Tag Archives: Covid-19

My Oaxaca — A Return

If there ever was going to be a return to what we once knew as normal for me it was going to come in a trip to Oaxaca, where I am now.

In ten days here, in the city where a passionate photographer revived me with her insistence on doing the work and her remarkable belief in the talent I’d allowed to lie fallow for decades, I’ve found pretty much what I thought I would find – endurance and loss, celebration and sorrow, an obdurate adherence to traditions that reward self-interest and tolerate impunity, and a double-fisted defiance of the norms by the rising generation.

I was so worried about Covid before I came that at one point I canceled my flight. The fretting was not without merit because Mexico still lags in vaccinations and the government is notoriously mendacious when it comes to public reporting. What I see is a mix of sensible safety measures (everyone wears a mask everywhere except in restaurants) and illogical practices that do nothing to slow viral spread (stepping on rubber mats of bleach to enter any business). At every entrance someone squirts antiseptic gel onto your hands. By day’s end, my hands are gooey with it.

What concerned me most was getting around. When it is too far to walk, I am a public transportation guy – cabs, buses, even the five-people-to-a-Nissan collectivos, all of which I saw as Covid factories. A week-and-a-half in, I’ve set aside caution for convenience, at times questioning my own judgment (especially one evening while my complaining legs held me upright for thirty minutes on a vomit-inducing bus ride so full that my nauseous stomach was pressed against a grandmother’s ample indigenous behind the whole time.

Half of the people I’ve met aren’t vaccinated, some for lack of opportunity (the government controls the vaccination schedule; the dates are few, the lines hours long) and others for lack of understanding (rumors of chips and side effects, and belief in divine intervention). Many of the vaccinated lack a second dose (see government above). Everyone knows people who have died (one woman’s doctor, a gynecologist, just died a few days ago). And many have been sick and survived, a few with lingering conditions such as chest pain or persistent shortness of breath.

There are tourists, quite a few. The grey-haired Americans fill their usual haunts, cafes that serve smoothies and muffins; the tall, blonder and younger Europeans hang out in the mescal bars. Of which there is more, expresso machines or mescalerias, it is hard to say, but there are more than enough of both to absorb the influx of dollars and euros the businesses in the central historic district hope arrives this peak season, which begins with Muertos at the end of this month and continues through New Year’s.

Beyond the cobble-stoned downtown streets, in the sprawling chaos of Oaxaca’s urbanized municipios like Xoxocotlán and San Antonio de la Cal, everyday life remains a scramble for survival. A mother who lives with her three sons (twins and a teenager) on a dirt road only a block off the main highway that goes to the airport and two blocks from a Walmart, tells me she is lucky because her house is secure. There is no water, but there is a tall metal gate that keeps out the lost boys who roam the colonia at night. A mile way, a 17-year-old boy, a first-year architecture student at the local university, cares for his four younger siblings. Their mother has been gone for six months, working in other cities because she couldn’t make a living in Oaxaca. This family, too, lives on a dirt road in a muddle of rooms built from tin. The floors, though, are cement, and swept clean of dust.

The pandemic didn’t diminish the inequality that lives behind the brightly painted facades of the tourist zone. I suspect it got worse here, just as it did he United States.

Some reunions for me have been very emotional. After spending a wonderful Sunday with a family whose mother was on the edge of Covid hospitalization, but is now recovered enough to cook and feed me two sumptuous meals in five hours, I cried as I left them. Don’t do that again, I said between hugs. Don’t. I have come to love some of the people I’ve been photographing for years more than my own family, which is dispersed. Here, there is the intimacy that eludes me at home. Even as I type these words my eyes fill.

I first came to Oaxaca for love, that of my wife. Then I came for curiosity, and later the photography. Now I come for these families. Even though they break my heart over and over, they fill it so abundantly that the inevitable ache that comes as I see the vise of poverty squeezing them into smaller and smaller lives is tolerable.

Truthfully, I also come for myself. As an adolescent a part of me ran from home in search of anything other than what I had (although hindsight later showed me the stigmatism of my perspective). That part, that yearning for life lived fully, finds a home here.

Oaxaca survived. The empanadas stuffed with potatoes and chorizo still satisfy beyond description. The mescal still burns – until the second one. The dark eyes above the masks still gleam. The women are still beautiful, the men still strong. The buses still spout fumes, but – hey – we all have masks!

It is not as it was, of course. My favorite corner restaurant, where enchiladas were cheap and tortas even cheaper, is closed, a Covid victim. Yet another useless folk art store occupies the space. The bookstore is gone, as is the first mescal bar I went to long ago. A friend died, not of Covid, but dead nonetheless. Children have moved – four returned to the U.S., where they were born – and others have dropped out of school (see the heartache reference above).

That is life, though, isn’t it? We are more defined by change than consistency. Oaxaca lives on, just as I do. The same, but different.

Why I am Still Here

I have friends who have recently gone to: Hawaii, Nicaragua, Italy, Idaho, Iceland, Spain, New York, Florida, Mexico City, Belize and Morocco.

I have gone to: Nowhere (well, once to Texas, but that was for a death).

What gives? Covid, of course, because even double-dosed with Pfizer I get trepidatious when I read about breakthroughs and waning immunity and vulnerable people who are the same age I am. But it’s more than just being bugged by the bug.

What’s happened is that I’ve gotten used to the ease and comforts of life at home (and here I will acknowledge my good fortune). Anything more complicated and stressful, such as taking two plane flights, crossing an international border, and comingling with the un-vaxxed masses, doesn’t entice me.

I enjoy my routine: Up early, tasty breakfast, strong coffee, an empty page begging for words, emails and texts and What’s to friends, some work, Spanish with someone in Chile or Mexico or Peru, indulgent lunch, the deck with a book, a walk in the woods or through town, some whiskey, home-made dinner with my wife, news or a ball game, an hour of TV, the book again, sleep. It doesn’t change much. Every few days, I add in a visit, a meal, or a walk with a friend.

What’s not to like?

When I consider a trip, say to Mexico, the complications outweigh the appeal: a cramped rented room, only cafes or restaurants for food, transportation that is either public, cheap and Covid-risky or private and expensive, solitary nights, and bad wifi, bad water, and bad weather.

For a long time, I ignored such inconveniences and costs. I wanted the adventure, I wanted the discomfort, I wanted to be out on the far side of my zone. Now, not so much.

Why the change? I am older, yes, but eighteen months ago I was in Mexico doing all the things I do there, so I haven’t aged that much. In fact, thanks to all the walking I’m in better shape now than I was before the pandemic.

No, it’s more than age, although it’s something equally irreversible – the realization that I don’t need everything I thought I needed. BC – before Covid – I believed I had to challenge myself and confront what made me uncomfortable. I was always eying the next thing while still doing the first thing. I leered at the grass on the other side of the fence, lusting for its greenery. I never wanted to feel limited in any way. It was a state of being that teetered between freedom and arrogancy. Very American in that sense.

Now, I own my limitations, I autograph my fears, I find no discomfort in my comforts. This has been Covid’s gift to me – an unwarped mirror, a soulful and satisfying inner transparency.

I have plane tickets for Oaxaca, bought back in April when I was sure the pandemic would be a thing of the past by now. I doubt I’ll be using them.

Today, on the third day of September, a few miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, where the fog still clings to the redwood planks of the deck well into the morning, I put on a thick wool shirt, Pendleton, marking my embrace of the new season. The world turns, life moves on. For now, at least, I don’t feel a need to do the same.

Two Covid Stories

A pretty young woman from a small country town in southern Mexico finds her way to the United States. There amid the ocean of immigrants in Los Angeles she meets, improbably, a young man from her hometown who had arrived a couple of years earlier. He is short, but muscled, and appraises others with an unabashed directness. He is handsome, rugged looking even, a country boy working hard in the big city.  The young woman falls for him and him for her, as anyone would with her sweet, round face, bright, lively eyes the color of the night sky, and a smile that comes with its own blush.

Two decades later, the couple is home again, having returned ten years ago after deciding a poor life in Mexico is richer than a poor life in the United States. They are parents of two daughters, one born in Mexico, the older one, and the other in the U.S. The husband works with cement and brick; the wife cares for the home of a wealthy woman. They live in a small house he has been building during all the seven years I’ve known them. It sits on a dusty rise where the wind blows all day and there is a striking view of the serrated mountains that rim the valley.

A couple of weeks ago, both of them got Covid, even though they’d each had the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine. He got better in a few days, nothing more than a cough and a fever. His wife, though, who is diabetic, is still quite sick. She’s been breathing with a nebulizer for more than a week and an IV tube drips antibiotics into her. Her oxygen level dropped once to below 90, but has since risen. A doctor from a larger town visits twice a day, a sign of the seriousness of her condition. She prescribes the medicine and the older daughter takes a cab and then a bus to the city to buy it – if it can be found because at times there are shortages.

The daughter, who speaks English as well as her native Spanish, works as a translator of government documents, a steady, if not glamorous job. She stopped working to care for her parents, to do the cooking and cleaning and errand-running. She has been using her savings to buy her mother’s medicine, but the money ran out a couple of days ago. The government provides health care services, but does not pay for medicine. The public hospital is full and sometimes short of medicine as well. Worse, there is the suspicion, based on too many examples, that people who enter the hospital with Covid don’t come out.

With the help of some friends, the daughter finds enough money to fill the latest prescription and the doctor arrives over the weekend to say she thinks the mother is getting better. It looks like she is going to make it. In another couple of days we will know for sure, says the doctor.

The daughter’s grandmother, on her father’s side, was sick as well. But like her son, she recovered quickly. That’s the strong side of the family, the daughter says, and then adds about her village of 3,000 people:

Everyone’s sick. There are more people infected her than there are healthy people.

This is one case of Covid. One family doing what they can to keep a loved one alive. Leaving a job. Burning up the savings. More than two weeks of wondering, worrying, and hoping the pre-existing condition does not mean a death sentence. In Mexico, a nation of 100 million, more than 3.2 million people have gotten Covid; 253,000 of them have died.

***

In Cuzco, Peru, known most widely among travelers as the gateway town to Machu Picchu, a 30-year-old woman sits all day in a tiny apartment in front of a laptop giving Spanish lessons to Americans for ten dollars an hour. She shares the apartment with her niece, who is only a few years younger and works as a waitress.

They are both Venezuelan, from the city of Cabimas, the heart of the country’s petroleum industry. The Spanish teacher left the city, and her parents and siblings, about four years ago. She has a college degree in languages and literature, but couldn’t find work because of Venezuela’s ravaged economy. She is part of the great Venezuelan diaspora – nearly 5.5 million of them have fled from a country of 28 million, many of them, like the Spanish teacher, to nearby countries that don’t welcome their presence.

Both the Spanish teacher and her niece have Covid. The teacher, who I talk to weekly, started with a fever, which became a cough, which became a chest full of phlegm. For a couple of days, she could smell or taste nothing. Eight days into the disease, she is taking antibiotics, and exhausted. Yet, she spends her hours talking to Americans in Spanish because that pays for the medicine. She and her niece will recover – as will several friends of theirs who are also sick. They are young, their immunes systems are strong.

None of them were vaccinated. The wanted to be, but in Peru, unlike here in the U.S., there is not enough vaccine to go around (less than 10 percent of adults are vaccinated). And what there is comes from Russia or China and is considered suspect. Better than nothing, they say.

Peru is Covid country. The official death toll in June was more than 180,000, in a country of less than 33 million people, according to the BBC. Another report said Peru had the highest Covid death rate as a proportion of population in the world.

***

Here’s an obvious statement: Each number on a Covid chart is someone’s life. It is easy to overlook this reality amid the flood of statistics and the volume of polemics. It might be a life, like that of the Mexican father, that is little affected by the disease, or it could be a life, like that of the Mexican mother, that endures several weeks of distress and fear and results in depleted savings. It might be a college-educated Venezuelan refugee stuck in a room working throughout the disease because she must.

As we Americans argue over masks in schools and needles in arms, let’s not forget the privilege that allows us to have this debate, an entitlement so many millions of others in the world wish they had.

Smoke and Covid

It’s all smoke and Covid, smoke and Covid, a friend said yesterday. And it does seem that way.

Another friend said, while we walked through the neighborhood under ashen – quite literally – skies, “This is never going to end.” And so that seems, too.

I have enough years to say with without exaggeration that these fires and this disease will be with me for the rest of my life. The surety of this reality is comforting in a way because I do not need to fret about what I might do when the flames stop and the coronavirus subsides. Whatever I do from now own will be done in the company of these calamities. I am moving into the get-over-it-and-live-with-it stage.

What that means, I don’t yet know fully. There are many questions, and few answers: Will I travel as I did before, freely and with the intent of not just seeing but engaging? Will I still seek to satisfy my lingering hunger for success and accomplishment, paid or otherwise? Will I resurrect my social life – already anemic – from its mandated dormancy? And most importantly: Will I ever return to Oaxaca, where I have spent much of the last eight years photographing and developing deep relationships with several families?

The last question nags me the most. The intimacy of the “work” – defined in this case as positive industry and not contracted labor – sustained and nourished me when the last of the journalism I loved slipped from my grasp. More than that, the children and the mothers became proxies for what is lacking in my life, and I began going to Oaxaca with more frequency as much to be with them as to do the photography.

Now, I don’t know. I won’t torture you with the entire argument, all the pro’s and the cons. It’s enough to say this: Going there, the flying, does not scare me, but being there does. I am still nervous – fearful is a more honest word – about eating in a restaurant in my ninety-percent-vaccinated community here in the U.S. Imagine how I feel about spending the day in the one- or two-room home of an unvaccinated family. At the moment, it is a leap of faith I cannot bring myself to make.

No one likes being afraid, and we like even less confessing our fears. Especially men. What am I afraid of exactly? Getting sick? No. Being unlucky? Yes. Being one of the unfortunate three percent – give or take – for whom Covid is not an inconvenience but a death sentence. Feeling lucky, punk? No, I’m not.

That’s it: I don’t want to die from Covid. Yes, I’m ready to answer the door when the Reaper knocks, but I don’t want to hear him say, “Covid calling.” After all the irresponsible behavior, and resulting fractures, surgeries, and law enforcement encounters, I’ve survived, I don’t want this chingadera of a virus to do me in. No thanks. I think I’ll wait for something more traditionally fatal.

At times I label myself a coward for feeling this way and unleash the whip of self-chastisement. As a graduate of the no-pain-no-gain school, the sting of the lash has always served me well in overcoming my hesitations, but when it comes to Covid I’m going to need a bigger whip.

Now what? A question I’ve asked and answered without satisfaction often in the last seventeen months. In brief, I’ll carry on as I am, which, because of the good fortune that has come to me, is far from terrible. There are books to read, scribblings to be done, photographs to edit, a wife to love. More than enough.

The rain will arrive, soon we all hope, and wash the ash from the sky, brighten the ground, and construct a façade of hope that grants us interim refuge from our battle with the climate. Scientists will create more effective vaccines and force Covid into the cubbyhole of other conquered maladies. Tomorrow will come, as it always does.

It is human nature to live in the moment, to gain sustenance from and take pleasure in what is before us, whatever those circumstances might be, and it is this capacity that allows to accomplish the most enduring task of life, which is to get through this day so that we may take on the next.

The Rapids Ahead

Circumstances have consequences. Take too many things for granted, lose an election. Turn over the White House to a family of thugs, grant the sycophants, the supremacists and the spineless control of the Congress. Gut the Senate of whatever honor remained in it, and convert the Supreme Court into bulldozer driven by retrograde theocrats determined to plow under the advances we’ve made in recent decades toward equalizing rights in our country – the right to vote, the right to be treated with justice, the right to control the fate of your own body.

These are sad days in the United States. As the virus marches forward, we do an about-face to the repressive days of the Eisenhower era (although even Ike couldn’t get elected as a Republican these days). With more than 226,000 Americans dead, killed as much by incompetency and indifference than by the actual lethality of Covid-19, more than 66 million of us have already voted, a flexing of the democratic muscle that only partly offsets the fear that Trump, with the aid of his newly-packed Court, will steal the victory that every poll declares will belong to Biden and Harris.

As a young man, the tide of protest swept me into movements against the war in Vietnam (which, by the way, killed 58,000 U.S. soldiers, a quarter of the number now dead from Covid) and in support of rights for women, Blacks and gays. I was against the policies of the government, but not the government itself. I believed a new president, a new Congress, a new mayor could provoke change. And it did.

As an adult, a professional, a journalist, I worked in an institution that saw itself as the watchdog of politicians and government. At times we watched with great vigilance; at other times we were unwittingly complicit in supporting traditional perspectives, both governmental and cultural, that oppressed the very groups I had championed as a long-haired rebel two decades earlier.

As whatever I am now, an over-read, under-educated, highly-opinionated, multi-lingual, more-or-less forcibly retired curmudgeon, I confess that for the first time in my life to having lost my faith in government – or are least what government on all levels has morphed into in these United States: a cage match of hate, distrust, greed, cowardice, and self-interest and self-dealing, a putrid buffet of humanity’s ugliest traits that were never more on display than in the last week during the shotgun wedding of Amy “The Crusader” Barrett to the Supremes.

I could say that we as a nation have lost our way, but it might be more accurate, given that Barrett and her the-Constitution-is-enough-for-me compadres on the court are such strict interpreters of the document’s 4,543 words, to say the nation has found its way back to its beginnings – when women couldn’t vote, when Blacks were not only permitted to be owned but were counted as only 60 percent of a human being, and when the fledgling nation was controlled by an oligarchy of wealthy “patriots” who were so distrustful of the judgment of their lesser countrymen that they created the Electoral College to ensure that a majority of the rabble couldn’t elect a fool or a criminal to the White House.

That worked out well.

To say I am nervous is an understatement. I felt more certain of Gore trouncing Bush II than I am of a Biden win, and we know how that went. I am not alone in my trembling. A Venezuelan fellow I know, an academic who fled his country’s chaos for Madrid, where he now offers $10-an-hour Spanish classes via Skype, says all of his more than 20 American students are popping tranquilizers and speed-chanting mantras trying to stay calm.

I am not a fan of Valium and my chakras are mis-aligned beyond repair. To pacify myself, I think of my short stint as a whitewater river guide. For a couple of summers during the ‘70s, after my profligacies had diminished enough to enable sufficient social functioning, I ferried rafts of people seeking thrills – but not danger – down rivers in Northern California. It was great fun, paid $50 a day and granted me opportunities with the opposite sex I had not previously imagined.

Guiding a fifteen-foot rubber raft through the bumps and waves and drops of medium-rough river is not too tough, but there are a few basic wisdoms that are best adhered to lest you, the guide, and the clients, who want thrills but not danger, find yourselves head down underwater stuck in a whirling, riparian rinse-cycle.

Here is the most important thing:

Just as the raft approaches the lip of the rapid, in the last few feet before the nose tips down into the froth, the water rises behind whatever rocks are the cause of the rapid. The higher water flattens and stills. For a moment, the forward progress of the raft stops. This is when the guide, even while staring at the turbulence ahead, even while anticipating the heart-thumping that is coming, must align the boat with the thin curl of water that slips, first gently and then with unfettered urgency, from the higher water through the barrier of rocks and into the rapid. If the raft is not lined up correctly, it slides into the rapid askew and risks being flipped over by the waves.

As much as I loved rafting, I was scared most of the time – except for one moment: When I poised the boat in the still water above the rapid and pointed its nose toward the slipstream. Once I felt I’d aligned us as best I could, a calm always came to me. And then I slid into the whitewater.

This is where we are now: Atop the rapid. It is a time to be steady, to line ourselves up, to see the turbulence ahead but, more importantly, to concentrate on the chore at hand. Get the boat ready, point the bow forward, put the oars in the water. Be calm. The whitewater is coming.

Day 58 — Fear Itself

When we see photos of people crowded into a Castle Rock, Colorado, restaurant on Mother’s Day, defying not only a state order that bans in-restaurant dining, but also the common-sense behavior a pandemic demands, we are seeing how difficult it is to be comfortable with fear.

Setting aside politics – if that is possible these days when patriotism is defined by carrying a rocket launcher into a sandwich shop – those queuing up at C&C Coffee and Kitchen claim they want to get back to normal life, that they’ve suffered and given up enough.

Adverse circumstances, be they medical, financial or social, force us to abandon our routines and we become uncomfortable, anxious and fearful. We wonder when it – the disease, the recession, the social change – will end and we can return to how we were before. It was not perfect (it never is), but it was familiar, it was comfortable.

Uncertainty produces fear. Just ask any stock trader or someone awaiting the results of a biopsy. Nobody likes being afraid. No one save the admirable ilk who jump out of airplanes with chutes attached to their backs and similar risk-loving souls, willingly chooses fear over comfort. There are times, though, when fear is the only wise choice. This is one of them. Fear keeps us apart, so we don’t infect one another or our families. Fear makes us respect the social guidelines because unless we do the pandemic will persist, and normalcy will be further postponed. Fear teaches us to avoid doing what is dangerous (don’t touch the hot stove; don’t be around someone who is coughing.)

Fear is exhausting, though. It wears you down. To withstand it, whether it’s for a few seconds before you point the kayak into the whitewater or for several months while giving up haircuts, cappuccinos and a suntan, requires two things: discipline and a leap of faith.

The first is obvious: Being afraid is not easy. It’s not for sissies (as my mother, God love her, uses to say about getting older). Living with fear does not demand the iron discipline of a Seal Team member (although if you’ve got that, go with it), but more of the slushy stubbornness of the guy who runs a marathon and comes in last. It ain’t pretty, but it works, and it gets you to the finish line.

Most Americans suck at discipline or even at being stubborn. That want what they want an they want it now – one-hour delivery, Instapot, medical miracles, the right to carry weapons of war while ordering a Chicken & Bacon Ranch Melt at Subway. As a nation, we are fat (42 percent prevalence of obesity), illiterate (27 percent haven’t a book in the past year), and stupefied (nearly one in four adults struggle with substance use – booze or drugs). This is not the army I want to go to war with. No wonder that eight weeks into a pandemic that has infected more than 1 million of Americans and killed 80,000 – with tens of thousands more to come – so many Americans have battle fatigue.

The fear, the fear of never being “normal” again, is winning.

Even more than discipline (iron or slushy), fighting fear requires a leap of faith. It amazes me that so many conservatives who root their political leanings in the parables of the bible seem incapable of applying the faith they have in an ephemeral kingdom located on the far side of universe populated by toga-wearing men with wings to the idea that fighting fear requires us to believe we will succeed.

The skier tips her toes over the cornice believing she will arrive at the bottom of the run in one piece. The skydiver steps into the air believing the chute will open. The young couple in love marry believing their lives will be long and peaceful. The writer fills the page believing the book will come. On and on and on. All of human life and endeavor, from the quotidian to the audacious, depends on overcoming uncertainty, in believing in a favorable outcome.

Yet, here we are, in a nation infected by two diseases: a microbial invader that propagates by our carelessness, and an intolerance of uncertainty, discomfort and inconvenience nourished and encouraged by the most childly selfish man to ever occupy the Oval Office. Ironically, a good portion of the American population is more afraid of the latter than the former. Fear doesn’t kill you. Covid-19 does.

We all know FDR’s line, delivered in 1933 in his first inaugural speech and addressed to a nation that was four years – not eight weeks! – into a depression that was devastating not just families but entire regions of the county. “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he said – and that is the most quoted line, but he continued: “—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

These words remind us that the battle against fear requires one more thing beyond discipline and faith – leadership.

“In every dark hour of our national life,” Roosevelt said, “a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.”

Absent that leadership – and, sadly, the nation is – we, we the people, need to hold our ground, dig in, have faith in ourselves and get comfortable with the fear. Don’t run. Stare it down. Laugh at it. When confronted, fear loses potency. It retreats. You want your normal life back, then first get control of your fear. Don’t give it the power to make you stupid, to do things that could kill you or your family. That’s something that should really scare you.

Day 50 — Quarantine, Guns & Stephen King

In The Stand, Stephen King’s book about a lethal pandemic let loose upon the world by an accident at a U.S. Army biological weapons facility, social order collapses as the disease spreads. King does not explain whether the rioting and mayhem results from the illness itself, that is, whether the virus induces madness, or whether it is instinctual human behavior to shed the trappings of civility when facing certain death and embrace in our last hours the survivalist responses of the herd – kill or be killed, muscle matters, what is yours is mine.

Had I read this book when it was first written, in 1978, I no doubt would have found the story entertaining because in those days I read a fair amount of science fiction, but I would not have put much credence in King’s dystopian scenario. Now, I am not so sure.

A couple of days ago, here in the most heavily armed country in the world, hundreds of men (and some women) clad in military costumes and armed with high-powered weapons attempted to enter the legislative chamber of the state of Michigan. State police stood in a line to prevent their entry. No shots were fired. No one was hurt. But, what if … ?

What if a cop couldn’t take any more guff from a frothing protestor screaming at him from inches away or decided that one the toy soldiers was as dangerous as any of the unarmed black men shot to death by police in recent years?  What if a camouflaged, masked, Kevlar-clad, goateed, self-described patriot, surrendered to the rush of testosterone coursing through his beefy body, lost trigger discipline and emptied a clip into the crowd? The ensuing violence would ricochet far beyond the foyer of the Capitol in Lansing, Mich.

These over-fed, self-styled militias have become de rigueur at right-wing rallies, lethal equivalents of the sign-language interpreters who stand stage left at more progressive events. No patriotic march is replete without firearms, the bigger, the nastier looking the better. Sad to say, the threat of violence has become a cliché in America.

We are not yet the blood-thirsty, and bloodied, hordes of the future imagined by Stephen King, but we are standing on a road that runs in that direction. Personally, I don’t care about guns. Own them, collect them, shoot them, none of it bothers me. Live and let live. That works for me from the rifle range to the bedroom. But just as I don’t want to see rampant sex on the street, I don’t want to see guns there either. They don’t need to be standing in line at Starbucks, walking through the public parks, or carried across the chest into the Capitol of any state. Especially if the guy strapped to an AR-15 is spewing spit along with his profanity.

I’ve screamed at cops, so I get that it. I grew up in an age of protest and even if I myself think that someone who is yelling because he can’t take a six-pack of Corona Light to the beach is a few cards short of a full deck I grant him the right to demand his dose of Vitamin D. However, I never would have held a loaded gun (Isn’t that what they say: always assume a gun is loaded?) in front of a cop, much less got in his face while I was doing so? So much can go so wrong.

Somehow, some way, we’ve got to dial this down. The crack in the Liberty Bell has widened. The cradle of Democracy creaks like a MF. The fabric of our society is growing threadbare. But none of it is yet damaged beyond repair.

How do we fix this?

When It’s Over

When it’s over. When this is done. When we get back to normal. That’s what we say to each other these days, meaning that once the virus has had its way with us, we will pick up where we left off.

I don’t see it that way.

Yes, schools and restaurants will open, freeways and airports will fill, and friends and families will once again gather to celebrate the benchmarks of life and, for a great many, to mourn those who had to die alone with a tube down their throats.

But we will never be as we were. If we learn anything from these weeks and months of uncertainly, suffering and dying, it is that we are vulnerable. We, as individuals, as a species, and as a communal society built on interdependency, are fragile. Our bodies, each born with an expiration date, can be easily infiltrated by a “submicroscopic agent” and betray us within weeks. The assault of pandemic illness on our civic infrastructure – schools, hospitals, public transport, commercial corridors and even urban greenspaces – transforms these bulwarks of civil society from benign, at times irritating but nonetheless necessary institutions into vectors of death. Our government, increasingly suspect for the self-interest of those who staff it and the lack of competence that always accompanies those who act in favor of political purpose over general beneficence, coils armadillo-like in the face of existential danger.

The virus has pierced the façade of modern life. What we see behind it is not the grand society we imagined our world to be but rather a warren of cubicles, small and windowless, each with only one door, forcing exit and entry from the same point. Here we live, interconnected by unlit labyrinthine corridors, our vision restricted to our cell, unable to grasp the extent or even the nature of the larger organism in which we live with symbiotic dependency. Each of us, so shaped by our own desires, preoccupations and truncated perspectives, is but a molecule in this living network.

All this the virus reveals. No, it will not ever be the way it was. Once a creature feels its vulnerability, once it confronts, unwillingly, its own mortality, it is never the same. A dog, once kicked, is never as friendly. A deer, once shot it, no longer walks so incautiously in the woods. A crow, once attacked, remembers the face of its assailant.

You might say human beings are smarter than animals. Intellectually, yes, but in matters of self-survival we learn more slowly than they do. We perch atop the food-chain of self-destruction. Individually, we kill ourselves with tobacco, booze, prescription drugs and shovelfuls of fat. We humans have yet to encounter a substance we have not abused. Collectively, we pillage the planet for its resources, consume, burn and explode them at a future-be-damned pace, ignore the plaints of our children to save some of the world for them, and manage our companies and run out governments as if nothing matters more than this quarter or the next election.

We are not the dog who has been kicked. We are the dog who keeps kicking himself.

Still, despite our selfishness, ignorance and obduracy, Covid-19 and the great pandemic of 2020 will scar us. Fragility is not easily forgotten. A job disappears in a blink, and with it those few weeks of savings. A grandmother dies. A playwright. Fifty-one Italian doctors. Fifty-one! The official message is: Be cautious. But the inner voice echoes: Be afraid. Be afraid of your grandchildren, be afraid of your neighbors, be afraid of the young lady who rings up your groceries, be afraid of the dog-walker and the deliverywoman. Be afraid of the doorknob, the handle, the box, the countertop. Be afraid of the air, especially the air.

That is a lot of fear to forget, and it will take time to fade.

Eventually, as did the Spanish flu of 102 years ago, Covid-19 will recede into a Wikipedia page.  I will be dead by then, though, and so will many of you. Until then, when this is over, we will go on. But we won’t be the same. Ever.

Being Here

I am trying to be here, trying to be in the now, at home, in this house, together with my wife, alone with my thoughts, along with my fears, focusing on today and not tomorrow, wondering about friends who are also alone, some more than I, hoping I hear nothing terrible about them, nor they about me, seeing, after all these years, that what I thought mattered so much means nothing at all.

At times it goes well, at others less so. Depends on the hour or the news or just my physical state. Today it is not so good.

As bad as the numbers are, and they grow more negative by the day, the politics are worse. The petulance of the president borders on dementia, which I believe he has. His followers drink his words as a serum (some have done so literally and died). He demands liberal governors kiss his ass to be granted federal aid. Sections of the country approach a tipping-point of mass infection, economic collapse and social breakdown. The buffoon boy in the Oval Office wants Jesus to rise on Easter and deliver us from the viral evil.

These realities of the “now” make being “here” difficult. My mind drifts to the disheartening headlines, reports of the infection spreading by magnitudes; of people, voiceless because a tube inserted into their trachea, dying alone in ICUs; of right-wing hucksters who offer to die for their grandchildren; of evangelical sheep-herders who keep open their corrals and promise to heal the fallen among the faithful by the laying on of hands; of politicians devoid of empathy; of the millions of American, mis paisanos, who believe all of this is OK.

Plus there are the worries. All of my family, save one late-arriving younger brother, are in a risk zone, not only for age, but also for an array of otherwise manageable ailments or for having inherited the family trait of self-destructive behavior. What will become of us? If the virus eventually infects 70 to 80 percent of the population, the odds don’t look good. And with death rates among those 70 or older at 70 percent or more, the outlook is even worse.

To tell the truth, I am afraid. I have never thought much about death, although the topic arises more often at my current age than it did even a decade ago, and I have worried about it even less. What troubles me now is that I have possibly lost control of my fate. My future, my family’s future, our country’s future rest in the (probably unwashed) hands of political leaders who haven’t the competence to confront a biological peril that could kill tens of thousands of people, many of whom would likely survive under even a normal, mildly ineffectual political class capable of procuring, producing and delivering the millions of medical tests and pieces of supplies the nation needs.

It’s not that I fear dying (although I am not a big fan of it), but I don’t want the cause of death to stupidity.

As I said, at times it goes well, at others less so.