Strange Christmas Weeks

December 19-31, 2020

Dear Family, Friends, and Diary,

I read the calendar and note that Christmas is approaching. Winter, such as it is in Fresno, has arrived, no-drama cool, not the excitement of real cold and snow. Without family and friend visits it is hard to get in much of a holiday spirit. No drinks with friends. No special meals out. Shopping minimized. Stay at home. So it will stay for this set of diaries, and the next, and the next, and the next.

Saturday, December 19, Covid Isolation Day 281

I began my day early, as always, and wanted to try an almost regular start of the day, from the before times: up early, drive to Starbucks for breakfast and diary writing, come back home to Marianne and plan all the things we needed to do.

marketIt didn't quite work out. I packed up the car and stopped by the Vineyard Farmer's Market for a Danish to add to my Starbucks breakfast box. At the coffee store, I noticed I had left my briefcase with diary material and computer back home. Darn, there would be no "almost regular" writing session, even though "regular" would have meant sitting in the parking lot, not inside the store's bustle.

Instead, I slumped back home and delivered Marianne her share of the cheese Danishes. We chatted and I decided I would try to find another parking lot to do my diary thing, making the day start almost-almost regular, but where?

parkedI decided upon Roeding Park. The zoo there would not be open, but it's an old park with tons of mature trees. I could combine writing with taking pictures for yet one more diary. I paid my $5 entrance fee and parked where it was convenient, since I think I was the only visitor. I turned on the electric car's seat heater and climate control, moved the seat back and the steering wheel forward, and had an roomy office with a view. And I could take breaks to capture the quiet scene around me.

trees train
table sign

empty streetBy the time I was done, the sun had burned off the fog, but the streets were still pandemic quiet. It was hard to believe it was ten o'clock in the morning. Some day we will look back fondly to these quiet streets. Maybe, maybe not.

I still felt like staying outside, so I walked in the neighborhood. A few houses have Christmas decorations, but I will need to visit at night to get the full effect. Oh well, at least I am TRYING to get in the Christmas spirit.

big sleigh goofy decorations

VernI finished my walk with a visit to neighbor Vern. I had given him and Joan my inoculation analysis that had said they might get immunized in just the next few weeks. They seemed encouraged, as are we. Their stately, century-old home is as decorated as usual, complete with fresh red flowers from kids, so it's not a bad place to visit to work on lagging Christmas spirits.

dinnerI had killed enough time by now that it was time for lunch-dinner. We decided to test out our new table heaters and pretend it was almost Spring. It worked. We lounged with before-dinner drinks, and enjoyed a steak and potatoes barbecue. It could be worse.rose

In hindsight, a day where I tried for a "regular (bfore shutdown) start" ended up OK ... OK enough. Diary writing, photography, and neighbor visiting keeps me in touch and busy and I have a wonderful dinner partner. Here is a rose for her.

That was Day 281

This day in our history: 2010, Portugal with the Negins)

Sunday, December 20, Pandemic #282

Sunday started quiet, like most days. There are two papers to read, the Fresno Bee for a few local stories and the New York Times for everything else "fit to print". I have noticed that the NYT has decided that Donald Trump no longer warrants front page news, being related to about page ten. That's a good sign.

We had few plans. We each managed Peloton sessions, out of guilt mostly. Neither of us wanted to jump on the bike but it felt better after it was over. Our enthusiasms is down a notch from when we first got the exercise machine, but we still seem to ride every third day or so. Good enough.

I decided we needed to "test drive" our Tesla and explore some of the "self-driving" features. Unfortunately, the day started foggy, so we delayed our training to after lunch. Even by then, it was iffy, but we set out anyway. My hope was to get some experience with Traffic Aware Cruise Control, or TACC, and Autopilot, sometimes erroneously referred to as "FSD", Full Self Driving.

foggyWe headed to CA-180, our nearest freeway. TACC felt pretty much like the old Jeeps cruise control, probably because we did not have enough time to check the newer aspects such as lane-keeping and automatic stopping. Between the fog and the traffic, I just was not too comfortable.

I turned on Autopilot just once, for a few seconds. The computer immediately took over the steering wheel, but the feeling was so strange that I quickly re-asserted control. We will need less traffic and no fog before I try again. I have read enough to know that the Tesla Autopilot is at least an order of magnitude safer than the average driver, but so am I ... I think. In the long-term, it's clear that Autopilot has better eyes, never gets sleepy or tipsy, and is trained to be cautious, so FSD is the system of the future. We human drivers just need more training.

The test drive was cut short by fog. Driving was not fun, with or without FSD and TACC, so we headed home and went to our corners. Marianne disappeared to the Art Hut, where she organized, Facetimed with Gabby and the kids, and even painted a bit. A good evening. I went to my office for TV football, YouTube, other screen distractions, and more bits and pieces from the Times. Also a good evening, good enough.

Day #282, done.

(This day in our history: 2019, It's Complex)

Monday, December 21, COVID Day 283

foggy morningFoggy days are here again, and it's easy to slow down even more. Reading the news, on paper or screens, seems to last through mid-morning. The news itself discourages activity too. Fresno County Coronavirus cases are up 300% compared to a week ago, based on the 7-day average of new positive tests. In that environment, we are not leaving the house without very specific plans. I did quickly run out for gifts (cash) and two must-have cooking ingredients. People were out, but not regular Christmas crowds.

TeslaBack home, it was the regular: art and cooking for M and miscellaneous for me. I do lots of miscellaneous nowadays, activities so vague and forgettable that diary entries are impossible. I did wash the car and attached the new license plates. I know that because I have a picture, but I also remember how cold my hands got. By national standards, Fresno winter is very mild, but we get used to it. I could not tolerate REAL cold anymore. December 23rd is, statistically, the coldest day of the year here in the San Joaquin Valley, but hard frosts have not showed up this year.artist

In the evening, Marianne worked more in her studio. She recently signed up for another class, a "Master Class" for the more committed artists like her and friend Claudia. They will stay busy, no matter how long the isolation takes. Lucky them.

That was Day 283.

(This day in our history: 2004, Garmisch-Partenkirchen)

Tuesday, December 22, Isolation Day 284

It's sometimes hard to write these diaries, especially when nothing happens, and "nothing" is the name of the game now. The first tasks are fixed: work on diary (even if I don't succeed), read the Times, breakfast on refrigerator leftovers, make my daily plan (as short as it is). After these is when I would insert driving to shop (only for necessities), but not this day.

Not wanting to, but forced by pattern and routine, we exercised. Marianne did the Peloton thing first and then it was my turn. Forty minutes left me tired and gave reason to shower and get presentable. Then, while Marianne cooked and painted, I went out for a short walk. Neighbor Tom had refreshed his garage, dishing on 2020 as "Karen". Fresno City College dance students were practicing, distanced, in a cold and gray parking lot. Folks are coping with Karen.


Our "Tuesday Zoom Cocktails" was a party of three, Adrienne, Marianne, and me. Tony was working and Rita and Pete had a conflict with a large family gathering, also done electronically. Attendees had fun, enjoyed each other as usual, and disconnected at one-hour, as usual. It's all coping.

End of Day 284

(This day in our history: 2010 in Belem - Portuguese for Bethlehem)

Wednesday, December 23rd, Covid 285

Mamo trainToday would have been Magdalena's 101st birthday and we all remembered her from last year and the decades before. This picture from a train trip in 2006 is what Marianne used in a Facebook memory. I used the video series we made in 2018, when our YouTube star was 98 years old.

We had a birthday memorial, of sorts, accommodating the realities of the virus-times. Marianne fixed a very-European meal of ersatz Viennerschnitzel (breaded pork chops), cabbage, cucumber salad, and boiled parsley potatoes, all the fixings for what Mamo would certainly call "a Sunday dinner." This was topped off with an old favorite of hers, Sara Lee pound cake with mocha-butter frosting.dinner

Marianne and I ate the meal at our normal mid-afternoon dining hour and then brought all the rest over to Katinka, Ruben, and Henry for their "Mamo birthday dinner". The few minutes delivering the food from our car to their kitchen will be the extent of our family holiday gathering in 2020. Just the way it has to be.

zoomWe finished the birthday celebration with a Zoom party with Gabby, Ava, and Sam. Everyone toasted Mamo with their special drinks, sparkling apple cider for the kids and wine for the non-kids. In another year, everyone would have been together, laughing, eating, drinking, and telling stories. Still can, I suppose.

That was Day 285

(This day in our history: 2016, Birthday and Christmas)

Thursday, December 24th, Christmas Eve (and isolation Day 286)

We celebrate with food, champagne, and Cambridge Avenue candles. But first, a 17.77 mile bike ride to work up an appetite. In just one hour, I logged miles in at least six different California parks. The scenery was too nice to not take pictures!

It wouldn't be Christmas Eve without family, so in our best pandemic fashion, we had a four-way Zoom with all three kids, their spouses, and five grandkids. Geoff, Suzanne, Ryan and Sean reported in wearing Christmas PJ's inside a tent. (They were camping in the basement, just for practice.) Brian, Jen, and Rich checked in from Colorado, and described their traditional holiday excursions to the Denver Zoo and the Botanical Gardens, masked and properly distanced, of course. And Gabby, Mamal, Ava, and Sam won the prize for the coldest location: their house up in the Sierras, outside Truckee, CA. We had never before had all 13 family members in one room, physical or electronic. We need to do it again!

Zoom 1Zoom 2

Our next step for Christmas Eve celebration was the Cambridge Avenue tradition of lighting "luminaries", tea candles shaded in paper bags. This year, young neighbors Eloise and Hazel had taken over luminary-kit preparation from earlier generations of Avenue kids and they did a great job! Everyone in the neighborhood enjoyed taking pictures and getting in a little holiday chatting.

kits single landing lights
Nancy & Gene, Steve Joan, Vern, Knt, Gloria, Steve Blain, Rthan, Eloise, Hazel
Our houseGeri and Jim

After all this work and socializing, it was time to get down to the serious business of Christmas Eve. No, not opening presents (yet), but drinking and eating. Marianne splurged and made a fancy mixed drink, while I stuck with wine. I don't know if it is a taste difference, or just not having the patience for the chemistry involved with mixing. Bottle opening and pouring is easier.

mixing product toast

dinnerstollenFor dinner, we had one of our favorite menus: a spread of cheeses, bread, crackers, patè, obazter, sardines, and pickled carrots for vitamins. Dessert was a genuine, from-Germany, Dresden Stollen. It doesn't get any better.

Finally, we opened presents. We missed the chaos of kids and grandkids (and Mamo) all ripping wrapping at the same time, but we are as grateful as ever for the memories, even if only Marianne and I could be present for presents. (English is a STRANGE language.)

And that was Covid Day 286.

(This day in our history: 2005, Rothenburg ob der Tauber)

Friday, December 25, Christmas Day

This was another celebration for two, too quiet: rich holiday breakfast, read the Times, visit Vern, nice dinner, watch football. Empty cameras confirmed that nothing happened worth a visual record.

We learned that good friends have "the Covid". In mid-December, they broke out of their Sonora bubble for a trip to Las Vegas, not for gambling, but for their son's wedding. It was a small, masked, outdoor event. Now we learn, indirectly via Facebook, that Ted is in the hospital and Nancy is in hotel quarantine, fighting the condition. I've known Ted for over a half century, and we re-established contact when Marianne and I returned from Europe seven years ago. That's when we we met Nancy, a bubbly charmer who became one of Marianne's best art patrons. Both are older than we and, in a phrase we have learned in times of Covid, "in compromised health". We could not be more worried.

Also, a family member has been exposed to a positive case at the small medical office where she works. Her boss was showing "mild" symptoms and tested positive on Christmas Eve. The office had never been real strict with preventative measures and now we wait for more testing. The scourge is coming too close and, with the vaccine just starting roll-out, I wonder who will be the last soldier to die in this war, before the armistice can be signed.

In the evening, I found myself reading year-old diaries. December 2019 was a terrible time and January only somewhat better, but Marianne's chemo did finish and she learned to live with the side effects, most visibly her hair loss. Over the next month or two, hospital trips got farther apart and by March we could travel to Ava's birthday party, the last time we could all hug. Days later, on another short trip to meet with investment councilors and to visit an old friend, the walls of our tunnel were closing in and we hurried back home from an isolated mountain retreat. On March 14th, I counted Day 1 of our stay-at-home isolation, a hiatus that we thought would be over in a few months. Two hundred and eighty seven days later, we are still hoping the life pause will be over in a few months. But, we're healthy and in a far better state than one-year ago, so I will try to be positive.

(An index to Christmases past).

ps: We just got a text message from Nancy. She says Ted is getting better and should make it out of the hospital in a few days and her own symptoms remain mild. They hope to drive back home within the week. Thank God and state-of-the-art medicine.

Saturday, December 26, Covid Day 288art piec

It was time to work on being positive, including losing holiday pounds. We watched what we had for breakfast, especially for mine, and I took my turn on the Peloton to wear away even more calories. Marianne exercised with household chores and with making progress on her painting-on-paper. Lunch included jalapeño hamburgers with patties from Chase's Chop Shop, simple enough fare to be considered low calorie.

GabbysAfter lunch, we decided to take the Tesla-named-Carla out for a drive and get more experience with the driving automation features, starting with voice-command navigation: "Navigate to Gabby's Fruit Basket". Carla identified the little farm stand without hesitation. I have found voice command to be extra useful for the Tesla, since most "knobs and buttons" are just places on the big touch screen and not easy to use while driving. Elsewhere in our lives we have avoided Siri and Alexa voice assistants, but maybe we can learn after all.

Out on the highway, CA41 since we have no Interstates, I first clicked once on the shifting stalk for Traffic Aware Cruise Control (TACC) and again noted that it was like other modern cruise controls, capable, but not too remarkable. However, the road was too busy for me to experiment with getting the car to pass the car ahead by simply signaling for a lane change. Next time.

For the next level of automation, I clicked twice on the shifting stalk to select "Autosteer" and turned steering over to Carla. The system kept the car in the middle of my lane on straight sections or curved and would have passed cars in front by itself, except that they all kept moving out of our way on their own. Maybe they feared the Tesla-named-Carla. I passed up the chance to test out "navigate on autosteer" and let Carla take a left turn at the freeway-ending traffic light. Next time.

From our short amount of testing I could see how the automatic driving could reduce the stress of the long and boring highways we have out West, but I am a long way from trusting the automation in traffic or in crowds. (Statistically, the automated Tesla is about ten-times safer in these situations than average human drivers, a fact I can accept intellectually, even if not yet personally.) Next time. (Not even.)

Having completed our car test and our fruit and veggies shopping, we turned east into some of the low Sierra foothills. We have wandered on these roads before and there are always surprises.

First, we drove up onto Sumner Hill and ogled at the huge mansions.

mansion 1mansion 2

drivewaysoaringSome driveways were too long to even explore, unless one was airborne.

Our favorite wildlife were horses and these burrows (I think). When we stopped and approached the fence, they came over to see if we would offer snacks. I'll bet folks do that often enough that they expect it. Sorry, maybe next time.

burrows burrows 2
burrows 3 with tree

As the sun was going down, Marianne and I each tried to capture what we were seeing. Truthfully, the photos do not do justice to the scene. You need to see it in person. Next time.

mountains clouds hills
street clouds
silouette sunset

And with that, I felt we met our goal of staying positive.

(This day in our history: 2010, Home to Snow)

Sunday, December 27th, Covid Day 289

The goal was to keep watching weight and being positive. The Sunday morning routine was OK enough with a healthy breakfast and lots of news from papers and TV shows. I'm not sure news keeps us positive, but its not as negative a force as it has been for four years.

pathMy daily walk was short, through the empty Fresno Community College campus and up and down the almost-empty streets around us. Photo opportunities were slim. Trees and vines had colored or shed their leaves. A murder of crows made noise above. (I just HAD to work in that term.) When will Spring come back?


The rest of the day was as uneventful as we expected. I watched football and a little basketball. I started Michael J. Fox's latest autobiographical book, No Time Like the Future. The man is amazing, dealing with exceptional life difficulties using honesty, humor, and inspirational positivity.

Marianne stayed busy with Peloton, art study, and cooking. Maybe I should just cut and paste this daily for the next month or two, substituting "shopping" for "Peloton" every other day. Without trips and travel, routine has set in.

(This day in our history: 2013, Monte Sereno Christmas)

Monday, December 28, Covid Day 290

A better day than a year ago.

My day was pretty simple. In the morning I did some household tech-support and backed up my photo files (all 90,000) and two of our three computers. Then I jumped on the bike for city tours of Paris, Chicago, San Fransisco, Seattle, Buenos Aires, and Sidney. Travel with no masks and no risk. I filled the rest of the day reading the Michael J. Fox story, watching Monday Night Football, and studying pandemic progression (see below). I worry that I am getting too comfortable in not doing much.

dinner dogMarianne too had a routine day, substituting art supply shopping for her Peloton ride. Her art class activity was distracted by struggles with the Zoom and Facebook technology required for the remote class. She hangs in there and avoids asking me for help, partially because I'm not always good help and also because she recognizes self-teaching produces longer lasting lessons. I have to say both of us get tired of learning new technology in our senior years, as trite as that sounds.

There was no new technology preparing dinner. Hot dogs and leftovers were as welcomed as the more elaborate home-cooked meals I am normally gifted with. Thanks.

I still study the current pandemic to try to understand what's coming for us. I know we can just listen to Dr. Fauci, but self-teaching produces longer lasting lessons. There are tons of sources for data on COVID infection progression, but I tried to simplify and think in terms of very rough averages. It seems to me that symptoms, if one has them, show up about a week after exposure and then hospitalization, for the 10% who need it, shows up about a week after that. Death for 10 to 30% of the hospitalized arrives in another week.

The infection-hospitalization-death pattern after Thanksgiving roughly follows that pattern, and it is reasonable to expect similar patterns after the Christmas through New Years week. If so, COVID cases will climb through mid-January, hospitalizations through the third January week, and deaths by the month's end. Hopefully, all measures will drop significantly in February, from people learning the lessons of mask-less gathering. If vaccine deployment speeds up, that drop should be quicker, but we will still not return to the early summer (2020) numbers until March or April. Beyond that, incident rate decreases will depend on world-wide inoculation.

(This day in our history: 2006, Gabby visits Germany)

Tuesday, December 29, Isolation Day 291

Tuesday was so quiet I didn't even get around to scribbling a to-do list. That makes diaries harder because I have no "to-do" items getting crossed out and becoming "done" and subject to being recorded. Maybe nothing WAS done.

M rideNo, not completely. It was Marianne's turn on the Peloton and I snapped a picture of her and Christine, her favorite coach. I am glad that we have not abandoned our indoor bike riding because that could have easily happened. We have each settled into an every-other-day routine and even when we are not excited to start, we are always satisfied when we have finished.

After exercise and breakfast, Marianne's day was heavy on Zoom, starting with two morning art classes. This too is an element to her days that has had to be worked through. She enjoys the art part of her classes, especially the collaboration with Claudia and other artists, but she is not fond of the computer tool. Pandemic isolation has forced all sorts of changes, I suppose.

As for me, it was largely a writing and reading day. Small, light-on-excitement diaries are surprisingly difficult to write, but after almost 300 daily observations about our day-to-day Covid lives, I definitely feel obligated. Obligated to whom? Just Marianne and me I think, although, if it provides a distraction to a handful of others, that's good too.

My other "forced daily behavior" has been photography, again harder than one might expect. Standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon or on Yosemite's Glacier Point or on almost any rocky coastline, nice-enough pictures are easy. Walking around our not-dramatic town's streets is not very inspirational, especially on the 200th neighborhood stroll. On this Tuesday, I got in the car for a quick try at landscape panoramas of the neighboring foothills. My hope was that recent weather had painted the Sierras white behind the brown and green hills. Nope, not really, but at least it gave me a chance to drive the new car. We need to do this more.


After dinner it was time for Tuesday Zoom Cocktails. Adrienne missed, for the first time ever I think, but Rita did show up. We talked mostly about Covid coming close to us. Rita and Peter are waiting test results after receiving news of possible exposure from a friend's visit a couple of weeks ago. It's doubtful that the timing put them at risk, but these things worry us all. Months and months more of this will be very difficult.

That was Day 291

(This day in our history: Brewery Tour, 2006)

Wednesday, December 30, Covid Day 292

coffeeWe drove an hour away to buy two pounds of coffee at Mariposa Coffee Company. Why would we do that? Why not? In the current times, we have far more hours than available (= safe) destinations. On the way north, we tried more of the Tesla's "Autopilot" features, including a few miles where the car-named-Carla made the steering, speeding, and slowing decisions. That worked OK enough, but we still have lots of practice left to do before we just jump in and tell Carla: "drive to get coffee".

Back home, we took a call from Alex, our investment advisor. The amazing 2020 advancement of the stock market had unbalanced our portfolio, so the recommendation was to sell stocks and buy interest-bearing paper (mostly bonds). This may be about the only investment decision we make for another year, although I can not imagine 2021 being as good for stocks as 2020 was. What we really want is the opportunity to spend some of our retirement savings on travel. Hopefully we will be poorer a year from now.

Dinner came and went. I know that, because I have a picture. I have no other pictures of the day, so I guess nothing else happened.

That was Covid Day 292.

(This day in our history: 2008, Christmas Markets Summary)

Thursday, December 31, Pandemic Day 293, End of 2020

orangesThe quietest New Year's Eve ever -- for almost everyone, everywhere.

Our citrus orchard is bearing fruit, so I get to harvest. One orange tree was here when we moved in, so it is big and old and, this year, full of fruit. The five other trees we planted to decorate the back yard have started paying off as well. We end up with more grapefruit, oranges, lemons, and pomellos than we can eat and everything ripens around Christmas and New Year.

I got a Facetime call from friend Ted. He and Nancy were on the road from Las Vegas to Sonora, their home, and were in the process of recovering from COVID-19. A few-day get away to their son's wedding in early December turned into almost three weeks of what we are all trying to avoid. Ted was hospitalized for more than two weeks before he rejoined Nancy in hotel quarantine. Hopefully, what showed up in Vegas, stays in Vegas.John pourMarianne pour

We started celebrating the turn of the new year at midnight, Ukrainian and then German time: 3 and 4 pm our West Coast America time. We toasted with champagne, flavored a bit with lemoncella from one of our neighbors and thought about past New Year's celebrations. This was not the first time we had welcomed a new year with just the two of us, but I hope it will be the last for the next several years.cook


doneDinner was pizza, fancy puff pastry pizza. I don't know where the chef comes up with this stuff, but I do appreciate it. After eating, we chatted about the past year. Like most folks, we will not miss 2020 and we hope 2021 will bring a return to normalcy, albeit not exactly on New Year's Day.

That was the end of 2020 and Covid Day 293.

(This day in our history: 2005, Bamberg NY Eve)

The thought of being immunized against the 2020 scourge offers hope. Now, if we can just get the process to move along swiftly, for us elderly, but also for the more-exposed people in our medical facilities, stores, restaurants, and prisons.

Just a little more patience.