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.

Flowers for Thanksgiving

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Thanksgiving is the best holiday. It’s based on a cardinal virtue — gratitude — and expressed with a deadly vice — gluttony. What could be better?

The other holidays have been largely corrupted by overkill and greed. But it’s hard to commercialize a day given over to a set menu, shared with friends and family and blessed by low expectations. You cook. You give thanks. You eat.  You can’t sell much more than fancier versions of a basic set of ingredients.

My memories of Thanksgiving are mostly warm and tinted with pumpkin-colored hues, as you’d hope. My family didn’t have the clichéd drunken uncles or political battles. This was despite having a divided group of people. One of my grandmothers believed FDR was Satan incarnate. The other revered him. For her, Eleanor Roosevelt was a saint.

Both of them shared exquisite manners — the kind of courtesy that would nip off any hot-headed debate in the bud. As a snotty teenager, I’d try to goad my conservative grandmother, but she mostly did not take the bait.

One Thanksgiving during my college years yielded a small epiphany. My parents liked to invite strays over to join us. That year, two French students took their places at the groaning table for their first, true, red-blooded, full-on American Thanksgiving.

Thierry had hazel eyes and olive skin, and, then, thick, dark hair. His Gallic good looks were complimented by his purring, heavily accented baritone voice. Think of Louis Jourdan’s, but pitched about an octave lower.

Now, Theirry hadn’t struck me as any kind of dreamboat French dude. He was eccentric and maladroit, an engineering student who talked about Napoleon too often, who played obscure operas by Handel, who drank too much and danced by himself in clubs.  A fascinating character, but awkward and without a girlfriend.

Yet, when Thierry sashayed into my parent’s house and presented my mother with a bouquet as big as his torso, as well as a magnum of champagne, then bowed and murmured a thank you for the invitation . . . .

Three women swooned. My aunt, my mother, and my grandmother flushed, blossomed, and fluttered. I’d never seen any of them act that way, and, frankly, it grossed me out a little. My mother seated Thierry between herself and my aunt. I’d never seen Aunt Helen as animated and quick to laugh.

And I realized: my aunt, my mother, and even my grandmother were actual people. Women. Women who had pulses that could be fluttered. Women who liked masculine attention.

In my monumental and adolescent self-absorption, I’d failed to notice this simple and obvious fact. It hadn’t occurred to me that they had lives outside the role they played in my life. Sure, I’d experience that strange feeling you have when my parents talked about their youths, the time before I showed up. 

To know them as flesh and blood, as individuals with desires and emotions outside of my ken, well, that was a revelation. Admittedly, late. But it’s an insight I’m grateful for.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and to the families in your lives. 

And thank you for visiting.

Read: Battle Cry of Freedom

 

Book review by Tim Roessler

I wanted to learn about the Civil War. I wanted perspective on our current insanity, and I hoped to gather more knowledge about the conflict without mournful fiddles and honey smooth voice overs.

Something solid, but approachable. I found the perfect book.

Battlecry of Freedom puts the whole period into nearly 900 pages of graceful, fast moving prose. James McPherson manages to pack libraries of research into each paragraph so deftly that you come away informed and even entertained rather than overwhelmed. 

One of the strengths of the book is McPherson’s portrayal of the forces that lead to the war.  It truly seemed inevitable. And yes, it was about slavery. When you hear Confederate defenders grumble about “states rights”, the “right” in question was that of owning other human beings. It wasn’t even the preservation of slavery that drove the war, but rather the South’s demands to expand it beyond the borders of what would become the Confederacy. 

That even lead to foolish expeditions to places like Cuba and Nicaragua. Thank God we put that kind of nonsense aside.

Some parts surprised me. I didn’t realize the depth of disunion within both the North and the Confederacy. More than a few of the yeomen in Dixie figured out that the conflict was a war primarily to benefit the planters class. Up North, it wasn’t all virtuous abolitionists, either. An eye-opener was the massive race riot in New York City which killed dozens of African Americans — the worst race riot in U.S. history. Not to mention the so-called Copperheads.

The inevitable corruption and messy squabbles shouldn’t have shocked me, but the depths of chicanery and striving did.

He covers the military history, as you’d expect. But he also gives good background on the economics, the social issues and the messy politics of the period. 

The other great lesson was just how contingent the outcome was. We like to think of it as an inevitable march to greater freedom and justice. Even with the overwhelming superiority in men and material, it was anything but a guaranteed victory.

And, sure, there’s plenty of valor and honor in those pages. Lots of horrors, too. McPherson is pretty light on the gruesome and the blood. But the numbers and the diary entries tell all you need to know.

This was a fine read, and McPherson completely earned the Pulitzer he won for it.