “recovery days” that are included in the count. So, call it 40 if you are beyond OCD, maybe anal retentive.)

The side benefit of treadmilling is that I can read on my iPad Kindle app. Walking enables deeper concentration on my reading, which is to say that I can’t fall asleep while walking. Should I fall asleep I can pick myself up and go back to walking and reading. It hasn’t happened but I know I could do it if necessary.

Using this method, I have finally finished Albert Camus’ The Plague, and Pat Conroy’s The Great Santini. My brief reviews of those two: 1.) The end of a pestilence is greeted by the return of rats to the streets and gutters, not doves bearing olive branches, and 2.) Pat Conroy delivers more locker room talk than I have heard since junior high school and Army basic training. Ugh. Almost as repulsive as the joyous return of the rats to our daily lives.

My other compulsion has been Duolingo Spanish lessons. After five years of daily exercises, I have finally decided to reward them with my $7/month so I can enjoy the site free of advertising. Their advertising is not as annoying as Pandora‘s. The woman who serves as Pandora’s shrill shill and whom they drop like a cold dagger without warning in between Brahms and Bach makes you either want to quit going to the site forever or cough up the $5/month to make her go away. I blinked and gave them my credit card. Life without her has been a joy.

Duolingo, on the other hand, is much less intrusive and annoying with their advertising. I could have tolerated it forever and gone on with free Spanish lessons. I finally gave in because of my nagging conscience.

What they do at Duolingo has made me consider nominating the organization for a Nobel Peace prize. Their lessons seem expertly organized and thought out. There are people on their staff who know languages and language pedagogy. And, even better, they know some of the tricks of game-style motivators for online learners. My OCD feeds right into their trap.

By their count I now have 1,837 consecutive days of meeting my self-defined practice and instruction goals. That is just over five years of 30 minutes or more every day. And, ever so slowly, it works. After five years I can hold brief conversations with a few of the native Spanish speakers in my world. Well, so long as they answer without asking a question. I’m not quite that fast.

So, if you must have a mental health disorder during a pandemic, I suggest the obsessive-compulsive. It beats clinical depression for many reasons, not the least is the survivability rate. So, if you have a computer and want to learn a language, there is no better time than the present. Duolingo offers ninety-five courses in thirty-eight languages with over 300 million registered users.

If you came of age in the sixties like me, you may even want to take Esperanto. It may be the language humanity’s far spread remnants can use to make peace and start the process of rebuilding the world. You could be among the first to say, Ho gojo, la ratoj revenis.” Oh joy, the rats are back.

Lockdown Days 128-131: Venturing Out – Just a Little

Those “coronavirus walks” are a thing of the past. The heat-humidity index has regularly pushed up to 106 and even higher in the afternoons. Without the neighborhood walks, there can be no more chance meetings with old friends, no more handovers of delicious tomatoes from a neighbor’s backyard garden.

Notwithstanding the heat, I cannot resist a chance to shoot a few pictures when occasions present themselves. Friday morning, I looked out the window and saw that a neighbor had one of those celebration signs in the front yard. I went out to see what the occasion was and it turned out to be for their 50th anniversary. When I heard voices outside later, I gathered up the camera with the wide angle lens and sped out to see if I could get a picture of them.

It was a low exposure risk with a high payout in terms of a chance to help them celebrate their big day. We visited (from a proper distance) and I learned that their kids had arranged for the sign – a nice alternative to the kind of super-spreader parties that usually accompany the 50th.

I had received a call a few weeks ago to see if I could take a few photos for the drive-by kickoff for the virtual Vacation Bible School compassion camp. There will be some Zoom meetings and each child received a yard sign and an activity kit for the price of a donation to the local food pantry.

We were all checked in properly with a brief personal health and exposure quiz and temperature check and then we were given matching red masks and t-shirts with the “Be Loved, Be Kind, Be You” camp motto. Each team got a bottle of hand sanitizer and all the equipment for their stations.

God knows (really) that we need to teach children about compassion and generosity while those principalities and powers (aka DJT) glorify selfishness with daily tweets that are followed by millions.

And, in case anyone wanted to make fun of a kid for signing up for compassion camp, we had this bouncer assigned to deliver a Wesleyan quadrilateral to his mid-section. He wasn’t taking any guff off anybody.

So, there you have it friends. It was my nineteenth weekend in lockdown and it was a blast. What isn’t there to love about celebrating an anniversary with a neighbor and taking pictures for a Compassion Camp for kids?

Compassion Camp has to be an improvement over the vacation Bible school I attended when I was a kid. There were so many things they tried to teach me. But there was only one truly unforgettable experience and that was the “goat milk and unleavened bread” simulation they required us to force down one time before we could enjoy punch and cookies. It was to help us understand something we read from the Old Testament. It must have had something to do with goat milk and unleavened bread.

Buttermilk and graham crackers, I now know, are nothing like goat’s milk or unleavened bread. Although the crackers are clearly unleavened, they are nothing like bread of any kind. And crumbled up in buttermilk, they seemed designed to set off an eight-year-old’s gag reflex. And we sang “Tell Me the Stories of Jesus.” A man who could turn water into wine would never have done that to a child. That’s not what he meant by suffer.

There is just too much time for memories when you have been locked in for so long.

Remembering Ed Christman, 1947-2020

A great friend and photographer, Ed Christman, passed away June 30 after battling with Parkinson’s for many years. A few years ago, after his tremors became profound and disabling, he had a surgical procedure that helped some but it could not protect him from the continuing ravages of the disease and time.

Ed was my photography mentor. I met him sometime in the 1980s or 90s when he was Dow’s head photographer. I worked at United Way and we needed a volunteer to help us with our color brochures and other campaign graphics.

I was surprised to learn that Ed didn’t mind talking to a family snapshot photographer about some of the finer points of getting good photos. He didn’t pretend that better equipment makes you better photographer. Mind you, as a corporate photographer, Ed had the good stuff but it was apparent to anyone who watched him work that his genius was in positioning, distance, relationship with human subjects, ability to read the light and a lot of other things that the camera can’t do for you, at least not with the same degree of perfection as a human who understands his machine and knows how to make it do what he wants it to do.

This is a photo of Ed I took eight years ago when we worked together on some publicity shots for “Dividing the Estate,” a Horton Foote show being produced by Brazosport Center Stages. I felt happy to tag along with Ed, mostly to see how he went about his work. You will notice in the photograph that he has adorned his flash with that photographer’s cheapest and most cost-effective gadget, an index card flash reflector. But he did have the nice Nikon gear. I followed him around with my little point-and-shoot (a pretty nice one actually – the Canon Powershot G11) and got a few fair shots. Ed’s, of course, were spectacular.

The things he did with light outdoors gave me an education in the possibilities for softening natural light on sunny days. His interaction with people who were posing for him struck me as being icing on the Nikon cake. Equipment alone could not explain the cooperation he got from the play’s actors. He didn’t ask people to say cheese, he made them feel happy to be on the other side of the lens from such a genuinely nice and happy man.

There wasn’t a lot of energy in him for show photography after that. He came out to The Center in November that same year to take some publicity shots for the Elizabethan Madrigal Feast. He allowed me to post a few of them on my Flickr site so others could view them. He was a little too early for Instagram and all the online toys that photographers like to use now. But he was happy for me to put some online for the cast to see. They are all carefully attributed to Ed. I do that even though it would be apparent to anyone that the difference between his shots and mine would quickly show me up as a photo-plagiarist.  Here are a couple of Ed’s shots from that November EMF shoot.

I was stunned by the beauty of his work. Here is the steward bearing the wassail. And, then, there is this Dutch master. I found this one to be simply breathtaking.

When our son got married in 1999, we asked Ed to do the wedding. That, if you remember, was back when photographers used film. What Ed did with that film was remarkable.

Nor was there anything fake or plastic about Ed’s presentations. No scrapbooks, silver frames, special sets for Grandma and Grandpa. All you got from Ed were packets of prints and negatives. No watermarks. No special permission for reprints. No proofs to pick from.

I will never forget when he came to our house after the wedding with about twenty packages of color prints and negatives. He left them with us. That was his total presentation. I asked if he wanted us to go through them and pick some for final printing.

“No, they are all yours. You may print as many as you wish.” He recommended a local photo printer who could give us any size, matte or glossy, and who had scrapbooks, mailers, frames, etc.

He left and we started to go through the envelope – twenty envelopes, each with 36 exposures. They were almost all beautiful photographs. I don’t think there were half a dozen throwaways in the whole batch. The man wasted no film. It was one of the most amazing things I had ever seen.

He had no need for PhotoShop. In fact, his wife has told me he detested it mightily. His philosophy was that you should do it right when you open and close the shutter. And sure enough, all but a few were perfection. He made a precise exposure and an elegant, perfect composition with each frame. I am still in awe of his art and his skill in coaxing the best work out of the camera.

We had one more wedding to go after that. Needless to say, we asked Ed to do it again. By then he had moved to digital. I have also stored a few of those on my Flickr site. Again, his art is at another level. Those wedding photographs he took of our children have given us anchors in time on two of our happiest days. Ed was able to see those life events with the same intensity of feeling that the parents felt on those days and he captured them for us to enjoy for all these years. All these years later, they live on.

Ed was a photographer trapped in a literary family of writers, teachers, and actors. I don’t know which of them was the primary author of his obituary, but whether by the Christman team or one individual author, they have said it best:

While raising his family, Ed became one of the most popular photographers of Brazoria County. Early evenings—when the light was perfect—weekends, and holidays were filled with portraits, weddings, celebrations. Attired in a utility vest and a broad-brimmed hat, he captured moments of joy, solemnity, achievement, honor, camaraderie, daring, and love. Ed taught people to see, to focus on the light in the eyes, to find a person’s best angle, and—as light does—to illumine the beauty sometimes concealed by shadow. In his art, whether a portrait, a candid shot, a cityscape, an industrial, a shell in the sand, or an old oak draped in Spanish moss at dusk, Ed found the uncanny perfection hidden in plain sight. He showed us ourselves and our world as only he could see them.

We miss Ed’s presence in our community.  But he has captured time for us in photography’s special way. We see the images and we feel those moments again. Thank you for those treasures, brother Ed.

Graduating before the Pandemic – and After

Such a joyous occasion. Families and friends crowded onto football fields and into auditorium lobbies. The hard work has paid off with a treasured piece of paper (or parchment as you move beyond high school), the smiles, tears, and congratulations of adoring parents, extended family and friends.

That’s the way it was. And, who knows, maybe it will be that way again.

Now our graduates are treated to celebrations like this.

We line them up in the church parking lot and friends drive by and hand them cards and gifts of congratulations. They honk their horns. They smile, they cheer. They do everything but touch.

And if you made it out of A&M, you may even get a treat like this one.

Getting Some Friends Together to Dress Up and Pretend You’re Having Dinner with the Queen

Well, maybe that isn’t such a good idea during a pandemic. But it is a lot of fun during healthier years. In fact, it’s more than fun. It touches a whole community so deeply with the beauty of the music, dance, costumes, and Shakespeare performance that it raises us to a new level of that experience we call the Christmas Spirit.

They set a memorable table, too.

Who ever thought that they were designing a super-spreader event when the first EMF was planned in 1988? Public health professionals might have known the term but it wasn’t in our vocabulary in Brazosport, Texas. In 2020. however, we know enough about coronavirus to know that those little devils would love the intimacy, the powerful vocal projections, and the intense rehearsals required to make the experience everything that it is. And food service, too? It couldn’t happen in July, 2020.

November? We await the Executive Committee’s timely decision.

Also Lost in the Pandemic – Group Hugs

If you have ever been in a group that needed to give someone a group hug, you know that there is nothing else that will do. And if you have ever been that person who needed a group hug, you also know there can be no substitute.

Here you see a group of Methodist teenagers in December, 2017, after they received news that their youth director was moving from Chapelwood 1 to Chapelwood 2 up the road in Houston. The hug was their spontaneous, genuine, and deeply felt gift. The photographer barely had time to point the camera.

This is not something that can ever happen in a Zoom meeting.

And that, my friends, is all our loss.