A few weeks ago, I wrote about enjoying the chance encounters with neighbors that help us connect as a community, Why Small Talk is Big Time. That piece inspired my friend N in Boynton Beach to share how she took on the challenge one morning to offset all the negative chatter in this crazy world with some happiness.
Here is what N told me.
The news is full of quarrel
Before I went out to do a few errands, I read the newspaper and saw all the now-usual stories or people rudely shouting at each other without either side listening to the other. And as I headed to the bank, I decided to spread (as someone or other once said) sunshine and light.
N, a reader in Boynton Beach, FL
Harassed bank teller all smiles
The customer ahead of me at the bank was absurdly slow. When I got to the teller, she was obviously fuming and immediately began apologizing. I held up a hand and said, ” You obviously did your job efficiently, you were just being polite to a person who needed to chat. Please don’t apologize, just take a deep breath. I’ll be quick and I hope the rest of your day is better.”
Wow! She almost jumped, before she took care of me and asked me to please come back tomorrow. (I didn’t, but oh well.)
N, a reader in Boynton Beach, FL
As if she’d gotten a new Mercedes
Then I went to the post office. Someone was struggling with two boxes. We were both masked. So, I took one and helped her inside.
She was so happy to be helped, you would have thought I had given her a new Mercedes.
N, a reader in Boynton Beach, FL
Chiming along makes his day
Walking out I heard a postal worker loading his truck with difficulty, start to curse, pause to control himself and then continue in a totally furious voice,”Mary had a little lamb.”
He was so mad it almost sounded obscene, but I decided (from 25 or so feet away just in case he was mad enough to attack) to keep my game going, so I sang out, “Its fleece was white as snow.” And he started cracking up.
N, a reader in Boynton Beach, FL
A 90 minute shower of sweetness and light
So in under 90 minutes I spread three bits of sweetness and light during a pandemic.
N, a reader in Boynton Beach, FL
Wow. How easily we ignore these opportunities to make someone’s day, or, worse yet, let others’ anxiety and anger spill over into us.
There’s a new bounce in my step. Part of the feeling comes from some good news: A cyst that cropped up on my pancreas has disappeared. Good. Moving on.
But most of the bounce in my step comes from a new energy. Maybe it’s that I’m swimming again. Or maybe it’s that I’m spending more time with a good friend.
Supporting my friend
My dear friend and neighbor C. took swimming classes this summer, taking the plunge at the urging of her husband to overcome a life-long fear of the water. In just three weeks, she progressed from a panicked doggie paddle to this, which I recorded when I got up earlier than usual to attend her graduation day swim. (Yes, I do testament to the 50’s with my exclamations of ”Holy mackerel!” Another one I seem to use a lot is “Phooey.”)
C invited me to help her continue to practice her newfound skill by joining her at our community pool a few mornings a week before her work day.
It was a big ask: being fully retired, I’ve gotten very accustomed to sleeping in, waking slowly over breakfast and the newspaper, and doing some writing before getting out the door for a two-mile walk with our dog.
But C. had made so much progress — not just the crawl, but backstroke, breaststroke and sidestroke! — that I simply couldn’t say no. Swimming alone is not a good idea — although I usually do water exercise once or twice a week, it has been a long time since I’ve done any serious swimming for lack of company.
So, I set my alarm, organized breakfast and the dog, and started showing up.
Helping a friend got me healthier
That was a month ago. Three mornings a week, I am up early, knowing that C. is doing the same, and we meet at our community pool. We catch up and goggle up, and then we’re in the water.
I have watched C continue to develop her new skill. As her arms and legs settle into their rhythm, she is finding freedom in the water and emerges into the warming air with a huge smile on her face. Swimming is a joyful exploration.
My old swimming routine was just waiting for me. The slow ten lengths of freestyle, my body gradually releasing the night’s tension. The mix-up of breaststroke, freestyle, backstroke, and a sort-of butterfly, the variety entertaining my mind and challenging my body. The hypnotic burble of breath and bubble. The final laps bring me home, panting.
We stretch and talk, or talk and stretch. And talk some more on the walk back home. Then we each disappear into the requirements of the day, knowing that, in a day or two, we’ll do this all again.
My friend’s company was just the support I needed to reclaim an old habit. And swimming has become another vehicle though which our friendship blossoms.
Friendship and exercise, what a great combination
The happy buzz of endorphins percolates through my body all day long. I feel stronger, more connected, and more committed to my health. And grateful for a friend’s support.
I thought I was doing her a favor, when in fact it was I who received the blessing.
They were awakened by the telephone. My father was on his feet and halfway to the living room as my mother glanced at the clock. 3AM. It must be family back home in Minnesota, a very long way from Venezuela. She reached for her robe and hurried to join my father as he spoke into the receiver.
“Bob Amerson here.”
My mother’s eyes widened as she waited.
“Roger that.” My father hung up. “That was Harry.” Harry Casler, Dad’s boss, was covering the Embassy lines this week.
Mom exhaled in relief as she plopped down on the sofa. It wasn’t a death in the family. Dad continued. “It’s happening — PJ is finally out.”
“Oh,” Mom said, her voice tight.
President Pérez Jiménez — PJ, as they called him at the Embassy — was the ruthless Venezuelan dictator who’d wielded power since before we’d arrived in Caracas. Clandestine political movements and dissident elements within the military had risen up against the Pérez Jiménez regime, because of corruption, restrictions on civil rights, downright torture. Everybody knew of something that they could blame the Pérez Jiménez regime for. Finally, on January 23, the pressure had forced the dictator out.
“Harry said he’s flying into exile, just took off from La Carlota near the palace.” Dad spoke over his shoulder as he went to retrieve his slippers and bathrobe. “So we should hear him overhead in a couple of minutes.”
“The girls,” my mother said, trying to keep her voice low but insistent. He was going to wake up my baby sister and three-year-old me.
Dad rejoined her in the living room. “Okay,” he said. “We knew things were about to break loose. The Junta Patriótica strike got all that rioting going on downtown, and they’ve finally succeeded in ousting PJ.”
Dad’s network of contacts within the underground resistance had kept the Embassy abreast of what was a highly combustible situation.
“But who’s going to stop the rioters now?” Mom said. If Pérez Jiménez was out, so was his security police.
“That’s what makes this moment so interesting,” Dad said.
Mom’s nostrils flared. This was not an academic exercise. Her family’s safety came first. “With Janie and Susie down the hall?”
Dad gave her a quick hug. “The bad guy is out. The good guys are in,” he said. “There might even be a chance for democracy. And what a front-row seat. Just think, this might have happened while we were on home leave last year back in the States.”
“Yes, that would have been…” Mom’s words trailed off. It would have been so much better to be safely in the Midwest while this crazy country figured itself out. But that wasn’t the deal they’d signed up for with Washington. The deal was adventure, and this was sure it.
“I’ll go see to the girls.”
Mom walked down the short hallway to the second bedroom and swung open the door. Susie was soundly asleep, curled around her baby blanket. And if the telephone had awakened me, I had dropped back into toddler dreams.
My mother jumped. Josefina’s unshod feet hadn’t given her away as the maid approached from her room behind the kitchen. Like us, Fina, as we called her, was one of the many European migrants that had flooded oil-rich Venezuela seeking work. Maybe because we were all foreigners, maybe because we needed each other, or maybe because Fina simply adored us girls, she’d become part of our little family.
My mother closed the bedroom door and assumed the authoritative role that she’d grown into over the past three years. La señora de la casa, the lady of the house, couldn’t betray her nerves, even though it still felt pretty unreal to this modest Midwesterner to have a maid.
“Josefina,” Mom said quietly. “Pérez Jiménez se va.”
The long-awaited news of the dictator’s departure alarmed the maid. “¡Ay Dios mio!”
“Cálmese,” my mother said. She put a steadying hand on Fina’s sturdy shoulder.
“Las niñas.” Fina made a move toward the bedroom door.
Mom tightened her grip. The last thing they needed right now was two kids worrying about why they were awake in the middle of the night.
My mother looked Fina in the eye. “Cálmese,” she repeated, as if she were telling one of us girls to settle down. She could do more with a quiet tone and a look than an excitable mother could do with a yell.
Mom steered Fina down the hall and into the living room, where Dad had settled into the soft, pheasant-print sofa, a wedding gift from his parents back on the farm in South Dakota. The contrast between the Midwestern prairie images and the bright colors and fruity smells of Caracas normally coaxed a smile, but tonight the distance felt much farther than 3,000 miles. Sitting and waiting didn’t help.
“How about some coffee?” Mom said.
My father opened his mouth to respond, then looked up to the ceiling, and he raised an index finger. “Harry said we’d hear the plane. And here it comes.”
The two women followed his gaze. A palmetto bug scurried across the ceiling toward the corner over the bookcase. The faint rumble of a propeller airplane sounded in the distance, growing louder as it approached. It built to a roar. As the airplane thundered overhead, the bug dropped to the linoleum, and the glass ashtray on the coffee table trembled. The sound slowly diminished into nothing.
Dad half-raised a hand. “Adios, el presidente.”
Next Tuesday: Chapter One, Part II: The mob comes roving.
This is the first of a new series of inspirational stories I’ll be posting as I continue my path of recovery. I hope they will inspire you to appreciate each day we are given — whether you have palm trees or pine trees or buildings outside your door, it’s a great day.
Leylah Annie Fernandez had a goal
Earlier this year, when Leylah Annie Fernandez was a little-known 18-year-old Canadian tennis player living in South Florida, she said that her goal was to be in the top ten professional women players in the world. The sport writers were skeptical.
Not anymore. She turned 19 on the day before playing for the trophy in the finals of the US Open tennis tournament, having beaten top-ranked opponents on the way to Arthur Ashe stadium, beginning with Naomi Osaka. She’s zoomed into 23rd place on the roster.
In the on-court interview after her stunning victory over Osaka, she was asked if she ever believed she could best Osaka. ”Yes,” she responded with a huge smile. ”Just before the match.”
She stepped up
There’s a lot to be said for someone like Fernandez, who has lost a lot of first and second round of matches on the WTA tour this year, producing a completely different level of tennis under the bright lights of Arthur Ashe stadium, for stepping up in close matches against a series of true champions and executing better than they did. That’s what great players do.
It’s steel honed by hard work. The daughter of immigrants from Ecuador and the Philippines, Fernandez moved from Montreal to my neighboring town of Boynton Beach in 2018. I assumed that the move was to permit her to train at a prestigious (and expensive) tennis academy, like Chris Evert’s school. Then I read that she trains on public courts and at the beach, and that her father, a former soccer player, is her coach.
Check out this training video, and remember that it’s hot and humid — sweat dripping off your face when you go for a walk — down here.
…a world-class fighter who walks between points with the steely determination of someone on her way to break up a bar brawl.
Fernandez didn’t win the US Open championship. That went to another brown-skinned daughter of immigrants, England’s Emma Raducanu. These multicultural, multilingual teenagers have just set a new bar for grit, resilience, and joy in the game.
While Raducanu — the first qualifier to win a Grand Slam title — expressed wonderment at her unlikely win, Fernandez, whose top-100 ranking got her into the tournament, may have been tripped up by really, really being sure she would prevail. Recovering from this loss, she said during the on-court interview, would be hard. And then she added this.
I know on this day it was especially hard for New York and everyone around us. I just hope that I can be as strong and resilient as New York has been the past 20 years.
This quote from Tom Bissell’s New York Times book review resonated as I took in the passion of a stormy sea at our favorite South Florida beach recently. The waves smashed onto the beach, releasing some of that pent-up energy into the air and the rest onto the sand with such force that my bare feet tingled.
…human presence is only a thin film stretched over mystery.
Scott Russell Sanders
Yet we have polluted it
And yet, thin film though we are, humans are managing to meddle with nature with irrevocable results: sea level rise floods more and more of our coastal areas; warm ocean waters gin up hurricanes with wind and deluge that rend lives and livelihoods; wildfires burn out of control across the globe.
We are off-handed in our support of the status quo, blaming convenience as we buy what want, toss it out when we’re done, and turn a blind eye to the results. But look at the results, plastic that I collected on this very beach.
By including local municipalities, businesses, and organizations and having them show their support and involvement through our buckets and encouraging them to hold multiple cleanups throughout the year, we will be creating even more awareness and cleanup events throughout our communities to get involved in.
Let sunlight flame in a blade of grass, let night come on, let thunder roar and tornado whirl, let the earth quake, let muscles twitch, let mind curl about the least pebble or blossom or bird, and the true wildness of this place, of all places, reveals itself.
One of the reasons that I became such an advocate of water exercise years ago was that I had developed plantar fasciitis, heel pain that did not permit me to continue to jog as my cardiovascular routine. Although I purchased orthodic inserts for my sneakers, iced my heels, and stretched as recommended by the physical therapists at FYZICAL, nothing really improved. Blame my high-arched dancer’s feet, too tender for the hard world of running.
Buoyancy allowed me to run in water, and resistance improved my overall strength. I even put my old orthotics in my water shoes, — mine are from Ryka.
I didn’t think I would ever jog again. It never occurred to me that I might have to re-learn how to walk, or that starting over would rehabilitate the old injury as I built back better.
I had to re-learn how to walk
When I was released from the Amsterdam ICU after six weeks, most of it intubated and inert, I had lost 30 percent of my body weight and the ability to move. Returning home to the United States depended on my ability to walk. Weeks into recovery in the hospital’s 7A unit, I finally stood, but my legs felt as empty as cardboard tubes. Weeks of additional work with my awesome physiotherapists, and I flew home.
I used the audio workouts from WeightWatchers, aaptiv, to keep me focused and motivated on my outdoor walks. For the first time since my days as a barefoot modern dancer, I was super conscious of how I used my feet in propelling my weight forward. As much as I thought I knew about how to move, I picked up tips like landing mid-foot instead of on my heel. That single tip probably helped more than any other in keeping plantar fasciitis at bay.
I continued to do the exercises I had done at PT to strengthen my legs (particularly squats and monster walks), adding resistance bands when my old Lycra water bands gave out. Mine are Fitfort, no longer under that in Amazon, but they look very similar to these. My daughter’s hand weights came out of the closet, too.
The two things I missed most about moving my body while I was hospitalized were relaxation — when you’re lying in bed all day, you never get that “ahhh” release — and stretching. As I recovered strength and movement, I regained the need to relax and the ability to stretch. Water gave me back loads of stretching, and my weekly yoga class with Jade Wonzo has facilitated even more.
Et voilá! I’m jogging
Bit by bit, walking became trotting became jogging, without any heel pain, and now I’m jogging — not running every day but doing a steady 15-minute mile several times a week. I’m swimming or biking the other days. And doing weights and stretching too. Our rescue Lab and I walk every day.
Someone said, “Oh, you’re cross-training!” Guess so. A little bit of everything seems to be a good balance for now. As I continue to build back better.
The Amersons are celebrating my Aunt Jeanie this weekend
My Amerson family is gathering this weekend in St. Paul, Minnesota, to celebrate the life of my Aunt Jeanie, who died on January 17, slipping away quietly in her sleep. My sister (in Colorado), and my daughter and I (in Florida) have been stayed by the pandemic from our mission to be with these people, our bedrock long before my father’s death.
Instead of traveling to their side, we will witness Saturday’s program on our computers. On Sunday, when my cousins continue the reunion in the beautiful lakeside home where Rog and Julie were married in 2018, we will have to settle for revisiting pictures of that happy occasion.
What we said when Jeanie left us
Here is some of what I wrote in January, along with other family remembrances, when we were all adrift in our sorrow.
A child of the prairie
Jeanie was a child of the South Dakota prairie, born at the family farm on a snowy day in early spring. The youngest of my father’s sisters, she was small, slender, blonde and cute, my Aunt Snooky wrote, and a positive force during “hard times.” She was also smart, absorbing everything from farming information to the lessons of the one-room schoolhouse, where she got straight As. She went on to become valedictorian of her high school class.
She was a beautiful life force who will be sorely missed.
My cousin Bob
A counter culture protester
Jeanie followed my father’s lead by attending Macalester College, paying for her year there by selling some sheep. She completed her studies in journalism and English at the University of Minnesota, where she met her husband Carl Brookins and became engaged in protests against the blacklisting of Pete Seeger. Her prairie liberalism led her through the Sixties counter culture movement.
I have a thousand Jeanie stories. I’m just so grateful to have experienced her wit, joy, love and pain. Everything was truth. She taught me about raw, full, truthful love.
My cousin Laina
An exalted editor
Jeanie had a 32-year career at the Minnesota Historical Society and rose to become Director of the MHS Press, which she she drove to heights of academic excellence with her research, writing, and editing. Among the publications Jeanie oversaw was my father’s memoir of growing up in South Dakota, From the Hidewood.
A year ago, she carefully reviewed an early copy of my childhood memoir, giving me copious edits and an earful of very strong opinions about where I’d made poor choices in the draft. She (and Aunt Snooky, another wonderful wordsmith) helped it become a better book.
She was a life force, a sister who could harmonize, a friend, an intellectual wonder, a gifted individual.
My Aunt (Mavis) Snooky
A ready ear and all the time in the world
She and Carl discovered the pleasures of sailing in Lake Superior, Puget Sound, the Caribbean, and the Adriatic, and they traveled extensively after retirement. She became a devoted gardener, and her backyard was a favorite gathering spot for friends and family.
Jeanie and Carl flew in from the Twin Cities to my wedding in NYC and pulled my new husband into the family with one huge embrace. She waited for our visits to the Midwest with a warm welcome, a spare bedroom, and all the time in the world to listen to what we had to say.
Jean was a boon companion to her husband, a great mom, provider, and role model for her daughters, a home maker, a constant friend, a supporter of family and friends.
I recognized the gratitude in these words. My exercise teaching experience gave me a whole lot of helping hands when I pulled myself up from post-Intensive Care syndrome following my lengthy hospitalization in 2019. Although my illness pre-dated COVID, I felt a sort of kinship with Jorge Milian’s experience. I wanted to find out more.
Here is what I learned in my research, including a telephone conversation with Jorge a few weeks ago.
I had a raging fever, my head felt like it was on the verge of exploding and each of the 206 bones in my body ached.
That began around 4-5 weeks of unpleasantness that, at its worst, had me wondering if I would wind up like some of the people I’ve written about since last March in the Palm Beach Post who died after getting COVID-19 (and if would I have time to alert the Post’s editors not to use the headshot that makes me look 20 pounds heavier in my obituary?)
I can joke about it now. But there’s nothing funny about running a high fever for days and feeling like you are trying to breathe under water while your doctor is wondering aloud whether you should check into a hospital – a thought that terrified me even more than the unexplainable nightmares and hallucinations that dogged me for around 10 unrelenting, miserable days and nights.
Walking from one side of the house to the other seemed like a marathon. The worst of it was at night when I would wake up gasping for air, almost as if I had forgotten to breathe.
Fatigue was another big issue. For around two weeks after getting sick, I would sleep for 10 hours then spend the rest of the day feeling like I needed a nap.
My doctor told me I should seriously consider going to the hospital if my oxygen level fell below 90. My oxygen level never dropped under 92, but still low enough for thoughts of ventilators and doctors in space suits to cram my thoughts.
In a recent conversation, Jorge told me that before being bedridden by COVID-19 for 15 days, he had not been sick in his 26 years with The Palm Beach Post. He is an active 61-year-old, a diligent gym-goer (“a little bit of a maniac”), and former runner. He credits his lifetime fitness habit with his quick comeback.
As sick as I got, I still feel kind of lucky. My devotion to fitness aided in my recovery. [Still], it’s only been in the past couple of weeks that I can go for my hour-long bike ride or complete my daily strengthtraining routine without stopping every 15 minutes to catch my breath.
His body struggled though what had been comfortable workouts.
When I returned to the gym, it felt like a fever would suddenly rage through my body, heating up like crazy, although my temperature would be normal. But my muscle memory was there to see me though.
Jorge Milian, reporter and journalist
Jorge is happy to be on the other side of his COVID-19 illness. He is not a long hauler, having been able to resume his full activity routine. And what does he recommend to help others build up their strength?
Find something you like to do and do it. Every day. Consistently. Work up to being active for an hour a day.
Jorge Milian, reporter and journalist
Follow the public health recommendations: get vaccinated, wear a mask, and practice social distancing.
I’ve heard a lot of people saying that contracting COVID-19 was no worse than catching the flu, but the virus put this 60-year-old through a physical and mental wringer like I haven’t experienced before.
Dog is man’s best friend, and woman’s too. Our dogs are always thrilled to see us, dinner’s exactly what they were waiting for, and they’ll do the darndest things just to earn a treat. This is the current version of the pre-dinner routine that our rescue Lab Kumba performs for a crisp crunch of cucumber.
We may think that we fully reciprocate the friendship with our dogs. We have given them room and board with sofa privileges, regular exercise, and chewy toys. But are we really doing everything we can to advocate for our pups when they really need a friend?
Trainer Alison Chambers, owner of Complete Canine Training, knows that we can be better advocates when our dogs are stressed by: 1) learning their body language, 2) recognizing signs of distress, and 3) practicing defensive handling to get our dogs safely out of potential trouble.
Learn your dog’s body language.
We may be chatting on the phone or smelling the roses while we’re walking our dog, but Fido is constantly aware of his surroundings, especially someone or something approaching. Here are some signals to watch for in your pup.
Relaxed, pensive, polite
Alert, concerned, tense
Head down, or staring
Each dog uses his tail to express himself, too. A slow wag might mean she’s relaxed and happy, or that she’s apprehensive. Carrying her tail high might convey pleasure or concern. A tail between the legs when you’re out for a walk? “Get me out of here!”
Common canine calming signals — self-soothing actions like a human’s nail biting — are lip licking and yawning.
Mimic or otherwise acknowledge distress.
Yawning or licking your lips, too, lets your dog know you’ve “heard” her.
So, listen to your dog’s body language, just like she listens to yours, and you’ll both get more enjoyment out of being each other’s best friends. As always, thank you to the Labrador Retriever Rescue of Florida, for bringing this dear boy into our lives!
Getting off the couch immediately improves our body’s ability to burn calories and break down body fat, and to regulate blood sugar and blood pressure. Get a fitness tracker to see how many steps you take each day. Information is power! Challenge yourself to do a little more and see if you can get to 10,000.
Remember the old food pyramid? It’s now been simplified (and assigned portion control) as a small dinner plate. (Yes, plates have expanded in size along with our bodies!) A diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables, complex carbohydrates, and lean protein is the key to good nutrition. And drink water throughout the day to stay hydrated. Find out more at myplate.gov.
When deciding what to eat or drink, choose options that are full of nutrients. Make every bite count.
Getting enough sleep is an essential part of a well-rounded health routine — We’ve all had those sluggish mornings that just beg for breakfasts loaded with sugar and fat, which send us crashing hours later.
Establish a screen-free bedtime routine to help you disengage from the day. I drink a calming cup of Sleepytime tea and take a relaxing bath before I turn in. And I sleep more deeply since I began using a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machine to reduce apnea interruptions. Martin Sheen’s character, Robert, now sports one on Grace and Frankie. Here’s why. A short Season 7 is up!