Friday, March 26, 2021

Domestication Amongst The Doom: Nesting During a Pandemic

In March of 2020 the Corona-19 virus was declared a deadly global pandemic with the potential to infect hundreds of thousands of people world-wide. In order to protect ourselves and others from spreading the virus, we were required to stay home and adopt new safety procedures that would alter our daily lives in ways we had never experienced: working exclusively from home offices, wearing medical masks in public places while social distancing six feet or greater, no indoor gatherings with anyone outside of our immediate family, controlled numbers of shoppers at grocery stores, and constantly washing our hands. 


Though it seemed the experts were changing their safety recommendations weekly - masks, no masks, double masks - we were reminded that they are part of a select group who are encouraged to alter their thesis after reviewing new evidence. Thankfully, the requirement of diligently washing your store-bought produce fell quickly by the wayside as it garnered first prize in the Pandemic Retrospection Awards for the category of ‘I Can’t Believe We Did That’ (‘Hoarding Toilet Paper’ was a runaway winner in the ‘Herd Madness’ category). However, it quickly became evident that some people were basing their disregard for safety protocols on information from the same fringe organizations who were claiming that a cabal of Satanic cannibalistic child pornographers had stolen the 2020 election. The distinction between science, science fiction, and lunatic conspiracies was never more evident, yet great numbers of people continued to make bad choices and put everyone at risk.


When things started to ease a bit, people would assume the worst was over and rush to public gatherings which would then cause a spike of new infections. This added ‘super spreader event’ to our new lexicon while sending us bouncing between color coded levels (and sub-levels) of lockdown that were different between counties, states, and countries. And every four weeks or so, we looked anxiously for news that the worst was over, but it never came.


It would be more than a year before big pharmaceutical companies had developed, tested, and received fast-track approval for vaccines to inoculate the world from Covid-19.  As people hurried out of their nests to get their vaccination shots, I found myself at the back-of-the-line in terms of the color-coded chart for vaccine eligibility (under 70 with no underlying health conditions). Destined to a few more months of sitting on the couch looking glassy-eyed and wondering how I could have possibly exhausted all the interesting content on Netflix and HBO, I instead began looking back on some of the things that have changed, for me and with me, in my year of trying to turn our apartment into the perfect nest.


**********


I have painted every room in the apartment except my girlfriend’s bathroom and closet, because there are some places that you just shouldn’t mess with for any reason.


We have cleaned out every closet, cabinet, cupboard, nook, and cranny of content that no longer serves its intended fit or function and, using the new popular mantras of decluttering, made sure to bow respectfully and chant “thank for your service” to anything we deemed we would “not bring forward into our future.”  Note: The ‘fit’ criteria as applied to my wardrobe has been a moving target since April 2020 and still requires review on those rare occasions when an outfit of more than sweat pants and a tee-shirt is required.


I have been in search of the perfect dish rack. With the money I have spent on racks of various sizes, materials, and designs, I could have hired someone to wash and dry the dishes while I sat on the couch watching Netflix and HBO. The search for a dish rack and interesting streaming content continues, yet I refuse to watch The Home Shopping Network knowing full well that the perfect dish rack is probably sold there (with plenty of operators standing by).


Since we could no longer just pop into our favorite restaurant and have someone bring us an over-priced steak and a chilled martini, home cooking proficiency received a new priority while the dinner menu became the de facto challenge of the day; this became clear when I noticed the “what should we do for dinner tonight?” topic started being discussed shortly after the second cup of morning coffee. I have been sifting through a ton of chicken breast recipes on the internet and working on developing a successful breading technique, but I have yet to find a recipe that I am happy with. However, based on a similar amount of research,  I have found that I am a fan of the ‘reverse searing’ method for cooking steak. You would not believe how many websites and blogs are devoted to the intricate art of cooking steak (probably more than are devoted to chicken breast recipes, and that’s saying something).


I am now able to identify 9”, 11”, and 13” frying pans by sight. Though I have not found the “perfect fry pan” yet, we now have enough cookware to warrant one of those slide-out cabinet trays to manage them. However, I now realize that I have been putting off this project because making a great metallic crashing noise while reaching for the right pot or pan gives me something to curse loudly about, which always feels therapeutic. 


Though we have very limited storage space in our apartment, I now find that I can not resist supermarket deals like ‘buy one, get one free.’ I currently have 6 boxes of Tricuits in the cabinet as result of a recent sale, and enough bottles of ranch dressing to open my own restaurant (at whatever the currently required color-coded level of limited capacity, of course). Note: if I open a restaurant, I am now very confident in my steak preparations, but I had better get serious and decide on a chicken recipe.


I have been talking to the plants in my balcony garden and asking them if there is anything else I can bring them while assessing their level of health and happiness. As such, I am fairly certain the folks who live directly below us think I have lost it (in this concern, they might be right). I now become ridiculously excited when small birds rest on a swinging perch I bought for $6.95 and placed near the bird feeder. I have identified the small birds that feed at our feeder - Juncos - and what months of the year to expect them. Though I am sad when they stop coming, and I now know that means hummingbirds will soon be here. Seems I have created a seasonal bird vacation getaway on the balcony of apartment #D708.


I have spent a large sum of money on wi-fi enabled light bulbs so my computer can turn on my lights with various multi-color scenes at scheduled times, but since this process is computer-driven, it never works quite right and I am constantly fucking with it. One of the only times it has worked properly was when we weren’t home: we came back late one day from double-masked grocery shopping to find the TV and living room lights on; a bit disconcerting. Note: I have not enabled those voice-control sisters Siri or Alexa, but we have a sneaking suspicion they are somehow listening anyway. 


Baseball season came during the pandemic, and the powers that be decided to not have fans in the stadiums (good), but instead sold fans cardboard cutouts of themselves which the teams placed in their stadium seats (ridiculous). Excited as I was to have baseball to watch while being sequestered, seeing cardboard people in the stands and hearing piped-in pre-recorded crowd noise did nothing to lessen my “what the hell is going on out there!” fatigue.


**********


Though cases finally seem to be on the decline in most places and holding steady in others, scientists are saying we shouldn’t let our guard down now that people are being vaccinated because there are many new mutated versions of the virus making their way around the globe. But you can see it in the news and feel it in the air if you go out; people are rushing to leave their nests and experience life like it was before all this happened. Only thing is, life is not, and may never be again, like it was.


The last time I went out on a Saturday, I seemed to notice an extra bit of a general grumpiness amongst the drivers on the road and the shoppers in the store. That’s when it hit me: after a year of staying home alone or with our loved ones, re-learning how to safely and civilly re-enter society is going to take some effort (and I’m not convinced we were all that good at this before the pandemic). To this end, once I get my shots, I look forward to practicing my social skills by having a lengthy discussion with the sales person at The Container Store about high quality dish racks…..from six feet away….while wearing a mask.


I can’t wait.



Ken Owen

March 2021     Van Niddy Press

Monday, March 1, 2021

Phases of Retirement: Part 1

Seize The Day


Phase I: 

As each day 

presents itself 

inside a small cloud 

of unidentifiable mystery


we begin

by creating an extensive list of 

chores, errands, and goals 

that need attention


knowing that 

upon completion

we will have deserved 

a nice nap at 3:00pm


which will ready us 

for the 5:00pm cocktail hour

when we will gloat over our 

vanquished tasks.


Phase II: 

Realizing that solving the riddle of 

“What day is it?”

no longer has any bearing 

on the day’s possibilities


we begin 

by identifying the lone objective 

that promises the greatest odds of completion 

based on today’s energy and outlook


which is then scheduled 

so as not to interfere with 

the afternoon nap 

around which all things are now adjusted


while entrusted with the power 

that the ceremonial anointing of 

the cocktail hour can now commence 

whenever we deem it necessary.



Ken Owen   March 2021

Van Niddy Press

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Television Night in America, circa 1965


I was a small boy, not more than seven or eight years old, walking through the front room of our house when I heard a voice from the television say:

     ”Yes, but back then, there was probably a Jesus on every street corner in Jerusalem!”

     Cable broadcasting, with its hundreds of channels, had not made its way to our 10 year old suburb yet, but we were perfectly content with the 6 channels we were offered: 4, 5, and 7 which carried NBC, CBS, and ABC respectively, along with three local stations that broadcast from Oakland, San Jose, and a PBS station from San Francisco. I’m sure that my father must have been watching the PBS station when I heard the commentary debating the probability of a historical Jesus. No other station would have had any reason to broadcast such a program, and my father would have been the only one in our small family of four that would have been interested in such a topic.

     It would seem that was the night the seed of my religious doubt was sown. I do not remember my exact reaction after I heard that comment, but it made quite an impact on me and probably figured into my decision some years later to take the good sisters of our local Catholic school up on their offer and repeated insistence during our 7th grade confirmation classes that “If you don’t want to be here, you should just go home now.” I remember looking at my best friend, quickly nodding our heads in the affirmative, and leaving post haste. It was an easy decision when we made it, but it made for a long, slow walk home. As I imagined, Mom was less than pleased, Dad was apathetic, and I could hear the wrath my best friend was experiencing from across the street with all the doors and windows closed. I’ve always wondered what would have happened if I had not heard the commentator offer the ‘Jesus on every street corner’ argument, which, even to a small boy, seemed reasonably valid and worthy of consideration. It would make a lifelong imprint on me and play a foundational part in developing my practice for questioning any knowledge held as sacrosanct. 

     Our house was small, approximately 1,000 square feet, and when you entered and closed the front door behind you, you were in the front room; no grand entry way, no place to hang your coat or muddy shoes. Shut the door and take a seat anywhere except my father’s chair that faced the television set. The house was a collection of seven small box-like rooms connected to each other: 3 bedrooms,  one bathroom, a kitchen, a garage, and of course, the front room with its display of bowling trophies during the year and a fake Christmas tree with tinfoil branches illuminated by a rotating four-color wheel with a whining motor every December. This room would be where, like most American families, we would watch pivotal moments in our nation’s history such as news coverage of elections, assassinations, riots, moon landings, and British rock and roll invading New York City, as well as weekly serials of war (Combat), westerns (The Rifleman, Bonanza), and most importantly to me, crime fighting super heroes (Batman). This room would get a makeover in the early 1970s with fake wood paneling and modular shelves to hold my father’s prized new component stereo equipment. It was the talk of our block.

~~~

    Sometimes my grandmother and great-aunt would pick me up on a Friday night and take me for the weekend. We’d go to their house which was, it seemed to me at the time, at the top of the largest hill in all of San Francisco. I would be in the back seat of my grandmother’s huge black car, no seat belt, trying not to slide across the smooth back seat when we went around corners. I was frightened while we drove through all the dense fog up such a steep hill, but once we got to their house, I remember being very excited to be there.

     Compared to our small home in the suburbs, their house was like a grand castle: a stair case leading up to the second floor living room, kitchen, bedrooms and bath, with a fascinating walk-in closet under the stair case where my grandmother kept her collection of every shopping bag, gift box, ribbon, bow, and piece of string she ever brought home from shopping excursions, with all of these things neatly filed away in their respective sections. It's a safe guess that this closet was where my ‘everything in its place’ organizational neurosis was born.

     Upon arriving at my grandmother’s house, we’d turn on the television to watch Friday Night All-Star Wrestling which was broadcast from the Oakland station’s studios. I knew the names of all the wrestlers, heroes and villains, and I remember the three of us cheering and booing heartily. Thinking back, I wasn’t just placed in front of the television set, they watched this program with me. I remember feeling the joy of sharing one of my favorite programs with two adults who loved it as much as I did.

    On Saturday they would dress me up in my finest clothes, and we’d go to dinner at The House of Prime Rib - probably around 4:30pm - so they could show me off as their little prince of visiting royalty. Two elderly ladies of San Francisco in white gloves, head scarves, heavy coats, clunky black shoes, hand bags, with me on their arm. When we’d get home, it was my bath time (Saturday night!), and then television, but not just any program; it was the bullfights from Mexico being re-broadcast on the television station from San Jose. It was an incredible spectacle to watch, though I can’t imagine they would ever admit to my parents what we watched on Saturday nights. 

     During the bull fights, the bull handlers would watch from behind an inner-circle fence between the bull ring and the grand stands, ready to assist the matador if needed. The high point of the evening for us was when the bulls, frustrated and very angry, would jump the inner-circle fence, and all the bull handlers would jump over the fence into the ring to escape the angry bull. The bull would eventually make his way back over the fence and into the ring again, and the handlers would all jump back over the fence to safety. I remember us giving loud cheers when the bulls made their great leaps that sent men running for their lives. I imagine at that moment those Mexican bull handlers would have made very strong arguments in favor of the historical Jesus of Jerusalem, and who knows; if I had ever become a bull fighter, I might have taken the whole Jesus proposition much more seriously. 

                    ~~~

     When my grandmother and great-aunt brought me home late Sunday afternoon, they would stay for Sunday dinner. We had no formal dining room, so we would all eat at the kitchen table with its formica top and hollow aluminum tube legs. It was during these meals that I realized the table made for a fantastic sounding drum. There were many a time when my mother would bring a plate of dishes to the table with one hand and smack me on the back of the head with her free hand and yell, “Enough!”

    After dinner my older sister would play the local rock and roll radio station and try to teach my grandmother the latest dance crazes while they did the dinner dishes, and my great-aunt would go straight to the front room to have an after dinner cigarette. The high point for our Sunday night, as it was for all of America back then, was to be ready for ‘Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color’ at 6:00pm. When it was over, my grandmother and great-aunt would leave for their trip back home, and though I was never tired, it was my bedtime. I remember being told to say my prayers and go to bed, but no matter how hard I prayed to Jesus on those Sunday nights, school was always waiting for me on Monday morning. Wrong Jesus, wrong street corner, I guess.


Ken Owen   January 2021
Van Niddy Press

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Starry Starry Night

(You Look Very Familiar)



While you were making 

your grand entrance 

shining in regal ascendence 

to assume your rightful place 

as the light dimmed

and all fell silent 

with awe and respect


I once again suffered

my private embarrassment

that though you looked 

so very familiar

I could not remember

if you were a star 

or a planet


and all I could do 

was study your movement

long enough to make sure 

your elegant saunter across the night sky

was not an attempt 

at a graceful landing 

at the airport.


Please forgive me,

your name again?



Ken Owen   November 2020

Van Niddy Press

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Eleven Weeks

(The Smell of Pancakes)


The fog seemed to lift early this morning

making way for a relaxed sun 

and a cool gentle breeze

that could barely raise enough energy 

to make the tree tops move


and somewhere from our apartment building

someone was cooking pancakes 

which gave the day a sweetness 

that had felt missing 

for quite a while.


The news showed people in large crowds 

dancing, parading, cheering

in celebration, in relief

knowing that someone else

someone new

would now try to make right

what the last person

could only make worse


while the losing side

as is now to be expected

could only manufacture complaints

of corruption, malfeasance 

and suspicious results which

reminded us that our divide 

still needed great repair and

would not disappear

overnight


and even though I could share 

in the relief of seeing 

a new start on the horizon

I couldn’t keep from wondering


after all the trials this year had laid before us

how many more challenges

for ourselves and our democracy

would we have to endure

over the next eleven weeks

before we could start again.



November 7, 2020


Ken Owen    Van Niddy Press

Monday, November 2, 2020

The First Monday in November


Tomorrow night

there will be great celebrations and rejoicing

that our country’s path forward 

is once again clear


while at the same time

much consternation and wailing

that the end of our democracy 

is imminent 


and yet the next day

the sun will rise as expected

and stay low in the autumn sky

painting a warm glow on all we see


as we move forward with the day’s tasks

while trying not to be overwhelmed 

by the great divide we’ve carried since birth

that marks us still.



Ken Owen     November 2020

Van Niddy Press

Thursday, October 15, 2020

In Proper Measure: Life in The Time of Covid-19






Our world has been reduced to

bedroom, bathroom, 

kitchen, couch, and desk


and when we do brave beyond our gate

we do so with great caution

masking nervous stares.


               ***


Our constructs of time 

are being

redefined—


days have lost their borders 

forced to stand on their own carrying 

names of lost distinction and useless numbers 


when none but the first and last 

can help the calendar 

retain any purpose


and a clock 

serves only to announce 

the afternoon nap


so we task ourselves each morning

with goals to earn the day

that we may continue the


one unalterable tradition

of celebrating our daily successes and 

numbing ourselves of our failures at 5:00p.m.


               ***


Our closets 

have never been 

so tidy


as the clothes that still fit 

have been narrowed down 

to a select half-dozen items


each one christened 

with samples of 

‘project paint’


and masks in all colors and styles

for our rare personal appearances

are the only new additions


as our old wardrobe

dies quietly, day by day

item by item.


               ***


The computer as our only social tether

and bearer of all news, good and bad, real and fake,

is now unbreakable


we have become experts in 

home video conference 

lighting technique, and


“What have you been doing?”

has been replaced with

“What have you been watching?”


               

               ***


All of this feels 

like a strange way 

forward


and going back to what was

seems impossible 

from here


as we recalibrate our lives

with the lesson of valuing time 

in proper measure 


and practice our gratitude 

for all we have been given

while surrounded by so much loss.



Ken Owen    October 2020

Van Niddy Press