A Month of Sundays

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Photo by Sally Mann

When I was growing up, Sundays were different. No 24/7 anything, not even television. Stores were closed, so many that it wasn’t worth going shopping. 

Church services stretched on for hours, my neck choked by my collar and the clip-on tie. 

Afternoons meant an equally endless dinner with my grandmothers. I liked seeing them. But I could never understand, as a kid, why people would want to sit around the roast and talk forever.

That left a few scant hours of daylight. Other kids on my block were generally stuck with their parents, so no games. Maybe I’d read. In elementary school, I did my best to forget the homework I had left undone.

I hated Sundays. The boredom flattened me.

At the same time, Sundays offered a pause. Dads, invisible during the week, were out in jeans or khakis, doing dad things like fixing the Ford. The moms seemed happier. All you’d hear was the clank of metal on concrete when our neighbor dropped a tool in his garage. Or the inevitable drone of a single-engine airplane.

As evening fell, mild anxiety about Monday would gradually rise like floodwater.  Even as an adult, Sunday evenings would pull me down, the way swampy mud pulls on your boots. No question, the worst night of the week, and the one when insomnia might pay a visit.

Mondays were easier. You went to work. As a kid, I might face my teacher’s wrath. As an adult, I powered through whatever had been keeping me up the night before.

Under our lockdown lite®, we’re living those Sundays all over again. Kids ride bikes. Dads tinker in the yards. Old couples trudge hand in hand through the park. The evenings especially are deeply, even eerily quiet. The main difference is that liquor stores are open and churches, closed.

In real life, that is, offline, away from the video clips and headlines, it’s calm. Almost boring, you’d say, but soaked with underlying dread.

Now we’re waiting, at least here, in Colorado. The case loads and the deaths are growing. But it’s neither New York nor Italy, Wuhan nor Spain. Whatever’s coming hasn’t hit yet.

But Monday’s right around the corner.

For now,  I’m focused on the present, on slow walks in the park and quick visits to the grocery store. 

And wondering how or what might be the best way to face whatever Monday brings. 

The Social Distance Dance

You’re walking.

They’re walking.

Probably for the same reasons: health, cabin fever, wondering if you’ll be allowed to leave the house in a few days. Or, for fun. To surface from the media soup and breath a little fresh air.

And as you approach each other on the winding path, you make quick, nervous eye contact. You head right, veering off the asphalt to the grass. So does the other person. Sometimes you get a cheery, apologetic hello. Sometimes a reproachful glance. Some mothers actually start shoeing their kids away from your direction.

The older the person, the wider the distance.

Even though you’re doing the same, it still feels personal. It’s not. You know it isn’t, not exactly.

But it sure is strange to feel like a leper.

So far: 22 March 2020

photo by tim timothy roessler

We have 38 confirmed Covid-19 cases today in Boulder. That number makes the measures taken so far seem melodramatic and disproportionate. But, we have the tragic example of Italy to learn from.

Families crowd the parks. Moms, dads, and the kids march along, the parents a bit haggard, the children aimless and disorderly, veering off to bang sticks or chase geese. As you approach, the adults will belt out a hearty hello, but shy away to maintain the proper  distance.

Older couples stride with purpose. They’ve read the same articles I have about boosting the immune system with sunshine and fresh air, and they seem determined to charge every single cell with as much health as possible.

By contrast, the Pearl Street Mall is dead. On a weekend afternoon, it’s usually crowded with tourists, families, buskers, balloon blowers, green-haired millennials, and hipsters of every stripe. Now only a few people stroll along the bricks.

Without people in front of them, the buildings look unfamiliar. Without the weekend crowds, the homeless seem to have taken over the mall. It’s about one-to-one, homeless to housed.

Only a few businesses are open. A Mexican restaurant offers takeouts at the windows. So does a pizza place. A candy shop and a poster store still welcome customers. Every other store is shut with variations of the same notice taped to the door.

Two bars blast boomer-era rock over empty terraces. It makes things more melancholy than you’d think. Like an off season resort, barren but projecting cheerfulness.

All around, it’s oddly quiet. Traffic noise has dwindled to nearly nothing. As a friend said, it’s like the quiet of a snow day when everyone just stays home.

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.

Friday the Thirteenth, Part One

The night before, my son reconnoitered the local Target and Safeway. Panic shoppes had stripped the shelves, a fact he recorded on Instagram.

But we had a dinner party planned for a couple of friends — a notion that already seems quaint. So, I decided to do some grocery shopping, but at a local health food chain. This store, unlike others in Boulder, offers friendly service, calm aisles, cheap prices and customers who exude full-on mellow vibes along with patchouli. The staff mostly looks as if they drifted away from a Pre-Raphaelite painting, only they’re less well dressed.

Cars packed the parking lot. I walked in, and all the carts had been taken. Each of the registers were going full tilt, with long lines snaking down the aisles.

I looked at my list, a short one. I glanced at the now infamous pasta shelves. Picked bare, except for orecchetti, and bow-tie pasta. Why don’t people like the odd-shaped noodles, anyway? Canned soups, gone. Ramen, gone. Most of the rest of the items still stood on the shelves, though, or were being restocked by the staff.

People kept their cool. They minded their manners. But, no one strolled or loitered. The shoppers focused. Eyes snapped left and right to assess the half-empty or bare shelves. Quiet urgency ruled. A father and son wore surgical masks.

And it was quiet. Still, like a stench, fear floated in the air. It clung to me the way cigarette smoke used do, stinking up the clothes. I had to make a deliberate effort to not let the atmosphere suck me in. A severely claustrophobic sensation. And I don’t really suffer from claustrophobia.

Once in line, I waited. It was about nine yards long, snaking past the Elderberry syrup display, which claimed it was good for your immune system.

The two women behind me began to chat. In Boulder, this is as unusual as empty shelves in supermarkets. Hardly anyone ever talks with strangers in a checkout line. But the middle aged woman with earnest brown eyes who seemed as if she had joined us from a village in Sicily, was saying that we didn’t have the right to judge other people’s reaction to the virus.

“We don’t know,” she said. We don’t know if they’re immune system is compromised or if they have their grandma living with them.

The other woman nodded. She was in her twenties, probably, good posture, an oval face, large eyes, a Byzantine madonna come to life, oddly enough.

Together we worried about waiters and the other workers who would be certain to lose their jobs.

And actors, I said, and all the theatre companies that had to close.

At this, Madonna perked up even more. “I produce dance events,” she said. I asked if they’d cancelled, and she said yes.

“But were working on doing it online — making it kinda different? A new thing, maybe interactive? We’re still going to do it. One way or another.”

We commiserated a bit longer.

“Maybe it’s good,” Madonna said. “Maybe it’s good that everyone just stays home and reads a book and takes a bath.”

“Right,” said the Sicilian. 

“Maybe it’s what we need to remind us that we’re in it together. To help each other out. And maybe we’ll take time to think about things — remember what’s really important.”

“Maybe,” I said.