Saturday, August 08, 2020

COVIDiary: Pandemic Kills the Handshake (I Hope)

I've never liked shaking hands, mainly because I don't know where those hands I'm shaking have been. I'm not obsessive-compulsive about cleanliness, and I have a good firm handshake, to the point of arm wrestling some people. 

But, eeewww, shaking hands has always seemed a disgusting ritual, the pressing of my palm against someone else's sweaty, hot/cold, greasy, who-knows-where-it's-been palm as a form of greeting. Or sealing a deal. Or doing an initial power-dance. 

So if there's one Western custom that I hope is obliterated by this coronavirus pandemic, it's the handshake. 

The East has a much better, more respectful form of greeting - palms pressed together and a slight bow. I don't touch you. You don't touch me. Namaste. I bow to you. The divine light in me bows to the divine light within you. My soul recognizes your soul. Good to see you. Let's get this meeting started.

It's a perfect, non-contact, respectful greeting or deal-sealer, eliminating the initial power display of who has the firmer grip, who's top dog. Though it's a Hindu greeting, it seems a very Christ-like way to acknowledge a first meeting, an old friend, or the beginning/end of a business agreement.  

And maybe, just maybe, a simple prayer-like greeting might bring more humanity and empathy to our comings and goings, meetings and greetings. That certainly can't hurt. 

And besides, I don't know where your hands have been. Namaste, y'all.


Monday, August 03, 2020

COVIDiary: The Un-Back to School Season


The late summer cicadas are buzzing and clicking, and even though it's still steamy hot in Atlanta, there's the occasional cooling breeze that promises the glories of autumn to come. Yeah, okay, that's a couple of months away, but still. And there's something in the air besides a cooling breeze. It's usually the smell of new bookbags, notebook paper, pencils, and crayons. New shoes. End of summer haircuts.

Usually. But not this year.

A virus has changed all that. Bookbags aren't needed in a virtual classroom. Neither are new shoes. Pencils, notebook paper, and crayons may come in handy, even if most of the work will be done via computers. End of summer haircuts are probably still in order for all those zoom classes.

But first day of school photos with bright shiny faces, new clothes, bookbags they won't grow into until later in the year, and freshly combed hair won't be happening. The search for the new classrooms and meeting new classmates won't be happening, either.

It's weird. This whole thing is weird. It's this generation's duck-and-cover. JFK assassination. 9-11. Different - they're all different - but something that will shape their lives going forward. And these kids will get through it fine. I'm not so sure about the teachers and parents, but the kids will be fine.

And though I'll miss the first day of school photos, I hope and believe that this pandemic will bring about some long overdue changes - greater appreciation (and remuneration) for educators, sensible affordable healthcare, workable nationwide and statewide plans to handle such unexpected events, and other foundational changes that will benefit generations to come.

All right, all right. Naive. But I can hope. Until then, I'll sharpen some pencils, bury my nose in a box of crayons, listen to the cicadas, and look forward to cooler air and colorful leaves.

We've got this. The kids have got this. Chill.

Sunday, August 02, 2020

COVIDiary: Unemployed/Employed

I was laid off and re-employed all on the same day. We were told a week ago that our employment would be terminated Friday, July 31. The staff was going to be pared way, way down since guests hadn't returned to the museum in the numbers we'd hoped. We were given the opportunity to reapply for our jobs - mostly with the same duties we'd had, though extra responsibilities would be added.

So last week I had to send in my resume and references and submit to a job interview ("Give us an example of when you've shown initiative in your work," etc. Oy.) We were told we'd know our status Friday afternoon.

I wasn't scheduled to work on Friday, so when I left work on Thursday, I wasn't sure whether I should say my farewells or "See you next week." Weird.

But, yay! I got the call Friday that I was indeed rehired - I think only 7-8 of us out of 15 or so. It will mean another change, another reality brought on by the pandemic. We expect the number of days the museum is open will be cut and opening/closing times adjusted. We'll be covering some positions we hadn't been responsible for before this lay-off/re-hire.

So, onward. Glad I still have a job. I like working at the History Center. I have plenty of masks and hand-sanitizer, so I'm ready to go. Whew.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

COVIDiary: A Hard Year for Heroes

This is a hard year for heroes.

Everyday heroes who keep our basic services up and running. Medical heroes who are trying to keep us alive. Heroes taking to the streets in protest of racial injustice. Performance heroes who have found ways to entertain us while not getting any sort of remuneration. Unknown heroes who died of COVID-19 and other diseases without loved ones being able to properly celebrate their lives.

It's been a particularly tough year for heroes of the civil rights movement: the Rev. Joseph Lowery, Connie Curry, C.T. Vivian, and now my congressman, John Lewis.

In 1986, when John Lewis ran for Congress for the first time, I was working as a producer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's short-lived Video Edition. Everyone thought the race was a foregone conclusion because Julian Bond came within a couple of points of winning the primary outright. But a run-off had to be held between Bond and John Lewis, though most thought Bond would be the winner.

I mean, I was all set to vote for Julian Bond. He was smart, well-spoken, good looking, and another civil rights icon. In 1966, when the Georgia General Assembly refused to seat him as a duly elected member because of his anti-Vietnam War activities, the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. Bond won a 9-0 decision from the court. What's not to vote for, eh?

Lewis hadn't fought in the Supreme Court. He'd fought in the streets. On the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. He'd spent 40 days in prison because of his activities as a Freedom Rider. He had the scars. He, too, was smart and a powerful speaker, but he just didn't have Bond's style and finesse.

In the great scheme of political talk shows during election years, I had to set up interviews with both Lewis and Bond for the political editors of the AJC. I started with Bond's campaign office. I was handed off to at least three different staffers who promised to get back to me. Frustrating. I felt I had to get Bond on the schedule first (because he was going to win, right?), and after a few days and who-know-how-many phone calls and call-backs, I got him on the interview schedule.

Now to get John Lewis. Dreading what I assumed would be the same days-long cat-and-mouse back-and-forth phone tag game, I dialed (yes, we dialed back in 1986) Lewis' office.

Guess who answered the phone? John Lewis himself.

It threw me for a loop, and I stammered out my request for an interview. I knew I was talking to a major force in the civil rights movement - and he answered his own phone! Lewis was so gracious and humble throughout our conversation. It was the opposite from my experience with the Bond campaign.

And this voter's mind was changed. I've voted for him ever since.

It's a hard year for heroes. Farewell and Godspeed to you all. Especially John Lewis.


COVIDiary: Employment Plot Twist

I've been fortunate on the employment front so far during the pandemic. The Atlanta History Center kept me busy working remotely through April and May transcribing veterans' interviews and reviewing guest experience procedures. The Center opened its outdoor exhibits and gardens in June, allowing me to get back on campus (well-masked) and work with guests (also well-masked).

Three weeks ago, we opened the indoor exhibits with a few restrictions and changes. The work has seemed as normal as possible in this time of extreme sanitizing, mask-wearing, social distancing, and hand-washing.

Today, though, we got the news that all part-time staff was being laid off the end of July. There are new job opportunities (some of which look a lot like our old jobs), but everyone has to re-apply for the positions and only a few of us will be re-hired.

Sad news, because I really like working at the museum. I like that the days and hours are easy. I like meeting people and working with history buffs. Sigh.

I will re-apply to see what happens. Still, I'm not sure of the work-day requirements - will I be required to work weekends, for example? So it's all up in the air.

The other plot twist is that I've volunteered to guide Liam's and Charlotte's distance-learning when school starts up again. I did teach for a few years, after all. Yes, it was high school, but I'm sure my kid-facilitator skills will kick in. They attend a German-immersion school, so I'm praying my college German will come back so that I can help with that, too.

Let's face it. We're in a whole new world right now. We have to think and behave differently. We have to teach and learn differently. It may be the new normal, or it just may be the new normal-for-right-now.

I grieve for the kids who aren't getting to attend school with teachers and old friends and new friends. I feel for all the really hard work those teachers are doing to give the kids a new way to learn and absorb information. I grieve that people can't experience museums, theaters, churches, and concerts up close with fellow worshipers, enthusiasts, and fans. And of course I grieve that I might lose my job.

But grieving gets tiresome. We have to find new ways to work and teach and learn and entertain and worship and just be. We'll figure it out. The world is full of smart, creative folks, so who knows what will come of this.

So yes, the employment plot thickens. We'll see. We'll see.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Summer on the Breakfast Shift

Fifty years ago I had a summer job as a breakfast-shift waitress at a Holiday Inn on I-75 at the Tennessee/Georgia state line. I'd just finished my freshman year at college and needed a job that would get me as much money as possible for a 19-year-old in 1970. The opportunity of a 3-week special semester in London in January 1971 was being dangled in front of me, and my parents agreed, as long as I earned half of the travel cost.

Then - as probably now - the fastest way to make a buck was waiting tables. The pay was $1.25/hour, but, oh, those tips! So I wore a little (and I do mean little - it was 1970) black skirt, white blouse, and a red and black pinafore with big pockets for the order pad and all that moolah left on tables.

I worked with two other waitresses: Charlene and Lona, both in their late 40s/early 50s I'm guessing. Charlene was a country girl with black hair and a few missing teeth. She was jolly and fun, and we had a lot of laughs. Lona, on the other hand, was an old sourpuss who did a lot of mumbling about how my short skirt got me better tips. She was probably right on that one.

The hours were lousy: 5:30am-2:30pm, so breakfast and lunch shift. I don't remember getting a lunch hour or break times. As I recall, we ate on the run back in the kitchen, asking the cook to whip something up for us when there was a lull. Many, many club sandwiches and fries. And all the Coke I could pull from the machine.

Folks weren't big tippers in those days, certainly not at breakfast and lunchtimes, and tips were usually coins not paper money. As adorable as I was in my short black skirt and my mouthful of braces, if I pulled in $25-30 in tips, it was a good day.

I budgeted those tips to ensure I built up enough money to fulfill my London trip obligation but also to have enough left over for cute-dress buying. So once a week after work, I'd head over to a trendy little Chattanooga dress shop called The Vogue where my friend Linda worked to spend some of my hard-earned tip money on adorable college-girl clothes.

London and cute dresses made early morning hours slinging plates of  sticky pancake syrup and concealed fried eggs worth it. Both the trip and the clothes were the sweet results of my 19th summer.

I do, however, carry something more permanent with me from that waitress year. Every time I look in the mirror I see the little white scar on my left eyebrow. Thanks to sourpuss Lona. And here's how it happened.

The heavy swinging doors between the kitchen and dining room didn't have windows, so we worked on the honor system: Always come and go from the door on the right. That avoided crashing into each other as we were moving between the rooms. This worked for everyone except Lona, who felt entitled to use whichever door she wanted.

After several near-misses and a few minor accidents (and all of us begging her to always use the door on the right), Lona managed to tear through the wrong door as I was taking a tray to the kitchen. The edge of the door caught me hard right on the left brow bone. I saw stars.

Who knew a clip on the brow would bleed so much, but it did, causing the restaurant manager to take me to the emergency room to have it checked. No stitches were needed, fortunately, but I did sport a sweet little bandage for a few days. And when the bandage came off and the wound healed - voila! - a nice little scar that makes my brow pencil do a little extra work every day.

I got a lot out of that summer - my first trip to London, really cute dresses for school, a scar over my left eye, and a lifelong understanding of how to treat wait staff.

Some things are worth more than money. Never pass up the chance to soak in all the crazy things life throws at you. Even spending a summer on the breakfast shift.

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

COVIDiary: The Importance of Being Earnestly Mask Fashionable


Okay, all you non-mask wearers. Get with the program. You may as well get used to wearing a face covering from now until probably forever.

Take it from someone who is claustrophobic to the point of feeling buried alive when something covers my nose and mouth, probably growing out of the childhood trauma of having an ether-filled mask clamped over my 7-year-old face before having my tonsils out. So, yeah, I get it.

But if I can do it, anyone can. No excuses. Find a mask that suits your comfort zone, then practice wearing it around the house until it becomes like a second skin. I have to wear mine for hours at a time at work, but I hardly notice it now.

Got it? Great. Now stop thinking of it as just a mask, and start making a fashion statement. That's right. Seek out a wardrobe of masks that suits every day purposes, formal occasions, sports fandom, favorite artwork, book quotes, and movie scenes. Have one or two that sparkle.

Consider your mask choices Met Gala-ready. Think like Anna Wintour and Beyonce and Sarah Jessica Parker. Add a fake designer tag to your mask if that makes you feel more fashion-secure.

But for all that is holy and healthy, wear a damn mask!

Saturday, July 04, 2020

COVIDiary: Winning is Easy, Governing's Harder

Happy 4th of July, Coronavirus Edition. It's a good day to read the Declaration of Independence, watch the musical Hamilton, and eat a hot dog or two.

I celebrate those men who holed up in that sweaty Philadelphia room for months wrangling over whether or not to break with England and figure out how to unite a collection of colonies with widely differing interests and concerns. I celebrate their wives and families who indirectly had a voice in what Thomas Jefferson would craft into the historic document.

I celebrate the tenacity of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Richard Henry Lee, Robert Livingston, Roger Sherman, Jefferson, and the others who brought intelligence and passion to the very difficult task of laying the foundation for the American Experiment, spelling out their grievances against King George III and Great Britain.

I celebrate the idea that all people are created equal and have the basic human rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

I celebrate the fact that the early patriots were brave enough to put in writing that they mutually pledged to each other their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. They were committing treason after all, punishable by death. 

But I'm having a hard time celebrating what we've become. We have the most divisive president in the nation's history, one who stokes racial, moral, and intellectual hatred. Yes, we've had some weak presidents in the past, but never has the United States had someone so soulless and ill-prepared to bind us together and move us forward as one nation with liberty and justice for all.

We in the majority are being ruled by a minority whose power comes from manipulating voting systems and suppressing votes. This minority works from fear and white privilege. It works from a skewed knowledge of history and governance. It works from strange financial interests that usually work against the real personal interests of the minority.

It's frustrating and tiring to try reason and goodwill with this 35-40% of our population.  Everything it stands for flies in the face of what was hammered out in Philadelphia in 1775-1776. There is no compromise. There is no intelligence. There is no true patriotism. Only hatred and fear that often wears a sweet "Christian" face. I can only assume the Beatitudes are missing from their teachings. Jesus wept.

And now we're in the middle of a pandemic that only seems to get worse because of these fearful, hateful people who refuse to follow the simplest rules to keep everyone safe. Freedom! Independence! Guns! White power! And so the infection rate and death toll climbs every day. At the very time we are called to come together to protect each other, we have the biggest failure of leadership and true patriotism in history.

The United States is badly broken. Facts are ridiculed. Science ignored. The magnet on our moral compass is missing. Until we can get back to liberty and justice for all - all races, creeds, national origins, sexual orientations, socio-economic groups - we are doomed. Perhaps this implosion has been happening for a long time. Perhaps we were never united enough to improve upon the original concept of our country. Perhaps we'll never figure out how to ensure that all of us - all of us - have the same opportunities.

But this is a nation built on hard (often enslaved) work, intelligence, and crazy dreams. My faith is in my sisters and brothers who can reverse this poisonous trend. My faith is in our people who are working to guarantee that everyone's vote counts. My faith is that our scientific community - made up of good people from many national origins - can find answers to climate change, pandemics, and other issues facing us and the world. My faith is that our creativity and humor and common sense will pull us out of this destructive vortex we find ourselves in.

It's not just about the true majority winning November's elections (and I'm praying for a real blow-out across the board). It's about undoing all the harm done over centuries, decades, and - yeah - the last three years. We have to find a way to rise up and govern intelligently and compassionately.

The work seems insurmountable. In the words of Hamilton's George Washington: "Winning is easy, young man. Governing's harder." But we can do this. I just know we can.

Happy(?) 4th of July.


Friday, June 26, 2020

COVIDiary: The Masks

"Tonight's tale of men, the macabre and masks, on the Twilight Zone."

A famous Twilight Zone episode entitled "The Masks" deals with four very selfish relatives of a dying man. It's Mardi Gras time in New Orleans, and the old man requires that each of them wear masks that supposedly represent the opposite of what they truly are if they want to inherit his estate. They kick up a fuss and refuse to wear the masks, but they want the money so they end up  indulging the old man's request.

I think of this episode every time someone complains about wearing a mask. Science (not an old dying man, I hope) tells us to wear a mask - not to inherit an estate, but to protect others from a global pandemic. These 21st century selfish whiners have the exact complaints that the mid-20th century Twilight Zoners had: "This is ridiculous!" "I can't breathe in this thing!" "You can't make me do this!" and so forth.

Put on that mask.

You can breathe in the mask. If I can do it, you can do it. No one is more claustrophobic than I am, but I've learned to be comfortable in my mask for hours at work and when I'm in public spaces.

The mask has to cover your nose and your mouth. Always. 

You don't have to take off your mask to talk to someone. Hands off. Others can hear and understand you just fine.

Wash your mask every day.

Have a spare or two. Keep one in the car. Keep one in your pocket or purse. But don't forget to put it on around other people.

The lesson here? If you want the inheritance - in this case life for you and those around you, you have to wear the mask.

Now there's plot twist in that Twilight Zone episode (it's the Twilight Zone, duh) and the faces of those mask-wearers are changed by the masks they wear. Those hideous masks were outward signs of the selfishness they carried inside.

And your mask actually reflects who you are on the inside. Unlike the Twilight Zone, the only way your mask will affect your facial features is that it should put a smile on your face.

Don't be stupid. Don't be selfish. Don't be ugly on the inside. Wear a mask.



Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Why Samuel L. Jackson Didn't Go To My High School


Last weekend, Liam and I were watching The Phantom Menace and when Samuel L. Jackson appeared as Mace Windu, I said, "You know, he grew up in Chattanooga, and he's just a few years older than I am."

"Did you go to school together?" he asked.

And so our conversation began. About white schools and black schools and the was it was way back when. Yes, in the middle of Star Wars.

I started high school in the fall of 1966. That was the first year that Chattanooga schools were integrated - twelve years after Brown v Board of Education. Twelve years. So after years of sinful foot-dragging and instilling silly fears in our young minds about integration, we finally got to experience it for ourselves.

Honestly, I don't remember feeling the least bit nervous about going to school with black students. There were too many other anxieties about going out of my neighborhood and across town to Chattanooga (City) High School, trying to negotiate new hallways and schedules, and worrying whether my clothes were cool enough.

For me, that momentous shift from segregation to integration proved pretty unremarkable. Turns out, they were just like us, with all the teenage craziness and brains and awkwardness and talent - just kids. But I can't even imagine what it was like for Deborah and Edward and Sandra and Rosa Lee and Ann and the other black kids who chose City High over one of the two black high schools in town. My hope is that they felt welcome, that all they really had to worry about was negotiating hallways and wearing cool clothes. I suspect that was not the case. It must have been so hard.

But of all the black students who opted for City, Samuel L. Jackson wasn't one of them. He had just graduated from all-black Riverside High (which was actually the old City High before the school moved to a new building across the river and up a steep hill) and was starting Morehouse College in Atlanta in the fall of 1966. He never had the option to go to my high school because desegregation hadn't kicked in yet in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

But whenever I see him in a film, I do wonder whether he would have chosen City over Riverside if he'd had the chance.

And I think about the black kids who did decide to make their way up that steep hill, where they were greatly outnumbered by us pale kids. And I think, wow. What courage. More courage than even Mace Windu.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

COVIDiary: Back To Work. Sort of.


Almost three months to the day I returned to work on-site at Atlanta History Center. My hours are greatly reduced, but I'm not complaining.

When I finished my shift on March 11, there was talk - nothing definite - about closing down for a while because of the rapidly spreading coronavirus COVID-19. We'd spent a trepidacious month, handling money and credit cards without masks, gloves, or shields, though we tried to separate ourselves from visitors as much as possible, wash our hands like Lady Macbeth, and furiously wipe down surfaces of the most touchable surfaces like hand rails and door handles.

We knew this thing was different. We knew it was coming.

The center shut its doors to staff and visitors on March 13.We re-opened the 33-acre grounds and gardens Monday, June 15, to members and paying customers who we hoped would enjoy the chance to explore our historic outdoor spaces.

Armed with masks, hand sanitizer, and plenty of clever signage that reminded guests about safe-distancing, we opened the doors. No on-site ticket purchases keep us from handling cash or credit cards; everything must be reserved online beforehand. No paper guides or information to hand out, as maps must be accessed via QR codes on phones. We even offer an outdoor pop-up gift shop and an indoor cooling station for hot days.


What I like most about the new system is getting to rotate around the various guest experience stations around campus throughout the day instead of just working the front desk or Cyclorama all day. So I might spend an hour or two at the shop, then move to the Swan House or Woods Family Cabin or one of the normally unsupervised open entry points like the Arbor or upper Swan Coach House drive. The day goes very fast.

Alas, visitors are very few at this point. I get it. Our biggest draws are the Cyclorama and the Swan House, both of which are closed to visitors right now. There's talk that everything will be opened up - with many safety guidelines and protocols - July 3, but we shall see.

It was great seeing co-workers, getting a lot of exercise (about 12,000 steps in a 6-7 hour shift), and enjoying the fresh air and gorgeous gardens. And it seems while all we humans were in hibernation, a family of foxes has made its home on the grounds and woods surrounding the Swan House - ma, pa, and four babes. I'm not so sure they're glad we're back but I'm hopeful we can respect each other's "habitat" for a while.

If everyone - staff and guests - will stick to the rules, we just might make this thing work.