Marked by masks

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?

Corona Road Trip

photo by tim roessler

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.

Parachute, Colorado

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.

 

Las Vegas

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.

Utah

convenience store photo by tim roessler timothy roessler

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.

Los Angeles

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.

hotel room photo by tim roessler timothy roessler

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.

beach photo by tim roessler timothy roessler

The next morning, early, my son and I headed home to Boulder.

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. 

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.

Man on the Moon

 

Lunar

We were all crazy about rockets.

The best were Estes Rockets, made here in Colorado. My great aunt worked in the factory outside of Florence.

These beauties came with powerful fuel chambers. You’d set off the charge, with a fuse or a battery. And FOOM, a spurt of orange and the rocket would woooosh up up up and at the top of the arc, a plastic parachute would blow open and the rocket would drift down. My family couldn’t afford them, but Dave Sanders across the street had a few. He’d let the rest of us watch at the copy of the Saturn blasted off into the hard, blue sky.

That was only the beginning. I had a full on huge model of the Apollo capsule as part of a GI Joe action figure set. All of the kids — Steve, Dave, Dave Trujillo, Scott, Russ — had helmets and some even had space boots, which really helped sell the effect. 

And I had a model of the Saturn, the capsule, and best, of all, the lunar module itself, a totally sci fi looking object, all insect and slope eyed, brutally styled with those planes and oddly delicate along the legs.

Our imaginations pulsed with astronauts, space ships, distant planets, Star Trek, aliens, men in the moon. We read sci-fi non-stop. (Some of us). We marveled how Jules Verne managed to predict so much about the lunar voyage. We played moon landing or space invasions all across the vacant lots and playgrounds, dirt becoming lunar soil, grass became extra terrestrial monsters who’d suck you down if you let them.

Bill, a fellow obsessive, and I would trade facts about the thrust force of the engines, the weight of the space suits. We had favorites. Mine was Buzz Aldrin — something about his face appealed to me, and he seemed like the smartest one. No one wanted to identify with the one left behind. I felt Aldrin got cheated on being the first one out of the lunar module.

People really don’t give little kids enough credit for what they can learn. 

I pleaded with my mother to take me to see 2001, endlessly, relentlessly. I was too young, and she kept saying so, until, uncharacteristically, worn down, she gave in. The film in its chilly eternities opened up something sublime and terrifying inside of me. I had nightmares for weeks afterwards, thinking of the astronaut whom HAL cut off and sent driving into the the endless void. My mother, tartly, after the third or so night of comforting me, couldn’t help saying she had told me so.

And, of course, television. Walter Cronkite was the only announcer we believed in. Maybe because we sensed the same boy’s enthusiasm in him that we burned with.

I don’t remember the lead up to the landing. The launch, yes, with the Jovian power bursting out of the television as the great rocket blasted off and arched into the sky.

The day of the landing, we all sat glued to the big square hulk of the family black and white. (“Don’t sit too close, honey.”) Each stage, each move was filled with excruciating suspense. We’d learned the whole thing could go horribly wrong. 

The landing especially was almost unbearable. I’d read someplace about a lunar geologist theorizing that the sandy surface of the moon might have no bottom and simply suck the landing module down, like quicksand.

That didn’t happen. Armstrong bounced down, and said his line. We began to breathe again. The flag looked strange and crinkly as they saluted.

I wandered out into the hot evening, barefooted, feeling the nice roughness of the concrete driveway. I went to the end of it, and looked up. Sure enough, the moon was there, and my brain seemed to expand and stretch and knock against its own walls as I tried to realize, and tried to imagine those men on that moon.

We celebrated like sports fans, but it only looked like that. It went deeper. We’d all of us gazed into space, lifted for just a few seconds, anyway, out of the daily.

And, if none of the dreams were realized, if world peace didn’t descend, or cosmic compassion wash over the Earth, if I never made it to flight school, and if we didn’t keep our promises, well, that just makes us rooted to this blue green planet, makes us sad and human.

But we have our moments — not so much in the exploits of those daring astronauts as in the opening of our imaginations to new terrors, new visions, and new lives.

Our Lady

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A friend texted me: Notre Dame is on fire. At first, it didn’t seem important. You imagined a small blaze, easily contained, and brigades of firefighters extinguishing it efficiently.

The images on television told another story.

The footage was mystical and beautiful in a terrible way. It was if Bosch had decided to go into video — the flying buttresses, the lace work sculptures, the towers themselves lit up by tongues of fire, and swathed in cinders and smoke that flared yellow and gray. A vision of hell as Dante-esque as anything he wrote, images so beyond our time that it staggered the imagination. You couldn’t believe it was happening at all, let alone now, in real life and not in a nightmare of, say, François Villon.

At yet, it was live, in the very moment that I saw it on television.

It’s liveness, it’s thundering out in real time made it even more excruciating. Initially, you wondered where the firefighters were. Why doesn’t someone do something?

Then grief scorched, grief rained down, grief made its home. Because if Notre Dame could burn and fall, then what in the world is safe?

Nothing.

Not flesh. We learn that. But not stone, either, not books or relics. You can’t take anything for granted, not even the continued existence of a cathedral that survived revolutions, wars, neglect and even the Nazis. Even the tourists. Because part of the sheer power of Notre Dame is that even when swarmed by murmuring tourists shooting away with their cameras, it still holds magic and sends you someplace transcendent.

I spent many hours there over what has become decades. Nearly all the film photos I took on my first trip to Paris were images of Notre Dame. It seemed to call for at least that sort of homage. I visited its towers, the narrow spiral staircase like a birth canal shooting up and then out above the city. I went to mass, huddled on its pews when I was emulating Rimbaud, took my children there. (My son, then three, was so overwhelmed that when the organist made a crashing chord, he made me take him out of there. Terror and beauty, as Rilke said, are close.)

The sense that this inferno held some message washed over nearly everyone who saw it — maybe a remnant of the time when it was made and locked in the lead and wood  released a deep superstitious dread. God’s judgment is upon us. Or, even worse, Mother Mary finally lost patience. Our Lady is infuriated, and is smiting her own altar with smoke and fire. It’s because of those raping pedophile priests.

Some people saw visions in the flames. They said  martyrs and saints appeared. Others saw Mary. Others saw Satan.

Some sang hymns. You watched them, probably, on cable news which suddenly turned into a branch of L’Osservatore Romano. The Crown of Thorns has been saved!

Then sorrow. As when a loved one goes, we think of all the times we could have visited, but didn’t. How we took her presence, not for granted, exactly, but just part of life. Part of the skyline, ready for another picture, another tour group.

Threatened with its disappearance, she becomes suddenly all the more precious.

I was already in a tenderized state. Worked over. The anniversary of my mother’s death loomed, and the simmering sense of her loss, and of other, lesser griefs, had been lurking in the background. I was about as low as I’d ever been.

The next days, I joined the throngs on the banks of the Seine, looking over at the now roofless cathedral. You’d see the same set of emotions on many faces: worry and concern and then relief. Sort of like visiting a dear one who’s had a major surgery in the hospital.

Like some peasant looking at a Roman ruin, we goggle and stare and wonder, how did men make this? Could we?

And we know that we can’t. We have the technology, maybe, but not the vision. Something that old and beautiful can’t be replaced, even if we could make another beautiful building — which is doubtful.

Restoration and rebuilding were announced almost immediately, and the donations are rolling in.

But maybe we should leave it as it, roofless, ready to fall into ruins. Grass and weeds might take over, graffiti surely will. A sci-fi goth, post punk embodiment of our century.

T. Jefferson Carey, American Hero

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How many people do you know who are pure souls? Who somehow manage to live and create in a way that transcends our shabby normal? Who exhibit bravery and grace when faced with illnesses? And who never, ever give up?

Jeff Carey lived a beautiful life. That kind of life, in the face of challenges no one wants to face. 

I just found out that he died, at 56, from ALS, or Lou Gerhig’s disease. It’s not how any of us would choose to go. It’s one of those ailments that turns you into a parody of yourself, like strokes. You lose control of your muscles, your face, your language and your body. It’s a disease that seems particularly cruel to inflict on an actor, artist, and playwright, like the irony of Baudelaire being struck silent.

Jeff grew up in east Denver, went to Manual High School and then to major in theatre at New York University. A few years later, he studied playwriting at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. He studied with David Mamet, and, back in NYC, was part of a writing group that included Aaron Sorkin.

I didn’t know any of that when I met him. His sister, Ann Carey Sabbah, who loved him and held him in awe, suggested that he’d be a good person to hire for our creative team. I thought so, too. He came in with a portfolio of drawings that managed to be macabre and charming at the same time. He offered a few short scripts, all brilliant and original, and he’d been designed Hallowe’en horror houses, so he seemed like a good candidate for coming up with original ideas. Then the market crashed, and we lost the budget for his position (and for mine a few months later.)

(Which, by the way, is why you should always work for yourself. At least your errors are your own).

We looped around and caught up with each other a few years later, spending several afternoons over at St. Mark’s Café. Those conversations felt autumnal in many ways. Jeff was working the grounds crew at City Park, but he didn’t complain at all about it. He even enjoyed the work. In the meantime, he had a lot of projects percolating. He was writing and drawing every day.

Jeff had a beautiful voice, and his conversation had the rare quality of always being felt, of being called up from the depths. He had a virtuosic command of language, of the shifts and turns of a good chat, moving from funny to profound in a few beats. We talked about Dali, Hemingway, Welles, kid’s cartoons, and the theater in all its aspects. You felt his immediate and overwhelming kindness, always.

What he was too modest to talk about were the productions of his plays in places like Chicago and New York. I had no idea of the scope and range of his work as playwright, ranging as it did over children’s theatre, drama, and comedy — sometimes blending all three. 

Instead, he had the rare grace to chat about topics that interested us both. 

Then, he was between things. He’d find a home with the Creede Repertory Theatre, a fine ensemble in southern Colorado. He played roles, staged his plays and found a base.

He also went through some hard times. But Jeff met every bit of adversity with invention. With the power of his own imagination. 

In a group home with a bunch of people stricken with depression? Write a play and stage it with them. Make it so good that even a legendary theater director like Powell sees it and is blown away.

Got a big ol’ cancerous tumor on one of your precious kidneys? 

Re-imagine it as the woman of your dreams and write another play about it: I, Kidney.

Life in the arts is hard. In the theatre, it seems especially precarious. Jeff took it all in stride, kept working and stayed cheerful.

His sister, quoted by John Moore,  said it very well:

“My brother is a brilliant flame of pure creative energy, dimmed only intermittently by his courageous struggles,” said Sabbah. “The gifts he gave us are boundless and the world was ever so much more interesting through his eyes. As another friend put it, he was the type of person who leaves beauty in his wake.”

I miss him. And this world has been robbed of one more light.

 

Goodbyes

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There’s a nice park two blocks from my house, complete with an artificial lake, benches, playgrounds, a workout circuit and a Frisbee golf course. I take walks there for pleasure and, occasionally, so I don’t feel like a total slug.

At sunset last night, two young families were wrapping up some sort of wholesome picnic by the playground. A toddler-aged girl sang out, “Goodbye!”

The toddler from the other family chirped back, “Goodbye!”

Goodbye.

Goodbye.

Goodbye.

Goodbye.

A fun game. They laughed in between their goodbyes as the parents packed up the blankets and Tupperware. 

Goodbye.

Goodbye.

Only little children could think it’s fun to say goodbye.