Friday, June 5, 2020

AWAY FROM IT ALL––REALLY?



Talk about being in a bubble, beyond the reach of what’s happening elsewhere. 

But am I?   Are you?   Is anyone?





In the small northern Vermont town of Lowell a guy who had been in a meditation retreat in an isolated cabin since mid-March, no phone, no media, no human contact, emerged to a changed world.  It blew his mind. (“Did I Miss Anything? A Man Emerges From a 75 Day Silent Retreat,” NYTIMES, June 3,2020)  

It blows my mind, too.  And I haven’t been hiding.


In the 1930’s when the notion of building a north-south highway that would mirror the then-new Skyline Drive in Virginia was proposed to the Vermont legislature the plan, after much debate, was defeated, but not so much because of environmental reasons (although there were plenty of those) but because it would encourage “outsiders” to come to the state.  Outsiders in those days meant people from New York City, people who were thought to be, well, different.  The Vermont Digger, an on-line Vermont news source, in a March 2015 story mentions that more than “a hint of anti-Semitism” wafted through the opposition.  A 1995 write up by The Vermont Historical Society fails to make any such reference.  

Outsiders have been seen as “different” for a very long time.  But we already knew that.

In the 1960’s I was in an automobile accident at a ski area, probably Mt. Snow, during a snowstorm with my first husband and a college friend who was in the back seat.  As we left the slopes the snow became heavy and our car skidded across the road.  Then were hit by another car from behind.  (It wasn’t serious, but I remember being in the hospital overnight.) We were driving a VW Beetle.  The car that hit us was a Mercedes.  The next day the Brattleboro Reformer wiped its hands of all of us in a news story, saying essentially:  a “foreign vehicle was hit by another foreign vehicle, and both drivers were from out of state.”  Move on folks, nothing to see here. 

All three of us were white.  Some difference.

One percent of Vermont’s population is black.  We are basically a white state.  Our prison population, however, does not reflect our actual population. Eleven per cent of our prison population is black.  How did that happen?  You can only imagine what it must be like, if you’re not white, driving around on our rural roads through small communities that haven’t changed much over time, with a skin color that is obviously different from most everyone else’s.  Black among a landscape of white.  You must have come from elsewhere, and the odds are it is an elsewhere that may not be as good as this place.  Some lesser urban place, probably.  So, what, then, are  you here to do?   What is your purpose?  A few years ago a parent reported to the local police a suspicious person standing and watching a school soccer game, or maybe it was a baseball game, here in my little town.  That suspicious person turned out to be a person from India, hired to work at the local technical company.  He was different, you know, “different,” not black, but darker than us.


We can’t say that we no longer skirt racial issues.  Saying you don’t see race don’t mean much, as it only tries to make race invisible, as if no one knows, as if race is not even noticed when it very much should be taken into account.  A phrase in a recent column in the Addison Independent, our local liberal-minded county newspaper, jarred me. The column, usually philosophical ruminations about our history, is written by a former local professor and one-time town board member, and a liberal. A recent, and laudable, column was about historical racism in the era of eugenics.  This time the subject was the many achievements of Woodrow Wilson, a president who had a notable impact on this country’s history, much of it positive.  Wilson, about whom we have a heightened critical awareness these days, was also a southerner in both heritage and values, in word and in deed.  White supremacy values, believing, for example, that segregation was good for blacks and should be total. (Details can be found in The Atlantic, November 27, 2015 issue.)  While putting forward Wilson’s “high moral principles” and “great moral courage,” was it enough to preface this comment with “Notwithstanding his racial prejudice...” ?  Doesn’t this avoid having to say that he had, most unfortunately, a fatal flaw?  One that prevents his moral principles and moral courage from being “great”?  Can one “not withstand,” his racial prejudices?  Should we not condemn as strongly as we praise?  Do his accomplishments completely override his sin?


As protests continue now in this country, must we continue to hear “on the one hand” and “on the other hand” with regard to police behavior?  Is it necessary to flatter in order to condemn?  We know that many police departments have acted righteously, and where they have been peaceful toward protesters the protesters in turn have been peaceful. This is proof of the possible.  It requires a degree of humility.   People (read: police) resent being told they are not behaving appropriately, that they are part of a group that has been shown to be in the wrong. And honestly, their view of society may well be shaped by the crap they often have to deal with. Given all this, it doesn’t take much to upset the balance when people are angry: a shove, an angry curse, an aggressive gesture.  Worse yet, when police are togged out in riot gear with batons, pepper spray, “foam projectiles” and other quasi-military equipment, they are sending the message they are ready for battle.  It’s almost like incitement; when  you’re in battle dress the likelihood that there really will be a battle rises significantly.  How ironic, then, that in protesting brutality you may meet brutality.  




It’s not clear how this is going to end.  If it’s going to end.  Sure, the protests may stop, but the feelings that sparked those protests will not disappear. The sad thing about all this is that it’s hard to know what the outcome will be, since we are lacking the leadership it takes to respond in a major, positive way. Change may have to happen in many different places, bit by bit.  The other “outsiders,” immigrants, are not named as part of this particular movement. They too, are victims of brutality, and not just from police. 

Where do we end up? Does anyone imagine the Trump administration would unequivocally work toward racial equality, unity, and peace?  


I wish.

Friday, April 24, 2020

NO UPCOMING EVENTS





YOU HAVE NO UPCOMING EVENTS, REMINDERS, OR ALARMS...

Have you been noticing that responses to your emails arrive more quickly than they used to?  Even the one from that person who never used to write back until you forgot you'd ever sent the email, and then you didn't remember why you wrote it in the first place?  And the text you wrote that just sat there? And now your text exchanges move so quickly you don’t even bother to check the spelling? And how texting has become almost like real, you know, conversation? And then there's FaceBook. Which you never used to bother with and now you check it five times a day?  And you're looking at animal videos? Lots of them. And watching them all the way through? And looking for more?

Yes, this is where we are, some of us, many of us, with nothing better to do than indulging in introspection or cleaning closets.

Or whatever.

Stare up at a tree. Reflect on how short you are.


I am going to be upbeat, and I will not discuss our Prez whose worst impulses are on display.  Daily! I am not going to rage about his incompetent leadership, his anti-science, his lying, his self-serving egotism, his inconsistency, his unwillingness to take responsibility (except when he takes an illegal amount of it), and his merciless disregard of what it means to lead a nation.  I am going to ignore the virus toll, edging up now toward one million, the death toll over 50,000.

We are team USA. We lead the world.



A social distancing bash, Vermont style.



I'll put a photo here of something nice.


Near where I collected ramps*.  Behind the house.  No ramps in this picture.



I’ll tell a nature story.  There is a pair of ducks (drake and hen, respectively) that have been hanging out at the pond, mallards.  I've been keeping an eye on them ever since they took up residence here some time in March.  One day about two weeks ago I saw my dog Skyler chase away a female duck that had wandered close to the house. Odd behavior, I thought. Or brave bird.  It wasn't long before I found out what was going on.  Underneath a spruce, not far from the front door, there was a cozy nest, snuggled into the mulch, and it held ten jumbo-size eggs. Having a duck right near the front door, not to mention potential ducklings parading around, all in Skyler's territory did not seem like a good idea.  The nest needed to be moved.  So son-in-law Chris put on his gloves and moved the eggs, making an almost-as-nice nest near the pond and outside of Skyler's range.


The pond. Without ducks.


Wait, there’s more. About the ducks.  Since the nest move the ducks' lives have become increasingly mysterious to me.  I have many questions. The two seemed to spend half of the day at the pond, another part elsewhere. But where? I don't know.  Maybe they were just out of my sight somewhere nearby.  Did they know about the new nest? One day last week there were two ducks in the pond, drakes, both of them, one chasing the other, persistent.  A rival!  An hour or so later there was only a male, alone.  But which one?  Another day as Chris and Lesley stood by the front door, the male duck flew off.  Only minutes later they walked back down the hill to find the duck (same duck?) sitting on their front porch.  Not a likely spot for a duck, front porches. What was it doing there? And are there new eggs somewhere? The hen with either her new guy or her old guy, may have made another nest. That's my guess, because they're still hanging around.  Since it takes nearly a month (~28 days) before ducklings hatch it may be too early to know one way or another.  Then for two days I saw only the drake on the pond. Is the hen sitting on eggs?  Or have they parted company? There are mysteries.


The original nest.  No eggs.



Should we be surprised that the natural world carries on?  (The virus of course is also a part of the natural world, lest we forget.)  Note: Pollution is down, the use of fossil fuels hitting bottom, animals are roaming where humans usually fill the spaces. This is good.  For once, it’s the humans who are confined.


Animal. Semi-confined.  The one that chased the duck.


Uh, oh, Trump just spoke!  I need to interrupt for viral news. He said,
"Suppose that we hit the body with tremendous, whether it's ultraviolet or just very  powerful light, and I think you said that it hasn't been checked and you're going to test it.  Suppose you can bring the light inside the body.
"Then I see the disinfectant where it knocks it out in one minute.  Is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside or almost a cleaning? ... It would be interesting to check that."
(April 23, Trump, free associating after hearing that Covid-19 virus can be killed on surfaces with ultra-violet light and disinfectant.  Suggesting maybe we should drink bleach and burn ourselves with ultra-violet, get cancer?  Which, by the way–I'm talking cancer–Trump lawyer Giuliani suggested could be contagious: [If we're going to trace the virus,] "We should trace everybody for cancer, heart disease, obesity." )

Sorry, couldn't help that!


The natural world carries on. Thank goodness for that at least.




*Ramps, a delicate mix of scallion and garlic:


Sunday, April 5, 2020

PLAGUE SPRING


World upside down. .


 A PLAGUE ON US


Plagues have been around as long as there has been a historical record.  There was plague in ancient Rome, and probably earlier still.  Stories of the bubonic plague that swept through Europe in the mid-1300’s are chilling, but they seem like stories of a time past.  We forget. There have been many waves of plagues since, and even the bubonic plague wasn't completely gone after the 1300's but returned in smaller waves thereafter. In the 16th century there was a mysterious “sweating sickness” (its vectors unknown to this day), and cholera, malaria, smallpox, MERS, SARS, ebola and, of course, the flu. The epidemic of 1918 known as the Spanish flu is the one we're most often reminded of. It didn't even orginate in Spain. It happened that during the First World War Spain was the only nation that printed news about the epidemic, other countries being under a news blackout.

Still, who would have imagined there would be an epidemic like this, much less a pandemic, in 2020?

Some people did. Actually quite a few people did.  


Seven years ago, 2013:
The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that 75% of all emerging pathogens over the past decade are zoonotic diseases (infectious diseases caused by bacteria, viruses or parasites that spread from animals to humans; think ebola, think Covid-19) most of which are understudied.  

Two years ago, 2018:
Bill Gates warns that “If history has taught us anything, it’s that there will be another deadly global pandemic.” 
Trump attempts to cut $65 million from the CDC budget, a 10% reduction, and disbands its global health security team.  

One year ago, 2019:
The Trump administration’s Department of Health and Human Services runs a simulation called “Crimson Contagion” with a scenario that imagines a flu pandemic, an exercise that runs from January 2019 to August 2019.  Its sobering results are to be found in a draft October 2019 report that drives home how underfunded, underprepared and uncoordinated the federal government would be for a life-or-death battle with a virus for which no treatment exists.

The Trump administration proposes to cut federal spending on emerging infectious and zoonotic diseases by 20%.  Although Congress reinstates much of this funding with bipartisan support, the overall level of appropriations for relevant CDC programs is still 10% below what the US spent in 2016, adjusting for inflation. (Reference: globalhealthnewswire.com)



TIMELINE: 2020


It began here where I live on March 11.  When life began to be lived differently, that is. 

December 30, 2019
Dr. Li Wenliang sends a message to his former medical school classmates warning that a handful of patients in Wuhan had symptoms similar to severe acute respiratory syndrome and urges them to be cautious. Dr. Li is vilified for these comments by the Chinese government. I read about this much later on.

December 31, 2019
While New Year’s Eve is passing quietly, unbeknownst to me a report is passed on to the World Health Organization (WHO) from Wuhan, China.  It officially informs WHO about a cluster of 41 patients in Wuhan who have developed a mysterious form of pneumonia.  Most of those people are connected to the Huyanan Seafood Wholesale Market there.  

January 1, 2020
The Huyanan market closes.

January 7
Today Chinese authorities identify a new type of coronavirus and note its symptoms. 
It is an ordinary day here in Vermont, but even though it is deep winter there is not much snow on the ground. An ordinary day. 

January 11
The day after my birthday the first death from the new virus occurs in China. I read about this in the New York Times. I have dinner with family. 

January 12
The first case of this new virus is found outside of China, in Thailand. I read this in the news, too.

January 16, 17, 18, 19
I spend several days in New York City with daughters Lesley and Leah.  Lesley and I travel by train from Albany, leaving here in a snowstorm, and meet Leah who arrives by bus from Newburyport.  We do many of the things you do when you’re in the city:  We spend an entire day at the MOMA, see “Jagged Little Pill” on Broadway, go to a Comedy Club, wander SOHO, eat out.  It is the usual, fun kind of New York weekend.  New York is normal, great.

January 20
The first US case of this new virus appears in the state of Washington, a man who had been in China.  I read about it, but don’t give it much thought although it sounds a bit ominous.  It is nice to be back home. 

January 2
Trump, in Davos, when asked about the new virus says, “We do have a plan and we think it’s gonna be handled very well, we’ve already handled it very well.”  And “It’s one person coming in from China.  We have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”

January 23
My book group meets for what would be the last time for a while. Our next meeting is supposed to be in February, but it is postponed because one member of the group will be in Barcelona around that time.  

January 24 
There is a regular board meeting of Mountain Health Center.  The virus epidemic is not on the agenda.  There is no reason it should have been at this time because the virus has not arrived. 
Trump says, “China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!” (Tweet)


January 30, 31 
WHO declares a public health emergency, and the next day, Trump bans foreign nationals if they were in China in the previous two weeks.  He says, “We’re working very closely with China and other countries, and we think it’s going to have a very good ending for us...that I can assure you.”


February 1
This epidemic still seems to everyone I know as a far-away event. It has no effect on anyone’s immediate plans.  This is the day grandson Hans graduates from Middlebury College.  Festivities fill the weekend. Hans will stay in Newburyport for about a week and then join his girlfriend in Madison, Wisconsin. He can work remotely, so his physical location doesn’t matter.  This will turn out to be fortuitous.

February 7
Chinese doctor Li the whistleblower who first spread the news in China that this was a dangerous virus, dies. The Chinese authorities put the blame for dismissing his concerns on local authorities.
Trump says, “Nothing is easy, but...we will be successful, especially as the weather starts to warm & the virus hopefully becomes weaker, and then gone. Great discipline is taking place in China, as President Xi strongly leads what will be a very successful operation.” (Tweet)


February 8
A US citizen in Wuhan dies, the first death of an American citizen. I am unaware that the speed of the epidemic has picked up.  This evening, a frigid night, the Friends of the New Haven Library’s major fundraising event takes place at the Lincoln Peak Vineyard.  The virus is not a topic of conversation.

February 10
Trump says, “...by April or during the month of April, the heat, generally speaking, kills this kind of virus.” (Meeting with state governors)

February 11 
WHO announces the name of the virus as Covid-19.

February 12
Cases of Covid-19 spike in South Korea.  

February 14
The snow is deep and soft right now and the weather beautiful on this winter day.  Friends have invited me to a sleigh ride and dinner later that evening at the Inn at Blueberry Hill.  The epidemic is not mentioned, neither is it in our thoughts.

February 19
The Iran outbreak begins. Virus coverage in the news is growing.

February 21 
Italy’s outbreak begins.  On this day I have company visiting from Bedford, Massachusetts, for the weekend.  The weather is beautiful again and we take a hike on the peninsula at Kingsland Bay. They leave on the 22nd. (I don't know this yet, but our next face-to-face will be via Zoom.)

February 23
US has 51 confirmed cases. Trump says, “We’re very much involved.  We’re very–very cognizant of everything going on.  We have it very much under control in this country.”

February 24
I go to my regular monthly Mountain Health Center Board meeting. The virus is not on the agenda.
Trump says, “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. We are in contact with everyone and all relevant countries. CDC & World Health have been working hard and very smart. Stock Market starting to look very good to me!” (Tweet)

February 26
Trump says, “I was really amazed, and I think most people are amazed to hear it: the flu, in our country, kills from 25,000 people to 69,000 people a year. That was shocking to me. And, so far, if  you look at what we have with the 15 people and their recovery, one is–one is pretty sick but hopefully will recover–but the others are in great shape. But think of that: 25,000 to 69,000...”  
“And again, when you have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done” (White House briefing)

February 27
Trump says,  “It's going to disappear. One day it's like a miracle, it will disappear.”

February 28
My family, my nearby neighbors, return from a week in Key West. They say they feel fortunate to have slipped in this vacation before the virus made its appearance.  Nevertheless, it was clear to them that it might be coming.

February 29
The Dana auditorium at Middlebury College is full as it usually is for these first-run–free!–films. I think I may go and see the one that’s on next week. 
The first death in the US from Covid-19 is reported. This doesn’t sound good, but it’s still far away, in Washington state.
Trump says, “And we've done a great job. And I've gotten to know these professionals. They're incredible. And everything is under control. I mean, they're very, very cool. They've done it, and they've done it well. Everything is really under control.” (Conservative conference in Maryland.)

March 3
Cases in Spain increase dramatically.

March 4
I go to the New Haven Library for our monthly meeting. We joke about never wanting to go on cruises. (Cruise ships have been hotbeds of Covid-19 spreading.) As long as we don't do that we're safe, right?
Trump says, “Large portions of the world are very safe to fly. So we don't want to say anything other than that.” (Meeting with airline executives)

March 6
At my house other members of the Mountain Health Executive Committee meet. The topic of discussion is not the virus, although it is in our thoughts. The chairperson has a bad cold, but we know it’s not the virus because Covid-19 hasn’t arrived in our area–yet. But there are few tests available, so of course no one knows for sure.
Trump says,  “Anybody that wants a test can get a test. ... The tests are all perfect.” (at CDC Headquarters)

March 7
My book group meeting is indefinitely cancelled. The member who went to Barcelona and her husband returned with colds. I wonder: Could it be Covid-19?  (They don’t get checked for Covid-19 until the end of this month by which time their colds are gone; they wait almost a week for results that come back negative.)
A friend and I go to a concert at the music barn in Brandon. We take a wrong turn so we are late and the only remaining seats are two extra chairs way in the back. The guitarist is from Italy, and I’m thinking about the virus raging there. He said he now lives in New Jersey, but I’m wondering how long he’s been away from Italy. We are the first to leave because my car is blocking other cars, so there is no chatting with the guitarist or anyone else on the way out. (In retrospect this seemed wise).

March 9:
Trump says, “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!" (Tweet)

March 11
WHO declares the virus a pandemic.
Italy is on lockdown. Trump says, “To keep new cases from entering our shores, we will be suspending all travel from Europe to the United States for the next 30 days.”

March 13
A national emergency is declared in the US. There have been 40 deaths and there are 2,700 confirmed cases.
Trump says, “We have 40 people right now. Forty. Compare that with other countries that have many, many times that amount. And one of the reasons we have 40 and others have — and, again, that number is going up, just so you understand. And a number of cases, which are very small, relatively speaking — it's going up. But we've done a great job because we acted quickly. We acted early. And there's nothing we could have done that was better than closing our borders to highly infected areas.”

March 15
Social distancing begins.

March 17
A Federal plan is leaked that warns the pandemic could last months.

March  18
There is an earthquake in Utah. It knocks Gabriel’s horn from atop the Morman temple in Salt Lake City.  No one outside of Utah seems to be aware this has happened. 
Trump says Covid-19 is “the Chinese virus.”

March 19
China reports that the local spread numbers of Covid-19 cases are down.
Trump call Covid-19 "the Chinese virus" again.

March 20
Japan postpones the summer Olympics until 2021.
Trump says, "The world is paying a big price for what they (China) did."

March 22
An earthquake happens in Zagreb, Croatia. I was there on March 31, 2019.  This is yet another almost unremarked-upon event.  

March 23
Our Mountain Health Board meeting is held via Zoom. The agenda is almost solely Covid-19 and  MHC preparedness.  All medical encounters are now held remotely. Virus testing, however, is limited.  They apparently have sufficient Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
New York City confirms 21,000 cases.

March 24
A Vermont stay-at-home order for the state (There are 95 cases in Vermont.)
My activities fade to near zero. Every day is like Groundhog Day except for changes in the weather. 
Trump says, re social distancing guidelines in parts of the country.” “I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter.”  And: “I think Easter Sunday – you'll have packed churches all over our country.” (Fox News town hall)

March 26
US number of confirmed cases reaches 82,404, surpassing China and Italy.

March 29
Trump says, “The better you do, the faster this whole nightmare will end. Therefore, we will be extending our guidelines to April 30th to slow the spread. ... We can expect that, by June 1st, we will be well on our way to recovery. We think, by June 1st, a lot of great things will be happening.”

March 31
More than one-third of humanity is under some degree of lockdown.
80% of US is under lockdown in 35 states. There is no national lockdown order, however.
Trump says, “But it's not the flu. It's vicious. When you send a friend to the hospital and you call up to find out, how is he doing, it happened to me. Where he goes to the hospital, he says goodbye, sort of a tough guy, little older, little heavier than he'd like to be, frankly. And you call up the next day, 'how's he doing?' And he's in a coma? This is not the flu.” (White House briefing)

April 1
Nearing 1 million cases world-wide. The number of US cases leads the world.
Trump says, “Did you know I was No. 1 on Facebook? I just found out I was No. 1 on Facebook. I thought that was very nice for whatever it means.” (White House briefing)

April 3
Trump: “I said it was going away – and it is going away.” Also: “I would leave it (PPE) up to the Governors.” (White House briefing)  
Jared Kushner, now also in charge of the emergency supply chain says, “And the notion of the federal stockpile was, it’s supposed to be our stockpile.  It’s not supposed to be the states’ stockpiles that they then use.”
Re the CDC recommendation to wear masks, Trump says, “I don’t think I’m going to be doing it.”

April 4
The US now has 322,632 confirmed cases, triple those in Spain and Italy.
Re hydroxychloroquine sulfate (malaria drug with unproven effectiveness for Covid-19)*, Trump says, “What do you have to lose? Take it.” “I really think they should take it. But it’s their choice. And it’s their doctor’s choice or the doctors in the hospital.” And: “We’re going to be distributing it through the Strategic National Stockpile, we have millions and millions of doses of it.”  
And “There will be a lot of death” in “the toughest week.”  
And, regarding Easter, “Maybe we could allow special [gatherings] for churches.”  




Good luck to us all.  




* National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci, specifically warned what further studies are needed to determine whether the drugs touted by the president will work against COVID-19. We still need to do the definitive studies to determine whether any intervention not just this one, is truly safe and effective.”




Tuesday, March 17, 2020

SURVEYING THE DAMAGE




IS THIS TOO APOCALYPTIC?




(Work by Alan Magee, Dowling-Walsh Gallery, Rockland, ME)

I took this photograph in the summer of 2019.  Now it looks prophetic, like a contagion metaphor. Look closely: the box holding the skull on the left suggests Asia, the one on the right, the West, skulls at a social distance, the oval the earth or maybe the egg, the wandering line...well, you can imagine.



But here we are.



Dark days, huh?

What with Trump turning the country upside down since 2016, a plague in 2020…What else can happen?  Locusts?  Asteroid?



The other day while I was getting my gym bag ready my thoughts ran like this:  the gym I go to in Vergennes, just four miles away, is an offshoot of the busier and larger one in Middlebury so it’s almost always quiet, maybe three people there at one time, sometimes I’m the only one, and by habit I put one of their towels between me and whatever I’m leaning on, and I take a shower afterwards.  The bag sat there, looking up at me. But then I didn’t go.

A couple of days later it was a beautiful day so I drove to downtown Middlebury and walked the dog around the college campus. The only people I saw were a couple of workmen and three other dog walkers.  I stopped at Agway to buy dog food and birdseed.  I went into a store: almost exciting.


Middlebury campus looks lovely: All that's lacking is students.


I planned to go to the local grocery store the next day. Not that I really had to, but I thought it would be convenient to stock up a bit more.  Figured I’d wear gloves.  That morning I thought about it some more, and decided not to go. I’d order instead.  Then I found that half the locals are doing the same thing and I’d have to wait five days to pick up my order.

The day after that I gave up. I ordered a jigsaw puzzle on-line for when I really get desperate.  You know, a rainy day.  Or maybe any old day.


I could sleep until it’s over. Hibernate, like a bear.  

Skyler sacked out. And presumably tuned out. I can't tune out.


 Things do heal though.  In time.  They will recover.  The grass will grow again.  



Take, for example, the physical damage created by small creatures and winter itself.  I always survey the damage when the snow is gone, exposing the grass.  With the snow blanket removed, the grass tells many tales.  Busy, busy mice.  There is more damage than in previous years. Either there were more mice and other small animals this winter or they were on a building spree. 

An entensive network of mouse trails (more than likely) on a day the big pond was still frozen

A closer view from yet another, smaller, network

Vole holes. They're a bit bigger (see tip of my foot at top, for size), and they move more dirt. 



The pond needs looking after (getting at that algae before it gets me), but it’s too soon; the ice lingers after cold nights and even when it melts in the sun the water is still too cold. Besides, the pump isn’t back in yet.  But soon.

And then there is the tiresome chore of putting the driveway back onto the driveway.  My plow guy inevitably pushes off the gravel, laced with a soupçon of sod, when he shoves the snow to the side.  I suppose that’s unavoidable.  Gravel is a nuisance, but without I’d be in mud.  It's not really a choice.



Gravel where it's not supposed to be.  (Dull photo, but it's proof.)


April will come.  Spring is arriving (technically speaking at least).  There will be lots of outdoor work for me to do.  I wouldn’t call it gardening though, more like, um, outdoor work.  




Chris heading back to the sugarhouse. The sap runs as it always does.


And the grass will grow, and the flowers will bloom.  Soon.


Even now an osprey that flew by my window is sitting on a branch, not far from the sugar house, waiting for some slight movement, one of those mice, maybe, no longer protected by its roof of snow.  I’m watching him with Ken’s super binoculars.  I can see his feathers ruffling in the breeze.


What apocalypse?

  








Wednesday, February 26, 2020

THE ADVENTURES OF MY COUSIN GEORGE

Schönberg, or Šumperk painted in 1864 figures later in on in George's story.



What follows is the story of my Australian cousin George.  It's a tale full of derring-do, and a tale of survival that crossed many borders; George was in turn brave, reckless, audacious, and enterprising––whatever was needed.  He is the reason Ken and I went to Australia in the first place. We met George and Nelly when they visited us in Massachusetts years ago, and we fell in love with them both.  

But why write this story now?  I was looking for some old photos and remembered that I had rough notes about George’s life, but never did anything with them. I thought I’d give them another look.  

Why write this story now?  Maybe the real reason is that it feels good to bury oneself in memories of another era instead of this one. Yes, I think that’s why.


MY COUSIN GEORGE

What follows is based upon written notes assembled by George’s son-in-law Greg Uhe from conversations he had with George and my own conversations with George.


GOOD TIMES BEFORE THE WAR

My cousin was born George Rudolf Drubenko on May 5, 1926, in Russia, or what was then Russia, and is now Ukraine.  His father, Rudolf Drubenko, from whom George undoubtedly gained his middle name, was Russian Orthodox insofar as he was at all religious, and a criminal lawyer by profession. The Drubenko family apparently had roots in the area, given that his paternal grandfather had been the Mayor of the city of Kharkiv, second in size only to Kyiv, Ukraine’s largest city. There was an Austrian connection as well in the family lineage, as his paternal grandmother was from Klagenfurt.  A more recent Austrian in the family was George’s mother, Ella Gabron.

This photo was in my parents' photo album. My father always spoke
warmly of George.  As a child he seemed a distant figure. I never imagined
I would ever meet him.


Ella was one of my father’s four sisters. All four had names that I used to enjoy reciting as fast as I could:  Ady (pronounced Ah-dee, for Adela), Ella, Irma and Ida. (Try it!)  Ella was by far his favorite. (In 1956 I met Ady who lived then in the middle of nowhere, and Irma in Vienna.  I sensed how Irma liked to play the grand lady, but I don't remember much about Ady, perhaps because at seventeen I was more interested in her teenaged daughters. It was not until 1989 that Ken and I found Ida and her husband Hans in a nursing home in the outback near Cairns, both well into dementia by then.)  Anyway, Ella was from Steiermark, a region of Austria that includes the city of Graz, and like most Austrians, she was Catholic, although religion seems to have played little or no role in the family's life.  Ella had met Rudolf when she was a nurse during the first World War.  He was one of the wounded soldiers she nursed. A meeting like this could easily have been the beginning of a wildly romantic tale. And maybe for a time it was. 


The four sisters, from the left:  Ida, Adela (seated), Ella, Irma
Ella was my father's favorite.  

The family remained in Russia for only three months after George was born before moving to Sopot, Poland, a town on the Baltic Sea where George fondly remembered going to the beach as a young boy.  By the time he was eight or nine years old he was sent off to a boarding school where he saw his parents and aunt in vacation periods.  


Left to right:  Irma (?), Ida, Ella, and George's father Rudolf holding George.

Looking back, George recalled being “above average in languages,” perhaps hinting that his performance in the other subjects may have been less memorable. Facility in languages may have been helped along by the fact that his family spoke both German and Polish at home, and his mother’s insistence that he learn French as well for, as he put it, “snobbish reasons,” French still being the language of the upper crust in those days. For his part, George’s father insisted on their speaking Russian. George liked school; that is, he liked being at school having fun. He remembered being a “naughty boy” and often “wagged school” (played truant).

The family lived well. They had servants, owned two cars, unusual at the time, and employed a chauffeur.  Skiing holidays were part of their way of life. Eventually they moved to Germany, settling in the Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, a province near the Polish border that was later absorbed into yet another province. Around this time George's father became a naturalized German citizen. It was an interesting time to have chosen to become a German citizen, as by this time Hitler’s party was either gaining power or, assuming this occurred after 1933, Hitler had already been made Chancellor. His father became Governor of an area in Poland.  George’s best friend’s father was Governor of another part of Poland.  They were well-connected.  



From my parents' album: George, his father, and mother on a ski holiday.


HAVING FUN, UNTIL THE WAR BEGINS

By now George was a teenager, and accordingly was sent to a higher level boarding school.  This school was in Zakopane, Poland, and was one that catered to the wealthy.  Zakopane is a resort town in the Tatra mountains, today, as then, a popular access point for skiing, climbing and hiking.  Certainly a pleasant locale for school. George’s regular studies again included languages: English, French, Latin and German. (Yet only a few years later, at a crucial moment, the English language would forsake him and he would be unable to speak a word of it.)  But studies hardly made up the whole of his school experiences. This was where he first took up smoking, which would become a lifelong habit. Good-looking and charming, he had no trouble getting involved with girls from another nearby school. It was here, too, he learned to become a master of escape. In one incident he was caught hiding under a bed with a girl. He fled a room by letting himself through a window on a rope. Worse yet, he copied an exam.  He was caught more than once. Thanks only to his father’s high position he avoided being expelled.  There was also skiing on hand nearby, and on skiing holidays his Aunt Irma would come to visit. Alas, he recalled, when she was visiting she would “spoil things.”  Although it's not clear what she spoiled, it may not be hard to imagine. Despite these distractions George managed to stay for three years, going home only for the routine Christmas and June holidays. Then the war arrived at the school’s door. In 1944 the school was evacuated and placed under Russian occupation. His family moved George to a boarding school in southern Germany, in Bavaria.

From Bavaria much further to the south, it was easier for him to visit his mother who was then staying with his grandmother in Schönberg, part of the Sudentenland area that had been taken over by Hitler at the start of the war and thus incorporated into wartime Germany. This was the town (then Austrian) where my father was born in 1899.  In 1945 Schönberg would be liberated by the Russian Army, and all Germans living there deported to parts of Bavaria and Austria.  This was how my grandmother and Aunt Irma and family came to live in Vienna where my father had helped them buy an apartment.*  The town, now under the name Šumperk, the Czech word for Schönberg or “beautiful mountain,” became part of Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic).  More of that later.


A TURNING POINT


Around this same time, while his father was still Governor, and when George was about fifteen years old, his father took him on a train trip to Russia with the purpose of visiting his father’s brothers, one of whom was a doctor and another a lawyer. During the train journey they witnessed bombing and they themselves were shot at.  Did they ever meet these brothers?  We don’t know.  Maybe what was important at this time was not the trip, but another issue.  It was around this time, perhaps during the trip or perhaps later, that George learned his father had a woman friend.  He met her, in fact, but he did not like her. The woman’s daughter was introduced to him as his half-sister. 


From my parents' album.


Perhaps also around this time he realized that his father, holder of a high govermental position with Hitler in power, would have to have been a Nazi. Was a Nazi.  It may be that George had known or suspected this all along. The estrangement from his father may have begun knowing that, but surely it intensified when he saw with his own eyes that his father had betrayed his mother. This may have been the moment when he decided he no longer wanted to be associated in any way with his father. He no longer wanted to be known by his father’s name.  He officially changed his name from Drubenko to his mother’s maiden name. He would now be known as George Gabron.

George was seventeen in 1945, a momentous year. As the year began, the Germany army was in retreat, and by April Hitler was in his bunker. Austrian and Germany were in ruins.  In May Germany surrendered.  Somehow George managed to complete his final year of school despite having missed much of it, what with playing billiards and staying out all night.  Still, school was done, and outside of school the changed world awaited.  After graduating he went straight to Prague, now under Russian occupation, to join his mother who was living there by herself in a hotel. His father was missing. He and his mother made plans to get out of Prague, but they delayed to wait for his father, a hope perhaps his mother’s more than his own.   

It was then that his mother was killed.  She was shot in front of George by Czech partisans.  A Czech handed George his mother's jewelry. He ran. This is how I heard the story from George. There were no details.  Perhaps when you tell someone a long story that includes an event like this you can't stop to fill in the small telling details.  When you're the listener, you may not feel you can ask about those details. Those of us who listened didn't probe, and so we were left to wonder. We might picture soldiers bursting into their room in the middle of the night.  Or was it daytime?  Or maybe Ella and George were taken someplace, maybe only downstairs.  Was Ella singled out? Or was she one of many?  Were they looking for George’s father?  (He would hardly have been unknown.)  We know they weren’t interested in money, as George said it was Czechs who handed George his mother’s jewelry.  And how did they get the jewelry?  Was it hidden somewhere?  Or was Ella wearing it?  Why did they allow George to get away? Did they feel sorry for him?  (Hey, give him the jewelry, he’s just a kid!)


George's mother Ella, a photograph taken before she was married.


The answers to some of these questions lie somewhere in the chaos that immediately followed the end of the war.  George’s grandmother, aunt and family had made it to Vienna.  But Czechoslovakia was not safe.  

In 1945 the war had barely ended when Czechoslovakia began to expel the two million Germans who lived in Sudetenland.  The expulsion took on almost hysterical urgency on July 31 when a munitions depot exploded in the Czechoslovakian town of Ústi nad Labem, about forty miles from Prague. Rumors began to spread that the Germans who lived there were responsible. Whether or not they were, what followed was a massacre.  Some two thousand or more Germans were killed that day in Ústi nad Labem.  Those responsible were said to have been a combination of Revolutionary Guards, a post-war Czech paramilitary, along with Russian and Czech soldiers, and a few hundred Czech civilians who had come there by train from Prague.  It is not hard to imagine the desires for revenge that raged throughout Czechoslovakia.  Many thousands of Czechs had been killed by the Nazis, so many that it dwarfed the number of killings that took place that day and the many days afterwards. Despite pleas by the Allied Powers that expulsions be humane, orderly, and non-violent, they were often rough, fed by hatred, a need for revenge, and despair.


LIVING BY YOUR WITS


With the death of his mother, George had nowhere to hide, no one to turn to. He fled, he ran, with that jewelry, and with it and some luck he was able to buy his way out of Prague. He paid a Frenchman who finagled to get him, along with other refugees, on a train to Pilzen, a city to the west of Prague. With the aim of somehow getting to London he pretended to be British, even though he couldn’t actually speak English. (Where were those language lessons now!)  Together with some actual British people he went first to Paris and from there flew to London. In London he was quickly discovered not to be in the least British, and was jailed for a week before being sent right back to Paris. 

Once back in France he found himself broke, without money and without food.  Desperate, he found work in US military camps where at least he was able to get meals. He found some work in a knitting factory, but not for long. He went back to Paris and scraped together enough money to find an apartment there. Somewhere along the way he happened to meet a French crook, a fortuitous meeting that opened the door to other ways of making money.  He began to smuggle cigarettes, nylon stockings, coffee and cloth, all in huge demand after the war. He would buy from Americans and sell to the French. It was a lucrative business. He managed well enough in this occupation to holiday in Nice and Monte Carlo. 


George's Paris apartment. Stephanie Gabron, his granddaughter,  located it when she was in Paris in 2012.


George arranged to visit Vienna, then divided into sectors controlled by Allied and Russian forces to visit his grandmother, Aunt Irma, her son Gernod and daughter Inge (also my cousins). "Arranging" was a complicated business.  He disguised himself as an American soldier, hoping no one would speak to him and discover he wasn’t actually American, not to mention his lack of ability to speak American English. The apartment my father had bought in Vienna for his mother had the misfortune to be in the Russian-controlled zone.  The Russians, or rathers Soviets as they were known at the time, were not the choicest occupiers, as they were more interested in stripping the city of infrastructure, and the soldiers themselves had more interest in stripping any items that they thought were of value.**  George arrived in Paniglgasse with packages of food that they desperately needed.  For everyone the goods of daily life were in short supply.  I remember hearing a story of someone having being shot in a dispute over a can of peas. Fuel as well as food was scarce. People hiked out of the city to the countryside if they could to buy potatoes and vegetables from farmers. Most had only basic rations. My mother regularly sent them huge packages of food in cartons that she wrapped with old pillow cases that she sewed on so they couldn’t easily be opened up before they arrived. “Care packages.” 


The first three or four windows on the second floor are the Vienna apartment.

Ken and I visited No. 9 Paniglgasse in 2012. I had last seen the apartment in 1956.

George returned to Paris. By 1946 he was smuggling in a major way.  Having accumulated some 100,000 French francs, he hoped to go to Australia where another of my father’s sisters, his Aunt Ida, had emigrated years earlier. In order to move to Australia one needed to have an Australian sponsor.  Ida lived in what was then a remote area near the Daintree River north of Cairns with her husband Hans Dolleschel. They had no children. She was cool to the idea of sponsoring him and made no offer. Frustrated, George continued with his various enterprises. 

He would go to Hanover, Germany, to buy cheap stamps and re-sell them in Paris, but he was caught red-handed in Kassel, Germany, with those stamps as well as a false ID (he used a number of aliases) that resulted in two weeks of jail time.  Undaunted, he returned to Paris, where pressing financial need prompted him to resume smuggling. In Brussels he found he could buy just about anything that would be easy to resell. On one of those Belgian trips he was nearly captured when a train he was on was raided.  He leapt onto the roof of the train. Luck was with him, and he evaded capture. When smuggling was good and he had money, he lived well, even going so far as to hire an expensive car. But there was always risk, and plenty of it.  While in Paris he was raided yet again, and escaped again; this time to get away he and a friend had to jump from rooftop to rooftop. Safety continued to elude him.  While he was walking very near the border another time, wearing a black coat in the faint hope of blending into the darkness, he was spotted and locked up in Lille for several weeks in what he remembered were “terrible conditions.” Worst of all, lost all his money.  


ESCAPE TO AUSTRALIA

Again he wrote to Aunt Ida in Australia to please send him money.  Then he waited. And waited.  At long last, and probably with much reluctance, she agreed to sponsor him so that he could come to Australia. At last!  He didn’t hesitate. Come to Australia he did, arriving by ship, then made his way overland to Daintree.  In Daintree Aunt Ida and Hans had a small self-sufficient plantation with windmill, a water supply, electricity, and access to the Daintree River, where they grew all manner of tropical fruits, coffee and cocoa, raised turkeys, chickens and peacocks. Even in as late as 1989 when I was in Daintree there was not much there: a few stores, several wooden buildings, a ferry.  Across the river was tropical jungle, more or less. This may have offered safety, but it did not feel like home to George. There was a decided lack of warmth.  Ida and Hans did not welcome him as a close member of the family, much less a son. Maybe they relished their remoteness and the lack of other society. At any rate, he knew this was not the right place for him.  He lived with Ida and Hans for as long as he could endure it, and then it became unbearable. He made yet another escape, his last escape, and lit out for Melbourne, nearly 3,000 kilometers away.

The rest is history.  That is to say, it was the beginning of a new kind of life, the one that we all know about.  It was also the end of his misadventures. Luck with with him once again, as it was Melbourne where George met Nelly. Nelly had an interesting story of her own about her arrival in Australia, having been deported with her family by the British from Palestine along with other Germans who lived there, and interned in a camp outside of Melbourne until the war’s end. They were then given a choice: get sent to Germany, or remain in Australia.  The answer was obvious. George had to find a way to make a living in Melbourne, previously having had no time for learning a profession.  So he started a painting business. He and Nelly were married. And, in time George and Nelly became the progenitors of a virtual dynasty of Australians who are now to be found in Melbourne, the Sunshine Coast and western Australia. The third generation is already arriving.     


George and Nelly at the time of their marriage. I took this photo from one Nelly had framed in her home on a visit in 2010.

But I’m jumping ahead.  One day after the war Aunt Irma spotted a familiar figure getting on a train in Vienna. It was George’s father!  She went over to him and gave him George’s address in Australia. Not long afterwards George received a letter from his father, the only news he had had from him in these many years.  His father wrote that he planned on coming out to Australia to visit.  But he was never to appear.  One night in 1950 Nelly was waiting to meet George at a dance at the St. Kilda town hall in Melbourne. When George didn’t come on time she thought for sure that he had stood her up. He finally did arrive, very late. He had just gotten word, he told Nelly, that his father had died.  How might George have felt about seeing his father again, I wondered. He had told me he hated his father, a Nazi, a betrayer. He didn’t care if he ever saw him again.  Maybe it was better this way. 


EPILOGUE

One day a French woman knocked on the Aunt Ida’s door in Daintree and asked for George. (Who could she have been? Surely there was another story here!)

George never quit his smoking habit. It very likely contributed to his untimely death. He died a year or so after our first visit to Australia in 1989 in his early sixties.  


NOTES

*My father hadn’t seen George since he was a young boy until George and his wife Nelly visited my parents in New York City and then came to see us in Lexington, Massachusetts in the 1980’s.  That was when I first met George.  Although my father had visited his sisters in Europe immediately after the war and several times in later years, he never saw Ella again, and George had long since left for Australia.  His only contact with Ida in Australia was via a rare letter. Even then I dimly recall her being thought of as odd.  George certainly thought so. 

**No. 9 Paniglgasse:  It was my understanding that my father bought the apartment on Paniglgasse for his mother after they were forced to leave Schönberg.  The apartment was shared then and after her death by Aunt Irma (Garo), her son Gernod, and his wife Lisalotte.  (Daughter Inge decamped shortly after the war for the US with an American soldier.) I never met my cousin Gernod whose life ended in the Danube (ruled an accident), but I visited the apartment in 1956 and again in 2012 when Lisalotte lived there alone.  In 1956 evidence of war damage was still obvious. Across the street from No. 9 Paniglgasse was what had been a school building. From the apartment I could see into the school windows where toilet bowls were piled up to the ceiling. I was told that they were leftovers Soviet soldiers had been unable to take with them when the occupation ended.