Crises: A Short List (and a prayer)


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(Boulder graffiti 18 March 2020)


This isn’t my first rodeo. I’m old enough, now, to have seen a few things. Nothing as vast as World War I or the Russian Revolution, but a few events that disrupted the calm, even in my country club country. Here’s a short list:

AIDS. Epochal. Looking back, the impact is the largest, up until now, of my lifetime. As a person who worked in theatre and who hung out with a lot of artists, I knew several men who died gruesome deaths in their early 20s. Gone too soon.

Sex changed forever. In my college days, the worst disease you could pick up could be cured with a round of antibiotics. Condoms were optional. The dangers were emotional, not biological. We enjoyed unbelievable freedom, and many of use took as much advantage of that liberty as possible.

Then herpes blossomed. A nasty little foreshadow, but, still, not a death sentence. 

Then AIDS, making casual sex seem like an invitation to plague, to IV-catered torture and the Reaper. Now, later, we learned that straight people were less at risk. But we lost a generation to a cruel disease, the culture changed, and the roots of our neo-Victorian dread of pleasure began to take hold. 

We will never know what we lost as a culture from all those early deaths.

1987. I was teaching English in Paris, poor, and happily writing poetry. I learned about the crash in the Place St. Michel by reading the headlines of Le Monde in a kiosk. For a second, I wondered if I would go home, or if it would be better to stay in France. Would it be a little too much like Henry Miller in the 1930s?

Everything returned to normal a few days later.

Y2K. The world was supposed to end. Experts advised us to stay home on New Year’s Eve. Cancelled events littered the calendar. People stockpiled water and cash, in case ATMs stopped working. 

I went to a party. At midnight, we held our breath despite ourselves. And … nothing happened. Just some firecrackers.

Now, a lot of techies spent hours of overtime correcting the flaws. Y2K wasn’t bogus. But the hard work paid off.

The Dot-Com Crash. This one hit hard. I was a creative director for iXL, a large —too large, as it turned out—Internet consultancy. iXL paid for its acquisitions by issuing shares of stock to the management of the agencies it acquired. I had a decent chunk. The company went public in late January, 2000. The price per share went up to $82.

We couldn’t sell, of course. But a few of us met in our offices and glowed. We were not filthy, fuck-you rich, but we were suddenly, intoxicatingly pretty damned well off. College for the kids! A new car!! Maybe a even place in the mountains!!!

On paper, anyway, it looked great.

By June, the stock sank to $40 a share, and kept dropping. Sales dried up.

In September, the first waves of layoffs hit. I was out of that job with the glossy office on the seventeenth floor. The stock fell farther, only worth a few bare pennies. and then it was worse than worthless: It was a stinging reminder of folly and excess.

9/11. Flags up and down the street on the porches of my neighborhood. Dread in the air, patriotism, too, a sense of unity. I was grateful I had savings, because I knew it’d be a lot longer until I found work in my profession.

2008. I had a fat contract freelancing. My friends who also worked independently warned me that work was drying up. Then the crisis hit. The company I was working for already said I could either stay as a contractor and be replaced or take a job. I took the job. My boss was wonderful, and I liked the team. The canned peaches stayed on the shelf, unopened.

But my savings shrank 30 percent.

H1N1. No recollection of this at all. Sad, but true

SARS. A moment of detached concern for all those poor Asians. Something I barely remember.

MERS. Same as SARS.

All of these crises came with the direst warnings. The worst predictions — of corpses piled in the streets, of mass die offs, of Mad Max hell scapes — did not come to pass.  I worked through all of them, not by being especially smart or virtuous, but because of the hard efforts of others and the resilience of a set of systems.

My good fortune in pulling through these comes from the hard work of my parents, my grandparents, and of unseen thousands. Not really my own efforts. Not flipping out isn’t exactly worth a medal.

I’ve seen enough that I tend to under-react to reports of any crisis. This is especially true lately, when sober news outlets have morphed into great shrieking Cassandras of click-bait.

Given all that, sure, I paid attention to Wuhan. But I couldn’t say it affected me deeply. I traveled to Paris anyway. Asian tourists wore surgical face masks, but they often do. 

I assumed COVID 19 would be like SARS: horrible, but ultimately contained in Asia. In France, I read reports of Xenophobia and indiscriminate fear of Asians — any Asian, whether a tourist or a citizen, Korean or Chinese. A headline of a provincial paper even referred to “Yellow Peril.” (The headline was promptly denounced.) Still, you could see signs in the window in Belleville restaurants that read “Vietnamese NOT Chinese” so customers wouldn’t be scared away.

My son shared videos that leaked out of China: hazmat suits and empty streets, vast warehouse-like hospitals, grotesque happy-happy group exercises lead by spacemen-like creatures. Feel-good banners in red and white on the walls of the hospital. The hospital itself looked like a cheap warehouse, more like a Home Depot than a medical facility.

As disturbing as all this was, it remained impersonal. A world away in a place full of tragedies.

And, the numbers seemed relatively small. Not to play Stalin, but more than a few deaths tend to become statistics. It’s shameful, but I admit to thinking that way. 

I read the statistics about deaths from other causes in the US: more than 34,000 per year by vehicles, about 80,000 by the regular flu. About 100 per day from opioid overdoses. With numbers like those, even the mortality rate in China didn’t seem so terrible.

In South Korea, the rapid and effective government action seemed to work. Koreans, in just the last few generations, have lived through the Japanese occupation, World War II, a massive war on their own soil, an authoritarian government, a bloody uprising, and the disruptions of hyper-capitalism. Perhaps this accounts for the stoicism and determination with which they faced the virus.

Then COVID 19 spread to Italy and Spain.

And I knew I was wrong. Dead wrong. My first inklings came in the first week of March. 

For once, the superlatives apply. Unique. Unprecedented. No one can say what will come next. Bars stayed open during the Civil War. You could still dance during the Depression. In World War II, you could sip a coffee in a café. 

Contagion and a global financial crisis. 

The world has changed. A new chapter opens. I wonder what I can bring, and what I can offer.

I feel fortunate. My own family offers fine examples. My grandmothers lived through the worst of the Great Depression. Their stoicism, their matter-of-fact manner of dealing with things, and, yes, their frugality are lessons I cherish. They were fiercely loyal to their families. My Grandmother Earle had a large-spirited concern for the less fortunate, and had a life-long admiration for the idealism of Eleanor Roosevelt.

I only know my grandfathers by their reputations. One walked 10 miles to work a for a dollar a day during the Depression. The other taught school, recited poetry, took care of his young family and fought for the New Deal. I’ll do my best to follow their examples. 

My mother-in-law survived the Leningrad blockade, Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev. She’s still alive, indomitable and unfazed, even now. She didn’t compromise, ever. And she’s not so worried at the moment.

In tenth grade, my gifted English teacher Andy Garbart introduced us to the works of Ernest Hemingway and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Mr. Garbart taught all of us, boys and girls, about the importance of showing grace under pressure. And of doing one thing each day that frightened us, a principle drawn from Emerson.

These are people I know, and whom I have in my blood. Other examples — so many —abound. Too many to choose from, the brave and beautiful who have blessed us with their lives and their work. Socrates, Plato, Marcus Aurelius, Joan of Arc, Rabelais, Michelangelo, Montaigne, Beethoven, Goethe, Tolstoy, Rimbaud, Van Gogh, T.E. Lawrence, Malraux, Lorca, Mandlestam, Beckett, Solzhenitsyn… the list is long and grows even longer with the more you read and learn. 

I’ll do my best to be cheerful, calm, grounded, and generous. I’ll fail, of course, but I’ll try to fail better. 

And we’ll take this thing one step at a time.

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