I’m not a Christian, although I was raised in the Church and was a religious child. I lost my faith when puberty hit. C.S. Lewis stopped making sense, and I took all the wrong lessons from Dostoyevsky’s characters.
But I still like to observe the holidays one way or another. I read Bible chapters, check out the Book of Common Prayer, put Bach on, and look at paintings.
Nearly everything but attending an actual church.
So I was looking at reproductions of Mantegna, whose Dead Christ is one of the greatest paintings ever made. Then I found his version of the resurrection. Two versions, in fact.
His painting of the resurrection is more traditional and triumphant. Christ, surrounded by angels, rises from the tomb, golden rays radiating from him. Clearly, a divine presence. And it’s a masterful painting.
I also found his drawing of the resurrection. It may have been a preliminary study.
I prefer the drawing.
Here, Jesus is the least resurrected in any art work I’ve ever seen.
He bears the traces of his sufferings on the cross. His eyes are sad, as if He can’t forget the souls He saw when He harrowed Hell. Deep lines score His face.
The tensions between the humanity of Jesus and the divinity of the Son of God are hard to understand. It’s one of those mysteries the priests and preachers like to explain, but it’s completely paradoxical. Artists tend to paint Jesus as unmarked. He’s a man, 33, but idealized, and depicted as more the way the Greeks portrayed their gods.
In Mantegna’s drawing, though, you see Jesus, or rather, Yeshua of Nazareth, a man. A man who’s worked hard going up and down Israel for three years, then was tortured, and then was executed with one of the most excruciating methods possible.
It’s a truthful drawing. It shows an experience I can understand, and this work reveals a history that leaves marks behind which even the miracle of the resurrection cannot erase.
When the evacuation alarm sounded we were already packing.
Saturday, the sun burned unusually hot for March. A dry wind had blown steadily, chapping lips and blowing caps into the street. On our way home, we saw a column of grey and brown smoke rising over the hill to the west of our house.
We said: Not again.
And, we said: already?
In the spring?
Snow fell just last Monday.
As we drove up the block to our house, men stood in the street staring hard at the billows of smoke. With the fire that close – a mile at most and the wind blowing in our direction–we figured we’d pull some things together and track down the cat.
Just in case.
In tense situations, I shut down, focus, and fall into a kind of tunnel vision. I become formal with an occasional tinge of irritability. Even if I say so myself, I’m good at projecting calm while getting sick children to emergency rooms, sopping up my friend’s blood, dealing with heart attacks, that kind of thing. But:
“Any idiot can face a crisis; it’s this day-to-day living that wears you out.”
Filing taxes stresses me out much more than evacuating before a life-threatening inferno. Who knows why?
We packed the cat, the overnight bags, a bin of photo albums, a case with our important documents, and left. I immediately pulled into a huge traffic jam so slow that it took 25 minutes to drive three long city blocks. (Preppers, take note: Plan your escape route ahead of time. And maybe buy one of those heavy-duty scooters.)
Once safely out of reach of the traffic, I looked around at all the people walking, driving, shopping, and going about their usual business. As if nothing was happening. I felt like a sailor washed up on shore from some cataclysmic shipwreck only to be greeted by a fat man in shorts licking an ice cream cone.
It would be ridiculously melodramatic to make a big deal out of my little evacuation fandango. We were at home, luckily, so we could grab our things. The wind changed direction. Firefighters had the experience of the all-too-recent Marshall Fire to draw upon. The weather cooperated, and the emergency teams won effective control of the blaze in a day.
What’s more, my experience is common. Nearly every week a flood hits, a tornado strikes, a hurricane blows, or a fire incinerates acres of land.
Because of climate change, we’ve all pitched our tents on the slopes of a volcano, whether we like it or not. Without knowing it, I’d made an unconscious bargain with the universe: if I live in a generally safe place, I should enjoy security. If I don’t, for example, live in a flood plain, or by the ocean or deep in the forest far away from help, I should be okay. If you build on sand, that’s on you. If you build on rock, then you’ll be fine.
That’s not the case anymore. The unspoken bargain changed. I look at the pines and spruces and waving grasses differently now. The jade mountains with their rose-colored outcroppings hold more than scenic beauty.
As I drove away, I imagined all our things going up in smoke: flames eating my books and CDs, roasting my cameras and photo albums, incinerating the grandfather clock my great-grandparents brought over from Scotland, the hand sewn quilts my mother made, and the toys and paintings from my children’s early years.
The chance that they would turn into cinders and ash saddened me, but a small part of me felt relief. Finally. Rid of all that stuff.
It forced me to consider: What do you really own? And: What’s truly valuable?
I had to answer that you don’t own anything, you only rent it, and you pay the lease with your time and labor.
What determines value is the difficulty of replacing something. Irreplaceable items are the photos, for example, or the object that holds some meaning beyond itself.
More than that, though, I remembered Bruce Chatwin’s writings on nomads. Perhaps we’re not meant to own more than we can easily move ourselves. Perhaps agriculture was indeed the primal sin, the Fall from the Garden of Eden.
What do you need more than a sturdy pair of boots and the right clothing for the weather? And nomads make beautiful art, some of the best in the world, but they’re able to carry it with them, either in their souls or their packs.
I was happy to return to my house with its comforts, its chairs and books, my daughter’s prints, and my son’s piano.
Looking back on 2021, I have to think hard about when it began or what happened. It feels arbitrary to slice a period up with names and numbers. I figure we’re still in Year One which started whenever COVID-19 hit your place hard. For me, that’d be 15 March 2020.
We barely shook off the pandemic last spring — I think it was last spring? 2021? Yeah, last spring when, during the heady days of the initial vaccinations, it looked as if things would return to the way they’d been. We went from that strange muted time of lockdowns, to a brief and fun flare up of bonhomie, back to a diminished normal.
The seasons are blurring into each other, too. In Colorado, we receive most of our snow in March and often in April. We had a wet spring, then a summer that lasted until a few days ago when it became winter again.
And that’s what it feels like in my memory — certain times are drawn out, others compressed.
Events happened. Boy, did they happen. My county was hit by two horrors: a mass shooting and just now, a conflagration that devoured an entire suburb.
You can rattle on all you want about the uncertainty of life, especially when you read existentialists in college. I read Heraclitus. Life is change. I get it, you tell yourself. Then you go off to have an espresso, filled with the self-loving fatuousness of youth, calm in the face of the decay and deaths you have no real conception of.
But when a real and shocking change happens in your life and the life of your city, it shakes you up. Grief strikes.
Both events seemed unlikely. And yet, utterly predictable. We have lax gun control laws that enable a man who’s unfit to stand trial to buy an assault weapon, no problem! And yeah, those record temperatures combined with a record drought? That just might cause a problem when a spark hits the brittle, bone-dry grass in a windstorm.
In retrospect, the shooting and the fire seem inevitable. We haven’t acted to solve either gun control or climate change. And, no, I’m not sure who “we” are. I suppose I mean the people in power — those ogres of greed, the drooling monsters who won’t take some simple measures of self preservation because it would mean shaving a few cents off their treasure trove.
And the voters who buy their lies and keep putting the stooges back in power.
And those damn coal-fired plants in China that keep me in cheap consumer goods.
And me, too.
Gun control and climate change seem like issues you’d want to take seriously, even from your bunker in New Zealand or your office in the Capitol. I guess oligarchs don’t read John Donne. The bloated poseurs in Congress skipped some key verses in that Bible they like to wave around when they’re not busy corrupting the Republic.
For myself and the people I care about most, 2021 has been okay — ups and downs. These fall into the regular category of life being one damned thing after another. In my extended family and circle of friends, it’s been rough. Some died. Others were diagnosed with cancer. Another had a heart attack, but recovered.
Applying business methodologies to your life is weird and reductive. “In Q2, after careful measurement, I decided to log three more hours a week at Level 2 cardio, make two more friends and take up soldering as a break from my crypto hustle.” Perhaps if I took that sort of thing seriously, I’d be farther along.
Anyway, it’s good to reflect and think, yes, but don’t use a grid or spreadsheet. Please.
People — bloggers, and influencers and gurus, oh my! — like to list What They Learned in 2021. I don’t have many insights. But I’ll pass a couple along: A few days ago, I wished our pharmacist in Paris bonnes fêtes — happy holidays. She returned the greeting. Then she looked out of the window, paused, and said, “We should live every day like it’s a holiday.”
She said this with a dark, grim edge. One that tells you she’s someone who’s been through some trouble, and that she’s someone who knows that life changes in an instant.
So: Live every day like it’s a holiday.
And, a friend of mine wrote, “Abandonnez les souhaits que ne se realisent jamias et vivez vos désirs” (“Give up on wishes which never come true and live according to your desires.”)
It feels strange, doesn’t it? The end of summer. The sun sets earlier, and a merciful cool sets in, but it is not the chill of autumn. Children troop by on their way to school bent over with those impossibly overloaded backpacks. Too soon. School should start in September.
The summer’s almost over. This time has always been liminal. Waiting for the new school year: What will it be like? Will my teachers be nice? Will I meet a beautiful girl? The promises of May and June have either been fulfilled or cancelled or more likely been delivered with a twist of irony. You did have an affair, but she called it off when you didn’t expect it. You took that epic road trip, but the treasure you found wasn’t under the rainbow after all.
I feel this season, this waiting more keenly now than ever. The vaccine offered the possibility of a return to life as we knew it. I remember the sensation of relief after the second shot: I’m free. The virus can’t get me, no sir. I’ve been double vaxxed.
And especially in June, we bathed in a hectic vitality. Everyone left home. We went out, and each individual seemed marvelous, worth of attention and curiosity. We used our outside voices, like a person going deaf.
HOW ARE YOU? COOL!! IT’S SO GREAT TO SEE YOOOUUUU!!!!
Strolling on Pearl Street Mall — the local pedestrian street in the center of town — was like a giant caress. Those new faces! And everyone so happy. They always seemed as interested and charmed by you as you were by them. It was like floating on a sea of dopamine.
That was June. Before the heat. Before the smoke from another summer of wild fires made Denver the most polluted city on the plant.
Before the Delta variant.
I guessed wrong. I thought another summer of love would explode, with a frenzied return to the fabled 1920s fueled by the rush to connect and the proximity to death. “Look, we have come through.”
It didn’t work out that way.
A surprisingly large number of my friends and family think that the vaccine itself is equivalent to the mark of Satan, as described in the Book of Revelation. Or, that wearing a mask indoors is like collaborating with the Sturmabteilung in 1938. How did that happen? I remember back in the day — oh, 2019 or so — when these people seemed practical and a little boring.
One guy told me his friends said the vaccine would turn you into a zombie. I guess he didn’t know that’s what television is for. Or that, actually, zombies are myth.
Another said the vaccine would kill your soul. I might’ve lost my soul in the late 1990s, or perhaps it was finally sucked out of me in a shopping mall when the background music played The Carpenters. I don’t know. But the last time I checked my theology and Plato, the soul is supposed to be a little more durable. If you believe in a soul, that is.
On the other hand, people returned to wearing masks inside of cars and outdoors on trails. So far, not even Dr. Fauci recommends this. Also: care doesn’t confer immortality. Both my parents were conscientious about taking precautions. They died. We all die. Masks aren’t voodoo charms.
I wash my hands thoroughly. Again. I leave the house with a mask. Again. In the midst of my own dismay, I remind myself of the 600,000 Americans who’ve died and the nastiness of long Covid, and then feel thankful I haven’t contracted the virus yet.
And I’m stuck Hamletizing. Again. Do I go or not? I miss watching movies and plays, and seeing live performers giving their all under stage lights in a ballet or in a band. I don’t care about shopping so much, and it’s quick: in out, done. But once again, you weigh the risks of being indoors for longer than, say 15 minutes. It’s not the worst burden, but it’s stale.
When I look around, I can tell the pandemic and the lockdowns have warped people. They’re wolfing down conspiracy theories or seething with rage at anti-vaxxers. All of us have grown awkward around each other. Only the Swedes seem to have factored in the social costs of lockdowns, but they didn’t manage the pandemic very well either. Still, those costs are real and maybe permanent. How much more damage can we sustain?
In the welter of confusion and uncertainty, the season will end. Seasons are bigger than we are and don’t care about our feelings. I’ll work hard to remain humane and as Stoic as possible in the face of things. No whiners, my dad said.
Perhaps that was toxic masculinity. I’m working on intoxicating masculinity these days, but that wouldn’t include whimpering or wailing. Not a good look.
Instead, I’m looking forward to crisp air, changing leaves, and even the coming winter. The fall sharpened by uncertainty and the undercurrent of dread. I’ll embrace that as best I can.
I started “playing” violin in third grade. My school had free instruments, and an orchestra class that met three times a week.
And I was lousy. I didn’t practice much. Practicing involved several simultaneous levels of pain. The sounds I made — the squeaks, squawks, caterwauling, and scratchings tortured me. The noise resembled nothing I heard on records. And, yes, every now and then our pet German Shepard would howl. In pain. Right on cue as I ground out a scale or two.
Apart from the ear torture, practicing bored me. And when it didn’t bore me, making repeated mistakes frustrated me.
The violin may be one of the hardest, if not the hardest instrument to learn. You have to learn correct fingering. Plonk down that finger a whisker away from the right spot and, ouch, it hurts the ears, it does. By comparison, with the piano, you land your finger on the right key, and at least it’s in tune. So, the fingering’s tough. Then you have to coordinate that with bowing, and that isn’t easy either.
By comparison, you can learn three chords on a guitar and strum out a lot of excellent songs. You can cut a cool figure playing, I dunno, Hey Jude around a campfire, work up a repertoire of folk songs or Coldplay hits. It’ll take you two years — at least! — of diligent practice on the violin before you sound good enough for any one to let you within a hundred miles of a campfire.
In elementary school, the orchestra teacher was a mustached teddy bear of a man. He beamed and wrapped us in the sunshine of his happiness. He encouraged us. God alone knows what we sounded like as we scraped through “Flow Gently Sweet Afton”, but he made us feel like virtuosos.
(All of this — the free instruments, the musical instruction, a string orchestra in elementary school has mostly vanished now, thanks to tax cuts, greed, and the general philistinism that seems to rule our society. And whenever I read about some hedge fudge manager with, say, a $650 shower curtain, I think, gee, that could’ve paid for a clarinet at a public school. But I digress.)
Crushed and a Crush
That changed with junior high. Mr. Shadwell directed the orchestra. He was a slim, elegant man, handsome, with the piercing blue eyes of a movie star. Mr. Shadwell had standards. He had ambitions. And he dedicated himself to making the best music possible.
Whenever I made a mistake, Mr. Shadwell would train those burning-tungsten bright blue eyes on me and scorch me to my marrow. I could never understand how, in that huge wail of sound, he knew instantly that it was I who had hit the note flat when it should have been sharp. Uncanny.
Then he’d ask me to play the offending passage, just to be sure it was me.
It always was.
Mr, Shadwell told me to get private lessons. My parents agreed, and I ended up in a closet-sized space in the back of a piano dealership in the Bear Valley Shopping Mall with Mr. Sam Chernyk.
All I knew about Mr. Chernyk was that he played in the Denver Symphony, so he had to be good, and that he had an unusual accent. Long nose, snapping green eyes, bald, and about the same height I was in seventh grade — 5’ 4’’. He smelled, somehow comfortingly, of sweat and had a funny habit of hitching up his belly before making a point — a move I’ve never encountered anywhere else.
To my dismay and wonderment, he would take up his violin and make ungodly lovely, melting sounds right in front of my eyes. Out of the very piece I was massacring.
Now I realize he must have been one of the lucky ones to make it out of Eastern Europe in time. Commies, Nazis, — who knows who he escaped from to land in the middle of the US.
Only to be tortured by the likes of me.
Paralyzed with fear, I shut down and squeaked out notes, mechanical as the metronome on the shelf. That itself is a sin against the nature of the violin. He was patient. Mostly.
Poor Mr Chernyk must have wondered if emigrating was worth it after all if he had to sit with this mulish pupil every week. But he seemed to have had an easy sardonic outlook on life. I guess he managed.
In the brief periods when I worked on the pieces, I’d improve. What a surprise. When that happened, it shocked everyone — me, Mr. Chernyk, and especially Mr. Shadwell. My progress seemed to annoy them as much as my laziness.
At the time, this offended me. C’mon guys, I’m kinda decent with this, can’t you be a little happier? Now, I can see it as a case of my displaying most irritating quality of all: when someone can do better, but doesn’t.
Why? Oh, why?
So, why? Why did I drain my poor parent’s savings account for lessons? Why did I hang on to the damned violin?
Without being too melodramatic about it, Beethoven saved my life. Wagner, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky, too. Classical music (and the books I read) offered an escape, a place far away from the grind of classrooms and clocks, of teachers and the thousands of petty insults that rain down on you as a kid. I wanted to be part of that.
So if you’d asked me, and if I’d reflected on it, I would’ve said: I love the music, and have faith that if I just keep at it, sooner or later the noise I make will sound more like the music I listen to on the stereo.
And to play inside an orchestra — to feel that music all around you and to know you are, even in your own lame and pathetic way, a part of that rush of sound — is completely intoxicating. We played some good music in junior high and high school: Vivaldi, Copland, Beethoven, Haydn, Sibelius. To be in the middle of that, bringing old Ludwig van to glorious life with your own damned fingers sends you to a special place, a heaven built with the work of everyone around you.
Also, and this is important, too: I adored Kay, our concert mistress. Not only did she have a heart-shaped face, ash blonde hair and Brittany bay sea-blue eyes, but she played violin like an angel. It was hard to believe we played the same instrument. Mr Shadwell, our orchestra teacher would have her play out tricky passages as examples. She always delivered with poise and singing sounds.
Right in front of my eyes, Kay drew heavenly, luscious tones from her violin. So, I knew it was possible — and not just for a virtuosos like Jascha Heifetz.
Kay was, in fact, one of the best student violinists in Colorado. She won prizes, solo’d often. She deserved it, too.
Or course, I had a massive crush on her. I looked forward to seeing her every day. Just the chance to gaze on her got me through geometry and gym class. Because I was in a serious religious phase and out of respect to her, I tried not to notice that Kay, under the prim blouses she always wore, was, as my mother would say, maturing early. I failed.
Pathetically, I didn’t act on my infatuation. Rarely, I managed to smile and choke out a desperate hello to her. Back then, I was cursed with a complexion that flushed easily, and I remember how my cheeks and ears would flush every time around her.
I wanted to hold her hand, propose marriage, carry her away, but your options as a 12 year old are limited, even if you act on your desires. I didn’t. The the gap between us seemed too great. I was mere stinky clay with thick, clumsy fingers. I had nothing to offer her then but my puppy love, and I instinctively knew that would not be enough.
The End of the Affair
I moved on to tenth grade. Because of a desegregation plan, Kay and I ended up in different high schools. We lost touch.
In high school, I changed my approach. Instead of ignoring work I didn’t want to do, I made a token effort. I turned in assignments and even did algebra homework for the first time. I practiced the violin a bit more. By simply running through my pieces with Mr. Chernyk and doing a few Czerny études, I got better at the violin.
None of this was out of new-found diligence. Slothful me finally realized that life was much easier if you did enough work to keep everyone off your back. Now, I’d always worked hard at subjects I liked. But it didn’t feel like work to read literature or study history or even learn a language.
It’s painful but necessary to face up to one’s own limitations. I believe in innate talent. Some people simply have a knack for calculus, or Mozart sonatas, or drawing still lifes. Sure, you can make up for deficiency of talent with hard work, but unless you have some sort of bare minimum to begin with, face it: You’re doomed. That 10,000 hours of work idea only applies if you’ve got that intangible something to begin with.
Often, when people talk about high school, they’ll talk about how the realized they’d never be a major league baseball star. That insight would lead them to something else, usually their true calling.
Classical music is more rigorous than sports, by far. No one bats 1000, or sinks every basket. But even a mediocre musician must play perfectly, every time. I realized I’d never be even a middling player, let alone good at the instrument.
Luckily, by the time I hit ninth grade, I’d found other things I was much better at than playing the violin. I was cast as the lead in school plays. I carried a notebook around and wrote poetry (for which there is no real modern standard). I was an aesthete and smart ass, and I read Camus, goddammit. So my bruised ego found satisfaction in softer places.
And I stopped torturing my poor instrument.
But I’m glad I studied the violin. I wish I’d worked harder at it. Sometimes I even think of picking it up again. Mostly, I’m grateful for the lessons it taught me.
When I lived in Paris the first time, I taught English. Most of my students — all but one, in fact — were Japanese.
My friend Eric, smarter than me and very kind, too, suggested that I target Japanese expatriates in Paris.
It worked. Students signed up to learn good American conversational English, and I earned enough to buy red wine, Président camembert, roll-your-own tobacco, as well as yogurt and beef heart. And that was enough for me.
One of my best students was Yukinori Tanada, a man of real brilliance and impeccable style. He’d trained to be an architect, then transitioned into management consulting. He treated my girlfriend and me to magnificent meals of sushi or canard roti, and even drove us to the town where van Gogh died. In short, a prince.
Several months into my sojourn in Paris, a close friend visited. Emily’s an artist, a spontaneous and intense personality. Also, it’s fair to say that she owns more curiosity and sincerity than tact. Or at least, she did back then.
I took the opportunity to host a party with my Japanese students and her in my cramped apartment on rue St. André des Arts. My other students were less polished than Mr. Tanada, less cosmopolitan, but sincere and very sweet, and they all spoke English well.
Although we ended up knee-to-knee and the conversation had a stilted and oddly literary quality, we had a fine time. My friend and my actual girlfriend must have seemed exotic to them. Emily, a green-eyed blonde, towered above all the Japanese students, male or female.
In the freedom of gestures and her movement and conversation, she suddenly seemed completely American to me — in the best way. My actual girlfriend, an alluring Russian beauty, was quite charming herself, and she enchanted the boys.
Things went well; the wine flowed. It pleased me to see everyone getting on, speaking English with facility, finding topics in common.
Then Emily leaned down to the knot of Japanese and said, looking at them from under her brows, “Do you hate us?”
“Do you hate us for dropping the Bomb?”
Even deeper silence.
Eyes shifted. All the bonhomie vanished, blown out the window like smoke in the wind.
After an incredibly long pause, Mr. Tanada spoke up. First he clarified: which bomb?
The nuclear bomb.
Mr. Tanada pulled out a Dunhill cigarette and offered Emily one, which she took. He lit it for her.
“Do you know about the fire bombings in Tokyo?” he asked.
“I think,” he said, softly, “a bomb is a bomb. And you are dead either way.”
We walked into the Kan Kun Mexican Restaurant in Beaver, Utah, to order take out dinners. My children and I wore masks.
The hostess, a Latina who also wore a face mask, glanced at our own masks then handed us menus.
The restaurant was half full with many tables taped off to comply with social distancing rules. Fox News droned on a large TV monitor over the cash register.
Two families with four or five children each plus some grandparents sat at long tables. One was entirely blond, the other Hispanic. Three retirees with faces like beef jerky were crimson with sunburn. Three young guys in camo cargo pants and t-shirts sat next to a window.
I know how all these people looked, because nearly all of them stared at us. Not long, but just for that extra beat that makes you wonder if you have, say, toilet paper stuck to your shoe, or an open fly, or a Satanic symbol tattooed on your forehead.
People in Utah are nearly universally courteous. So they simply gave us that long, lingering, and slightly disapproving look, then tucked back into their burritos and quesadillas and resumed their conversations.
Fox News showed video of a demonstration. It was during the early days, when bad actors would torch a franchise or two or loot the Louis Vuitton in the Grove Shopping Centre. It was shot to look like the Mau Mau Uprising, only with designer boutiques in the background.
“I’m sure glad I don’t live there,” one of the camo guys said.
My daughter, who is a sensitive type, said she’d meet us outside and left.
Strangers in a Strange Land
We encountered variations of this reaction across Utah and Nevada. We didn’t stop often, having no reason to. But we would use a restroom in an In-N-Out Burger restaurant. Or we’d drift through the aisles of a convenience store, or place another to-go order.
And everyone — each tow-headed child, each grizzled rancher, each softly rounded wife —turned to stare at us. Not for long. No, not much longer than an extra second, because that would make the stare rude — but long enough.
Over and over, it was like the cliché scene from old Westerns where, when the Stranger swaggers through the swinging doors of the saloon, the locals stop palavering and glare.
To be fair, the virus had not hit many counties in Utah. Also, right wing broadcasters have ridiculed masks. One commentator even said it was a sign of “submission” to wear one. Another claimed it was only the first step in a plot to rob Americans of their freedom. Our president is famously averse to putting one on, and some people still take him seriously.
So I thought about face masks. Sadly, I didn’t have any ideas other than the obvious ones that you’ve probably read on social media already.
But: If we can politicize and make tribal such a simple, obvious step, one that’s cheap and easy, although inconvenient, one that’s backed by science and now by experience, then how will we ever manage the much harder issues we confront?
My daughter’s voice sounded faded, dry, and thin on the phone.
That was all the excuse I needed. I missed her, badly. So I decided to drive out, pick her up, take her back to our home in Boulder, and then drop her back at her place when she was ready.
She’d been under lockdown in Los Angeles for more than six weeks. In Los Angeles, for good reason, the quarantine included parks and beaches along with bars, cafes, clubs, stores, and restaurants. All that amounts to house arrest. Necessary, but draconian.
I myself seemed to have grown roots. Dank, thick, gluey roots. I don’t think I travelled outside of a five mile radius from my house from March 13 on. I only used pick up services and delivery. And although Boulder’s a beautiful spot on the planet, even the pines and Flatirons can grow stale. Not to mention my backyard.
House arrest, virtual or not, is a tougher punishment than I realized.
We — my son, my daughter, and I — all needed a break.
So my son and I hit the road on 31 May. Here’s some snapshots from travel in the time of the corona.
Kum & Go® Convenience
If you haven’t been in a convenience store for a few months, it can put the zap on your head. All those rows of salty snax. All those searing lime greens, cherry reds and arctic blues. The mercury lights, cold and bright, bring it all to peak garishness.
And no one in all the busy crowd — well, no one except for me and a very old man in a pink polo shirt using a walker — wore a face mask. I suddenly had a small sense of what Howard Hughes must have felt like.
This scene would be repeated. Sometimes, customers shopping for Red Bull or Fritos would wear masks, but never more than half.
We pulled over in to hit the rest stop in Parachute, Colorado. As we swung in, we passed a ragged woman holding a cardboard sign. She sat on the grass in shorts that were just slightly too short, her legs baked to a nutmeg color tinged with red, her brown hair streaked to brass by the sun. Her feet were bare. I walked by, and turned my head away. As you do.
Parachute’s okay. There’s a good sandwich shop in what was once a gas station. Kid Curry, an actual, historical desperado, robbed a train nearby. An olde-timey frontier atmosphere hovers in the air, like a half-remembered TV Western. But the whole vibe of the rest stop was creepy in a weird and particular way.
Walking back to our car, I saw the homeless woman again. A man in a cowboy hat had motioned her over to his shiny pick up truck. He didn’t seem like the type to give alms to the homeless, so I watched a little more closely. They chatted longer than would be usual.
Then she climbed into that gleaming truck. He pulled away with her seated in the cab next to him.
Already, in late May, mirages hovered on the Interstate.
Billboards outside of Las Vegas advertised shows that never happened. I felt sorry, in a vague way, for Gladys Knight and the Pips whose performances were cancelled. Animated messages promised that a casino was “Las Vegas STRONG” and that they would be reopening soon. The models in the animation wore face masks as they played the slots.
The Trump Hotel shimmered in its own gilded haze, a bit away from the strip. It seemed arrogant, ugly, and ersatz, but perhaps I was projecting.
At the drive up Perks! coffee kiosk in Cedar City, a young barista was so cheery, polite, and sweet that it seemed as if Doris Day were reincarnated.
At another breakfast stop, this time in St. George, we pulled over for burritos at a cafe in a strip mall. The place was New West: Coltrane on the stereo, plants, and a hippy dude with long grey hair behind the counter. He wore a mask. Of course.
The burritos were fresh and tasty. As we enjoyed our breakfast, a very thin woman and a very fat woman sat at a table and vaped and complained about their manager at Albertsons. Across the parking lot, a guy walked into the market. He’d strapped 9mm automatic with a camo finish to his waist.
Oh yeah, I realized: Open carry. So that’s what it looks like.
In Green River, Utah, we stopped for lunch at the Chow Hound. A young guy, perhaps 22, with a shadowy mustache and a big belly waddled in. He and his pal enthused about a large Dodge Ram truck in the parking lot with a lot of specific knowledge about rims and suspensions. Proving, I guess, that you can flex anywhere as long as you know the rules.
The bulletin board in the cafe featured memorial cards, notices from the local gun club, and a flyer from the extension agent offering help during the time of Covid-19. Forms of assistance included guidance with filing unemployment claims and classes on making family meals on a budget.
The sky was blue. That was the first shock. Not just blue, but cerulean, the color of a new born’s eyes, the shade, in fact, of the California dream itself. No smog, not even a smudge of beige anywhere.
Jasmine scented the air, and wisteria bloomed. Traffic dropped to nearly zero once we crossed the county line from San Bernardino into Los Angeles.
Stores up and down Sunset Boulevard were shuttered as were hundreds of others along the gentrified and un-gentrified streets. Many had plywood nailed over the windows, often with variations of Black Lives Matter or #BLM spray painted on.
Other themes painted on the empty doors and windows included calls for peace, justice, harmony, and portraits, often very good, of George Floyd. The graffiti and improvised signs seemed sincere and not just a “performative” tactic to discourage looting. (But then, how do you measure the sincerity of spray paint? By how pretty the colors are?)
We didn’t stay long. The nearly empty streets felt as if an accident had just happened. You felt an aftershock, despite the lushness of flowers blooming behind stucco walls.
We ordered cappuccinos and cold brews at Intelligentsia Coffee in Silver Lake. Before, the Mediterranean patio teemed with people, mostly young, who looked both smart and athletic, along with inked-up hipsters and with alluring women who surely will be famous actresses soon.
Now, ordering coffee was like cashing in a money order at a sketchy convenience store. Everyone queued up at the correct six-foot distance. The barista, masked, took our order from behind a thick plexiglass shield. The seating was closed. But it worked out. We perched on a planter by a closed boutique and savored the coffee in the clear sunshine.
No one, not even a homeless person pushing a shopping cart, walked by.
On our second, short visit to LA, we visited Santa Monica Beach. My daughter couldn’t believe that the drive took half the time it usually does. We also found a great parking spot, in itself a minor miracle.
It was perfect — upper 70s, nice breezes, the water pleasantly chilly. Paradise. It suggested how LA must have been back in the 1940s and 50s, before the smog, the angst, and the riots.
Behind us, a Black guy and his white girlfriend spread their beach towels. Another white guy spread his towel not far from them. When he left, he approached the couple and said, “I am so happy for you.”
They looked up, guarded but polite.
“What you’re doing — is so important. I respect it so much. Black lives matter,” he said, and trudged away.
They waited until he was far enough away to give each other The Look: the look that expresses shared incredulity and faint revulsion.
The next morning, early, my son and I headed home to Boulder.
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 night before, my son reconnoitered the local Target and Safeway. Panic shoppers 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.”