There is a much over-used expression that states, “Life is what happens while we’re busy making other plans.” Well, here I am using it again because it fits like a glove to describe what the last few months have been like for all of us. Back in the halcyon days of December 2019 and January 2020, I had plans. Big plans. Scary, but exciting plans…
After 27 years of working as a professor, the only full-time position I have ever had, I had decided to take an early retirement, pack up and leave California after 38 years here, and head for destinations and adventures unknown. Once school was over in May, I intended to pack up my apartment and place the things I intended to keep in storage. During June and July, I would take a very long, zig-zagging drive across the U.S. visiting beloved places I might not reach so easily in the future and seeing dear friends and family members along the way. Unencumbered by the cost of my rent and utilities, I would be able to fund my travels easily, and looked forward to living for a few months like a gypsy or a hobo (in a very comfortable and reliable SUV, rather than hopping aboard a boxcar).
By early August I was going to embark on a trip to Maui to spend 10 days on my favorite beach at a condo I’ve rented countless times over the past 20 years. Then I wanted to head to Europe to spend some time on a quiet Greek island, hop over to Italy to see friends, and spend a relaxing time figuring out what I want to do with the rest of my life. I thought about living in New England for the fall and through the holidays, getting certified to teach English through an online course, and then perhaps moving to Italy sometime in 2021 in search of part time work as an English tutor or teacher. I considered the idea of opening my own small tour company, offering specialized tours such as “Hidden Venice”, “Culinary Rome”, or “Pompeii, Herculaneum and Vesuvius” to small groups of people. I also thought about trying to get some work lecturing on board a Mediterranean cruise ship, which would not pay much, but would fund some traveling for me and allow me to still teach people about the things that fascinate me about travel, language, social customs, history and natural disasters. And I wondered if perhaps I could sell customized calendars or canvas prints of some of my photos. Of course I worried a bit about how to get some of these things off the ground and whether I would make enough to keep myself going till I qualify for Social Security and Medicare, but that was all part of the adventure and with so many irons in the fire, I hoped that something would work out.
And then, as anyone who has been on the planet in the last three months is aware, coronavirus reared its ugly head and sent the entire world into a tailspin that we’re still trying to come out of. My university switched to all online classes for the last half of the semester and I clumsily learned how to teach classes and grade papers entirely online. Festivities related to my retirement that I had been looking forward to were canceled one by one: a reception hosted by the University president, a bash at the home of a dear colleague and friend, a party with the school of Liberal Arts at which I would be acknowledged. It began to sink in that beloved students with whom I’ve worked for years would be graduating and leaving and I would never get to see them in person again. And for the past 10 weeks my world has revolved around grocery store runs, cleaning out my office in an empty building, and thankfully, escaping for long walks at my favorite beach 10 miles south of San Francisco.
Before I say another word, I want to assure everyone reading this that I know I have been extremely fortunate. I have not been sick, and I don’t know one person close to me who has contracted the virus. I am not a business owner who has watched his or her life’s work slipping away. I have a comfortable apartment from which I can look out at the city and bask in lots of sunshine and natural light, and I have been able to visit a beautiful stretch of the California coast a couple times a week without being cited by police for violating the shelter in place order. My fridge is full of good food, and I have been able to get a lot of much needed rest over the last 10 weeks.
But I have also struggled with the fact that I have had to handle this lockdown totally on my own. I’m normally an independent guy who loves and needs his private time, but this past 10 weeks has really pushed me to the limits. I’ll admit that while I’ve had some days that have been spent binge-watching TV shows I wanted to catch up on, working happily doing jigsaw puzzles, making delicious meals and taking naps, there have been other days when the heaviness of the world is upon me and I am quick to tears over even the smallest things.
I need to see my doctor, my dentist, and my eye doctor to get a few things taken care of before I lose my university insurance plan and enter the world of trying to pay for my own medical care. At this point I would offer a nice sum of cash to any barber who wants to go rogue and give me a forbidden haircut in a dark garage, a basement, or a back alley. When I get out of the shower, I can comb the hair into a semi-presentable though rather shaggy look, but I take one step out into the windy parking lot at my apartment, or take an hour walk on the beach and I turn into something that resembles a bizarre red-tufted cockatiel. But beyond these more trivial concerns, there’s been a pervasive feeling of hopelessness, of not knowing when or if this will ever stop and whether life will ever return to normal. I’ve fought the loneliness of having no one to talk to in person, no one to hug, no one to share a meal with. And of course there is the abject terror I feel when I realize that I’m leaving the place I’ve lived for 29 years and going out into a chaotic world where everything is in transition, in which I have no idea where I will live, and no potential job prospects on the horizon.
Dreaming of my next trip and thinking about some of my favorite places to escape to has not provided the happy diversion it usually does. I think longingly about places like Venice, Paris, Rome, Barcelona, a Greek island, or New York City and realize that they are all locked down ghost towns; even if I could be there, I’d be unable to wander, explore, dine out, and visit people I know. I have had beautiful and vivid dreams of Hawaii at least once a week and waking up is disappointing because I realize I’m facing just another day of the same old routine – or lack thereof. There’s a line from Bruce Springsteen’s song, The River that has always caught my attention: “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” That lyric has haunted me a lot in the past few months.
So, as I try to shape and mold my plans to adjust to this new world I feel like we are all caught in a worldwide version of the children’s game, Simon Says. Here in California I call it “Gavin Says” in honor of our rather indecisive governor. Gavin says all kinds of things and they often change or contradict one another on a daily basis. Beaches are closed, and then they are opened; then only some are closed while others are open, but parking lots and bathrooms are closed. In L.A. County you can evidently walk in the wet sand at the water’s edge, but you can’t sit in the dry sand. You can swim if you maintain social distance, but lone paddleboarders or kayakers are inexplicably served with citations by the police. Gavin says we only have to wear masks or face coverings in stores, but tell that to the jittery people I encounter when I walk around my neighborhood; they see me coming without a mask and run across the street and glare at me till I pass, or in one case, a man literally leapt into the bushes alongside the sidewalk and fell down when he noticed me approaching him. Forgive me, but all I could do was laugh. And then there are those driving alone in their cars with masks on, and I want to flag them down and inform them that “Gavin never told us to do THAT!”
In late April came one of my favorite rounds of “Gavin Says” when the governor issued a detailed list of activities that Californians could still engage in during the shelter in place and the list was published in various newspapers. It was meant to be encouraging, but most of us found it absurd and even the usually supportive media raked him over the coals on it. Here in bold-faced type is a sample of some of the things on that list, exactly as they appeared in the paper and followed my own smart-ass comments and questions in parentheses:
Throwing a baseball/softball (To whom?); BMX biking (But what if you only have a regular bike?); Crabbing (Poor crabs! But can we walk across dry sand to get to the crabs?); Exploring rock pools (Evidently NOT allowed in Orange County where the governor closed beaches); Cycling (Ah, I guess this is for the non-BMX bikers); Gardening – not in groups (But I always liked to garden in teams!); Meditation (Only in California!); Outdoor photography (But no indoor photos allowed?); Roller skating and roller blading (Hey, this IS California and you’d risk civil unrest if you tried to ban them!); Scootering – not in groups (Discouraging roving gangs of scooterers!); Soft martial arts: tai chi, chi kung – not in groups (But why can’t we do “hard” martial arts? And who in the heck even knows what chi kung is?); Throwing and catching an American mini-football or frisbee – not in groups (Why only mini footballs? Why do they have to be American? Isn’t that xenophobic?); Trampolining (Oh thank God! Let me dust mine off and set it up!); Tree climbing (WTF? Let me just shimmy up that redwood tree over yonder!); Wash the car (But, Gavin… we are in a DROUGHT!!); Watch the sunrise or sunset (Thank you so much for “allowing” us to watch sunrise and sunset! Freedom rocks!); Yoga (But, you forgot to say no GROUP yoga!)
I have tried to reassure myself that this madness will fade within the next few weeks and I need to make some plans, as hard as it is to do. I’ve decided to stay in San Francisco until early July, and then take an abbreviated cross-country trip to visit anyone still willing to see me in this paranoid, mask-wearing new world. I have not yet canceled my plans to go to Maui in August, but the current situation in the islands is horrifying. If I flew into Hawaii today, I would be tested for fever and if I passed the screening, I would be asked where I’m staying. Authorities then call that property and inform them that Mr. Davis should arrive in 45 minutes. I would not be allowed to make any stops or deviations on my way to the property. Tourists are not allowed to stop for groceries to stock their condo, to stop and from some take-out food, to stop for pictures or a swim. (Sounds like a Hawaiian version of “Gavin Says”, but not nearly as amusing!) They are to go straight to their lodgings and once there, are required to sign a statement agreeing to stay in quarantine for 14 days. No grocery runs, no take-out food, only food delivery to your room. No pool, no ocean, no sightseeing. I have read stories about tourists breaking these rules being fined from $1000 to $5000 and/or being sent packing back to the mainland. Obviously 14 days of that, especially given that I was planning to stay for only 10 days, is not the trip I had in mind, so I will have to wait patiently till July to see if things have loosened up enough and if not, I will have to try and get the condo payment and airfare back.
If Hawaii goes as planned, I will then see how things look in Europe. I know that Greece is among the first places that is trying to re-open to tourism and I’m thinking that if I can find a cheap room on or near a gorgeous stretch of remote beach on one of the Greek islands in September it would be a stress-free respite from what the last few months have been like. Hopefully I can spend some time in Italy too, and I have gotten some promising news that some of my favorite restaurants are starting to re-open and my friends are getting to venture out for recreation and to see family for the first time in three months.
And then, if all goes well and there is no further chaos to disrupt these tentative plans I will hunker down in New England where I can spend much needed time with friends, watch the foliage turn, find a more permanent place to live and spend the holidays among those I love. Of course, all of this is just a shaky framework of an idea, and as the headlines change and life rolls on, there’s no telling where any of us may be and what we will have experienced by the end of the year.
It’s been hard for me to write something for several weeks now, but I hope getting some of this off my chest will open the flood gates and let me get back to publishing things on a more regular basis. Meanwhile my thoughts go out to all of you who take the time to read this and I wonder what you’ve experienced and how you’re coping with things. I’d love to hear from you. In the meantime, take care, stay well and keep the plans and dreams you have alive… flexible, but alive.