For twenty-five years I have preserved a retro methodology for the Spectacle of "publishing" a monthly (then a semi-monthly) "issue". Now, for a while, I will bring this closer to a true Blog, simply updating it daily or so with these Journal entries, and changing the date at the top. I will add each new entry first, then follow with the prior in chronological order, from March 21 on.
Since this Journal is actually excerpted from an increasingly strange work I have been writing for eight years now, nominally about free Speech, and which is now more than 8,000 pages (referred to within as "the Mad Manuscript"), some of it is written in a personal vocabulary I developed along the way: "Tonked" for "liked" or "appealed to" depending on context, "Seared" for "upset by", "Flashing Fish" for a fragmentary memory, etc. I leave these in in the hope they can be understood in context. If this seems to get out of hand, I will add a glossary.
Watching the appalling spectacle of the Coronavirus burning down Arizona and Florida as it previously devoured New York City in March, I am struck by the stupid exclusivity and particularity of the people there who complacently said back then "we are not New York", and the obliviousness to history of those in authority who refused to read anything about the 1918 flu to see How These Things Work. Now I am beginning to understand that we are in effect returning the favor, will go ahead with our own re-opening because we are not Arizona or Florida (those rednecks). But this is just as stupid, because, aside from Magical Thinking, no one has come up with any reason to believe that, if the virus is there, it will not come back here, with a neighbor returning from a parental visit or even a tourist staying in a re-opened hotel. At the beginning of Pandemic Time, I coined a Truism, that "None are (virus) free until all are (virus) free", a thing so obvious that I am disappointed in myself that I spent several days in Magical Thinking land, hoping we might get away with our own re-opening. The idea that we don't actually live in one world together, which also dominates our thinking about pollution and climate change, is the most characteristic and fatal blindness of our time.
I have at least for now, lost my "solution" to the Post Office. I had, I see now, merely lucked into a methodology, of going Saturday mornings when I discovered that they opened a half hour earlier than announced, so I could be the first or third person there. For the past two weeks, they have posted a sign that they are opening an hour late, at ten, originally to the end of June, now extended to July 10. This decrease in service during a Pandemic is rather Searing and is probably attributable to the President's campaign to defund and destroy the Post Office. By 10 a.m. the place is mobbed. I have seen a line of people waiting to enter the small room in which the counter is located, stretching down the narrow walkway. This means that everyone wishing to enter, just to check a post office box, must walk within a foot of six or seven other humans. In what I now recognize as my full-blown Agoraphobia, I not only find this inadvisable, but actually unbearable. My nerves would scream if I tried to do it.
During the first two months of the pandemic, I abandoned all thought of picking up packages, and relinquished two or three I knew were there, which I imagined would be returned to sender. Now that I thought I had "solved" the Post Office, I began ordering things again, some of which, if not matters of sheer survival, are needed enough for my new daily routine (a headset for making Skype calls on my laptop; a burner cell phone so I don't have to carry my fragile Pixel everywhere, and so I will have a back up when it next fails) that having lost the Post Office again is highly distressing and inconvenient. (Later: All these things, being ordered from Amazon directly under its Prime service, and not from third party vendors, were soon after delivered by United Parcel Service directly to the house, so only books, a bandanna, and my brother's birthday gift are waiting for me at the Post Office, yay.)
The Post Office is also a Case Study in my constant rage at human Bloodymindedness. It was the scene of my outburst last week at the Man With The Hoe. I identify with the mostly African American clerks (I had an Epiphany, years ago, after listening to a woman of privilege scolding one, that I wished to resign from the white race), so I don't blame them, but really: there is a Perfect Storm of the Post Office's refusal to deliver the mail to my house; its failure to find a temporary solution for that in Coronavirus Time, which would protect the clerks' health as well as mine; and the inability even to remove the unneeded iron fence which enforces a two foot width of the walkway, forcing people to walk dangerously close to one another in entering and leaving the building. An Almost-Defined Term Shimmers, the Futile Solution: the insistence that only three people enter the inner room at a time (so they can distance there) is causing congestion in the room with the boxes and the walkway outside.
I never imagined that I would write so much about the experience of visiting the Post Office. This illustrates the Science Fictionalism of Cornoavirus Time. I hit on a Truism decades ago, that "Science fiction makes the extraordinary ordinary", for example, a character might be bored viewing the rings of Saturn from a space station window, because she sees the same thing every day. But I see now that dystopian science fiction (and horror also) does the opposite, making the ordinary extraordinary, as in my accounts of picking up my mail, or pumping gas, Or Or Or.
Another illustration of that concept. I can only obtain frozen fish from the Peapod service, and they don't always have it. I noticed an unattended stand on a front lawn on Abrahams' Path Road, on the way to the dump, where on the honor system you took a bag of mystery fish or of clams and left cash in a box. I shopped there twice, putting the unknown fish (probably puffers) into a chili and making clam chowder for the first time in my life (it was really good, Bragging Alert). On Saturday, as I came home from the dump, I wanted to stop at the stand, but two unmasked women were handling and breathing on the bags. I may never go there again, though rationally, there may not be a reason: I always was masked and gloved, and deconned the merchandise when I got home anyway.
On a different note, I have emphatically discovered in Coronavirus Time, how much I like wearing a mask because it "reveals the truth hiding beneath the mask that is the face... there is a South Indian saying that you can say anything when you wear a mask". Wendy Doniger, The Woman Who Pretended To Be Who She Was (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2005) (a Strand Book) p. 205
The world is shut down, most businesses are ordered closed, my wife and I are sheltering at home. Every second or third day I go out to the supermarket for supplies, and in the short time this has been front and center in all our minds, have already developed a new way of thinking about public spaces. This is not the first time, either. In 1978, I was briefly held at machine gun-point by a ski-masked man during the robbery of a post office on the Rue Lourmel, Paris; and for a long time after, I never went into any public large room without scanning for places to hide and for escape routes. Now, in Stop and Shop and CVS, I reconnoiter which aisles are unpeopled, and plan routes to the chicken breasts or the toothpaste where I don't need to pass anyone. When I am trapped by unreasonable people dashing down narrow aisles past me, I turn my head away, and feel helpless rage. Why isn't everyone sensible enough to stay six feet away?
I cannot get a medical mask. For a decade or so after working on ambulances, I always had a few in the house, but no more. Who knew how badly I would need one? The unreliable Official Narrative (an oxymoron) says it wouldn't really keep me safe, I wouldn't wear it correctly (except I would), it might lead me to take unreasonable risks (it wouldn't), and I am depriving a nurse or doctor of it (which I suppose is a version of the Trolley Problem?). I remember the similar Narrative that nobody needed a mask in Ground Zero while the Pile was burning after 9/11--a statement which also cost lives.
I would tie a bandanna around my mouth and nose, maybe with a little alcohol on it, but (given my embarassing and perpetual Shoelace Comedy) it would come untied and fall off my face three times in the store. Perhaps if I stapled it to my hood? (Or to my face?)
I imagine bringing a flask of tequila, and Madly gargling it as I rush down the Stop and Shop aisles.
Governor Cuomo just said that we should all get our sewing machines from the closet and make masks. I suppose that would be as good a use of time in our enforced dreadful idleness as playing naval warfare board games, if we were making themselves for ourselves and family. But it is rather pathetic to imagine the result if you walked into the Bellevue ER and tried to get the attention of a nurse dashing by, to offer them.
I am mildly symptomatic, by the way, but less worried because I have been more or less continuously since long before this all started, last November.
There is no way to get a test. At the very beginning of a pandemic that is predicted to kill at least a million Americans, and possibly many more, hospitals around the country are already out of masks, and word is that they will soon have more patients than ICU beds (which can be improvised) and ventilators (which can't). Last week, I already read that in Italy, people my age were being "black tagged" (assigned a triage status of no treatment): "You've already lived your fill, and this young person hasn't, so fuck off and farewell". As an EMT, I was trained in triage, though I never had to perform it, and (Somewhat Synchronicity?) had first learned the word and concept in the "immense issues of the future" article I read in the New York Times Magazine in Iconic 1964.
This is a time of many Epiphanies, almost all Basilisk Moments. The appalling scarcity of equipment at the very onset of a plague illustrates some principles I had already slowly and dully developed. Late Capitalism does not work, in any way seemingly, certainly not as a method for managing and delivering health care. The Rule I also proposed, "Do not summon goblins you don't know how to kill", was originally a warning to Serfs to be extra-careful battling Barons, but works equally well, I now see, as a warning to Barons not to construct an unsustainable world without some planning as to contingencies in which a RL Solvent turns up. There is no Solvent as effective as a pandemic. I have been reading or aware of books for forty years or so warning that it is just a matter of time before a disease devastates us, yet we have built a Globalized world to assure it can cut through us like the Red Death. I see more clearly that a major reason we don't build world wide systems of protection, refuge, redemption and grace is that we live in a Kleptocracy, a world of Billionairism, where that would interfere with the Barons getting Monstrously Rich. There is some irony of course in the pandemic coming just before they built the space stations to which they could retreat. A Billionaire dying of Coronavirus might have a Somewhat Useful last thought: "If we had national health care, I might not have been infected by my driver, who caught the virus from his brother-in-law who works in an Amazon warehouse, who got it from a construction worker he sat next to in a bar...." "None are (virus) free until all are (virus) free". The detestable Spectacle of the not-yet-infected billionaire skeptics like Elon Musk, urging their employees to stay in the office, Tonks and Sears me at once.
As a Moral Parable, the idea of marginalized people contracting viruses from "bush meat" is effectively a powerful horror movie Trope and the Counter-Tainter, a lesson in how civilizations really fall. (Shades of archaeologists digging where they shouldn't, turning up an Ancient Evil and all that.)
That said, I am, in a minor key, at least mildly enjoying not needing an excuse to stay home, and especially not having to make those tedious 5 a.m. trips into New York City, sometimes three in a week. If I get through this, and there is some vestige of a civilization left, I would like not to go back to work (or not as hard). There is some Synchronicity in having read my Brother in Spirit, Victor Klemperer's diaries, just before this all hit. Victor also finds a minor brightness in having to stay home and write, and says it is Not Boring to observe the Hitler-Goebbels Spectacle daily. There is also a Mad elation after each provocation: "Well, I survived that". I am already experiencing something like.
Just a couple weeks earlier, I wrote about what I now see as Pastor Niemoller's Insufferably Vain Blithering about what he could have done for the Jews ("Nothing, Pastor. You could not have done anything," I will tell him if I see him at the Post-Mortem Party). What does a Boddhisattva do in a pandemic? I have a related thought, that without gloves or masks, there are a few doctors who will keep working, some of whom will die, and probably more who will say, "This isn't what I signed up for", and go home. What if you went to the hospital, and there was nobody there?
Which raises a question which rather Tonks me: If it all gets bad enough, will there be electricity? Radio or television informing us? The Internet? How far can we fall in a pandemic? (I have always, perhaps not sensibly, always been a bit less worried about food, assuming I could fish for blue fish and finally learn which plants on the dune are edible). It is a reminder of something I already knew (reading historical descriptions of corpses in piles in every era, or watching NYPD beating demonstrators): how thin the veneer of "Civilization" really is. (Good Typo: "beasting".)
I already feel that there isn't really a government, or a health system.
I decided before I was out of my twenties, that I had lived a Fucking Great Life and could be Somewhat Phlegmatic about when it ended. However, whenever I am in a true Emergency (and I have been in many), I always feel very motivated to survive (how embarrassing for someone who Aspires to Be a philosopher). The next few weeks or months may test all my Chattering.
I had long been fascinated by plague-parrhesia, Gleaning works on the Black Plague and the 1918 flu pandemic. In a book on the plague, I came across a dying fifteenth century historian who offered to "leave parchment" for his successors.
In the New York Post yesterday was the following parable of 21st Century America: A woman in Manhattan called Southampton Hospital to say she had just been diagnosed with Coronavirus and was planning to travel to them. Ordered to stay in Manhattan, she took public transportation (the Hampton Jitney bus, the Carriage of Entitlement, I assume), infecting a hundred or so other people, because, you know, she is a Higher Life Form.
We watched the ghostly dancers spin
To sound of horn and violin,
Like black leaves wheeling in the wind.
March 22: The Coronavirus in a mere week or so has radically altered, and probably for the rest of my life, the way that I see the world. People behaving normally, walking close together, laughing, smiling, are vectors of infection. I agreed for the first time since the reality hit to accompany my wife out. She has a compulsion for the outdoors, coupled with a cabin fever, I do not match. I am content to ride my bicycle five miles once a week, as a controlled way of breathing fresh air while staying twenty feet away from all other humans. As part of my routine, I would usually also run two miles, but have skipped that for the last two weeks, and probably will today as well. I am exhausted, and have been mildly symptomatic; but I also feel less control, less of an ability to avoid others, on my feet than on the bike.
The excursion with my wife revealed what is essentially a paranoid schizophrenia I never had before. I did not want to get out of the car anywhere; she took short walks in two places where I did not join her, because there were people behaving normally. In the New York Times this morning, there was a Searingly poignant photograph of a crowded Italian restaurant two weeks ago, and a laughing dark-haired woman looking toward the camera. Some of those people are certainly dead by now (Italy is the hardest-hit country on Earth).
At our third stop, Louse Point, an Iconic power-place on the bay where we have always felt the Karma to be very intense, I consented to walk a quarter mile with her, on a wide road. A perfectly normal thing happened which was very Dreadful: a smiling older woman, focused on us because we are, you know, very Cute together, dipped towards us in the road, as if she wanted to start a conversation: I saw Death walking. This morning, bicycling on really deserted Old Stone Highway across Route 27 from my house, I had had a similar experience: a smiling man in Lycra on a power-bicycle, acknowledging my helmetless Cuteness frantically pedalling my gearless clown-bicycle, had also dipped in my direction, and I imagined I could feel his death-breath sweep my cheek. It is a strange contrast that, day before last, I endured much closer contact with many more people, at the Stop and Shop. I had to think for a moment to reconcile my courage then, with my cowardice now, but it wasn't that hard: I was on a mission, to get food for our and our neighbor's survival. Then I focused all my courage to risk infection for necessity; today's excursion by contrast seemed frivolous, unnecessary, something I was doing to accommodate my wife.
I had a vision for a moment that a controlled dash in to the supermarket had computer game qualities. In fact, it reminded me suddenly of a strategy I concocted in the 1980's in Wizardry, an early PC game with very rudimentary graphics. When my fighter had been killed by monsters deep in the dungeon, I would generate a new character, a thief, who, unarmed and with minimal hit points, would run down all the levels to attempt to retrieve his body, and to bring it back to the surface, where I could resuscitate him. Four out of five times, my thief would be killed by a monster, but on the fifth attempt he usually succeeded. Dashing in to Stop and Shop for groceries, I felt the same existential dread, only the monsters were the old man of doubtful hygiene, the old woman who seemed clueless there was a pandemic, both of whom came too close in the narrow aisles.
That in fact got me thinking about zombie movies. I have never particularly liked this rather boring, invariant Trope, yet have seen many. I just had a Four in the Morning Epiphany that the subtext of these movies is that people who lack Agency become monsters without Agency. In fact--funny I never saw it before--zombie films are tragicomedies of Agency. The shuffling, deteriorating bodies never show any sparks of rage or grief at their condition; one could imagine a dead person, infuriated she had lost a battle, roaring with rage as she raced to convert other people to her condition. Zombie plagues are even instances of a rather Exceptionalist, even white supremacist mythology; the well-armed, strong and militarily clever survive, while everyone else merely runs screaming until bitten. I couldn't think of a movie in which an actual powerful individual--a general or company CEO or politician--reappears as a zombie, though this is such an obvious plot twist it must have been done sometime. I do remember that when one of the protagonist's team is bitten, she asks to be shot in the head (or is anyway when the symptoms appear). What we are experiencing now feels like the basis of the Zombie-trope, with the people in the Italian restaurant already half Undead. I am the person who, like the unwitting suburbanite in the film who turns out to be just resourceful enough to survive somehow, was already well-situated (I was already "socially distanced" before I had ever heard the phrase). As Existentialist and philosophical and accepting as, in quiet times, I always think I am, I would really like to survive this. It always surprises me, when the shit hits the fan, how much I want to live.
I am also thinking that, if I do survive this, I do not think I will want to return to the old normal: I may never go out in crowds again.
I am thinking of some lessons I learned earlier, which toll now like an Ocean Bell: When I was fifteen, watching the principal of Midwood High School childishly act out his Imaginary understanding of my thuggish behavior (I was many other things, some of them displeasing to power, but not a thug), I had the Epiphany that "There are no grown-ups".
In something I wrote a few months ago on "Titanic Sophistry", with unwitting prescience (I was dead on by accident), I ended by asking the question, "Why not not build the Titanic?" In our Overton Window, we ask every question but that: Could it have been built safer? Steered better? Could more of the passengers have been saved? And whay not not build the World Trade Center, while we're at it?
I am having a Basilisk Moment now: for the last few years I have seen clearly that Our World is Ending due to climate change, population growth, our wars and debt and Bloodymindedness, but I really did believe the chances were excellent that the worst would happen after I died of old age. Instead, the world is possibly ending now, and it is our fault, as much as climate change. We made a Globalized world in which the Coronavirus, borne by airplanes and ships, could tear through the entire globe in a week; we created the conditions in which marginalized people would capture animals which are carriers of new viruses, eat or market them, and forward those viruses to the rest of us; and, at the same time, we made a world with no defense system for those bugs, and in which the Free Market, of all ridiculous things, was responsible for provision of medical care and the production of masks and ventilators. I wonder how much of this (and the destruction of the economy as everyone shelters at home) can happen before there is no electricity, no stores open, no Internet, no police on the streets.(I live in a good place to become a hunter-gatherer, if it comes to it.) In any event, whatever shape we are in when this runs its course, I am certain life will never be the same again. Selfishly, I do not personally need it to be: I do not care if I ever visit Manhattan again, frankly, or if I am ever in a courtroom, so long as I can write. And I will write on parchment if I have to.
On the evening of September 11, 2001, I wrote an essay for the Spectacle, A Hard Rain, recounting my frightening adventure that morning under the burning World Trade towers, and drawing some conclusions about what the future held. It was the first in a series I called Year Zero, on the assumption that the world also had irrevocably changed. I continued to write "Year Zero" for the next two years and a bit; the last of the essays was dated February 2003. Then life seemed to normalize, and I thought, contrary to expectations, that Year Zero was over, that life had reset: a little thinner, with some loss, but the same old life. I was wrong: We simply had a Sophistical Interlude, like the "phony war" at the outset of World War II; but Year Zero never ended.
March 23. I always remember Kubler-Ross's "Five Stages" as being "of dying", but they are "of grief": "denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance". Like any Somewhat Useful Ology, her "stages" seem to apply more widely to civilizations, Speech Adventures, "lion and woman and the Lord knows what". We speak widely and Tritely of "climate denial", but much of it today is really "climate bargaining", and the Libertarian who privately acknowledged to me "There is nothing we can do about it anyway" had achieved Climate Acceptance. All legislation negotiated by somewhat reasonable and realistic humans, who know they cannot save the poor, or the environment, or the economy, is Bargaining. (All negotiation is Bargaining?) My mother, when diagnosed with leukemia, passed directly to Acceptance; my father, twenty years before, with his own lymphoma, skipped Denial, Anger, and Bargaining, experienced some Depression, and then Acceptance. I usually feel I am in the Acceptance phase of my own life.
People still playing pick-up basketball or pressing their warm bare shoulders to each other's at beaches, may be in Trite Denial, but I am also detecting much Bargaining right now, as this statement about a folk dance event, that "They are very sensible people; everyone will sanitize, and no one will come if sick". Boris Johnson's brief concept, that if the British kept mingling, they would develop "herd immunity", was Bargaining (imagine developing "herd immunity" to the Second Law).
I fully achieved the person I Aspire to Be when my wife told me she wanted to go to a folk dance event in Manhattan. I spent two hours telling her she should not, and then, when she went anyway, progressed directly to Acceptance. I did not act like I owned her, did not bully or blackmail her, scream or insist I would not be there when she returned. (I did tell her Snarkily that, if I died because she went to Manhattan, I would be very angry.) I modeled for myself the near-perfect equality of a married couple, side by side atop their Ladders of Agency, one explaining how perfect a vector the dance session is for Coronavirus, the other deciding to go anyway; two fully autonomous individuals in a marriage. She came right back the next morning, with a full understanding how foolish it would be to go again, and she has not. I had the Click of knowing I lived up to the standards I set for myself, so even if she had infected us, there is always that.
We are taking care of some neighbors older and frailer than us. I have been doing their shopping, which is also an assertion of Agency, and a way for me to feel better in an Emergency. I noticed much earlier in my life that one of the best ways we humans know for responding to Chaos is to take some action, no matter how trivial. That was my Samarios Gorge epiphany in 1977: When I was in pain and unsure I could finish walking 16 kilometers, I clipped my toenails and went on.
I have described in several places, the Transcendent relationship I seem to have with the dune outside my house. After 9/11, this beautiful, Huge place provided me with emotional refuge. Later, she protected us from Hurricane Sandy. And now, she is sheltering us from Coronavirus; living here, we were already "socially distanced" before I knew the phrase.
An awful Spectacle right now (one of a million Basilisk Moments) has been the immense Failure to develop and deploy a test for Coronavirus in time, a technology so usual and simple every other country had one. An Almost-Book Shimmers, An Ology of Testing, with several Tonkative Narrative Strands. Foremost, there is the Tainteresque decline of a polity which is no longer competent (and my own related theory, which deserves a Defined Term, that we have completed our Arc from Competence to its mere Performance). Shimmering behind that, is the prospect of medical testing as, at least in some circumstances, an Egregious Ontological Error (unnecessary full body scans which caused panic and even ill-considered surgery; expensive tests for women with Stage IV cancer to see if they had the gene for it; the fact that most older men with slow-moving prostate cancer will die of other causes without ever realizing they have it). Behind that, is the status of testing as the attempted Digitalizing of an Analogue world, as in my strange Schrodingerian experience with Lyme. A chapter could be devoted to a Case Study of the Coronavirus test as, essentially, a (reverse?) Speech Adventure, with a Tonking Narrative Arc from "Lets test everyone, then trace contacts, isolate, build barriers against the virus" to a realization that people with mild symptoms, showing up to be tested (Good Typo of the Freudian type: "mild systems"), are overwhelming the medical infrastructure, and infecting other people as they travel to the test site and wait there, and that with the Coronavirus "general" across America, we should basically all behave as if there were no tests, staying home until you can't draw a breath any more, then rushing to the hospital in hope there will be a ventilator available.
I made a mask. This is Exemplary of Agency through Action (but may also be Bargaining). Given there are no surgical or N95 masks available anywhere and even the hospitals are running out, I carefully researched how to achieve a homemade one (without a sewing machine), and found the website of an American engineer in Beijing who had been writing about masks since long before Coronavirus. He had done, or at least had access to, professional studies which determined that everyday cotton, as in a T-shirt, eliminated 60% of droplets, while an N95 achieved 80%--close enough. One of the people leaving comments on the page linked to a very enjoyable graphic, on how to fold a T-shirt into a ninja mask for Halloween. It is an Exemplary Kluge. You turn the shirt inside out, put it over your head backwards with label in front, lift the back over your head as a hood, and tie the short sleeves behind your neck. You have a stable, tight mask over your nose and mouth (with the tag tucked in for extra measure) which does not come untied. Of course, since wearing it I look like a bank robber, it does seem to raise an annoying possibiility of being shot by the police, which I Hope will not happen in a supermarket in which half the others are also wearing improvised masks. For Bonus Points, I will add a second layer inside, taping a coffee filter over my nose and mouth: I have seen several sources speculating about the efficacy of coffee filters, though no research results.
March 25. In the last 24 hours, it became clear that the impact on New York City is going to be far worse than anyone anticipated. There are already 13,000 cases within the city as of yesterday, 5% of the world wide total, and a daily increase in case load five times faster than is seen elsewhere in the U.S. This means that the city, where most of my friends, law colleagues, and some family live, will crack in a few days, literally crack, with hospitals overwhelmed, doctors, cops and administrators sick and not working. Some number of the people I know are almost certainly going to die in the next month or so.
All of the Metaphors which come to mind are horror movie or science fiction Tropes. The moment when the monster turns out to be Huger, faster, much more powerful than imagined. The moment in the disaster movie when the characters, who have been too busy trying everything they can think of, to panic, realize that they can no longer save themselves. For the last weeks, I have been imagining a ten foot wave hitting the city, and splashing a foot or two of water here in the Hamptons. (This too was a form of Bargaining.) Instead, it just became evident that a hundred foot wall of water is about to hit, and if only thirty feet of it come here, we will still be erased.
I had been taking comfort from the numbers, that of all the cities and towns on the East End, ours had the fewest cases of anywhere but Shelter Island--that "the numbers decrease as you travel East". But there has been coverage the last few days of a Late Capitalist phenomenon, that wealthy people are starting to flood out here from the City, bringing the virus with them. My old daydream, of how easy it would be to protect Napeague and Montauk when civilization fell, by throwing a roadblock across Route 27 at the island's narrowest point, might have worked had we done it about ten days ago.
People I trust have been saying very similar words, which I have also heard from some of the talking heads on television: "We will all be infected". We will each then become perfectly passive, perfectly without Agency, as we wait to see whether the Pool Player sinks the eight ball or not. I have transited a strange Complacency-Zone (with intermittent anxiety attacks) where I believed I would not get it (the System Operator needs me to "complete" my work!) or that the symptoms I have been experiencing for weeks are a light case, after which I will be immune (Denial; Bargaining). Now I am starting to feel that heavy sense of calm dread: the vision of Things to Come, of not being able to breathe.
I made a possibly fateful trip to the store yesterday. I put on the ninja mask, and found myself accepted in the 6 a.m. crowd at Stop and Shop (half of whom were wearing medical masks--how did they get them?--or scarves tied across their faces). There was one man only, unmasked, who asked: "What are you hiding from?" I was shopping for ourselves, the people next door, and for another friend, who was self-quarantined. Shopping for others is also Bargaining.
In the car on the way to the store, I realized my breath was fogging my glasses in the cold--a pretty good indication that droplets pass through and the mask is useless. I kept it on anyway. In the store, I noticed I was obsessively touching my face to adjust the mask or to ensure it was well-tied or well-seated--a known contraindication of a mask, the revenge of unintended consequences. There were fewer people than the last time. I dodged down empty aisles, turned my face away from others, and despite half empty shelves, found most of what I and the others needed. Leaving, I felt both confident (mission carried out!) and as if I had been beaten.
As the astonishing numbers and advance of the disease were reported the rest of the day, I realized that, despite the fact we are almost perfectly situated to isolate ourselves from other people ("hell is other people" now, literally), the grocery store is the main risk, the principal vector. Inevitably sick people will come into the store, and the cashier (there is no self-checkout) will be exposed to all of them. I started to do a kind of first, vague pass at a kind of math to which I am unaccustomed: how long can we make it, on the supplies we have, without going back to the store? Today we will actually pile cans and count meals. I have a sense that, rather than waiting a week, as was the original plan, I should go back today and tomorrow and buy forty cans or so, of beans, tuna fish, beans, soups, beans, salmon, beans and beans. We should have enough food to eat (sparingly if necessary) for at least a month; two would be better. I suspect, if it came down to it, we could each survive on a can of beans a day for a while.
We have made ourselves responsible for the older neighbors, on a Japanese theory of responsibility. My other friend will be done self-quarantining in a few days, and is not very symptomatic; I will not need to shop for him again. There are other old people in the neighborhood, people we don't like or had not really connected with, we had just thought of calling to make sure they were all right. But these neighbors feel like a Huge weight right now; if not for them, I could already decide not to go back to the store for a long while. Because of them directly, I will need to shop again. That I would be afraid to go to a supermarket, that IRL a visit could be fatal, is not something I expected to experience.
On a side note, I have learned how intimate you can become with people without seeing them, except from a balcony forty feet away: I talk to my neighbor all day long, but we deliberately isolate ourselves from each other.
I believe less and less I will live through this, though still eagerly want to; but I have a vision that, if I do, I will not go back to work, and even that I will keep "social distancing" the rest of my life, never go back into crowds. (This too may be Bargaining.) The scenes in TV shows and commercials, of groups of people socializing, already have an Archaic aspect, as if they portrayed another world.
I have a routine that can keep me going for as long as I live. I am reading many books at once, four library books on my phone: Szasz on mental illness; Spinney's Pale Rider, on the 1918 pandemic, which I had already Gleaned last year, without paying too much attention, because I did not know; Macdonald's Masscult and Midcult, which popped up when I was searching the virtual library for something else; and McCaffrey's The Ship Who Sang for light entertainment (Haraway cited it in her cyborg essay, which I Gleaned day before yesterday). I am reading three paper books at the same time: Bakhtin on Dostoevsky; Gibbon, whom I read cover to cover in my twenties and it was a Bucket List item to reread and Glean--and the Bucket seems close; and George Sand's Indiana, in French (which I found in the "Home Exchange" area at the East Hampton dump, also for "light" entertainment). That is seven books when, not long ago, I might have been somewhat "accidentally" reading four. Now I am reading with a plan, a chapter or section of each, then move to the next, each day: Szasz, Spinney, Macdonald, McCaffrey, Bakhtin, Gibbon and Sand. Yesterday I made it to Gibbon but did not open Sand.
For nonreading activities, I have a list of more than thirty possibilities, headed "Apocalypse To Do", including everything I could think of, including some I will probably never do: Astronomy, fishing, go kayaking, play war games, watch foreign black and white movies from the Criterion Collection, construct that smoker I ordered half a year ago which I did not realize would require assembly, add sit ups to my exercise routine, walk the length of the Paumanok Path in the Hamptons (assuming no one else is).
All of this Tonkingly echoes the full page cartoon from the East Village Other that hung on my wall circa 1970: "What to do in fifteen minutes while waiting for the end," after a nuclear alert: Whip off a quickie, start reading Karamazov, decide to grow a beard....I am growing a beard, by the way.
Certainly this writing is therapeutic.
I am dealing with some mild Self Pity, that in one lifetime, I worried about dying in Vietnam (for eight or ten years), and then by terrorism (for five years or so after 9/11), and now by a pandemic. I had almost forgotten the fear of dying in nuclear war, which was a constant background through-out the 1960's, returned after 9/11 with the fear of a Soviet suitcase bomb or dirty weapon deployed by terrorists, and then surged up a third time after Trump was elected, on reports that he was always asking'his advisors why he could not use one. Add in the fear and stress of the 2008 crash, and I find I greatly resent (! There will be a letter to the Times about it in the morning!) a modern world in which one never seems to stop living in instability and fear, when we have all the resources and riches to do better. The Ology of our failure--to prepare for a pandemic, to have masks and gloves and respirators available, even to be able to deploy a test; to intervene decisively before it was too late-- is Huge and poignant. This Gyres to this endlessly re-surfacing question: Why not not build the Titanic?
March 27. Yesterday morning W. fainted. I was sleeping upstairs on the couch and she came up, told me she wasn't feeling well, and went into the kitchen, where as I rose to go to her, I heard a crash. W. was lying on her back on the floor staring upwards like The Bewitched Groom. Former EMT, I asked her if she knew what year it was, and she did. She suggested we take her temperature on the floor, and we did: normal. I helped her to a chair and she said she needed to vomit. An empty wastepaper basket was near by, I handed it to her and she threw up a little liquid. I was Tonked to notice that her vomiting caused no nausea on my part (at very hard moments, I seek indications I am tough). I moved her to the couch and covered her. In a little while, I was able to reach a doctor in Manhattan by phone (another stirring conformation of my brief hypercompetence) who counseled us very calmly. When I told him W. was "alert and oriented times three", he asked if I were a doctor. He agreed that I should not take her to the ER at Southampton Hospital, suggested we might try to go to an urgent care facility in the morning. It was now 4 a.m. I had taken a moment before calling to do a Google search, which verified that nausea and vomiting for several days, without fever, was sometimes a symptom of Coronavirus. The phone doctor said this was so, in a small minority of cases. He agreed that without fever W. did not meet the criteria for testing.
As I picked W. up off the floor and then spoke to the doctor, I experienced waves of grim emotion: "This can't be happening" and then "life has irreversibly changed" with an attendant aura of fatality: "My wife fainted and vomited during a pandemic". I had hoped we would be bystanders.
W. rested on the couch a while, then when we were more sure she would not collapse again, we moved her carefully downstairs to bed, where she soon fell into a deep, reassuring sleep. I then possibly made a bad decision, texting and emailing a lot of people what had happened, as if I knew it were definitive: my brothers, some neighbors, some friends. I am ashamed to say, when W. woke, no longer nauseous, and cheerfully spoke of going out to Louse Point for a walk, I felt a bit embarrassed and angry: Were the two friends who had insisted to me she had had an anxiety attack (because, you know, it's W.) correct? Had I been an hysteric instead of tough all along, by Whinging to everyone? Then W. alternated rude health and complaints about her headache and sore throat and I began to feel whipsawed: she's sick, she's not sick. By afternoon I reached a stage of exhaustion where I was barely functional, but still running up and downstairs to bring her tea and ice packs. By evening, I had reconciled somewhat to the idea this is the way we live now.
The day had Huge Neptunean content. W. had had a similar "vasovagal" episode, ten or fifteen years earlier. She had come upstairs and fainted at the refrigerator, I heard a crash, ran to her and found her on the floor. That time she did not know her name, the year or the President, and I called 911 immediately. At Southampton ER, they gave her a saline line, said she was dehydrated and sent her home.But for the pandemic, she would have had a trip to the hospital this time too, though she was alert and oriented: the loss of consciousness, the crash to the floor, would have demanded it. But now there is no ER, no health care system, in fact barely a government: there is only us, a Republic of Two. The ER is the place where (as never occurred to me until W. collapsed) you can get the infection of you don't already have it; and where you may end up triaged, on a lineoleum floor, with a black tag. The conclusion we arrived at in a moment, and confirmed speaking with the doctor, was that we had no choice but to keep doing what we already were, to stay home, cook food, stay away from people, and keep an eye out for fateful or fatal changes in ourselves.
Another thing I learned immediately was that I would not attempt to segregate myself from my wife. The news is full of accounts of wives putting on masks and gloves to bring food to their husbands in the guest bedroom (I had not seen what an indication of privilege it already is, to have enough space to do that). I refuse to isolate W., made a point of kissing her yesterday, to symbolize that we will continue sharing all experience, as we have for thirty-six years, including the Coronavirus if it comes to it. I have heard two other accounts, from people I know who are in different states from their spouses, of agreements that "If I become sick, you will not come home". One of those women is sick in Queens, and her husband has not returned from Connecticut. The person I Aspire to Be finds this more than incomprehensible: it is unintelligible. I have quoted the aphorism that "Ninety percent of life is just showing up". One of the few gestures which is typically completely within our control is that of flying home like an arrow when we are needed.
From Five Miles Up, I am re-experiencing every time I turn on the news (Bragging Alert) a confirmation of how right I am, in every detail, in my analysis of my country, and our world, in Late Capitalism. How you fight a pandemic in a world of Free Markets: without N95 masks or nitrile gloves, with no tests or ventilators, but Chattering like crazy. I have never been so Seared to be right, in my postulate that our world has become all Posture and no Performance, that we don't actually know how to do anything.
The news from New York City, where I lived most of my life, is unbearable. Hospitals I worked at in my ambulance years, such as Brooklyn, and one I was in when I had my freak sidewalk fall a few years ago, Elmhurst, are overwhelmed, with triage tents on the sidewalk, people with fever and shortness of breath constantly walking in, while medical staff are starting to get sick themselves, reusing the same masks from patient to patient. One Manhattan nurse has already died of Coronavirus; in Italy this week, two infected nurses killed themselves. In one Manhattan hospital, nurses were photographed wearing garbage bags over their scrubs. I have written extensively about the Basilisk Moments when we discover that our civilization is so much more fragile than we knew. I already sensed it, but learned so much more about it on and after 9/11. I feel a certain amount of Self-Pity (Alert!) to have to endure a pandemic, after 9/11 and the 2008 crash, as if its really been enough for one lifetime, and I may have lived a year too long, thank you very much. All our wealth and sophistication, all this Chatter about our prestige and status and the Fucking American Dream, and we just can't stop staggering and tripping and falling and banging our fucking heads. This civilization really does not feel worth a whistle.
The Punch-line (because there had to be one) is all the Blather about "herd immunity", and the trend these last 36 hours to say the economy is more important. Let's reopen the restaurants and stores, so that people can doom themselves by shopping and congregating. When I said that Late Capitalism's Iconic image was airline security beating passengers, I could not even imagine a Pop Art image of a smiling customer handing a credit card to a smiling cashier, both perfectly coiffed, while a thousand Pointillist units of the Coronavirus "shed" from customer to cashier like an invading army. "Herd immunity", run through the Neurolinguistic Translator, emerges: "Let's just let the virus run through us, taking whom it will, after which the survivors get to take stock and pick up the pieces". There have already been stories of Billionaires betting on the virus and making fortunes; it is all just another form of leverage, after all, not morally different than betting all the crap mortgages would default. Being the last Capitalist standing, and selling the hammers and nails to rebuild the world, is a Huge Free Market opportunity.
I hate what this civilization has become. There seems at moments like this to be little left to save. Trump's base elected a man who had publicly and unashamedly stripped some of them of their life savings via the Trump University scam, who does not care if his voters live or die, and his popularity is only rising as they continue to think his inept meanderings, lies and inaction, are suave. A Third World country which still thinks it is First World, but which ran out of N95 masks in the first few days of a pandemic, which could not get a test ready in time to be of any use, has not earned its own survival.
A word on the Ology of Testing: The best use of a test in a pandemic is to detect the first cases, hospitalize and isolate them, trace their contacts, test them, rinse, lather, repeat. We are ridiculously far beyond that point. The second best use of a test is to determine who may need hospitalization. That has also overtaken us. As of a few days ago, the criteria were already, that fever or difficulty breathing would get you a test. Now that has shifted to "hospitalize those who are in extremis or close" and then test them. This makes about as much sense as the three thousand dollar test which was administered to my mother in law dying of cancer, to see if she had the gene for it. It is particularly nonsensical in a moment when we are as yet completely unable to do anything substantively different for a Coronavirus patient than for anyone else presenting with the same symptoms: basically to put her on a ventilator (of which we have a severe and Searing shortage) when she can no longer breathe for herself. Tests thus become nothing more as a way of bearing witness, of arbitrarily and Sophistically claiming to escape the Cloud of Unknowing by the adroit use of a noun. We might as well say that the pulseless person whom we are separating from a ventilator died of "Ogg". However, the remaining element which I may not yet have captured in that description is the mindless bureaucratic one, like the record keeper at Auschwitz noting down which inmates died of gas, injection, or disease.
The reports from Italy that people over 60 (I am 65) don't get ventilators, and the idea they are about a minute away from that in New York City, took a moment to sink in. This is actually no different in kind than a rule that black people don't get ventilators: it is a terribly bigoted judgment that our lives have less value, based merely on duration. A twenty something who might live sixty empty years is worth more than my spending another five on the Mad Manuscript. A lottery, a roll of the dice, would be much fairer (and more Truthfully Iconic of the way we live now).
A question I have been asking myself for a few days: What does a Boddhisattva do in a pandemic? She probably dies, like some of our doctors will and nurses already have, taking care of patients. It all seems weird and confusing, since the whole threshold moment that made (or identified) the Boddhisattva was turning away from Nirvana, not rushing into it.
I have been writing about the Boddhisattva, and about Triage, so let's connect the two: Does the Boddhisattva ever perform Triage? I do not know. But I suspect the answer must be Yes, because any Boddhisattva with no kind of filter whatever, would only live for a day, like a mayfly. I postulate a Guerilla Boddhisattva, who knows you can't fight every battle, that you pull back when battle is futile, and attack only when you can do some good. I had recently recognized (about a week before the Coronavirus really hit, strangely) Pastor Niemoller's famous litany about how they came for this one and then that, is Vain Whinging: "I didn't do anything!" Shut the fuck up, Pastor; you couldn't have done anything. You are in effect Bragging you had Agency, when the Boddhisattva knew she did not.
When I decided, the other day, not to go out any more, I stood in sad (or possibly sensible) contrast to a much older neighbor, whose choice was to keep shopping for everyone (a role I fulfilled for a few days, and two visits to Stop and Shop). I don't exactly regret my choice, but may be somewhat short of the person I Aspire to Be, as I admire her more than myself. But there is W. to consider (who also drew me back from the World Trade Center on 9/11) and there may be room for more expanded action later (I will leave that Neptunean for now).
One strange thing for the Life Is Not Real Department: I seem to have started getting tactically ready for Coronavirus, in the months before it hit. There is a major example I am not ready to write about yet. But I am Tonked by the fact that, twenty-five years after I first knew he had existed, I circled around to my Brother in Spirit Victor Klemperer, and read his Holocaust diaries, just in time to start my own Journal of the Coronavirus.
On the other hand--a Huge topic for later analysis, or never--I seem to have been getting strategically ready for Coronavirus for a lifetime, buying this house in 1997 (perfect for "social distancing"), and going to work on ambulances in 2002 (knowledge of masks and gloves, analyzing other people's physical state as I just did with W., and discoveries about my own ability to stay calm and endure horrors).
I have had for some days a Flashing Fish vision of my own possible end, making a choice not to go to ER, to stay home gasping for breath (and maybe down that bottle of tequila I bought and which sits, sparkly and unopened, on my counter). That would be an act of Meta-Triage: of refusing to be Triaged. A last balancing act atop the Ladder of Agency, and of self-subtraction from this irredeemably Cracked Frog World. That is, at least, what the person I Aspire to Be would do.
March 28: I wrote this email to my brother Richard, which I sent moments ago (it is 4:46 a.m., and I have been up, writing, since 2:30 or so, though I don't feel like I have done two hours work):
"Boris Johnson's original plan to await 'herd immunity' dovetails precisely with Trump's suggestion that we prioritize the economy over health, and represents the perfect final product of Late Capitalism: just keep the stores open while the Coronavirus takes its course. In a world driven entirely by the free market, fighting a pandemic is not profitable, and the death of millions not necessarily a negative. Some large subset of the people who will die hadn't much purchasing power, and their needs diverted resources more profitably invested elsewhere, and provided an ongoing rationale that government should be a certain size and of certain vestigial authority. Also, even if some of the 1% also die, that will provide a profit opportunity for the surviving Late Capitalists who will have a chance to seize their empires, while selling the hammers and nails to everyone else needed to rebuild society. Capitalism has always recognized all kinds of chaos and destruction as representing huge profit opportunities: the cult of 'disruption' in 'normal' (nonpandemic) times is a symptom". There has already been news coverage of Billionaires making additional billions by betting on the Coronavirus.
Changing subjects (away from Late Capitalism, for just a moment, though these boats will certainly collide in a moment), an Almost-Book Shimmers, An Ology of Rescue. In my twenties, I must (I don't really remember) have spotted Bury's The Idea of Progress on a bookstore shelf, in its large, appealing Dover Books paperback edition. I have Gleaned it and noticed its influence on me elsewhere in the Mad Manuscript; it introduced the concept that you could write the history of an idea, and of the Click one might experience, recognizing something one had always taken for granted as an arbitrary strand of experience-and then pulling on that strand. Now, in this moment of Coronavirus time, I am ready to pull on the strand of "Rescue". Under what circumstances do we rescue one another, and why? I have spent so much of my life darting at this problem from one direction or another, frequently using (or tricked by) vocabularies so different I did not realize it was all one Wicked Problem. I have in fact dealt with Rescue over and over in different contexts in the Mad Manuscript: in a section on mountaineering, I pasted an essay from the Spectacle, about an incident on Everest in which members of a party left companions to die; and I contrasted this with the Signpost Story of sewer or mine workers who perish, one after another, trying to rescue their comrades from a pocket of lethal gas. I confront Rescue again in a section on Altruism, in which I cite Epstein-Shamed Dawkin's absurd gene for saving five cousins. Somewhere I also quote an amusing moment on the Simpsons, when a rock star holding a benefit says, "We can't get that boy out of the cave, but we can sure sing about it". A very disturbing Thought Experiment (what use is a Thought Experiment if it isn't situated in the Uncanny Valley?) I imagined in my twenties involved a mad god placing a child safely, so far out of reach, that it would cost one billion dollars to retrieve her. Vermont notoriously some years ago passed its own "single payer" health insurance bill, which it never implemented, because it would be too expensive. The New York City council recognized the anomaly that a citizen facing a mere forty dollar summons for an "open container" violation gets a free attorney, while a tenant in housing court, faced with homelessness, gets none; but also calculated (this is dangerously anecdotal, and I am too Lazy to research it right now) that it would cost a billion dollars to address. In fact, the entire debate about health insurance, Obamacare, Medicare, Medicare for All,and particularly Medicaid, is really about Rescue. As with so much Sophistry, arguments from morality and practicality are unselfconsciously blended: Medicaid aids the selfish, lazy and undeserving; and we can't afford it.
I have written about the Sophistical Republican Chatter about Obamacare including "death panels", and the first instantiation of a "death panel" IRL after that, being a Republican governor's decision to stop extending free dialysis to undocumented aliens. On the other hand, I will be the first to admit that, long before 2020, the reason we lost forty percent of the hospitals I took people to on my ambulance in 2007, is because the law imposed an obligation of Rescue on hospital emergency rooms, without making the least determination as to who would pay for all that Rescuing. Unlike the donkey, stuck between two bales of delectable hay, we are stuck between two vials of poison: Dial Tone World in which the corpses of people who could not pay are piled up outside emergency rooms; and our real world, in which hospitals are closing every year, bankrupted by the obligation to treat every gunshot and heart attack victim for free.
Since I can apparently never avoid Wallace's Dance, which may be as involuntary as St. Vitus': when I mentioned the closure of St. Vincent's at a public forum on a New York version of Medicare for All, an indignant voice from the audience said that St. Vincent's closed because of corruption and incompetence, and not because treating people for free bankrupted it. This may have been (to tie in another strand I have been thinking about this week) Exemplary Denial, or Bargaining, in the Kubler-Ross scale.
It is safe to say that the Ideal of Rescue may be beyond our means, but that it is common Sophistry also to claim that Rescue is unaffordable, when it actually is. The Problem becomes much more Wicked, even Wicked Squared, in a pandemic, when Emma Lazarus' Truism, usually quoted as "None are free until all are free" actually becomes True in the variation that "None are virus-free until all are virus-free". A pandemic thus provides a rationale effective in appealing to the Terminally Selfish, to agree to Medicare for All, that you actually protect yourself against a pandemic only by protecting everyone. And yet the Late Capitalist, Chattering Wickedly about Herd Immunity, is actually saying, "Thanks. I will take my chances". While a Texas lieutenant governor my age said this week he was willing to die for the economy, it is not that much of a leap to believe that most Late Capitalists in favor of "herd immunity" actually think themselves Higher Life Forms not part of the "herd". It was reported last week that some billionaires consulted their doctors about the possibility of building personal ICU's in mansion basements, including personal ventilators.
Of course the use of "herd" in "herd immunity" is a Tell. We sometimes cull herds. Businessfolk who own herds know what acceptable losses are: there is some percentage of a herd of cattle you expect to lose to predators, disease and accidents every year without harming profits. (Good Typo of the Freudian Slip variety: "herd of capital".)
In my darkest moments, I incline to the view that Rescue is a Crock, that civilization's Bait and Switch is "We will Rescue everyone all the time", when that is so rarely true. I grew up with many core beliefs (Almost-Defined Term, "Brooklyn Assumptions"), an important one being that government sends police, firefighters, and National Guard to Rescue each and every one of us from Riot, Fire, Floods and Earthquakes. Yet I personally witnessed NYPD refusing to Rescue before I was out of my teens ("We don't care what you do to each other, as long as you leave us alone"). It was not until Hurricane Katrina, a terrible Basilisk Moment, that I saw how incompetent we had become at Rescue, and not until Trump blamed the people of Puerto Rico for their suffering after Hurricane Maria, that I (so Naive) had a vision of a world in which we wouldn't bother to Rescue anyone (other than the family or lovers of Billionaires and presidents). The wild fires of Australia also last year presented a dismal model in which Billionaire-dominated governments do nothing to ameliorate the disasters caused by Late Capitalism. Ultimately, if you trace this Strand all the way to its Root, you discover that a perfectly Kleptocratic form of government (towards which all Authoritarian governments trend, and, from Five Miles Up (or 500?) all governments), would have no concept of Rescue whatever.
Anyway, to bring it home, what we are witnessing today in Coronavirus Time, is a debate about Rescue: whether to Rescue everyone, or a few, or no one ("every man for himself, and God against all"). All of which unites one more strand, wait for it: Tainter, who said that governments fall when upper middle class citizens no longer understand the rationale for paying taxes to them. When a prosperous merchant in Gaul believed that the tribute paid to Rome would not be returned to him in the form of Rescue, it was simple matter of cost benefit analysis to swear allegiance to the local barbarian leader instead. This is particularly relevant (and poignant) now, in Coronavirus Time, when there effectively does not seem to be any government nor any Hope of Rescue. W. (who is doing much better, thank you) fainted yesterday, but there was no ER to take her to, and if my lungs begin to scar, it seems as if there will be no ventilator. Apropos, "One billion dollars" turned up again this week as the price tag which caused Donald Trump to back off a plan to manufacture ventilators.
I had been idly working on a purported or attempted Eggheaded witticism for a few days, a play on "Calvary/Cavalry", and just had the shock of recognition, that it fits here, because "Calvary" is suffering, and "Cavalry" represents Rescue. I also was inclined to an Almost-Defined Term, "Obvious Snark", because "Cavalry/Calvary" seemed so easy a reach, that thousands of other Eggheads must already have coined it. But the first few hundred results of a Google search are grammar and usage sites explaining that these are not the same word, or even synonyms. "'Calvary', always capitalized, is the hill on which Jesus was crucified.... Soldiers mounted on horseback are cavalry". The Website of Professor Paul Brians (yes, it's actually unimaginatively named that).
Coronavirus Time is pretty much all Basilisk Moments all the time; to pick the first three that come to mind: 1. I could already be a symptomless carrier who has killed a hundred people. 2. Doctors and nurses per newspaper reports are making their wills, telling their spouses to remarry, etc. 3. Two infected nurses in Italy killed themselves. A sort of Basilisk Moment I am having from Five Miles Up, Sub Specie Tainter, is that the United States (about which I have written three thousand Manuscript Pages) may no longer provide anything I want or need.
March 29: Triage is general in New York City. A news story yesterday about EMT's said that paramedics are now tasked with deciding when to leave a very sick patient home. That shatters rule #1 of ambulance work, that "everyone gets a ride to the ER". In a normal world, we would never have been trusted to make such decisions, ever. Another Signpost Story--I think I have heard it about different people three times in the last week--is the individual sent home from the ER because she isn't sick enough to be admitted, and told to "Call us if you have difficulty breathing". The next call is from a family member who just found the person dead. (This invokes a macabre Wallacism which occurs to me when I listen to the interminable warnings appended to television ads for pharmaceuticals: "If death occurs, call your physician".)
I began, much earlier in Trump Universe, to bang my head (so to speak) on a Writers' Room Metaphor, to ask when Trump got elected, what kind of pot they were smoking in the Writers' Room. I have a sense now that the Time of the Coronavirus (shades of a Marquez title, Love In the Time of Cholera) has some novelistic aspects. In 1964, in an annual of the best student writing of the year, I have a Flashing Fish of a macabre Searing story about the death of a grandparent, to which was appended a Didactic Footnote by the editor approvingly noting the Exemplary use of "foreshadowing", a concept of which I had never heard. Consider the eerie foreshadowing in the novel of my life: my first encounter with the concept of triage also in 1964; obsessive reading of books about the earth dying, gasping, choking; the ubiquity of Virus and Pandemic Metaphors; the occasional surging up of an actual book predicting a pandemic; 9/11; my years on ambulances; my thoughts and writings about triage, triage, triage, triage; and then Coronavirus Time. A related theme is the way I have taken actions without clearly seeing what they were in aid of, like buying this Dunehouse, perfect for "social distancing". I have leaned into agoraphobia my entire life: at first after the robbery of the Rue Lourmel post office in 1978, which gave me a wholly new and paranoid way of looking at public spaces (always detect hiding places and exits); then 9/11 (after which I never again went to a concert at the Beacon, nor flew on a plane for seven years or so). Now I am contemplating, if I get through this, declaring it my Last Rodeo, never going back to court or into New York City, just staying home as I am now in Coronavirus Time, reading, writing, looking out the window, dreaming.
Some other elements which feel like "foreshadowing": for many years now, I have been resistant to W's suggestions that we visit Florida, the Caribbean, or Paris. I keep thinking that each of these places "is over", Gleaning from the press stories of Americans being murdered in places I once visited and felt safe (Belize, Crete, Paris). I have sensed for years that all Civilization Everywhere is About to Crack--a sensibility that lies slightly above and to the left of every page of the Mad Manuscript, and which I expressed for the first time directly in the Section and Defined Term "Our World is Ending". All of this contributed to a compelling desire to stay home in the Dunehouse, long before I ever heard the phrase "social distancing". Not that long ago, and for years after 9/11, if I had to be in court at 9 am, I would have had a day of plans laid out: the (Meta-)Strand Bookstore, lunch with a friend, someone's play in the evening. Increasingly, and for about five years, if I was done in court by ten-fifteen or so, I would take an eleven a.m. train home. This was a harsh routine: Up at 4; at the station at 5 to make sure I got a parking spot; train at 5:58 (getting there an hour early was a bit obsessive); three hours traveling; subway; court; ll a.m. train home; three hours more. This was all informed by a perception that New York City was ending. I have felt panic walking in Times Square since 9/11, never absent, but it waxes and wanes; it has waxed very much these last few years. New York City, both when I lived there and since, seemed extraordinarily tough-brittle (like my Mad Mother, come to think of it) as if it could crack, and expel toxins and Death everywhere, in the blink of an eye.
I have in the Mad Manuscript obsessively returned to Epstein-Shamed Hawking's idea of a Memory of the Future: so perhaps that is what all this foreshadowing is, my lifelong advance memory of the Coronavirus.
I am aware, as the Mad Reader probably is, that people are suffering and dying while I,I,I,I write about my own perceptions and thoughts.
Since this is my day for Vain Meandering, I also complain again of the Ageism of Triage (Tri-agism?). The revelation that in Italy, patients over 60 were refused ventilators, and an account yesterday that age is taken into account in triage decisions in New York City, really Sears me; I am contemplating recruiting a colleague to bring a class action on behalf of all old Americans, arguing that age Triage is unconstitutional. I must sort out some confusion on my own part, because I am contemplating pinning a note to my shirt, asking never to be put on a ventilator; I just don't want to be refused based on my age. Also, I am conscious of some possible, or at least apparent, Hypocrisy. I just wrote somewhere North of here, this very morning, that I.I,I am one of the Happy Few who does not want to be a Higher Life Form, who would refuse the privilege if offered. Then in an instantaneous Fast Transform, here I am arguing that I am worth more than some twenty-two year old idiot, because, you know, I need more time to work on (and be worked on by) the Mad Manuscript, while he will merely annoy everyone with his vacant stare and mechanical laugh for sixty years more.
So I remove myself from the equation and offer the following Thought Experiment, which has some eerie Resonance with the Sick Violinist: There are two patients in equal danger of asphyxiation, and only one ventilator. One is seventy-two year old, a modern Emily Dickinson, who has another fifty great poems in her. The other is the twenty-two year old who appeared on television two weeks ago at a mass beach gathering in Florida of oblivious people his age, saying "If I get Coronavirus, I get Coronavirus". To whom do you grant the Mercy of the Vent?
I am serious that I have a wish not to be placed on a ventilator. I researched what your lungs are like after Coronavirus and you may lose 40% of capacity, wheeze when you walk. I am profoundly lucky (or my life has Insufficient Entropy) to be, at 65, in the same physical condition I was in at 35. I formed a goal I have expressed somewhere else, of not just being able to run 2 miles the day of my death, but of actually having done so (with all the Neptunean implications). I really do not want to live long enough to fall from the Ladder of Agency, to be like all the human husks I carried on my ambulance, between nursing home and hospital. On the other hand, there is the Wicked Problem of W.: if she was still there and required my attention and care, I would have a reason to remain here at only sixty percent of myself. W. , after all, drew me back home across the Brooklyn Bridge on 9/11 when my impulse was to return to the burning towers.
Emily Dickinson sang:
Because I could not stop for Death--
He kindly stopped for me--
The Carriage held but just Ourselves--
March 30. Another possible Synchronicity, something else which Clicked into place immediately before the Coronavirus hit: About twenty-five years ago, in the spring of 1995, I compiled An Auschwitz Alphabet. One of my sources was a small philosophical book called The Tremendum, which cited a writer of whom I'd never heard, Victor Klemperer. He was a Jewish professor who lived openly in Nazi Germany for the entire twelve years it lasted, protected, just barely, by the fact of his marriage to a nonJewish woman, Eva, a musician. He underwent privation and daily danger, but, unlike many of his neighbors, was never murdered or transported to a camp. During those years, he kept a diary and also made notes for a book on the Nazi corruption of the German language, which he called Lingua Tertia Imperii or LTI; he published it within a year after the war. For no reason I can explain, after being aware of Victor for a quarter century without the least desire to read him, with a laser focus for about a month, I read both volumes of the diary and the language book in one continuous shot, immediately before the onset of the Coronavirus Time. Why? I really don't know. I recognized in Victor a Brother in Spirit, someone who in many ways was like me (a certain stolidity; and reading Martin Buber gave him a headache) and who presented as a kind of role model, a potential answer to the question: What does one do in a life or death emergency? Victor did not get himself to America and work in military intelligence, nor go underground and attack military supply convoys (nor did anyone). He stayed in his house and documented everything, analyzing Hitler's or Goebbel's use of language in their latest radio broadcast while detailing his and Eva's own daily misadventures and dangers. He was a living instantiation of a phrase of Milton's, which was a favorite of my Sad Father's, and which I had always disdained: "They also serve who only stand and wait". Eva, who before the emergency hit seems to have been a bit of a sad hypochondriac, endlessly remorseful that she had given up her career to support Victor's, became a woman of iron during the Holocaust, constantly visiting friends and neighbors and bringing them supplies and solace, convoying Victor's diary and LTI musings to a friend in the country who hid them in her house, and then, after the bombing of Dresden, actively saving their lives day after day, cutting off Victor's Jewish star, and then negotiating their way through a series of refuges while awaiting the arrival of Allied troops. Among many other elements, theirs is one of the great love stories: a woman who stayed with her Jewish man through every danger under Hitler. Victor too, even when he could no longer safely go out of the Jews' House in Dresden in which they were concentrated, supported and cheered neighbors, and even keeping the diary was an act of personal courage, as its discovery would have earned him a bullet to the head from the SS. The two volumes are named after a phrase he utters, years in: "I will bear witness". Victor is my model and inspiration for this journal.
I Aspire to Be courageous. My five years on ambulances were a personal experiment in what I was capable of, and (Bragging Alert) I think I passed. In the almost four years of Trump Universe, I have felt the old anxiety over again, confronted basic issues of identity and whether I could live up to that intimidating person I Aspired to Be. I kept drawing the line beyond which action would be "Necessary" (a Weasel Word). Of course, by setting that line further and further out, one could avoid any action at all; and that is probably a common personal Sophistry (looking at you, Pastor Niemoller). I settled on a line which has not yet been crossed: arrests of people like me for pure Speech, or for imaginary, Trumped-up crimes. This has not yet happened. If it did, would I join a resistance? I have spent weeks at a time in Schrodingerian Clouds of Confusion, investigating exile, which (as I also had figured out in the Vietnam era), did not seem like an act of courage; thinking about resistance; reminding myself at times that just continuing what I was already doing, defending my radical pro bono clients in court, was already resistance, though it never felt like enough; and Slighting the choice brother Victor made, of simply bearing witness.
One of the hardest things in my life, since for most of it I had so little sense of my own personality and abilities, was knowing accurately what I could do, and what I shouldn't want to. I will tell one highly embarassing story: I set out to be a fly fisherman, and went on a New Mexico weekend where a guide placed me and some co-workers four feet away from trout which he knew would take the fly he selected for us. Thinking, because of his flattery, that I knew what I was doing, I hired a Montauk fisherman to take me out in a boat from which I needed to be able to cast sixty feet precisely into some perturbations in the water where striped bass were. Only when I was committed did I discover how incompetent I was; yet I had had no objective reason to think I could manage this day on the water. I had years earlier set a goal for myself, to experience less humiliation in life, and here I had just walked into it, leading with my chin so to speak (not uncommon through my forties, and still a Thing sometimes now, though more rarely).
It is not Written anywhere that each of us has what is needed to be a member of a Resistance. Frail, tiny, Simone Weil went to fight in Spain, and her fellow fighters were terrified whenever she sat herself at the anti-aircraft gun, that she would lose control, whip around by accident, and shoot them. It is possible Weil starved herself to death afterwards due to her disappointment from this experience. Brother Victor's calm acts of endurance and courage are looking better and better to me now. Victor's analysis of his times has lasted, touching the life and mind of the Tremendum author, and mine, almost a century later; and that seems Huge to me now.
In 1965, in the great Northeast black out, I was sitting at the kitchen table with my family, paralyzed with dread, when a mother and son from a few houses now knocked on the door, bringing us candles. Eleven years old, that was the first time I recall a Basilisk Moment perceiving the gap between who I was in the moment, and whom I Aspired to Be. Raised by my parents to be frightened of everything, my ambulance years were my proof to myself, my discovery that I could even be the person Raymond Chandler envisioned: "Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid".
One of my eighty-something neighbors is a woman who, while the rest of us shelter at home (I have not been to a store or the Post Office in more than ten days now), continues to shop for others, pick up their mail, and even bring meals to strangers. She is more courageous than I am, or more foolhardy (the duality on which Socrates ran changes in the Laches). In my confusion about this, I find some comfort remembering the morning of September 11, 2001. Emerging from the subway under the burning World Trade Towers, I ran (with a few thousand others) to the Brooklyn Bridge abutment, where I stood looking back and taking stock. When another man doing the same told me the "mechanism of injury" had been airplanes, not bombs or mortar rounds, I made a snap decision (based on what I don't know, though it was correct) that there would not be any more, and began to conceive a wish to go back towards the burning buildings,"> to see if I could help anyone, and also, full parrhesia, to bear witness possibly not for all the right reasons, because I also seem to be at heart to be a Disaster Tourist. I made five or six attempts to call W. and tell her I was all right, and could not get a signal. Because the thought of her waiting some more hours to learn I was alive was unbearable, I abandoned the idea of going back towards the flames, and continued home across the bridge to her. When she saw me at her office door in Brooklyn Heights, she made a little sound I won't ever forget. The decision to go to her probably saved my life that morning, so W. saved my life, in a way related to Victor and Eva rescuing each other,. during the Holocaust. We can be courageous for our loved ones, and in fact, in this Farkled Old World, being courageous for other people sometimes can be an abandonment of those closest to us. In the six days I have not gone out, I have continued to help some other older neighbors, including ordering food for them online, sharing hand sanitizer and alcohol. I am not drawing any lines (having a Japanese sense of responsibility) so if I had to put one of them in my car and drive to Southampton Hospital, I believe I would take that risk, as the person I Aspire to Be would. But sometimes those also serve, who only stand and wait.
March 31. Almost 1,000 people have died in New York City, most in the last seven days. What can I, who am alive and possibly safe, say that will not sound like Pastor Niemoller's wailing? I think of Eliot's "infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing", of the unbearable breakage. Death by negligence or murder is a theft (all morality is based on theft, if you think about it): people are being deprived of decades of experience, of careers, marriages, love, children, the opportunity to enjoy more sunlight and to read the book that was on their Bucket List. I remember walking out of Penn Station so many mornings to the N train, in a throng of hundreds some of whom have now likely died, and thinking how brittle it all seemed, in a possible Memory of the Future, how little it would take for it to crack. There are sick police, firefighters and EMT's, and soon enough government will become Meta-Imaginary, as is about to happen in Sicily. It is a strange hope that gangs will step up to keep the peace. New York, which as recently as a month ago I described as a near future echoingly empty refuge for Saudi billionaires served by robot waiters at chic restaurants, was already broken. I don't imagine it can ever recover. On television weeping nurses address the camera, interspersed with other medical workers who are strangely businesslike, many who seem to be engaged in Kublerian bargaining. This is the end of the world, a bang and a whimper and the Lord knows what.
On a more prosaic note, Trump is treating us like Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, blaming the hospitals in New York City for wasting or losing PPE (personal protection equipment), complaining we won't really need the ventilators we seek. I suppose we can accept some blame that we stood by like Pastor Niemoller and let Puerto Rico happen.
In a sense, most who die of Coronavirus have been sacrificed, or even murdered, by our federal government; and the Lost Boys who are left in November will still vote for the killer, as Germans voted for theirs.
April 1. I went to the dump yesterday morning. It wasn't my first venture out; I have run once and ridden my bicycle twice, and accompanied W. to Louse Point. But the visit was accompanied by a sense of terror even greater than usual, to the extent I sense I may be permanently agoraphobic when this is over. I put my ninja mask on this time before getting into the car and endured a series of slapstick moments. With my breath coming out the top on a humid morning, my glasses fogged and I could not see. I took them off, and drove without: I can see colors and shapes just far enough away to do it. The mask also kept trying to climb up to cover my left eye. When I got to the dump I sat breathing for a while before I could get out of the car. With laser focus, disposing of the garbage and recyclables, I heard someone eight or ten feet from me, and almost jumped away. Some reports recently, instead of confirming six foot "social distancing", are claiming we can trail Coronavirus in the air for twenty feet or so.
The visit to the dump was a small case study in social rules. First, I considered the question of whether to go at all--I have not been to the Post Office in all this time, though there could be something important waiting. I could just let weeks of garbage accumulate on my deck, and on the dune. Raccoons would attack it on the ground, and just once, in all these years, a sea gull tore open a garbage bag on the deck. The thought of living in all that accumulating trash was still enough to get me out of the house. I also considered making a single dash from the car, and throwing everything, plastic bottles and tin cans included, into the nonrecyclables bin. This was especially tempting because it has been generally reported that many towns and cities are merely combining the recyclables they made you separate with the other garbage and sending it all to the landfill--especially since China decided not to take Western plastic a year or so ago. I decided I wasn't ready to break this rule--but it was by the plastics that another human came closest to me.
This thing about other people has been front and center, even when we go out for basically secluded activities. On my second bike ride, I was annoyed on an otherwise deserted back road, to see an older man walking a zig zag route, crossing back and forth, as if to maximize his exercise--which annoyed me because of the possibility, which had not yet been confirmed or at least advanced in newspaper reports, that he might be leaving a long and persistent virus-trail in the air behind him. I considered shouting to him from two hundred feet away, but so hate it when bicyclists yell or whistle or cars honk that I could not bring myself to do it. He seemed to be sticking to one side long enough, that I tried to zoom by on the other. Oblivious, he almost ran under my wheels, I shouted to him and we both cursed. He was about ten feet away.
There is a "you are perfectly safe if...." Trope in the air, which seems like Bargaining. This was most evident in a doctor who was intelligent enoughy to know better, in a videoconference he recorded with his extended family which has since gone widespread (how eerie to say "viral" any more). Working daily in the emergency room at Weill Cornell, he announced he was "perfectly safe" so long as he wore his N95 mask and washed his hands. I was briefly reassured by an article which claimed I would be "perfectly safe" shopping on the same methodology: wear a mask, wipe the cart, stay away from other shoppers. I don't believe it. In earliest childhood, my greatest Basilisk Moments were perceptions that the adults couldn't protect you, that you weren't safe anywhere. The Post has been running lurid stories about putatively infected Manhattanites partying in the Hamptons (shades of Poe) and had one a few days ago about them overwhelming my own grocery, the Stop and Shop in Easthampton, thirty people to an aisle. We have a delivery coming on April 8 (still a week away), the earliest time slot we could get. Dealing with the possible contagiousness of the delivery person (who will leave the bags in the driveway) or virus traces on the cans or vegetables left by the packer, seem like less Wicked Problems than a visit to the store. This is The Way We Think Now.
In hard times, as when New York City was very violent in the 1970's, I became aware that every time you go out in the street, you are a player in a Huge Prisoner's Dilemma with every other human you see that day: you are trusting each one not to harm you, and they are doing the same. In Coronavirus Time, all someone need do to play a betrayal card in the PD is to walk within a few feet of you. There have already been "hints and allegations" that the social contract is breaking down. There was a news report that a woman in a hospital hallway in NYC clubbed another woman for coming within six feet of her, causing her death. My law partner relayed a story from a friend in Battery Park City: she took her pet to a dog run, where a man who was always there, the unofficial "mayor", had an unprecedented temper tantrum, accusing her of breaking a rule; he stood a foot away, his angry saliva flying into her face.
We have not gone out without an incident of someone violating the now greatly expanded personal space: the old woman at Louse Point; the friendly bicyclist and zig-zagging old man on Napeague Meadows; the person to my left beside the plastics bin at the dump.
My bottle of Jose Cuervo still stands unopened, glittering on the kitchen counter. I promised myself I would comfort myself with one tequila shot a night beginning when the first person I know gets diagnosed. That has not happened. A longtime client was exposed to two infected people and is coughing. She went to one clinic where they declined to test her, and then days later, to another, where they did, but she won't have the results for a week, rendering the test almost worthless. I spoke to another client, an activist in Brooklyn, who said that two of her "people" have the Coronavirus.
I rediscovered an essay I had written in the Spectacle six years ago, when we thought Ebola was coming here, in which I said that there were no actual protocols, and that we weren't in the least prepared. This was one more glum confirmation that my predictive abilities are rather good (or that Memories of the Future are leaking through). I have been wondering a lot what the world will be like when this is over. I have two answers, the Wallace's Wager one, and the other. Wallace's Wager in full Optimism says that, as Americans did in the Depression, we will turn to more compassionate leaders and progressive policies. The other answer is that we have so emphatically ruled out heart and intelligence that America will continue to be like Rome in the fourth century AD, everyone poorer, stupider, physically weaker and more frightened than the preceeding generations, an unstoppable Gyre. I am unsure I want to live that world. I think about my Brother in Spirit Victor Klemperer every day, and I ask myself sometimes, What Would Victor Do? More often, What Would Victor Say? This is where the world which threatened to murder Victor every day departs from ours. Victor simply had to wait for the death or defeat of a handful of powerful people and felt a confidence, justified in the event, that nonmurderousness would return. Our Wicked Problems are much graver than that. In the end, I resolve that the thing now is just to live into that world, and see what to do about it then. Otherwise, all anxious imaginings are a wheel-spin. On what I hope is a lighter note, I have detected a difference which, if it is not between women's thinking and men's, is at least between W 's and mine. W. keeps saying, "We need a plan!" I reply, "I have a plan, and we are already running it". I book delivery orders with Peapod; W., unnerved that that we have not yet experienced the first, keeps bringing me useless recommendations from other people (yesterday, a suggestion we order fish from a company called "Alaskan Wild Bounty" or some such, which either will not deliver here or will offer to ship me a package six weeks from now).
April 2. Yesterday morning, I read of the death of Judge Johnny Lee Baynes of Brooklyn Supreme Court, before whom I appeared on several cases. I instinctively liked him, as I do not most judges, for his intuitive and no-nonsense approach to running his courtroom, and the rough justice of his decisions. This was the first person I met personally either to have or to die of Coronavirus.
Later in the day, my client A. told me she had just received her test results (one week after the procedure) and had the virus. She is coughing and intermittently feverish--and staying home, alone, in Queens. I offered her, rather helplessly, the choice of deferring the otherwise urgent contract we were drafting, and she said no, let's keep working.
I had promised myself (and how vain it seems to keep returning to me, me, me, except this is, after all, a Journal, and Brother Victor was no different, even describing the insults to his vanity he received both at the hands of the Nazis and later, the triumphant Allies) that I would start drinking again, when I first heard that someone I knew was diagnosed--and I looked forward all day to that shot of Cuervo at night, and then forgot to drink it, which is probably a sign I am not an alcoholic. I also, by the way, ancient history now, had vowed to start drinking again if Donald Trump was elected--and never kept that promise.
I spoke to a friend yesterday with whom my conversations usually last an hour, and go into intimate personal detail. At some point I will start monologing to her about my world-view, whatever I am writing about in the Mad Manuscript, the day's adventure. Yesterday, for the first time ever, we ran out of conversation after 36 minutes, after reasuring ourselves of the other's safety and carefulness, and talking about masks, grocery expeditions, isolation, dangers. It felt, afterwards, as if the personal, monologue-generating part of myself is folded away for now--somehow placed in another dimension, like the contents of a Bag of Holding in Dungeons and Dragons, to be recovered sometime later or not.
As I write, at 6:12 a.m., I am sneezing and my nose is dripping. Articles I read these last two days have been saying generally that "all flu symptoms must be assumed to be" or actually "are" Coronavirus. This is all so Schrodingerian: do we (W. is also sneezing and coughing) have Coronavirus or not? Will we ever even know? I have been symptomatic almost nonstop since October or so, long before the virus came here; but I got much sicker for a week or so just after it did. Never any fever though, assuming our forty-year-old thermometer is actually working (which is also Schrodingerian).
Actually, if my life were an endless Carnivalistic novel (thank you Bakhtin), one of the Strands would be wondering at various reprises if I am sick or not: the debilitating pain in my left knee in law school which had no diagnosis (I saw the Harvard doctor lose interest in me, assuming I was a hypochondriac); the mysterious 105 degrees of fever I spiked for a week in the mid-90's, which had both Miltonian reality, and no diagnosis; Lyme disease, which the ELISA test claimed I was riddled with, but the Western Blot insisted I did not have; and now Coronavirus.
A recurring Trope in news coverage and obituaries these last days is "Just as she began feeling better, she died very suddenly", which is really inconsistent with the etiology (the Narrative, really) of the virus devouring your lungs. Another etiology and Narrative applicable to younger victims is that some have been killed by a "cytokine storm" in their own immune systems.
On 9/11, I was, standing on the Brooklyn Bridge abutment, drawn back to the Towers, and chose reluctantly not to go because I knew W., in Brooklyn, needed me for thirty more years or so. Today, I continue to feel wholly responsible for Seeing Her Through, or else would feel similarly drawn to drive to the Epicenter of the Epicenter, in Brooklyn, to see if a retired EMT could be of any help. Techs and medics are arriving from all over the U.S. today, and some of them will die. That is who I (sometimes--often?) Aspire to Be. Why? I have never felt overtly suicidal in my life; but that way seems to lie Certainty, Closure, Clarity, and of course, Meaning (life being a BYOM Enterprise).
Being a Slow Learner, after seven and three quarters' years of writing and being written by the Mad Manuscript, I finally hit on the idea of creating a little Notepad work space (called "widget.txt") in which I keep notes, reminders, phrases I need to add to the Defined Terms or Garden of Wallacisms, etc. Here is my to do list for this Journal:
getting used to everything--sociopath/superego
America as ecuador
normalized pandemics, flu, gun violence, AIDS
attention as an aspect
transcendence, false confidence and spirit guides
ology of desire
Jerry falwell running away
As is usual with my Notes to Self, I can barely remember what I meant by some of these. I will now fulfill, and then delete, "Jerry Falwell running away". Falwell, son of the famous evangelist, reopened Liberty University, compelling students and staff to return, and some of them are now ill with Coronavirus. Falwell stands at a no-win sort of moral Crossroads. He can stay in place, Represent, and become infected himself, with the half-dignity of General Woundwort, the rabbit commander in Watership Down, whose last words were "Dogs aren't dangerous!" Or he can cravenly run away, leaving staff and students to suffer and die, like the commander of the East India Company fort in Calcutta, who jumped into a passing boat on the river, deserting his post and men.
Oh, and the Ology of Desire: It seems a Huge Cornerstone of Human Bloodymindedness to rationalize, and then do, potentially fatal things because We Badly Want To. I find that all my desires are simplifying to one, to stay alive for the duration, and this simplicity is saving me now from potentially fatal Egregious Ontological Errors. I follow this thought process: If I do not go to the store, I am safe. If I go, I may not be. I would rather err on the side of staying here. I can drink "zombie coffee" (reusing the grounds a second time to make something that tastes like somewhat-caffeinated Sanka) or do without.
April 3, 2020.. Having discovered in my twenties that life was random and chaotic, did not really conform to the idea of Plot or ending Click, and seemed as nonlinear as the flight of a sparrow from a tree, to the ground, to a bush, it has been a strange Epiphany to have lived long enough to discover that, at least in my own life, none of that is true: there seem to be Narrative strands, and, as I said North of here, foreshadowing; though what the denouement will be, I can't say. However, another strange little Narrative counter to deploy, sort of foreshadowing, is my life-long Ological interest in what I call the Star Trek "plague episode". Beginning with the original show, I believe every succeeding series, and some other spin-offs (including Babylon 5, which I binged recently) each had an episode where a plague infests the locale (planet or space station) killing some strangers ("red jackets") and causing the make up department to plant dramatic pustules on the faces of some familiar characters as well. Then the doctor (every science fiction show has one, so, you know, it can do the plague episode) comes up with a miracle cure, and at the end of the hour (forty eight minutes, actually) everything is as it was--back to normal, back to prewar standards. No one is blinded, lamed, has holes in their face or their muscles. Even when I was twelve, this seemed remarkable. Could a devastated world really reset in an hour?
It doesn't take much prescience to think that our world will not be the same in my lifetime. This line of thought, by the way, dovetails with the one I set forth above, about "containment", and the other, about "Rescue". A Flashing Fish memory: playing war with my friends on the front lawns of East 21st Street in Flatbush, Brooklyn, circa 1964. When someone was shot and did a dramatic death spiral onto the grass, another of us would wave his hands over the corpse, intoning "Fixed 'im up, fixed 'im up", and the dead soldier would rise, reincarnated. This too is a fantasy of Rescue, and one that civilization encourages. It is in fact a corner stone of the Ology of civilization, what gets us to pay taxes and vote, that government will act as the benevolent father, will be there when needed, and will "fix us up".
I knew after 9/11 and Katrina, and in 2008, it no longer works that way; that Ology is shattered. Government does not know how to do anything. Which brings us back to the choice Joseph Tainter imagined his patrician Romans in Gaul or Britain making: if Rome will not protect us, why have Rome at all?
Apropos of "containment" and control, Dr. Fauci reminded us yesterday that the virus can "resurge".The 1918 flu came in three waves.Anyone who never got it, can go out in the world prematurely, and die in the next wave. For those who have had it, there is a theory turning up in the news feeds, that one's immunity does not last as long as for some other diseases. There is a Trope, "no one wants to be the last soldier to die" in Vietnam, or Lebanon, or Afghanistan. Who will be the last person to die of Coronavirus, in some future wave?
This again leads to a vague desire on my part (which inspires unalloyed pleasure), that if I live through this, I would like rarely to go out of the house again, and always to wear a mask when I do. "That", I will tell everyone, "was my last rodeo". In the category of the poignancy of "things you didn't know you were going to lose" (he says, drinking Zombie Coffee) I include the experience of driving to Goldberg's little storefront a mile East of here, and ordering a toasted cinnamon raisin bagel with cream cheese. The Qualia of taking the first bite through the raisin-sweet dough into the cream cheese. After this, either Goldberg's will not be there, or I will not go, imagining the virus pooling on the hands of the worker, or on the bagel.
I had a vision of a Coronavirus vaccine being sold for $10,000 a shot. Our view of government is also that we will be Rescued for free; but selling that safety instead, will promote what seems like our irreversible Spiral, towards a Medieval world, in which the Billionaires are Barons, and most people are Serfs.
If that ever happens, I hope I will have the moral strength to refuse the inoculation.
I coined a Wallacism not long ago, on the day before Coronavirus if I remember correctly: "In Trump Universe, every tragedy is a farce". I woke this morning with some particularly dark Hypnopompic thoughts. One could write a film-script, about a leader who, with the best intentions, trying to avert catastrophe, keeps killing large numbers of people with each of his protective measures. In tragedy, most really terrible things happen once; farce involves repetition. And when the leader is not well-intentioned? Long ago, in my Defined Terms for the Mad Manuscript, I coined "Dial Tone", meaning piles of bodies, and the Background Hum-Idea that corpses in piles are the historical default, the base-line from which other developments in civilization sometimes depart. I also borrowed from Kundera part of his famous title as a Defined Term: Unbearable Lightness. The struggle of billions of humans (but not all of us) since there were humans has been to transform from Kantian Means into Ends, to cast off Unbearable Lightness, become Heavy, and triumphantly stand atop the Ladder of Agency, if only for an instant. The blind, nonsentient Coronavirus is converting us into things, and the moment has long since arrived for our leader, first among equals, to interpose his body between ours and the monster, fighting in complete isegoria to defend our lives if possible, and our Agency if not. Instead, the powers that be mill about, then flee, speaking of "herd immunity" (rhymes intentional).
Apropos of the Billionaires, given that some have already made an extra billion or two betting on the Coronavirus, I found myself idly and Hypnopompically imagining that some "quant" will figure out how to securitize people dying of Coronavirus into an instrument known as "Collateralized Death Obligations". This isn't even fanciful: you could certainly fashion a security based on the medical debt owed by the survivors.
Dark day, dark thoughts.
April 4. I had a Bathroom Epiphany that the Coronavirus is Digital and I am Analog. Each unit of virus (does one speak of a single virus? Is a virus a cell?) is like a single-minded line of code, trying to do one thing. But each action I take to protect myself is merely an analog (analog-ish? Would that be Meta-analog?) Performance. The virus proliferates on a surface, which I Perform cleaning with Lysol. If I miss one unit, I have no way of knowing. The virus is inexorable and will never stop trying, like a line of code running forever in memory. I cannot clean inexorably and will stop my Performance in a few minutes. It is hard even to remember to wash my hands for twenty seconds.
That led, as these thoughts do, especially before sunrise, to a Flashing Fish memory. The IRA had installed a bomb months in advance, in a hotel room in which (if I recall) the Prime Minister was expected to stay. The attempt failed and the terrorist group issued a statement to the effect: "You have to be lucky every time; we only have to be lucky once". This is true of the Coronavirus, as it is of the Second Law.
That led next in my musings to the thought of humans behaving like viruses. The 1993 attempt on the World Trade towers Failed to bring them down because the attackers got the physics wrong; but they kept trying and in 2001, they got the physics right. The phenomenon of people in the U.S. initiating violence, as happens sometimes, who had never met an Al Qaeda or Isis mentor in person, but were "infected" by things they read on the Internet, is a case study in terrorist groups pursuing a viral model. For twenty years or so, the word "viral" has been very disturbingly used to describe Memes which propagate mindlessly across the Internet--and some can be dangerous IRL, like bleach-drinking, or people coughing on produce in supermarkets.
It is instructive now to search the Mad Manuscript for occurrences of "virus"; here is an Exemplary result: "Attorney General Palmer said in support of sedition legislation:'The continual spread of the seeds of evil thought, the continual inoculation of the poison virus of social sedition, poisonous to every fiber and root, to every bone and sinew, to the very heart and soul of all that by our standards is integrity in citizenship or character cannot help but foster frightfully the revolutionary disease'". John Lofton, The Press as Guardian of the First Amendment (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press 1980) pp. 200-201 Ha.
The human-created computer viruses which have plagued us since the Internet became general are attentive instantiations of the Metaphor. William Burroughs said "language is a virus", and I myself have modestly proposed that the human race is: "It is possible that humanity (and perhaps intelligent life anywhere) is a virus that evolves to kill all life and harm the ecology of planets which are about halfway through the life-cycle which would otherwise end with a drop into the Sun. One theory I have heard as to why we have not encountered aliens is that intelligent life always meets its Gotterdammerung before getting off its planet". Although I don't recall ever using a virus Metaphor to describe the operations of Late Capitalism, my description of its activity as "chopping up the railings to feed the boiler" is eerily similar to the way a virus treats the human body.
In the first year I was working on (and being worked on by) the Mad Manuscript, I coined a Defined Term, "Operative Metaphor" (in fact I think I had previously used it in the Spectacle). I had a very limited goal then, to analyze the "marketplace of ideas" as the Operative Metaphor of the American free Speech Rule-Set. However, it occurs to me (just as the sun comes up, 6:22 a.m.) that the Operative Metaphor of our civilization (such as it is) is the Virus.
I wrote a day or two ago about the Star Trek plague episode, in which the world is wholly repaired and everyone's sick body restored to health in forty-eight minutes. W. and others I speak to by telephone use the phrase "When this is over" but when will it be? Last year, not expecting the Coronavirus (unless this Hawkingesque "Memory of the Future" thing is True) I read Laura Spinney's Pale Rider, about the 1918 pandemic. That came in three waves, over two years. Now I am reading Preston's Hot Zone (yes, I am reading about Ebola during the Coronavirus pandemic, I am a glutton for anxiety). Ebola, hiding in some animal in the East African jungle unknown as of Preston's writing (insect, bat, jaguar, elephant?), surges up every five or ten year in humans. This, Click, Click, Click, because Everything Connects to Everything, makes me think of Freud's "return of the repressed"--and of the Coronavirus as a "gift that keeps on giving".
This is Journal entry has no Punch-line. Riddley Walker, in Russell Hoban's magnificent novel, would have wrapped up this Narrative with an obscure but interpretable statement, such as "A Little Salting, but no Savor". Capturing these Flashing Fish is easy, but interpretations are hard. I comfort myself with a statement attributed to Proust, of which I don't think I ever have seen the exact source, about his work as a mirror held up to life: The only significance is in the quality of the mirror.
April 5. Why I am reading Preston's The Hot Zone (about Ebola) during a pandemic I cannot explain, except, you know (Bragging Alert): that's how I play. The book has an extraordinary ending, a sort of Punch-line Exemplary of Bloodymindedness, which is actually reminiscent of one of those devastatingly stupid Hollywood movie endings which make stunningly clear that you have wasted the ticket price and two unrecapturable hours. I distinguish these from movies in which you know this in the first five minutes. There is a subset of films which are just workmanlike enough--or maybe even much better than that--for their entire running time, until that tone-deaf and insulting, sometimes sociopathic ending.
By coincidence (or Synchronicity) I had been on the phone, checking in with my brother Joe, earlier in the day, and he told me that he and his wife had just watched the original 3:10 to Yuma (1957) directed by Delmer Daves. In that movie, a reluctant rancher improverished by drought accepts a $200 fee to convey a really dangerous outlaw to justice. (Spoiler alert:) At the critical moment, as the train is arriving, the outlaw, who has bonded with the rancher, who saved his life along the way, reciprocates instead of allowing his attacking men to kill him, and they board the train together.
In the really gratuitously idiotic remake, 3:10 to Yuma (2007), directed by James Mangold, the movie is serviceable until the last minutes. The rancher is shot and dying as the outlaw politely boards the train to give him the impression he has succeeded in his mission. Once he dies, however, the movie abruptly switches genre to inane comedy as the outlaw whistles and his horse runs alongside the train, so he can make his escape. An Almost-Essay Shimmers, using the distance between the two movies as a Case Study in the Fall of Western Civilization.
Finishing Preston's book reminded me of 3:10 To Yuma (2007). The difference of course is that a committee of human minds somehow came up with the movie ending, while Preston is just reporting facts. He narrates two Ebola outbreaks in Africa, and one in Germany of all places, in which people literally degenerated into sacks of staggering blood which then exploded. He then switches gears to the central Narrative of the book: a commercial firm in Reston, Virginia, dealing in laboratory monkeys imports some from the Philippines, which begin dying of Ebola. The Army deploys a team of soldier-veterinarians expert in dangerous viruses, who, wearing space-suits, take over the facility, kill all the monkeys, and sanitize the building. The Centers for Disease Control, working alongside, take responsibility for a worker who has an uncontrollable fit of vomiting, and monitors him until it become clear he has the flu, not Ebola.
Here is the epilog: after the end of this rather satisfying drama of Containment, Preston tells us that the company re-entered its building and immediately began importing monkeys from the same source in the Philippines. "Less than a month later" (January 1990)"some of the monkeys in Room C began dying with bloody noses", and the company's vet called his Army contact: "Looks like we're affected again". This time, the Army does not come back in and "nuke" the building--been there, done that. "[I]n mid-February", a company vet "performing a necropsy on a dead monkey ....cut his thumb with a scalpel....He had had a major exposure to Ebola....Everyone at the [Army's] Institute thought" the man "was going to die", and yet the "C.D.C. decided not to put him into isolation" and the exposed worker "visited bars and drank beer with his friends" during the Ebola incubation period.Richard Preston The Hot Zone (New York: Anchor Books 1995) ebook no page numbers
What the fuck? What was all that "nuking" effort for? A score of eighteen year old privates (cannon fodder) put on space suits and risked their lives day after day to secure that facility--for what? So that the fucking Bloodyminded human beat could go on.
Preston (writing in 1995) states the theme I picked up a quarter century later about humanity actually being the virus in the equation. "The emergence of AIDS, Ebola, and any number of other rain-forest agents appears to be a natural consequence of the ruin of the tropical biosphere. The emerging viruses are surfacing from ecologically damaged parts of the earth....In a sense, the earth is mounting an immune response against the human species. It is beginning to react to the human parasite, the flooding infection of people, the cancerous rot-outs in Europe, Japan, and the United States, the colonies enlarging amd spreading and threatening to shock the biosphere with mass extinctions. Perhaps the biosphere does not 'like' the idea of five billion humans". Wait, what? There are seven and a half billion humans.
In a sense--this is a Running Epiphany I had yesterday morning on Napeague Meadows Road, where I experimentally ran a bit better than two miles while wearing my ninja mask--calling something a "virus" may be an Egregious Ontological Error, given the inescapable pejorative associations (an Exemplary Stink-Word). Viruses, as Preston points out, are entities (no one seems quite to know whether a virus is technically "alive" or not) which are "extremely good at looking after their own interests". In other words, a virus is the proud possessor of a really excellent Evolutionarily Stable Strategy ("ESS"), the winner of the natural selection race, the Highest Life Form (if it is one) of all. Huxley said in Evolution and Ethics that he could imagine conditions under which the winner might be a harmless lichen staining the snow. Viruses had not been seen yet; if anyone in science was already dreaming of them, it was as "etres de raison" whose presence might be deduced. Huxley, instead of that rather benign lichen, occupying a world already vacated by humans, could easily have imagined a vicious little mass murderer, a lichen which killed the human race. Had he done so, he might have been ready to invoke his other famous invention, the "Kindly Comet" which cleanses the Earth with healing fire if humans fail yet again to solve their Wicked Problems. Come to think of it, it would not be too much of a stretch to imagine that the Coronavirus is Huxley's Kindly Comet. Although the idea of one's lungs turning into "ground glass" is a modest version of body horror, it has nothing on that "staggering blood bomb" thing.
Darwin himself had a famous Basilisk Moment inspired by a kind of virus-like organism when he wrote to a correspondent in 1860: " I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars". The Ichneumonidae "use their ovipositors to lay eggs on or in the body of their prey, and the eggs hatch into carnivorous larvae that eat and kill the host".
So what is a "virus"? Is it the squiggle-shaped Ebola unit alone? When it rides a staggering blood-sack into a hospital emergency room and explodes in the face of a new human host, is it fair to call the steed part of the category along with the rider? Apropos of "Cavalry" of which I spoke as a Metaphor of Rescue, the Cavalry coming over the hill to save the day consist of units of Human + Horse.
If a virus merely means an entity with an ESS so successful it kills its host, don't humans qualify? So there are two scenarios, at least, where a person can be a virus, or a component of one: when ridden by a virus; or when killing her own host, the Earth.
Preston concludes: "Whether the human race can actually maintain a population of five billion or more without a crash with a hot virus remains an open question. Unanswered". I am more persuaded than ever that the Virus is actually the Operative Metaphor of our civilization. I had to read for a lifetime, write for eight years, and set down more than 8,000 Manuscript Pages to see it.
Which immediately led to a Second Running Epiphany (if you have one, might as well have three or four; I sometimes feel in describing these I am also providing an MRI of my brain). In the '90's, when a certain kind of business philosophy book became popular, I remember one which noted that "Quality" was not something which could be added to the product right before it shipped. Yet, soaking in Official Narratives my whole life, I was almost persuaded that Compassion, like Quality in that Sophistical scenario, was a side bet, a Glitch, almost an embarassing condition, like acne. When Newt Gingrich said he might never have felt compassion, and when a book called The Tragedy of Compassion did rather well in right wing circles, I entertained the idea that Compassion might not be an ESS, that it might actually be a Heart Defect.
I had a Flashing Fish of the poignant end of a Conrad story read forty years ago; it took a few moments of Google searching to identify it as The Shadow-Line:
"'I don't feel bad now, sir,' he answered stiffly. 'But I am afraid of its coming on. . . .' The wistful smile came back on his lips for a moment. 'I--I am in a blue funk about my heart, sir.'
"I approached him with extended hand. His eyes not looking at me had a strained expression. He was like a man listening for a warning call.
" 'Won't you shake hands, Ransome?' I said gently.
"He exclaimed, flushed up dusky red, gave my hand a hard wrench--and next moment, left alone in the cabin, I listened to him going up the companion stairs cautiously, step by step, in mortal fear of starting into sudden anger our common enemy it was his hard fate to carry consciously within his faithful breast".
My Second Running Epiphany was that Compassion is Everything and the Only Thing. I have (Bragging Alert) become proud of mine (and doubly proud of my Extraordinary Humility, of course). But I never quite saw that it is actually the Cornerstone of an entire System. Invoking my favorite quote from the Bible, so nice they used it twice times twice, in the Old and New Testaments, Compassion is "The stone the builders rejected" which "has become the cornerstone". I am fond of saying there are two kinds of people (those who think there are two kinds of people, and those who don't), but the only such distinction which Really Matters, and which produces all others is: Those who have Compassion, and those who don't. I never saw so clearly before that every Value or quality I care about is produced by Compassion: Humility, Tolerance, even Optimism; that Compassion produces an all-cooperation strategy in our Prisoner's Dilemma, makes Meiklejohnian meetings work, and is the basis for the best Miltonian science. The only Millian utterances I personally care about are expressions of Compassion. Thus strands of Compassion run through all forms of free Speech. Compassion precedes language; some animals have it (and fuck all reductive Digital attempted explanations, such as "genes for suicidally saving five cousins"). There is evidence of Neanderthals taking care of a disabled relative--though we can't say for sure they did not have language. Compassion may, in a way, have driven the evolution of language; if we used it only to lie to one another, language would not be an ESS--but a Huge reason we tell each other Truth is out of Compassion.
Donald Trump entirely lacks it, as do the people he promotes. The people who made the Titanic and the World Trade Center lacked it: the first group built a boat so immense that, in order to have cavernous ballrooms and entertainment areas, it lacked enough lifeboats to carry everyone on board. And, to complete the picture, no law required that there be more boats. The creators of the Twin Towers built edifices so tall it would, in case of disaster, take people on the top floors two hours to evacuate if they could maintain a pace of one minute per floor all the way down. In the first case an iceberg, and in the second Al Qaeda, playing what I could loosely call the "Coronavirus role", in effect said: "You don't care about those people? I'll just kill them for you". One of the Sophistries I detected, and analyzed in working on, and being worked on by, the Mad Manuscript was that of Technological Determinism, that whatever can be built, will be. Our "civilization" is itself a kind of monstrously over-built and under-designed Structure, optimized for Coronavirus in the same way the Titanic was optimized for icebergs and the Trade Towers for airplanes. It is not hard, looking at history, to find at least a few examples of humans succesfully setting some limits on themselves. There is a small book called Giving Up the Gun which describes a short era in Japan in which samurais realized that Bushido and guns could not co-exist, and chose their ancient code instead. It is the routine reaction of Billionaires, Republicans and their Lost Boys (who increasingly look like staggering blood-sacks to me) to say "Pah" to all that, dismiss it as "Socialism" or as the mental illness of "snowflakes". The Truth is that we are on a probably unstoppable rush to destroy our own Host. Late Capitalism is in Kubler-Ross' stage of Bargaining. Compassion could have served as a Guide, and was the only ESS which could have saved Our World.
If you and I and 10,000 of our closest friends were in Meiklejohnian council atop a hill on our new planet in the Labrador region of space, I would propose that our Constitution contain a Compassion clause, stating that our love and regard for one another are the Cornerstone values of our new polity, and that in case of deadlock, the most Compassionate outcome shall prevail. But (as has happened to the First Amendment, as I detail for about 3,000 Manuscript Pages in Part Four of the Mad Manuscript) the Meta-Data does not matter any more, when it is no longer informed by the inherent values in the Meta-Meta-Data. A "love clause" in the Constitution will be empty words if there is no longer Love in our bodies and arteries and radiating out of our faces.
Apropos of Compassion, the Republicans who dominate the Wisconsin legislature are forcing the primary to go ahead on Tuesday (day after tomorrow), and issued a statement: "There's no question that an election is just as important as getting take-out food".
A Pushy Quote from Preston: "They did not care to do research on Ebola because they did not want Ebola to do research on them".
I'm here all week.
April 6. I know this Journal is so unrelievably bleak that many would not choose to read it. I only have Putative and Imaginary readers anyway. I call the Exemplary "customer" for the Mad Manuscript the "Mad Reader". When I first started publishing the Ethical Spectacle in January 1995, the Internet was much smaller. Without any particular marketing, and before the year was over, and for years after that, I had 50 to 75,000 unique domains visiting the site monthly, a gratifying number of readers for an autodidact and amateur. For the next five years, I had as many as two or three emails a day from strangers all over the planet, most of them quite courteous and interesting, responding to articles. I will never forget the fourteen year old Italian girl who wrote to me, "I hope for one best world". Well into the 2000's, I got emails and article submissions from readers, and I started to recognize which articles received the most attention. My Auschwitz Alphabet for years came up third or fourth on a Google search. I used to get quite personal and often heartbreaking emails about my essay on Lying, from people who were searching the word because of terrible untruths people close to them had uttered.
Only with the advent of Facebook and Twitter did my traffic diminish and my users largely become silent. I made an informed choice not to jump into the sewer of social media and spend my days promoting myself while fighting trolls. A few years ago, a friend checked my readership (as I had long since stopped bothering to do) and said it was 19,000 unique users in the prior month. That's a drop, but it still made me happy.
I have a strange vision of the Putative readership that keeps me writing and makes updating this site, and writing this Journal, worthwhile. In my Research by Wandering Around, I found in Google Books an Exemplary 1800 work by Tunis Wortman, a New York lawyer and co-founder of what became Tammany Hall, on the philosophy underlying free speech, Treatise Concerning Political Enquiry, and the Liberty of the Press (New York: George Forman 1800). It was a book John Locke might have written. Wortman, so obscure he doesn't have a Wikipedia bio, may never actually have had any contemporary readers, but a copy landed in a library, was scanned by Google two centuries later, and reached me. I found only two citations to Wortman in my reading, by Theodore Schroeder in the early 20th century, and Leonard Levy in mid-century. That said, I had a vision that if you had only three Mad Readers, one of them 214 years after you published, and all of whom benefited Hugely and praised your work, it would all still be worthwhile.
Having largely given up, many years ago, on the idea that humanity can solve its Wicked Problems in the present, I hit on the idea that I am writing a Letter to the Future, as Tunis was whether he knew it or not, and then I conceived my Exemplary Reader, Dawn, a highly intelligent twelve year old girl who lives 1,000 years from now. One day, I hope very soon, and during Coronavirus Time (because I may not have any other time) I will write my Handbook for Dawn as well. This Journal also is for Dawn.
Why a twelve year old? I speculated recently that I must have been twelve for ten years or so, given the number of memories I have of formative moments. That was the year I became capable of reading quite complex adult books, and speculating about the meaning of our lives in the face of the Second Law. I set as a goal writing prose which is clear enough Dawn can understand it. (I am disregarding the possibility that Dawn may not read, or the likelihood that the language will have evolved to a point where my English is foreign.) I also want to catch Dawn in her formative years, and offer her some ideas she can reflect on as she becomes one of the most active and influential people in her environment, one of those who (like my Italian correspondent) want to create "one best world", and especially to avoid the mistakes that ended us.
If this all seems hopelessly naive, I refer you to another invention of mine, which moderates my extreme bleakness, what I now call "Wallace's Wager", which I imagined but did not name until, years later, I learned that Blaise Pascal had scooped me, with "Pascal's Wager". Pascal suggested we live as if God existed. I chose to live as if I were an Optimist.
That is why I write for Dawn, manufacture Hope in the face of the Coronavirus and the general darkness which preceded it, and why I want to survive this (or if I exit, have it be my choice).
This is all by way of introduction to the following, which I offer to illustrate that, in addition to my general Sad and Mad Philosophical Meandering, I can also offer evidence of How We Live Now, which I Hope will be useful to the future Historian (if there are any).
I had a meltdown last Friday morning (April 4) which surprised even me. I had made a plan to go to the Post Office for the first time since the Emergency began. For reasons I never fully understood, the U.S. mail is not delivered to homes in our area, Napeague, although it is elsewhere in East Hampton. Every homeowner gets a free PO box instead. In Coronavirus Time, the Post Office, not long ago a pleasurable place to visit and almost-daily distraction, becomes alien and life-threatening, a small enclosed space in which social distancing is almost impossible, a terrible vector of infection. I planned the visit as if it were a commando raid: ninja mask with one or two additional levels underneath (bandanna withn stapled coffee filter). Get in, to the boxes (I had promised to check mail for a neighbor) and out in under two minutes, casing out all pathways to avoid other people. Avoid checking for anything at the counter in the next room, even if there are the usual yellow slips which used to be strong Signals of appeal and pleasant mystery (what book or Tchotchke had arrived from Amazon--pocket Buddha, camping stove, work on the Irish potato famine or Bakhtin's literary criticism). Back to the car, deglove, sanitize, go home.
With the same steely tension I suspect I would experience if I was an actual commando, I prepared my mission, making sure I had my mask ready around my shoulders to fold over my face, hand sanitizer in the car, a letter I had promised to mail for somebody. Then it occurred to me I did not have my neighbor's box number. I picked up her keys from her steps (we all talk on the phone and do not come anywhere near each other in person), and I surmised that a note she must have written me with the information had blown away. A Freudian thing was happening: in what was evidently a state of frozen panic, I forgot she had emailed me her box number, and did not check. After some tense pacing, I decided to abort the mission, and try again on Saturday.
I felt an almost overwhelming tension, as if I had had to concentrate some very intense energy which now had no outlet. I think of a Hemingway short story which made a Huge impression on me when I was twelve, A Day's Wait. I imagine it was a true story about his son. An American boy in Paris is told by his doctor he has a temperature of 101 degrees. Thinking this is Celsius, he believes he will die the same day, as no one can sustain a temperature so much higher than 37 C. After learning the truth from his father the next morning, "The hold over himself relaxed too, finally, and the next day it was very slack and he cried very easily at little things that were of no importance". That is what happened to me next.
W. commented that the garbage bag smelled, and I took it out to the can I placed on the deck. There is a whole Ology to this can, and because of my Meandering style, I will mention it. Cans placed on the ground are eventually knocked over by raccoons, who chew the bags open and spread garbage across the Dune, which is very unpleasant to clean up. So the can, which we only use on rare occasions (I mostly take the bags directly to the Dump) sits on the deck. I placed a cinderblock within it so that it will not blow away in the Whinging Wind which is a constant out here. However, the fifty gallon plastic storage container in which Baby, the six year old snapping turtle I found as a quarter-sized hatchling walking on Napeague Meadows Road, lives is placed smack against the sliding door on that side. Stepping over Baby, I inadvertently kicked the heat lamp with the dark bulb which a timer turns on at night to give her some additional warmth in cold weather. Examining the lamp, I saw I had broken the bulb off from its base. I "lost my shit" and began to curse and shout.
My Achilles heel my entire life has been my own sometime clumsiness, both physical and social, so I suffer when I break anything. But this was far worse. Ordinarily, I could have gone to the little independent pet supplies store in Amagansett an hour later, and bought a replacement lamp (since the bulb is 150 watts, it requires a specially heavy lamp which does not melt from the heat). The store is closed, or unavailable, in Coronavirus Time. There is no easy way to replace anything you break right now. I felt helpless, humilated and angry.
Part of my clumsiness is that I am extremely unhandy. In a cabinet I have some tools inherited from my Sad Father, which I almost never use. I found a pliers and was able to unscrew the broken base. I had a supply of replacement bulbs, put one in and was back in business in a few minutes. I was Tonked that I had bought two extra bulbs for no clear reason: this is one of five or seven examples I could give, of my preparing for the Coronavirus Time I did not know was coming.
As I said yesterday, the Mad Manuscript was already well-seeded (or salted, which may be a better Metaphor) with Virus references. Here is one which I Gleaned from a book on the Black Plague and placed at the very end of the work, in my "elegiac farewell" Section. "John Clyn of Kilkenny, mon semblable, mon frere, waiting for the Black Death to take him, as it apparently did, wrote a letter to the future: 'And in case things which should be remembered perish with time and vanish from the memory of those who are to come after us, I, seeing so many evils and the whole world, as it were, placed within the grasp of the evil one, being myself as if among the dead, waiting for death to visit me, have put into writing truthfully all the things that I have heard'. And then he committed the most amazing act of would-be Optimism I found in all my Research by Wandering Around: 'And, lest the writing should perish with the writer and the work fail with the laborer, I leave parchment to continue this work, if perchance any man survive and any of the race of Adam escape this pestilence and carry on the work which I have begun'". Philip Ziegler, The Black Death (New York: Harper & Row 1971) pp. 194-195 I wrote: "It is advice to live and die for: leave parchment".
April 7. I received an email from an old friend this morning with Selfies attached, riffing on the need to wear a mask these days. One was a beauty mask, and another a papier mache one she made with dollar bills stuck in it. I sent her back a Selfie of me in ninja mask. It Tonked me that she was finding some humor in a pandemic, as I have tried to do, as a way of being human and staying alive. But it also made me realize how humorless and intense much of this Journal must be, perforce. (Have I ever even used that word before??) I truly write with an Irony Deficiency.
Right on the heels of enjoying these mask photographs, I also received an email from the neighbor whose mail I had promised to check, which provides a fitting but somewhat humiliating Punch-Line to my disquisition of yesterday about planning a commando mission to the post office: "Hi J went to po and got my mail yesterday".
Ain't that a punch in the gut. I was showed up by an eighty year old woman who, while I was dithering about safety, simply went and got the mail.
I have already mentioned her in this Journal as a neghbor who is still shopping in stores. I admire her but do not Aspire to Be her (well, I did, but only for a moment). I have decided that I want to live, and wish to adopt every ethical Rule, dodge, and approach I can singlemindedly to accomplish that goal (no manipulation of other people, no taking what isn't mine; all done in isegoria). She either (like other seniors I have been reading about) has done a different cost-benefit analysis (it may be "I have had a long life and will take my chances"). Or she may simply be oblivious and even situated on the boundary which Plato had Socrates describe in the Laches, between courage and foolhardiness.
I have been avoiding a disturbing topic: the first person we personally knew well has died of Coronavirus, W's former dance partner, of four or five years' duration in the earlier 2000's. W. has been shocked and crying for days, though she remains strong. I rather liked him; he was kind but alien, like most of the Israeli dancers. I try to comfort her, while also warning her, in as low-key a way as you can deliver such a warning, that there may be many more losses like that in months to come. I think of the long section of Brother Victor's wartime diaries, in which people he knew were murdered, or killed themselves, every week (he found the bodies of friends on two occasions).
W. drives out to Louse Point every day, and walks listening to her meditation tapes. My own exercise involves running and biking on Napeague Meadows, and I have little desire to walk at Louse Point, where there are many more people, but sometimes I accompany her and stay in the car (reading Bakhtin these days). Yesterday, when she came back, knowing there is no good time for these things, and she is still devastasted by the death of her friend, I told her that most older patients put on ventilators never recover fully afterwards and must be placed in nursing homes the rest of their lives. I told her that Coronavirus is also apparently causing heart disease. I added that it is very uncomfortable to be intubated, and that most patients are placed in an induced coma to avoid the pain--but that hospitals are running out of this sedative. This was all by way of working up to my own serious wish never to be intubated or placed on a ventilator. I said that the battle we are fighting, to adopt Churchill's phrase, is on the beaches, but, unlike him, I do not plan to fight the enemy in the hills--the hills that are my lungs. I am determined to win on the beaches. W. seemed to understand and agree. She asked to see the news stories about these things, but said, if they were true, she did not want to be placed on a ventilator either. Thus we Triage those who would Triage us.
My intense wish to live by winning on the beach somewhat justifies my urge never to enter the post office. Someone at CDC yesterday asked Americans to avoid visiting the grocery or pharmacy now, if there is another way to get what you need.
Last thought for today: Free ridership. I had a health care Epiphany when Obamacare was new, that Republicans arguing that we had a "liberty interest" in refusing it were leaving out an inseparable piece. If you refuse coverage, are you willing to be left dying on the sidewalk when you arrive at the emergency room with heart attack or gunshot wound? If you don't want insurance but still expect to be treated (and haven't, like most people, the ability to pay cash), then you are a free rider. This is Exemplary of the way Republicans (and some others as well) use "Liberty" as a cover for Free Ridership. Governor Cuomo exasperatedly hit this talking point yesterday when he said that Orthodox Jews and others ignoring social distancing rules would overwhelm an already devastated medical system when they gave each other Coronavirus.
When I was training to be an EMT (Good Typo: "straining"), among the first phrase we learned on the first day was "scene safety". The idea was that it was the job of the cops to make the scene safe for us, and that we were not to go in if it weren't. No EMT would ever be fired for not running through the bullets to save a shot ten year old girl who inadvertently rollerskated into the adjustment of a dispute between gangs. On 9/11, by my count (derived from reading the obituaries which appeared in the Times for months after) eight EMT's died. I recall only three were on the job (two FDNY medics and one employee of my own company, Transcare). I found five others, most tourists from other places, who ran towards the scene and perished. For some years, an Almost-Book about them Shimmered in mind, but I never pursued it. Years later, during my own ambulance career, I heard a story (told by whom I no longer recall) about a FDNY bus dispatched to the burning towers, whose driver pulled it over on the FDR drive and sat watching the conflagration, likely saving his own life and his partner's. "Scene safety", was his just explanation.
Coronavirus Time affects all of our morality. I have always Aspired to Be the type of person who would pull over to assist someone lying at the side of the road.I have done that. I would call it in but not approach the victim today. I would in effect assign him a mental black tag in my own internal process of Triage. In the Mad Manuscript and, before, in the Spectacle, I was so indignant and high-minded about mountaineers who left other dying in the snow, but who am I to Speak? This Entry also lacks a Punch-Line--but the Almost-Book on The Ology of Rescue Shimmers ever more brightly, just above me and to the left. (Or is that Orion?)
April 8. I kept a journal through-out my late 20's and into my 30's, first handwritten in school notebooks with black marbled covers (which always had a sweet Retro appeal, which Tonks me given how much I hated school), then typed and printed (I wrote the first hundreds of pages on my NEC 8201 primitive portable computer which I bought in 1984, and sent each night to a dot matrix printer). I have them all, the loose pages in folders placed in storage boxes with the black notebooks. Somehow writing the words "have them all" brought a Flashing Fish of Prufrock, then made me look up the poem, and wonder if I am (or was) Prufrock, as the journals contain "a tedious argument Of insidious intent", and "a hundred indecisions" and "a hundred visions and revisions" and "the evenings, mornings, afternoons" in which I "measured out my life with coffee spoons", and long (and tedious) passages in which I "wept and fasted, wept and prayed", and so many Failed attempts to " roll it towards some overwhelming question" as "a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen", interspersed intermittently with overwhelming fear that I was
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous--
Almost, at times, the Fool.
--which made me long often for the Kindly Comet, or, in Eliot's concluding words, the moment when "human voices wake us, and we drown".
These thoughts, which Eliot phrased so much better, culminated in an Epiphany one day that my Journal, (as diaries and autobiographies are generally) was all Bragging and Complaining; and then I stopped keeping it.
My disdain for the idea of a Journal has been so extensive that I have never reread any of the thousands of pages, which I can't bring myself to abandon at the Dump.
This Journal, with its intensity, its humorlessness, reminds me of that one, except that it is (I am Hopeful) redeemed by being kept during a Pandemic. It gives me some comfort that Brother Victor too had many moments of petulance, some of self-pity, some of vanity, and even of officiousness (he was certainly a Professor, but also a Bureaucrat, at university). (Added the next day: Victor is J. Alfred Prufrock!)
I will try to avoid self-pity, which is an Event Horizon for the Mad Reader. I understood in my twenties that there are great novels about sadness, anger, jealousy, and love, but not one about Self Pity.
Another Wallacism from my twenties was that in great novels, tiny things could be poignant and even fatal, such as the failure of a letter to arrive; it is only in Kitsch that "the fate of the civilized world hangs in the balance". Well, strangely, the fate of the civilized world does hang in the balance right now--but the best way to make art (or a Narrative of this kind, of course, which plays by the same rules) is still to concentrate on the small and fateful details. A movie which had a Huge effect on me was The Boat is Full (1981) directed by Markus Imhoof (it caused me directly to volunteer for my first pro bono work, defending Haitian boat people in deportation proceedings). The movie follows one day in the lives of a group which comes illegally across the Swiss border, fleeing Hitler; at the end (Spoiler Alert), all the Jews are forced back across the border, and the only one permitted to remain is a defecting German soldier. But the final image of the movie is a postcard, which one of the Jews has given to a Swiss woman to mail, being placed by her in a basin of water, and the ink coming off it in clouds.
Here is my daily example of fateful specificity (to which that was a really wordy introduction): for the first time in three weeks, I was unable to arrange a time slot for a grocery delivery, at about 2:30 this morning.
This seems trivial, but is really significant, and possibly fatal. My entire Plan for surviving the Pandemic, has as a necessary feature, never going into a store. I worked hard to find the Peapod service, and then, when I noticed that only two weeks of timeslots were available and were always "Sold Out", I "weaponized my insomnia" and started booking delivery timeslots for myself, and several neighbors, anytime between 1:30 and 4 in the morning, whenever I randomly woke up. I sleep through the night in 90 minute increments, and was usually up for good pre-Pandemic by 4; now I fall asleep even earlier and am up by 2:30 or 3. That's when I write this Journal. Happy to Perform a Bodhisattva role in some trivial way (as Victor did, and Eva not so trivially, during their ordeal), I began setting up Peapod accounts for neighbors, or booking delivery times for those who had the ability to set up their own.
If I can't get a Peapod delivery time, I will have to contemplate going back to the store, which is such an excellent Vector of infection that even CDC counseled against in person shopping yesterday. Then do I stay there longer to shop for the neighbors who are older and more vulnerable than me, or do I Triage them?
Also, the shelves were already half-bare the last two times I shopped. Finding no chicken breasts, I grabbed the last two packages left of any product, wings (which are all but useless to me) and thighs (which I can work with; I am cooking a Passover dish tonight, Cochin-Cumin-Coriander Chicken, which has already stood as a Somewhat Useful Metaphor in the Mad Manuscript--like me, its qualities are hidden in the eyes of some, by its ugliness). There were no frozen vegetables, so I had to be satisfied with a Southern concoction of mashed turnips flavored with brown sugar. I have never experienced any kind of societal scarcity in my life--the only thing I can remember was being unable to get gas for my car for a week after Hurricane Sandy. Victor and Eva lived for years on a potato or two a day, so again I have a model to follow. Victor, in most things so ethical, confessed shamefacedly to stealing little bites from the larder of his landlady in the Jews' House, who seemed to him to have mkore than she needed to sustain herself.
We were already aware of the possibility that the stores themselves could become unavailable, or so denuded of product that we would wind up living on scant potatoes. I am selectively reading articles about how the farms will close, or not have workers for the harvest, or won't be able to ship product to us. I have fishing gear under the house and could always fish for bluefish and flounder--though in a true state of nature I am sure other humans would seek to dominate the best spots, by force. I try every day not to go down that particular Rabbit Hole.
Although I was generally of very bleak outlook about the Human Future long before Coronavirus Time, my entire life I have felt hollowed out, almost dispersed into a vague cloud, when learning of gratuitous acts of cruelty. The Republican legislature in Wisconsin working ferociously to force the primary to go forward yesterday, so that the vulnerable African American population in Milwaukee would have to endanger their own lives to vote for the Democratic candidate for a high court position, was one of those Mad and cruel things which make me lose Hope at least for a moment (or which interfere with the wheels of my Wallace's Wager Machine). Then I try to recover by not wanting to give the Enemy the satisfaction of my despair; by reminding myself that the fact that there are Human so depraved is hardly new to me; and that I have often perceived, as we said in Brooklyn, that "what goes around comes around".
April 9. When I launched the Ethical Spectacle in January 1995, I had already been thinking about it for ten years or more, originally as a paper newsletter which I was painfully aware could easily cost me $20,000 or more a month to reach any kind of minimal audience. Then the Internet came along and permitted me to do it for a few hundred dollars. I remember accompanying Meri to Atlanta where she gave a talk at a convention (why didn't I watch her Speak?) and almost feverishly typing the first issue in the hotel room: the very first essay I ever wrote, Abolish all Campaign Finance, was an idea which had already been percolating in my brain for fifteen years. Imagine the CLick when I finally put it into words and knew exactly where and when they would be published. The sense of Agency when you launch your own website can be overwhelming: all the bottled up words have a place to flow to the sea. For years after that, I worked on the Spectacle almost every day with a passion, writing as many as seven essays for an issue, answering correspondence and editing the letters column, preparing other people's articles, maintaining a links page, commissioning art for the top page from a friend. The passion I conceived for the Internet at the same time was based in large part on gratitude: the Net, like an electronic Bodhisattva, had saved my life. My campaigning for Internet freedom, writings and litigation and some public speaking and some personal risk in support of all of it, began in that passion.
Today, and for the last ten years or so, I stubbornly keep the Spectacle alive, in memory of what it was, and because I am an old dog who refuses to change until forced.
An interruption: I heard a truck go by, and stood up to look, because in Coronavirus Time, you want to see who makes deliveries in your neighborhood. How We Live Now.
The Spectacle no longer includes the work of other writers (not since Trump was elected in 2016). I no longer have a letters column (that was a painful relinquishment) because I don't get enough email. I no longer have an illustration on the top page; I reluctantly stopped commissioning art from my friend, twenty years ago; then it became dangerous to pull art from Google Images, because it might be copyrighted despite having no visible notice, and Congress had passed a law which faciliated a new kind of predator, the copyright shark; and then the search engine I used for some years, which produced images with Creative Commons licenses, went offline. Another painful break with the past was to give up, after more than twenty years, publishing an issue every month, and to go to a schedule of six issues a year. The cause was that the Mad Manuscript now had "all my thought and love", and I worked on it daily with that old passion, until it became a Huge blue friend gently holding my hand, in a way the Spectacle had never quite been. Writing the Spectacle had been a mere duty for many years.
I only realize how Strange I must be, when I say that I have updated a Web site somewhat faithfully for twenty-six years, without compensation, and for much of it, without knowing if I had a Mad Reader or not.
Now I am working on the Spectacle at 4 every morning for two hours or so, and then publishing what is in effect a new issue every day. It took a Pandemic. This is already a routine, even a Routinized one. First I go through the entry of the day before, put it into HTML, and upload it to the Spectacle site. Then I update the top page, changing the date and substituting a new teaser quote. Then, in the Notepad document, I cut and paste the prior's days's entry at the bottom, and at the top, I add, without HTML, the latest one. When I am somehwat satisfied, I copy/paste it into the Mad Manuscript, where it requires further light editing. The next morning, shampoo, rinse, repeat.
I realize I have even developed a formula for an individual entry: a memory, a generality, then a specificity.
This is the first time an entry has spanned more than one morning. W. woke up early and interrupted me after I had written those words. I have the sense of a Personal Porlock experience, that I had a complexly nuanced series of sentences about to pour out that are now Lost Pages,or at least shattered. When I came back from Paris in 1978, where I had been too overwhelmed by emotion to keep a Journal (the one diary I would have wanted to reread!) I held 250 pages in my mind, an Almost-Book about that Extraordinary year. I remember the moment, a kind of negative Click, at which I realized I had only 100 pages left--then fifty. Today I have ten pages of vivid Paris memories. The experience I had a few days ago, of finding an account in the Spectacle of an adventure during the 2003 black out of which I no longer had any recollection, establishes that memory literally leaks away.
Since the day before yesterday seems a month in the past, I can only summarize, no longer explore (Block Time, Eternalism, seems inapplicable). We have been using the Zoom app to socialize, and in one week, attended a Bat Mitzvah, sat Shiva for Meri's dance partner, and then participated in a rapid Seder arranged by W.'s niece. W. is still devastated by the death of her dance partner. The Shiva involved a very extended Orthodox family, of which the dominant figure was a very strong daughter, smiling at memories of her father. The best Shivas are light-hearted, and one hears many loving, funny stories about the deceased. I have written in the Mad Manuscript that I want mine to be held at a rehearsal studio such as Ripley-Greer, include the reading of two of my ten minute plays, and end with a joke, probably the one which concludes the Mad Manuscript. That seemed very remote when I thought of it, and very near now. Zoom seems a very good alternative to Ripley-Greer.
I have also always wanted to do something rather unique, and speak at my own Shiva. It is simple enough to record twenty minutes of my Wandering Around on cellphone video, and I will do that in the next few days. So perhaps I will tell that joke myself (I think I can tell it better than anyone).
The Seder was also strangely lighthearted; one of us created a three page funny shortened Haggadah. There is a Huge Gateway Moment in the words cheering God sending plagues against the Egyptians. My brother, who no longer attends Seders, commented that the tradition is a strange marriage of barbaric elements (applauding the mass killing of the enemy) and compassionate ones (welcoming the Stranger). I was always drawn to it by the parrhesia and isegoria (Rabbi Gamliel and his students debating all night) and the Compassion--the beautiful poetry, on which I have based so much in the Mad Manuscript, about the stone the builders rejected, which first delivered an electric shock Epiphany in 1964.
One of the attendees had Coronavirus, but was maintaining.
I was able to improvise a Seder plate, with spinach leaves for greens, toast bits with horseradish mustard for the horseradish. We had the ingredients, apples, cinnamon, amd Manischevitz, for real Maror. Many years ago, I painstakingly boiled a chicken bone clean, and keep it in the freezer, to perform the role of the Shank Bone. For our dinner, I cooked the now-Metaphorical Cochin-Cumin-Coriander chicken, which despite the suspicion and avoidance its dark sauce and sloppy plating inspired in our guests in the past, was delicious and really fine, nowhere near the Almost-Basilisk Moment it seemed when I last cooked it for company. I would like to attend any future events in my life via Zoom, because when they are over, you are already home, and don't need to drive two hours or five. Also, Liminal me can slip out of camera range sometimes, if I need to; and my small bearded face as Avatar seems preferable to the need for presence of my clumsy, hairy, sweaty, body. I coined a Wallacism: "I don't really need to smell my friends".
During the week, also given the constant Hard Rain of bad and despairing news from the outside world, I was a five gallon container into which five hundred gallons poured. I was quite overwhelmed without awareness, culminating in a condition I call "going blank". When R., the woman I lived with in law school and thought I would marry, called, three years after she left, to say she married someone else, I have the impression I "went blank" for about five years. This week's blankness culminated in a terible mistake I made the next day, which I will postpone describing until tomorrow.
Fast forwarding past that to last night, I stayed up late reading the news feeds and had a despairing vision, of W. and I aboard a tiny wood-chip of a boat in a Huge vortex. I keep finding the foreshadowing in this Novelistic life--I could highlight the reading of a Jules Verne story, in 1964, about the Maelstrom. I thought: first it is uncertain we will not capsize and die; but if we live, what world will we find at the bottom? I am really not sure I wish to live in that world.
Strangely, novelistically, Metaphorically--last time I ran on Napeague Meadows (last week), several days of rain had flooded the road, which, in what we call out here a "Breach", was completely covered with water in one place. In another, on the marsh side of the road, water was swirling in a miniature Maelstrom. I wondered where and through what it was draining, and how long that could go on.
April 11. I promised to describe a bad mistake I made, so I will, in a hurry. (I am already breaking the generality, philosophicality, specificity rule of Journal-writing I identified yesterday). There is an Uncanny Valley- and rather Game-like experience in shopping for delivery. First, you have to trick the Peapod site in delivering to you twice a week.(Never mind, I seem to be embarked on a generality after all.) The earliest delivery date you can get is two weeks out (and you need to book it at 1 a.m.). Then it will not let you order again until the first one has been delivered. So you set up two accounts, and stagger them. You can update an open order until the day before delivery. As I already mentioned, we have formed an informal community of several neighbors. On our April 8 order, we had some items for the others in our little improvised community, because that's what you do: call everyone and say, I have a delivery coming tomorrow, do you need anything? The problem begins with my extreme disorganization, and then proceeds like a perfect storm or a Perrovian Normal Accident, in which Complex Systems are Tightly Coupled and several small things go wrong, any of which alone would have been remediable. I will not go into detail except to say that a member of our temporary community went to the store for milk and eggs, while I had these things not realizing they were hers, due to my disorganization. I was devastated that a small confusion on my part could have pyramided into her making the unnecessary trip. This is the Uncanny Valley we live in. I keep hoping that I have merely had a schizophrenic break, and that This Is Not Real.
I apologized profusely, several times, and received a kind response. The next morning, I made some small beginning to amends by taking the person's garbage to the dump, along with the that of the K's. Masked and gloved, having learned to drive (carefully and slowly) without my glasses, which fog up, I made the rounds of the neighborhood with the pick up truck, thinking how Science Fictional I must seem. I realized that I can solve the problem of the fogged glasses next time I drive by wearing my scuba mask, which has a faceplate that is also a prescription lens. This will solve a second problem, of protecting my eyes against Coronavirus, better than my glasses can. With two masks, Ninja and Snorkel, I will truly look like a character in Mad Max.
By the way, here is a Truly Pathetic but Human phenomenon: I found I resented a neighbor for not giving me her garbage (think about that).
And here is what I think is a Memory, but may be me Burnishing my Legend: When I was five, I told my Mad Mother I wanted to be a garbageman, causing a great Emergency (as she had no sense of humor whatever--a total Irony Deficiency). Yesterday, I got to live that Dream!!!
This was my second visit to the Dump in Coronavirus Time. I had made a decision that, though we are still separating our recyclables at home, I would throw everything into the ordinary Stinky-Garbage Bin. This would allow me to stay in the truck until I had a straight shot, run in, throw, and retreat. It did not seem very Morally Compromised because we know that the Town (and every other local government) mostly does not keep the stuff you have sorted (cans, glass, plastic, newspaper) separated anyway. However, one of the others had given me a lot of bottles and cans which were not securely bagged, and (the Optics are everything: an object lesson in How We Risk Our Lives for the Optics, sometimes) I could not be seen throwing these in the garbage, so I had to make two darting trips to the other bins. Nobody came closer than six feet, but at one point an old unmasked man (a Walking Infection Vector) darted in front of me (then apologized). A masked Dump employee was acting as traffic cop (that never happened before) and took pity on me, hovering twenty feet away, awaiting my moment: "You are clear".
Something that happened so quickly it did not sink in until now: someone had put an unwanted book on the concrete, and I ran right by it. It took a Pandemic to get me to walk right past a free book. Although no one seems to know for certain, a book can possibly carry the Virus too.
Home, feeling energized and jubilant; the good mood lasted the rest of the day. I can see well enough without my glasses (an experience I already had once, after a cop smashed them the night I was arrested in November 2011) (I feel a certain Vain satisfaction in being able to say things like that in my Journal, quite offhandedly).
Once you are back in the house, the decontamination process is quite complex, itself Gamelike, and probably futile. We basically must use part of the house as a Level Two decon facility, without the convenience of an airlock, though I suppose we could improvise something by hanging plastic sheeting inside the door. I strip as I enter, and run all the clothes straight to the washing machine. I do not touch my face. Into the bathroom, obsessive handwashing while counting to twenty seconds (being the Child I am, I enjoy alternating the methods, counting "one chimpanzee, two Mississippi" and so on). I wash everything I was carrying, my wallet, keys and--wait for it--pocket Buddha. The first two resent being washed, but the Buddha (a small, rotund, green plastic object) enjoys it. I get in the bath and stay there a long while, reading. A week before Coronavirus, I bought a bath boat, a Coast Guard cutter, to replace the last one, which was so badly manufactured it capsized immediately. The cutter floats for a while, takes on water, and then overturns. The solution is to shake the water out of it for twenty seconds before bathing. Wash hands for twenty seconds, shake boat for twenty seconds. That sounds like a Euphemism.
The problem in this Gamelike maneuvering is (as I remember discovering on the ambulance) is that you defeat yourself by missing a step, or doing things out of order. I have touched my face and been unable to remember whether I washed my hands first. There is always the frightened awareness you may have missed a spot, that the floor and the clothes hamper may be radiating Coronavirus. The special effect I detested in Pandemic movies (which is a genre) is being able to see the deadly Virus spreading in a movie theater via a sneeze.
This all is Gamelike in that it reminds me of Ultima 2 which I played in the 1980's with my step-son. You needed five objects to launch into space. If you were missing one of them, you could still launch but died immediately.
I figured out long ago that Everything is Metaphor. (I am now ending this rather happy entry--how strange one can feel happy in Coronavirus Time, except I remember even Brother Victor was often glad to be alive--with some Bleaker anecdotes.) I had two distressing Metaphors the same day I think, or in 24 hours. When we deconned the groceries (because that is the Way We Live Now) on the back deck, I stuffed all the bags they came in right into the garbage can we keep there (who wants to wash twenty plastic bags?). The next day, as we were standing in the kitchen, a high wind surged up and blew off the lid. I charged out through the slider to capture as many bags as I could, but a dozen off them flew up into a tree. The escaping bags Symbolized the unmanageable details of our lives now. They were not merely unsightly--bad Optics--but potentially fatal to sea creatures, who starve with stomachs full of waste plastic. It felt a bit like the other Mistake, the neighbor's unnecessary trip to the store. A Dark Farce Bodhisattva can't stop harming that which he wishes to help. However, the Metaphor continues: more than half the bags blew out of the tree an hour later, and collected by the front door, where I retrieved them. The next morning, as I was preparing to leave for the Dump, two more fell and led me a merry Spiral dance around the driveway until I captured them. Inspired, I jumped, seemingly four feet straight up (who says white men can't jump?) to pull two more from a branch. There are still five in the tree, though.
That wind, which blew on and off for two days, loudly wailing, always reminds me of the "wind of the end the world" in 100 Years of Solitude.
Here is the other Metaphor. I poured myself my nightly tequila shot, then W. said she wanted one too (she had been refusing tequila for some nights). I had found a package of twelve flimsy plastic shot glasses in a drawer, so I took one out and filled it for her, only to find it had a miniscule hole: it was inadvertently a dribble-glass, a childish prank I remember from childhood, when we had a catalog from which you could also order whoopee cushions, birthday candles that would not blow out, etc. Here, in the moment, IRL, the spilled tequila was a poignant Metaphor, like leaking life. I remembered that extended first scene in The Deer Hunter, where the suffering which follows is foreshadowed by some drops of wine staining a bride's gown.
April 12. I am going to try to keep this entry really short, as it is 6:50 a.m. This morning, instead of proceeding directly to the Journal, I wrote about Simone Weill and Stanislaw Lem in the Mad Manuscript for a while, so got a late start on this. My methodology today will be to knock off a few minor items from my Notes, which are getting Hugely out of hand:
Darwinian/lost boys voters dying obituaries getting used to everything--sociopath/superego solvent America as ecuador normalized pandemics, flu, gun violence, AIDS attention as an aspect hypnagogic basilisks transcendence, false confidence and spirit guides beard and ponytail Trump and masks: apostle of selfishness; performative words Trump and consequences New York is dirty Hospital ships Cuervo bird seed sociopath federalism evasion of responsibility in the uncanny valley single source of procurement pushing the malaria med white privilege my two beards immunity/ vision of the virgins dying for nothing....Official Narrative Coronavirus as catalyst pandemic parrhesia ignoring the news--narcissism of survival names post officesSo, somewhat randomly: By Hypnagogic Basilisks, I mean an anxiety-driven phenomenon in which I am too exhausted to stay awake, and too nervewracked to sleep. I start to dream with eyes open, and then some violent or terrifying image of the Pandemic intervenes, and I wake terrified.
Bird seed: I can't get it. Peapod does not offer the wild bird seed I bought, while masked, on my last visit to Stop and Shop. I ordered food for pet parakeets, assuming the wild birds will eat it, but it was not delivered, and I finished the last of the two five pound sacks yesterday. I feel I am betraying the birds. It is not a life or death matter, as it is spring and there is already an abundance of their natural food. But the cardinals, blue jays, red wing blackbirds and finches coming to the deck also cheer us up. I am Seared at the thought of people who have pets they cannot feed right now, as I was by the spectacle, in 2008, of people releasing dogs and even horses they could no longer care for, into parks. I am seeking a work around but (another odd little specificity) I haven't found a company from which I can order that will commit to send the seed by UPS or Fed EX (so that they come to the house) and not by USPS (as I do not go to the Post Office these days). I remembered being able to select a delivery mechanism on Amazon years ago (I am not certain this is true though), and was baffled not to find that now. A quick Google search ascertained that Amazon may choose to send product by US mail even if you ask them not to. My ten year old rice cooker, purchased in Astoria died the other night (why do I not regard this as a Metaphor like the spilled tequila?). I ordered another one from P.C. Richard, which promised to send it by UPS.
Post offices: I belatedly realized that the extreme terror and claustrophobia I felt last week, sitting outside the Amagansett Post Office, already masked, in the truck, watching the unmasked flood in to the very small building, was heir to the 1978 experience, of being held at gunpoint in the Post Office of the Rue Lourmel, Paris. From Post Office to Post Office, there is terror and danger in small enclosed spaces.
Pandemic parrhesia: Most of us (but not the Lost Boys) can instinctively tell who is truthful (a parrhesiastes) and who is not. Trump radiates powerful mendacity, but everyone knows that Dr. Fauci, with his heimische Brooklyn accent, is a parrhesiastes.
Coronavirus as catalyst: in Playwriting 101, we used to debate whether a particular character had an Arc, or was merely a Catalyst of the change experienced by the others. In one vision of the Narrative, the Coronavirus is a character, a "rough beast, its hour come round at last", but in another version, it is merely the finger which reached out and gave the House of Cards that is our "civilization" a little push.
Vision of the Virgins: I can't help foreseeing futures, which I sometimes wish I didn't, which I can't unsee. There are so many Shimmering, conflictual, alternating ones right now, my head threatens to explode considering them. (Here is an Eggheaded Ironic Reference to quantum physics' "many worlds" theory, A Wallacism, uttered when I have a close call with another vehicle on the highway: "We just died in 135 universes" (why not 135 million?)) In one timeline, we are so successful in avoiding Coronavirus that we never get it. When everyone else goes back into the world, with immunity, we must continue living like the Boy in the Bubble, Coronavirus Virgins. Of courase it isn't even yet clear that people who survived Coronavirus have immunity for very long--or at all.
White privilege: I get to hide in my Dune House, rudely healthy, looking at the ocean, reading and writing, while millions of Americans, who belong to a first, third or tenth generation forced under water by Late Capitalism and its captive govenments, take their high blood pressure or diabetes with them on the subway, to work in warehouses or delivering food.
April 13. My Brother in Spirit, Victor Klemperer, wrote mainly about the personal and subjective: what it felt like to present a ration card with a Jewish star on it at the store, or to steal a bit of potato from the landlady. He also described and reacted to speeches he heard on the radio of Hitler and Himmler (before he was deprived of radio). I write this Journal assuming the Mad Reader, if there ever is one, will be more interested in my inability to get bird seed than in what Donald Trump said yesterday, which can be obtained from a thousand sources.
That said, I was Seared by Trump's vow not to sign any bill which contains help for the Post Office. This contains a whole Ology of Trump's mind and worldview which takes a minute to unpack. Like an excavation of a structure built atop another, unpacking Trump involves also digging into the Republican view and the American historical significance of post offices.
In The Postman, a science fiction novel by David Brin made into a Kitschy movie with Kevin Costner, the protagonist tricks Americans in a post-apocalyptic landscape into thinking that the government is coming back to life, by dressing in a USPS uniform. Those works capture a fundamental truth of which Trump is radically unaware, as were the Republicans before him: the USPS is not a business but a Metaphor of nationhood. I have quoted Joseph Tainter several times in this Journal already: we pay taxes to, accept being drafted by, and generally support a government because of a perception it provides something we require, and we withdraw support when it no longer does. The Post Office was an early symbol, at the outset of the Republic, that we were one nation: your ability to send a letter to your brother in Brooklyn, or your sister in California, symbolized that the U.S. government transcended time and space to knit together a nation. In Renan's terms, the unity of the country became one of the things we believed together. More recently, the single price of a stamp, whether one was writing to Brooklyn or Alaska, also was a powerful symbol of American unity. The Post Office mantra is similarly a powerful symbol of the competence of government (something which has been taking hits since the end of the Vietnam war, rapidly degraded in Trump Universe and even faster in Coronavirus Time): "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds".
Since the Post Office is as powerful a Metaphor of American nationhood as the Justice Department, why should it need to operate at a profit? This world-view has apparently evolved over the last forty years under mainly Republican rule, as various tax subsidies were withdrawn. In 2018, Trump spoke of "privatizing" the Post Office. "Privatizing" anything in Late Capitalism means, as we know, simply putting a Bullet in its Head, then allowing private enterprise to eat whatever scraps it chooses. Rural Americans--the Trump base--depend on the post office much more than I do, to pay bills and get checks, and to stay connected to the world. Also, in Coronavirus Time as the brutality in Wisconsin illustrated, voting by mail will be more important than ever.
The Republican world view was a scaled down, minimal government, with as much subcontracted or privatized as possible. Trump's is radically different: in the Kleptocracy he envisions and has already done so much to institute, there don't really need to be any government services, any Renanesque unities at all, just a cowed or complacent population standing by while the Billionaires become rich beyond human comprehension. Putin is Exemplary of a system in which all government functions are either fraudulent or hollow. Trump aspires to that. Neither Trump nor Putin refute Tainter: the withdrawal of support of upper middle class Roman expatriates which drove the fall of the Empire took centuries. Putin has ruled Russia only 21 years.
Trump and Putin's plans (or more properly put, "improvisations" or even "drifts") are in effect to reinstate a medieval system of many serfs and a few barons. In that system, a Baron can at sole discretion save a serf, or kill him. There is no public domain, no government at all, other than the Baron's private interests. The whole idea of "herd immunity" so intriguing to some of the people around Trump, and briefly adopted by Boris Johnson before he himself got Coronavirus, is a medieval idea: let the serfs die, and then rebuild, as doing anything else is too expensive and uninteresting.
I had a personal Epiphany twelve years ago, something the Official Narrative and Overton Window will never permit to be said, that you won't hear on MSNBC or see in a Times headline: Capitalism has failed. Free markets (as the Libertarian god, Hayek, himself said, to general obliviousness among his worshippers) aren't any good at resolving global or widespread emergencies or dangers in which there is no personal profit. Writing in the 1940's, Hayek offered water pollution as an example. The Coronavirus has already provided an Exemplary Case Study of the way a free market responds to a pandemic. I also have been saying for years that Middle Capitalism builds steamships, and Late Capitalism chops up the decks and railings to feed the boiler. Kleptocracy is the End Game of Late Capitalism unrestrained (Citizens United was a major way station to that outcome). In a fully Kleptocratic world, as I wrote on what turns out to have been the Day Before Coronavirus, in Billionaires in Space, the rich simply will seek to get off planet in time, leaving the rest of us to suffer and die. If we want to escape the empty Spenglerian cycles which (a Pushy Quote I found yesterday) Stanislaw Lem compared to a broken record endlessly scratching, we have to find an alternative mode of government--yes, another way than Capitalism. I am not dogmatic. I do not mean Communism or Marxism or in fact any Ism, because Ism's are Egregious Ontological Errors in the first place. I mean finding a way in which the mail can keep being delivered, and the next pandemic does not cut through the world like cheese and disclose shortages of everything we need to fight it. The simplest and most moving Occupy Wall Street chant was, "Another world is possible".
April 14. The fact I seem to be entirely customized for this Pandemic (which, I say Truthfully but Superstitiously, in an attempt to ward off Magical Punishment, does NOT mean I will not actually die in it) is leading me to think about the Anthropic Principle, "a philosophical consideration that any data we collect about the universe is filtered by the fact that, in order for it to be observable in the first place, it must be compatible with the conscious and sapient life that observes it". (Yes, I am a Nerd.)
Bragging Alert: I cannot imagine a personality or circumstances much better suited to "social distancing" than mine. I already had received two huge doses of Claustrophobia, in 1978 in the Rue Lourmel Post Office and in 2001 underneath the World Trade Center. I already didn't much like mingling with people,and hated crowds. From earliest childhood, I enjoyed reading and playing alone, sometimes for entire days. I was drawn to the Dune House, where I established an extremely pleasurable routine, ongoing for eight years already, of working on the Mad Manuscript (and being worked on by it). I learned how to cook. I stockpiled food, motivated by the 10% senior discount our local IGA supermarket offered on Wednesdays. I accumulated thousands of books from the Dump and the Strand, so even if I never visit another bookstore or order an Amazon delivery, I have twenty years' reading.
Working on ambulances confirmed and sharpened my personal courage and extended my ability to analyze "scene safety", which had forcibly begun a quarter century earlier in the Rue Lourmel. I also learned to think about living in a pandemic (I was working on ambulances during the SARS scare), and about constant handwashing and sanitizing, the process of nightly repeated decontamination.
I have also across 36 years developed Humility, Compassion, Tolerance and Optimism within my marriage with W., so that (though we have had a few ephemeral tiffs, which blow over and leave the air sweet like a thunderstorm), being together 24/7 has not really been hard. The old saw, "For better or worse, but not for lunch", has never applied to our marriage anyway. (Note these are the same values I Aspire to generally in Life).
Contracting MRSA also played a role in sensitizing me to social and ethical issues around pandemics (I even wrote a play about it, SuperBug, which was quite interesting re-reading a few days ago). And it ended my use of gyms and finalized the creation of a home gym. Almost thirty years ago, I bought a Poke Boat, a modified kayak I can use in secluded parts of nature, and last year I bought a folding bicycle which I ride down deserted Napeague Meadows Road. The idea I have that Life is Metaphor (which, come to think of it, is a Meta-Metaphor!) is further accentuated by the fact that I named our WiFi "SafeHouse" twenty years ago.
Unlike people who are forced into terrible want by losing jobs right now, and those who are bitterly feeling the loss of the sports and social activities that sustained them, and those who cannot bear being in the house together, I am living much as I always have, only a little more so. The days spent here are like the ones before. I write in the early mornings, read (mostly works I am Gleaning for the Mad Manuscript, and a few science fiction novels for a break), talk on the telephone with clients and friends, start preparing dinner around 3, eat by 4, write some more, occasionally watch an hour or so of television dramas (mostly science fiction), put the news on for an hour (MSNBC). Oh, and I obsessively read the articles which turn up in the news feed on my phone, and have now subscribed to the Guardian and the Times, which I skim several times a day. The books I read are usually from the thousand or so I accumulated in my physical library (about two thirds of them Dump Books) or checked out from the Amagansett Library via the Overdrive app on the phone. I work out four times a week. First workout: fifteen minutes on a Nameless Exercise Machine, a bicycle-shaped thing on which one does crunch-like abdominal exercises, which an actor friend helped me carry in from the Brooklyn Heights sidewalk before a rehearsal of my first play, circa 2007 or so (Specificity! as we said in Playwriting 101); then, a mile walking very rapidly on a treadmill. Workout Two: a NordicTrak ski machine for fifteen minutes, then a Nautilus knock-off on which I do forty reps apiece at light-ish weights of many different arm and leg exercises. Then I do thirty reps of three different arm exercises using five pound weights I bought at Harvard in 1978. In Coronavirus time, I have added thirty sit ups, using a device I bought in the '90's sometime which bolts to a door. Third workout: I ride my bicycle five miles, masked, on Napeague Meadows Road. Fourth: I run 2.2 miles, also wearing the Ninja mask, on Napeague Meadows. This work-out also used to be five miles, and I have been hoping for a long time to push back to that. I decided recently as the weather warms to add a fifth workout: throw the Poke Boat into the back of the truck, drive down Napeague Meadows to a nearby beach on the bay, paddle hard for half an hour.
That road, which is the venue of all my outdoor exercise, is secluded. Three cars may pass me in an hour, and I may see three humans (at an adequate distance) or none.
This life is organic, calm, rather sweet, but interspersed with moments of terror and despair watching the news or decontaminating groceries, and strange mask-wearing interludes going to the Dump or putting gas in the car, where I literally wonder if I may die because I touched a concrete ledge or a gas pump that someone else had. A headline yesterday suggested we may need to do this for two more years.
However, in the midst of all this philosophical calm and angelic sweetness as I cook W's dinner, clean up, and reassure her we will survive, I had a near-meltdown again yesterday when an incipient toothache on the right side of my jaw spiked to a six on the pain scale. There is no dentist. If I could find someone who would work on me now, I might infect them, or they me. I do not want anyone's hands in my mouth in a Pandemic. I think again of the structure of certain apocalyptic movies: we can take this. And this. We can handle this. We will get through this somehow. And then comes the smallish provocation which would mean nothing in normal times, but which tips the scales to death.
I realized that I had again performed the role of ten gallon container inundated with fifty gallons of despair-inducing information. I know from experience an effect of the mind-body connection, that pain that is "really" a three on the scale gets magnified to a six by one's own panic and relentless attention to it. I took a Naproxen, which has its own risks, really its own Ology to investigate in Coronavirus time: is it an anti-inflammatory? Is it dangerous to take right now? I used to be a Naproxen-a-day guy (a small vice) and I hadn't taken anything since the Emergency began. The Naproxen, or my own decision to be calmer, suppressed the pain. It is not yet a two on the scale, the next morning (though it just performed a warning spike as I thought about it).
I once wrote a very short play entitled "Speed Dating" in which a couple who have just met confess their drug dependencies to each other:
HE: I am pulled into the light by the Oxen of Naproxen.
SHE: I am lifted toward the sun by the Helium of Valium.
That's all of the dialog.
April 17. A Structure emerges from the fog: we cannot get out of this until we have a reliable universal test, which can be used to clear individuals who have had Coronavirus to go back into the world, and allow contact tracing and quarantine for new cases. Trump has instead announced that testing is the states' responsibility, and will not be led by the federal government.
I have been talking nonstop about government incompetence for many years, highlighting our inability even to repair bridges, let alone return to the moon. But Trump's astonishing disengagement from testing--his national strategy, announced yesterday, for reopening the economy, does not even mention testing--seems like more than that. At the beginning of the Pandermic, when WHO offered a test, he declined; then the one we developed ourselves, did not work; most recently he has withdrawn funding for some drive-through test sites. If he had funded a World War II-sized effort to develop a test and roll it out in numbers sufficient to test the entire nation, starting in January, perhaps we could be testing everyone by June or so; but we are nowhere, not one step towards that goal. This has been called literally a kind of sociopathic or I would say murderous federalism. There is of course no actual sustainable argument that it is better for the states to lead the testing effort, as if they could then customize the proper tests for Alabamans and Californians. There are two possible Truthful explanations. One, the kinder one in effect, is that we are seeing a sociopathic evasion of any Responsibility, a man with a motto that "The buck stops anywhere but here". His too-incautious declaration, that he did not want an infected cruise ship to dock, because it would affect "his" numbers, supports this proposition. But I think it goes beyond that, that our President and the people around him want folks to die. This is so horrific, so seemingly impossible that I am aware I sound clinically paranoid. But I have already noted that "herd immunity", run through the Neurolinguistic Translator, emerges, "A lot of you die, and my friends and I am fine, problem solved". A Kleptocratic government, which ours has become in spades, would concern itself with protecting the powerful and sustaining whatever other losses were "inevitable", rather than spending its gold to prevent them. When the losses are mainly of the poor, minorities, and the old ("useless eaters" all in Nazi parlance), a Pandemic may kill multiple birds with one stone, ameliorating the Social Security problem, the "welfare" problem (such as it still is), the Medicare and Medicaid problems, and decreasing the Democratic base, all at one "swell foop". Why would Donald Trump, or Stephen Miller, or Sean Hannity, or Rush Limbaugh, Or Or Or, want to jump through any financial hoops to save any of those? Another too-incautious speaker, a Texas lieutenant governor, has already claimed that he himself would be glad to die to save the economy. Trump wants to get people into stores by May 1, spending their money while infecting each other, a true "Buy til You Die" program which could only have been conceived by a murderous Kleptocrat. One does not have to look far for evidence of other subject populations whose rulers wanted them to die, as those are onmipresent through history, including French Protestants, Native Americans, German Jews, the Rohingya and numerous other hated minorities today. When I read the New York Times the morning of May 5, 1970, and learned of the Kent State killings, I had an insight, since confirmed by remarks he made on tape and messages sent out via underlings, that Nixon wished for the deaths of some number of American's children. He in fact had already made another version of that decision when, during the 1968 campaign, he secretly arranged to tank President Johnson's Vietnam peace effort, assuring his own election while also guaranteeing that tens of thousands more young Americans, many of whom voted for him that year, would die in Vietnam. Many Presidential policy decisions, if you think about it, have the potential to kill someone. Today we are seeing a decision to kill 3% and maybe many more of a population of 328 million, for the "good" of the 1%.
In the meantime, the much-vaunted "stimulus", consistent with everything else we know about this presidency (and the Late Capitalist culture of our time, even before Trump), is shaping up to be more Performance than reality. W. and I seem completely like mainstream recipients of the $1200 which is supposedly already going out from IRS to some Americans: we filed a 2018 tax return, and W. receives Social Security. We have gotten nothing, and when I checked the web site launched yesterday, it responded that both our eligibility was "unclear". The banks are procrastinating on the payroll loans (as they did on the mortgage modification loans in 2009, preventing almost all that money from reaching homeowners); the $10,000 "grant" to small businesses may be as little as $1,000, and isn't reaching anyone anyway; and the government is already somehow out of money funding these programs, while Congress dickers about providing any more. The sense I had since the beginning, that W. and I must be a republic of two, that there is otherwise only Calvary, no Cavalry, is particularly intense right now.
April 18. I was awake at 2:30 a.m., more Insomniac than ever in Coronavirus Time, when a grinding Dread arises at the moment I have least resources to resist it. I comfort myself by working on the non-Coronavirus Huge mass, the majority, of the Mad Manuscript--how I comfort myself in an Emergency, my most "normal" activity other than cooking . I was Gleaning an article on military training or Oliver Sacks, don't remember, and I had an Already Writing Epiphany which, due to the hour, had some of the quality of a Hypnagogic Moment, because I threw off a characteristic two word phrase, "Drain Rider". Except, instead of a mysterious nonsense adjective-noun pairing for interpretation, it was an actual Metaphor, too Intentional for Hypnagogia.
I thought: this brain of mine is Always Sparking; how I could write a 2,000 page Journal of the Coronavirus (that no one would ever read). And how I am different than Victor my Brother: he specialized, as do I, in the counter-intuitive Interpretation of someone's words, playing Riddley Walker, uttering his Harpoon Phrases; but Victor almost never I think has a Metaphor, let alone any Transcendence. I exceed Victor; I contain him, and much more. (And what's with all these Capitals? I have begun, at age 65, to write like a Fourteen Year Old Girl.)
Anyway, a Drain Rider is a kind of coarse personality that specializes in the exploitation of Chaotic Endgames. He appears when water is funneling down a drain, and knows how to Surf it, distracting us with his declamations. He never has the ability to stop the Chaotic effects, nor reverse them, but he can certainly accuse others of causing them, or failing to fix them, while disclaiming responsibility, uttering outrageous phrases, and constantly shifting his Rhetoric from moment to moment, at once uttering canned phrases in varying orders, which despite their repetitions cannot be pinned down to any precise meanings, and which in fact leave him free to reverse the sense at will (I have complete authority; I have no authority). He is a sort of third rate entertainer, whose spoutings and provocations leave us confused, bewildered, angered and distracted, like some Talk Radio hosts; but perhaps, for a certain audience (the Lost Boys) leave them feeling not so neglected and hollow. Bob Dylan sang: "But I would not feel so all alone/ Everybody must get stoned". The Drain Rider is more than incompetent; he is non-competent; he lives in a world in which there is no idea of actual projects or outcomes, where every challenge is met with another torrent of blither, in which he simultaneously declares that there is no project, that it is someone else's job, that another person made it impossible to do, and that he has successfully performed it.
Donald Trump is a Drain Rider, now surfing the Huge waves of the Coronavirus Time; and I myself Aspire to Be a Dream Rider, a phrase I will leave Neptunean for now.
All this was inspired by Trump's rhetoric yesterday, first announcing, in a 180 degree turnabout from days earlier, that, instead of his having absolute authority over "re-opening" the economy (what I referred to yesterday as his "Buy Till You Die" program), he would let the governors "call the shots"; then immediately on the heels, Tweeting to right wing protestors wearing MAGA hats in Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia, demonstrating for their God-given and Constitutional rights to appear in groups and catch the virus at the rest of our expense, his encouragement in "liberating" those states. Donald Trump, a Drain Rider who never carried out a real project in his life, is the worst possible President we could have in a Pandemic. I long to say, to some people I may never see in person again, who voted for Trump: a vote for him was a vote for the Coronavirus.
Not every autocrat is a Drain Rider. Hitler knew how to complete projects; he simply undertook too many. Putin is chaotic, vain, and often somewhat inconsistent and stupid, but also knows how to get Evil Shit Done. Bolsonaro in Brazil, like Trump, is a posturing, clownish Drain Rider.
April 19. A rare, lovely element of these times is the discovery that I can really cook, that I have a fluidity that involves both knowledge of my ingredients (not to mention already owning a very wide variety) and an improvisatory ability to use them, to make dishes which vary in tastes and effects, and which W. enjoys. In recent years, though I continued cooking for myself actively, I did so for W. rarely, as she was only here three nights or so and we went to restaurants or brought in Chinese or Indian take-out.
I wish I kept a record night by night of what I made, but here is my reconstruction: Chinese steamed chopped chicken with broccoli (with sesame oil). Jamaican brown stew chicken with Pickapeppa sauce, an ingredient I keep just for that dish. Steamed salmon with asparagus. Grilled chicken with za'atar (a spice I ordered for the first time just on the eve of Coronavirus Time). Black beans with turkey sausage. Fried rice with turkey sausage and sumac, another newish spice. Shrimp fra diavolo over some interesting beet pasta I bought at a gourmet products store operated by the County on the Long Island Expressway-- all the products are made on Long Island. "Son of a bitch stew", a cowboy dish with chicken or chop meat and sauteed potatoes. An Indian salmon with garam masala and curry leaves, two other recent spices. Keema, a Pakistani chop meat dish. Jambalaya, with some left over already-cooked sausage and fish. Chicken picadillo, with olives and raisins, for wrapping in tortillas. Meatballs in tomato sauce (I used chopmeat, not really formed into meatballs). Sausage, okra and polenta. A chicken-quinoa stew. Huli huli chicken, with ketchup, soy, ginger, apple cider vinegar. Pea pasta. Sausage cous cous with harissa (also a new condiment). Rice and beans with chicken. Jug jug (black eyed peas and fish stew). Fish with chickpeas (a Moroccan Jewish dish). A Mexican fish soup. Indian butter chicken. Corn soup (elote). And, for Passover, the Cochin-Cumin-Coriander chicken. I am planning meals, laying out ingredients, pre-cooking some elements, three days in advance. It is a restful, and fulfilling activity, as only a man never forced by social conditioning to cook for anyone could say. It does make me (Bragging Alert) an ideal person to be quarantined with.
There is a minor psychological case study in the fact that I had all these spices, and this repertory, and still did not think I was a cook. No one ever taught me and I never took a course. I do not know the right way to chop anything. I skip steps, for example not bothering with roux when I make gumbos or jambalayas. My sister-in-law embarassed me twenty years ago by telling me to skin the tomatoes before making a sauce, a step the recipes assumed you already knew. Later, I learned to use canned diced tomatoes, more flavorful and already skinned.
Yesterday was a very hard day. I went out masked into the world twice. The first time was to the Post Office. We had not gone in a month. I wrote the other day about the symbolic importance of the Post Office in American life. It is not very important in mine. I pay all bills electronically and it has been years since I wrote letters to anyone or received any. There is a possibility I have been served with legal documents in some non-electronically-filed cases, but since the courts were closed, there was little urgency and in the scale of things, this did not seem worth risking my life for. I felt an intense paranoia about going into the small, enclosed spaces of the Post Office, which, as I realized recently, had its roots in the armed robbery of the Rue Lourmel Post Office in 1978. I also had a sense of lack, of inadequacy, that there was one significant thing I had not solved.
I improvised some additions to my Ninja mask so it had four levels of protection. I had already solved how to fold up part of the hanging down t-shirt to create a second covering over my mouth and nose. Now I folded a coffee filter into a bandanna and tied it across my face before even putting on the Ninja mask. We went to the Post Office at opening hour, nine a.m. on Saturday. I surveilled the scene, dashed in like a military commando, got my box combination right on the first try (it sometimes takes three), swept all the accumulated mail into a plastic bag, and ran out again, without encountering another human. It was an extremely stressful experience, from which it took a long while to come down.
But there had been some gaps in the Peapod delivery on Wednesday that we wanted to fill by a phone order, for pick up, to the One Stop Market in Springs. Three hours after visiting the Post Office, I masked up again, this time only with the doubled Ninja mask, without bandanna or filter. One Stop, to which this was our second visit, is the only time I am in the company of strangers for any length of time, and it is very discomfiting. Some are still not masked (a small minority). Others with the best intentions don't seem to get it, pass or stand too close, or fidget with their masks, defeating the purpose (one man even lifted the edge of his and spat on the ground, last time). The masked woman behind the table, instead of backing six feet away after she put my bags down, wanted to hand them to me. The scene was disorganized, I had to say my name three times to be understood, other people who came later were helped first. I always leave with a sense of intense exasperation and fear. On the other hand, we obtained salad greens, wild bird seed, walnuts a neighbor had highly coveted and been unable to obtain across multiple Peapod orders.
I deconned twice, taking off all my clothes when returning from the Post Office and One Stop, washing up, rinsing everything I had carried. Then we washed all the groceries in soap and water, and ran water over vegetables in the sink. The mail we left in the bag in an unused shower to sit for several more days before examination (or we may break down sooner and wipe each letter with soap and water). This is the Way We Live Now.
ON the return from One Stop, I wiped my phone down with soapy water and it leaped from my hand, fell heavily to the tile and the screen cracked. At any time, this would feel like a small tragedy and a proof if I needed one of my physical ineptness, but in this environment, it is a somewhat larger tragedy, as repairing or replacing anything is nontrivial. The rice cooker I have used for ten years to make rice, polenta, quinoa and cous cous died the other day, and I ordered a replacement from PC Richards, which their web site insisted would be delivered UPS, but they sent it by US mail instead. Since I had given only the street address, the cooker will be returned to sender by the Post Office (which cannot be bothered to look up my PO box number--and I will not stand in line at the counter to retrieve mail which cannot fit in the box anyway). The phone plays a huge role in my (and everyone's) daily life even normally, and even more in Coronavirus Time--I read library and public domain books, watch movies and television, read the news, and then it is my link to the outside world, to the rest of humanity, via calls and texts. Cracking the screen was more than I could bear. Then Meri made some phone calls and we soon determined that the nearest repair facility was an hour drive away. In the world of Late Capitalism, even before Coronavirus Time, Verizon refuses to repair what it sells (and could not even tell us who would). Staples is open but has apparently been bribed by Apple only to repair IPhones. I did a Google search and determined that the nearest store which can repair a Pixel 3A screen is in Port Jefferson, 50 miles away. We do not drive long distances in Coronavirus Time because: you might get pulled over for speeding and have to interact with a cop, possibly even unmasked, standing three feet away, and who could conceivably even order you to take off your mask. You might have a fender bender and have to deal with irate drivers, cops, insurance adjusters and repair people. You might even get taken to the emergency room, as happened to a neighbor of ours: a great place to get infected these days. My choice is, to risk the drive to Port Jeff and pay $109, or buy a new Pixel from Verizon (a fifteen minute drive in Bridgehampton, which is already beyond my comfort zone, as One Stop Market, abut four miles, is the furthest I go these days) for more than $400. We have no law practice income these days, and need that money for groceries. Meanwhile, the phone, though glitchy, still nominally works with the cracks, so I will procrastinate before making the decision.
I wrote a day or two ago how customized we are for quarantine, even invoking the Anthropic Principle. It is a relatively fragile peace of mind: any day I don't go out, I am fine, and millions of other people aren't. I am painfully aware how much we benefit from "white privilege" in every way: we are healthy, own a house where we can shelter, don't need to work, have two cars for "mobile quarantine". On the other hand, any time I do go out, I come home frightened and exhausted and am unable to concentrate for hours. Wild-ish despair floods me when (even at this late date) Donald Trump the Drain King does something savage and stupid, like urging protesters to "liberate" Democratic states. Yesterday I hit a low, one of the rare moments when I wonder if I can get through this.
April 20. Yesterday was a Day Without an Emergency in Coronavirus Time (the dog did nothing in the night). We decided to attempt a fairly normal activity, hiking a trail in the Northwest Woods, several miles of a white-blazed section of the Paumonok Path. The sun was shining, the air scented of pine invigorating, it was an utterly normal day in the woods but for the fact we wore our Ninja masks. Every ten minutes or so, mountain bicyclists, most unmasked, roared by, giving us just enough margin to scramble ten feet off the path and turn our faces away from them. The first and last time, we didn't get that far away, the first because we didn't have enough notice, the last because a heavy growth of trees did not permit. So a heavy sweating lout without a mask passed just feet away. We also stepped out of the way for one unmasked young couple with child. It seems it is a new convention for people to thank you, for stepping aside, and possibly for protecting them by wearing masks I suppose (though this was doubtful when they were not).
When we returned to the car, I did not feel wrung out, as I did after the Post Office or One Stop. I imagined myself saying "Ouch!"--sometimes I do so because someone has really hurt me, and sometimes as a technical placeholder (someone stepped heavily on my foot, but I was not hurt). Which was the experience of a sweaty biker passing too close, Ontologically I mean, an Existential Danger or mere Technical Foul? I wasn't certain and we will probably hike again.
Last night, the Trope of "a day without an emergency" turned Hypnopompically into a "Day Without Coronavirus", which itself became a kind of Cartoon-Turtle-Man-Who-Was-Not-There, and every time I woke, I asked myself if I was conscious enough to write about him, then went back to sleep. But there will never actually in my life again be a Day Without Coronavirus, I expect.
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
All the king's horses and all the king's men
Couldn't put Humpty together again.
A Day Without An Emergency = A Very Short Entry.
April 21. One month now of this Journal. Yesterday was the quietest and tiniest of days (it would have been a much better example of a Day Without an Emergency). I never went out. I accomplished an hour of billable legal work for the first time in a month. I found a man in East Hampton who can replace the screen of my phone and made arrangements with him via email and phone. It was a day whose functional quiet fought the Second Law with no drama. Very nice.
Then, towards evening, a Hypnopompic Moment. I was looking out of the house towards Montauk Highway. There was not one car. The silence became Huge: not one train, horn, airplane, or human voice. I realized that the Coronavirus had taken everyone else and we were alone on Earth.
April 24. I had an Exemplary week's exercise, doing all four routines in four days, ending with a run yesterday morning which, as usual, proceeded in seclusion on Napeague Meadows Road, until, almost a mile in, an unmasked runner passed from the other direction, smack in the middle of the road, on the yellow line. He passed barely six feet from me; the brush and water on my side did not permit me to get more than a foot or two further away from him.
What the fuck? Nobody runs on the center line in normal times; what would motivate you to do so in a Pandemic? I usually Brag that "Nothing human is alien to me", but I struggle to understand a mind which had no desire to take the other side to accomodate (or from fear of) the Ninja-masked elderly runner coming the other way. In the years I have now been writing (and being written by) the 8,000+ page Mad Manuscript, I have come to understand that Everything Is Speech. What the unmasked runner said was: "I do not believe in the Coronavirus. In telling you that, I also believe I am a Higher Life Form than you, entitled to pass as close as I want, and to frighten you as much as pleases me". His sneakers squeaked: "I,I,I,I". In a sense he was not only running on Napeague Meadows, but through History, his background Message the devastating stupidity and Bloodymindedness of that substantial subset of humans (who also compose the Trump base) who cannot be counted on to exhibit either Common Sense or Compassion in a Stone Emergency.
That I have not been writing every day is symptomatic of a strange truth, that Coronavirus Time, like the Holocaust, can be normalized, that we soon learn to live with inequity, meanness, stupidity, danger, and random death. In the later years of Victor Klemperer's diary, he listed friends who were murdered, or killed themselves, every week. The shock I felt watching television news, understanding that New York City emergency rooms I used to work in (such as Brooklyn and St. Barnabas) are overwhelmed, nurses and doctors are sick and dying, people are spending days in hallways waiting for a ventilator, that EMT's are leaving people home that die, that deaths are 300% of normal, that the exact toll will never be known (in large part due to those deaths at home) has already, in a few short weeks, become the Way We Live Now.
In my Rags and Bones column in the Spectacle, I have long had an occasional feature, "Reprinted Without Comment", in which someone's quoted words don't require any analysis. Here is President Trump in a moment I happened to watch live yesterday:
"So, supposedly when we hit the body with a tremendous, whether it's ultraviolet or just very powerful light, and I think you said that hasn't been checked, but you're going to test it. And then I said supposing you brought the light inside the body, which you can do either through the skin or in some other way. And I think you said you're going to test that too. Sounds interesting, right? And then I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in one minute. And is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside or almost a cleaning because you see it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it'd be interesting to check that so that you're going to have to use medical doctors with, but it sounds interesting to me. So, we'll see, but the whole concept of the light, the way it kills it in one minute. That's pretty powerful."
April 25. As it turned out, the vapid, toxic Trump-maunderings which I happened to watch live bounced all around the Chattersphere in the ensuing 24 hours. I was not alone in feeling shocked that the man, whom I thought held no real surprises, is really bottomless (that his shallowness is much deeper than we knew, ha).
This Journal has largely concentrated on personal experience, as everyone's is at once unique and Exemplary; in college, I learned to appreciate the scholarly work ( Aries' Centuries of Childhood comes to mind) which aggregates individual experiences. Hundreds of "knighted" (be-knighted?) Pundits (I mean they have all been Tapped on the Shoulder by powers that have not Tapped me) are more Officially or Objectively "qualified" than I am to speak about Causes and Consequences of the historical Trends we are all witnessing. However, watching Trump's performance made me think of the following things:
Inconsequence. Most of us, intelligent or stupid, have learned at least not to speak about things we do not know, and certainly not on television. Think of the creation and fostering of a personality which has no such limit, which blithers on television about injecting light and bathing the lungs with disinfectant. To reach that level of absurdity, a billion dollars is necessary, and the phenomenon of having been surrounded since earliest childhood with a mob of obsequious servants tasked to make you feel "special" at every moment. Watching, in the background, Mike Pence's face, you see how hard Pence has worked to transform himself into that servant. I would hope, no matter what happens, the Republicans themselves understand how fully Pence has disqualified himself from ever running for President; and I maliciously hope that the day comes, anyway, when Trump drops him, hard.
Emptiness. It is less interesting that such an Empty man exists, than that we elected him President. The Emptiness of the nation, of the Electorate, called forth the man. An Almost-Book Shimmers, examining what Emptiness we already showed in 1800, and how much and by what measures we poured out our Riches in the years since.
One of the things which Emptied was the American elite. The Framers, with their fear of "faction", created a Machine which would always have a (somewhat hidden) Governor, a compartment (like Oz behind the curtain) in which some gray-haired figures would work the levers together, to keep (I am Madly Mixing Metaphors) the Titanic from crashing, the Challenger from exploding, the World Trade Towers from burning and falling. The Fatal Error of the Framers was to believe that the men in the hidden compartment would be of the ilk of John Adams or (at worst) of Thomas Jefferson forever. It never occurred to them that one day that compartment might be inhabited by the Koch Brothers, Robert Mercer, Peter Thiel, Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, or Steve Bannon. The levers they created, which they thought would always be used to steer us to wisdom, have taken us over the falls instead.
Oh, and one more thing, which I thought of a few minutes later. This is a useless statement, as no person of the Right will ever believe me, but none of this has to do with ideology (if Trump even has one). He could just as easily have chosen to run as a Democrat, and everything I say here, about inconsequence and emptiness, would still apply. His awful inadequacy and inutility, which we summoned to power on the eve of a Pandemic, have nothing to do with his beliefs.
April 27. I think I have written about Peapod. It is a delivery service, the only large one available out here, associated with the Stop and Shop chain. I set up two accounts for us and alternate orders, which are booked two weeks out. I log on at 1 a.m., when the next delivery date is added. When the food comes, the masked delivery people leave it on the stoop and W. and I decontaminate it, rather exhaustively and exhaustingly, and bring it into the house. No one knows for certain if the virus can live dangerously on cans, plastic bags or fruit handled by a sick grocery store employee, but we are taking no risks.
We are utterly dependent on Peapod, which saves us from needing to enter a store, the most dangerous infection vector which exists out here, other than the post office. We also have set up accounts, and do the 1 a.m. thing, for several neighbors. Day before yesterday, I had logged into two Peapod accounts, one after another, when I received an email that Peapod had canceled the delivery I had scheduled at 1 a.m. a few nights before on one of them. The reason given was that it had fallen below the minimum order.
I recalled that you had to order at least $60 of food. I logged back into that account and ascertained I still had a $64 order. Peapod can reassign certain items as being "out of stock" so it is possible that your order could dip below the limit. In normal times, I believe they would text or call you about substitutions, but that has stopped during the Pandemic. On our last delivery they simply had left out a dozen items, including corn meal, diced tomatoes, brown rice, lunch meat, fruit,salad, mushrooms, paper towels, and toilet paper.
Canceling the order seemed like an infuriating case study in Late Capitalism. We are utterly dependent on Peapod and entering a store would literally put my life at risk right now. It would be easy enough to have a feature instead which sends you an email warning you your order has dropped below the limit, and giving you some time (and why not until the day before) to correct it. It seems egregious to have a system instead which can deprive you of a delivery date when you haven't done anything at all, when some mysterious actions behind the screen (such as products going out of stock) can cause you to fall below the limit.
I called Peapod. Forty times. Thirty eight times I got a recording which said there were too many callers and hung up on me. Twice I got one which told me to type "3" for an operator. The first time, I was using my still unrepaired phone with cracked screen. I couldn't type "3". I screamed "Operator" but it was the only customer service software in America which doesn't hear voices. I called back many times on Meri's phone before I got the opportunity to type "3" again. That brought a rceording which told me the estimated "hold" time to talk to a human would be eighty-four minutes.
I added seventy dollars worth of stuff to the order, so it couldn't drop below sixty, and logged back in at 1 a.m. to get another delivery date, four days further out than the first one. We can add stuff to next week's order (the canceled one was the week after). And we can eke supplies out with an order at One Stop Deli, where I pick stuff up at the curb, jostling uncomfortably close to unmasked frat boys buying beer.
How We Live Now.
I have as I mentioned beeen reading a curative chapter of Gibbon a day. He mentions a Pandemic which "from the year two hundred and fifty to the year two hundred and sixty five, raged without interruption in every province, every city, and almost every family, of the Roman empire. During some time five thousand persons died daily in Rome; and many towns, that had escaped the hands of the barbarians, were entirely depopulated". Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (New York: Modern Library 1932) Vol. I p. 244
April 30. Listening to myself Whinge about the Peapod order cancellation reminded me that I am experiencing the Pandemic from a refuge of personal white privilege, in a town which exemplifies white privilege. I feel a bit ashamed; a historian of Coronavirus Time, writing centuries from now, will seek out the diary of the Brooklyn emergency room nurse, the Iowa meat plant worker, before taking interest in mine. I hope what I have to say is of interest also.
The most powerful and emotional thought I can share right now is still somewhat trivial: it is about what we have lost, and what retained. I had settled down to a very routine and apparently sheltered life of small but intense pleasures in the last few years. These included, somewhat in order of descending intensity:
Every Friday and Saturday I visited the "Home Exchange" area at the East Hampton Dump, where people put out books, toys, furniture and tchotchkes they did not want any more. This in fact had become a Huge pleasure and integral part of my life-style. I accumulated hundreds of books, almost all of interest for eventual Gleaning for the Mad Manuscript. The Dump Books before me on my desk and in a small bookshelf on the floor as I write this include works on psychiatry, sociology, quantum physics, Ireland, Jane Austen, Rabelais, technology, geometry, dance, Romanticism, Zeno, the metropolitan West, and a volume of Borges.
My house is decorated with Dump objects. In this large floorthrough living and dining room which is the upper story of my "Upside Down" house, there is a pogo stick; classical music CD's and a case to house them; that bookshelf; toys including a dinosaur, dragon, and airplane; a blue typewriter; an angel; a tiny ceramic boat; bookends and picture frames. In my library, several small freestanding bookcases came from the Dump. Objects I saw there that I always regretted not bringing home included a foosball table and various exercise machines, including a rowing machine and a stepper. I bought my pick up truck largely to have more freedom to bring large objects home from the Dump.
I went to the Post Office every day to pick up packages from Amazon, most of which were used books, but some were spices and foodstuffs, and also tchotchkes. I have books before me on racism, lying, samurais, morality, history, Lawrence of Arabia, censorship, the Holocaust, Frederick Law Olmsted, architecture, feminism, pandemics and physics I ordered from Amazon. In my cupboard are garam masala, sumac, and in my freezer, curry leaves I ordered online. In this room are a praying mantis made of wire, a plush Hallucigenia (I am a Nerd), a Freud action figure, and a camping stove hanging on a nail on the wall. Since the pandemic, I have not repeated the pleasurable daily ritual of standing at the Post Office counter to collect my latest bounty. Since the mail is not delivered to our house in Amagansett, I am in fact cut off from acquiring any new books at all, as my entire library came from the Dump and Amazon.
Third on my list of pleasures was that of sitting in a favorite restaurant ordering a beloved dish. With the closure of restaurants in our town over the years, I no longer had a go to place I treasured as much as places in the past, here and in Manhattan, Brooklyn, or Queens, where I ordered hard to find things like turkey meatloaf, poulet chasseur, jambalaya, jerk chicken, arroz con pollo. Still, we ate out two nights a week, in a local Italian restaurant, a pub, and a diner, and some sea food places for fancier summer experiences.
Fourth was the experience of going to the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett to hear a bar band perform. The Talkhouse is the Exemplary dive bar with rickety neon sign, magical dim lighting, cluttered stage, middle aged male bartenders whose attention was hard to get on crowded nights. Since I have been, since 9/11/2001, in the grip of an intense agoraphobia, our Talkhouse experience had fallen to just two to three visits a year, one our New Years' ritual, the others impulsive ones in the summer, when my forces felt a little greater than usual and I didn't mind being in a crowd. W. and I have sometimes danced there for hours, and I am not a dancing man.
As Coronavirus Time began and the new realities fell into place, all of these things became memories almost overnight. When the smoke clears (and when will that be?) the Talkhouse and any or all of our familiar restaurants may not exist; the Home Exchange, which a Republican town administration once closed for five years, may never reopen; and I may never feel comfortable going out in crowds again. The small Post Office has become enemy space, a place I have only ventured once in two months, quadruple-masked and frightened. I imagine myself as the Last Distanced Man, wrapping my privilege around me like a cloak: if I decide never to leave my house again except to run and ride my bicycle and take garbage to the dump, who can force me?
I am also aware, although I miss these small experiences very greatly, that it was strangely easy to let them go, when the Coronavirus superseded, as our new reality. Restaurants always close, friends move away or even die, toys break, beloved tshirts and jackets wear out (or are even left on trains sometimes). "Nothing gold can stay".
What I have retained is in its own way equally intense. My small but satisfying life already had included a few hours of writing and reading every day, working out on exercise machines I bought on Ebay or picked up off the sidewalk twenty years ago, running and more recently, riding my bicycle on Napeague Meadows Road. Planning a meal, laying out the ingredients, the pleasurable ritual of cooking it, the little short cuts I devised. Last night I made a Greek fish stew. I had microwaved some potatoes, to saute them separately in lemon juice as a Greek side dish, and hit on merely placing them directly into the tomato sauce infused with Greek seasoning of the main dish--an easy substitution for the artichoke hearts I lacked. And of course, I have W., my cornerstone, the woman who has kept me happy and off balance, interested and quizzical, laughing and sometimes annoyed, since 1984. So, unlike most Americans, in Coronavirus Time I am blessed to have kept the core of the life I enjoyed before, even without the trappings.
May 3. Yesterday was very stressful, in a White Person Whinging kind of way. The theme is Herculean efforts to live a normal life in Coronavirus Time, which fail through no fault of one's own. As background, I have been without a phone since Friday afternoon (It is early Sunday now). When I cracked the screen of my Pixel, I discovered that the only store Google officially endorsed to repair it was an hour's drive away, in a more heavily infected part of the county. But I found, via an Internet search, a man in East Hampton who said he could do it. Friday afternoon I drove to a remote part of town, up towards Sag Harbor, and left my phone in a mailbox on a hillside (social distancing). An hour later, he confessed that he could not get the replacement screen to work. Tired of waiting nearby, I told him I would be in touch tomorrow, but he let Saturday pass without responding to my email or otherwise giving me a status update.
Due to some unexpected pro bono legal work, I had not had time in several days to catch up on errands such as my weekly trip to the Dump with the garbage of three other families. I therefore had a batch of masked projects I decided to "blow out" all at once on Saturday: visit the Post Office for the second time; gas up one of the vehicles; do a curb-side pick up of an order at a deli in Springs; and the Dump.
At 8:30 A.M., I went to the Post Office, quadruple masked as last time, and then the gas station, got everything done with minimal fuss, and got back home feeling like a successful commando, thinking: this is becoming a routine, this is not as scary as it was! Next I picked up everyone's garbage and went to the Dump, where the only incident was a masked man who might have been only five feet six inches away, who did not respect my proposed twenty-foot rule.
Then I rewarded myself for an already very stressful day by riding my bike on Napeague Meadows for a break, for relaxation. About at the same point where, last time, I encountered a man pedaling relentlessly and inexcusably on the center line, two impeccably Lycraed Hitler Youth on 51 speed bicycles passed me on my left, unmasked, barely two feet away. My rage and silence became the main theme of the rest of the ride and much of the rest of the day. What I wanted to say, Spirit of the Staircase, was: "Are you insanely stupid or do you think you are a Higher Life Form? There is no third option."
The day then got even worse. The deli visit was more of a necessity than a luxury: Peapod had not delivered much protein, or any paper goods, or dishwasher detergent; Peapod had then inexplicably canceled a delivery, so we would not have another shot at any of these items for seven more days. (I am trying to portray the cascading effects of small Coronavirus Time provocations here.) As we arrived at the deli, W. tried to back the truck in to a spot,and tapped the car behind tearing up its front bumper. We had to deal with a masked driver, and then a cop, each standing less than six feet away. Then, people milling around waiting at curbside for the deli clerk came too close (though everyone was masked this time); and the clerk herself is still handing you your bags from two feet away, instead of retreating and leaving them on the table for you.
Self pity alert: I have that sense of being a small receptacle into which life was pouring too much: the feeling that I am working really hard to do everything right in a Pandemic, but it isn't working out.
As a very slight offset to that: I seem to have learned how not to fog up my glasses when wearing the Ninja mask--or rather, how to breathe so as only to half-fog them. I could not rationally explain what I am doing differently, but it works.
May 10. A week without an entry. That has several causes. I became so aware of my privilege and my Whinging I didn't much need to write (the volume of the entries before was driven by a need to speak, a way of coping with things by going on record, which has also driven the Mad Manuscript to 8,600 pages). There has also been a kind of numbness, as if there were fires burning everywhere I can do almost nothing about. It's comparable to a World War II civilian life in which you get used to bombing and death. Though we have a network of compassion extending to friends, neighbors and family, there is nothing whatever of that national network which President Roosevelt led in the Depression, no sense that there is a benign larger force out there which will come to our aid. Just a stunning amorality coupled to an incompetence so vast that, after a month or so ineptly trying to intervene in the Pandemic, the President is clearly eager to forget about it and move on.
Again, as I asked recently, what do we even have a federal government for? I have mentioned Tainter, I think, without explaining him.Joseph Tainter, author of Collapse of Complex Societies, theorized that Rome fell not catastrophically or accidentally, but as the result of a staged withdrawal of support by upper middle class Roman citizens in the provinces, who no longer felt their taxes were buying anything useful, and had more to gain supporting local barbarian kings. While, after nine years of my own work on the Mad Manuscript, and a lifetime of reading, I don't think Tainter provides a full explanation, he certainly highlights a phenomenon that is occurring again today: with a federal government too inept and paralyzed, too selfish, mean and dishonest, and with too strange an idea of responsibility, to be able to offer much more than excuses, attacks and misdirection in an emergency, I have a vision of being a citizen of a seceded Republic, including New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and just maybe, if they ask nicely, New Jersey. We would do a whole lot better. And there would be intense poetic justice in leaving Kansas, Arkansas, the Dakotas to "smile on through" on their own. Trump has even asked why "bail out" Democratic states? Don't; we can do that on our own, if we stop paying taxes to subsidize your base. Read Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas? for a full, rather poetic description of the phenomenon of red state citizens disclaiming government while hanging on its tit. "Kansas is ready to lead us singing into the apocalypse", Frank wrote in 2004, and the apocalypse is here.
Another reason I haven't been writing much is that (even though I have felt entitled since 1995 to lecture the Putative Reader about national and global affairs in the Ethical Spectacle) the purpose of the Journal was supposed to be the reporting of personal experience--and except when a bicyclist behaves like a jerk, I have settled down to a daily routine about which there hasn't been much new to say. I discover that I was already almost Robin Crusoe when the Pandemic hit (in terms of my personality, not so much in the way of building all my furniture).
Front and center in my thoughts right now is scarcity. The situation is not yet severe but worse things are already Signaling-- we are told there may be terrible disruption coming in supply chains. The way grocery delivery works now is you order everything you want, and they bring what they have. Recently, Peapod has strangely begun including a receipt for everything they didn't bring; yesterday's lists yogurt, lemon juice, breakfast sausage, fish, sliced lunch meat, margarine, mushrooms, strawberries and ice cream. In several cases, such as the yogurt, mushrooms, ice cream and lunch stuff, I had ordered redundantly (an innovation) and some of the other products arrived. In the case of others, such as the lemon juice, fish and strawberries, we are already out or will be soon, and will do without. The most intensely felt scarcity, a week or so ago, was of chicken breasts, when we went a week with none, and were not sure we would be able to get any. We did and now have a week or so of supplies, but that is the second time I had a vision of a near future making dinners of canned black beans. With no chicken, I still had fish (which is gone now) and chopped meat; the first bite of a chicken dinner was very intense and to be savored, as are the grapes I can't always get. I used to eat them as my main snack, every day. When I get grapes now, I eat them all within twenty four hours, and then go without for a week or more. I have always enjoyed cooking, but never savored food as intensely as I do now.
As part of the Ology of this Journal, I try to end on, if not an up note, a slight uptick. We are quite self-sufficient. I have moments of childish despair, as when I broke the phone. I never thought of it until now, but that rhymed with the famous Twilight Zone episode, about the sole survivor of a nuclear war, who breaks his glasses. It was complicated, and I was phoneless over a weekend (which has never happened in all the time I've had a cell phone), but I worked it out, a local guy after some misadventure did the replacement, and the Beat Goes On.
May 20. Why I Don't Write Every Day. At the outset of Coronavirus Time, I was seized by an Existential Panic that I discharged with these Daily Maunderings. Now, sad to say, like my Brother-in-Spirit Victor Klemperer's Holocaust journals, the Small Shit, like bicyclists riding too close, is normalized. I have less to say, feel the need to write less often, and have a high tolerance for other people's suffering that should not surprise me, both because (per Victor) it is very common, and because I already experienced it in my ambulance years. Watching nurses on television crying about losing patients, I think that we saw dead people every week. I did CPR on fifty to sixty people (contrary to some confusion on television dramas, we only do CPR on people who are clinically dead). I am not sure how many died in my presence or just out of it, but in addition to EMS patients I have also shown up and been present for my own parents and W's. Those years were an exercise in proving how hard I was. I was thinking about this yesterday when I read an essay by a hospice nurse also distinguishing her own fatalism--her hardness--from the crying nurses on TV.
You Can Apparently Opt Out of the Pandemic. At the outset, when I wrote daily or almost, we were on the deck of a ship no longer being steered by anyone, speeding up in a current towards a horizon we could not see clearly. Pandemic movies like Outbreak favor a disgusting special effect, where you watch a fatal CGI droplet flying across a movie theater to its innocent, laughing victim. Now that we are two months in, I have the following observations: W. and I haven't gotten the virus. No one in the neighborhood has had it. Most importantly, no one I speak to who is sheltering in the New York City hotspots has gotten sick, but for one friend who went to church a few times, and who has now recovered. I conclude from this that if you are rigorous, as we have been, about self-isolation and distancing, you can more or less decide not to participate in the pandemic. A Fellow Traveler inseparable from this is that it helps to be most of the following: white, financially self sufficient, able to work from home or not work, and get groceries delivered-- or in other words, privileged. This suggests an unbearable truth, that is also disclosed in the columns of the Guardian and the Times every day, that we are seeing a form of class warfare, Neptuneanly hidden in the daily numbers.
The Irish Potato Famine as a Class Warfare Pandemic. I am experiencing daily doses of Synchronicity like electric shocks from neurons firing too loudly, and I often, as I think I have said, feel like I have been preparing for Coronavirus Time for five years, twenty or a lifetime. Just last year, I Gleaned a highly Tonkative book on the Irish famine, which is not (as we think of History) just some Glitch That Happened, but stands Squarely in the Path by Which We Got Here. I argue that any account that, for example, starts where Gibbon ends and concludes Today, needs to cross the Potato Famine to get here.
This is what I think: the Famine was a pandemic--of potatoes. They died of fungus. The reason this was Hugely destructive of human life is that Late-ish Capitalism had fostered two fatal developments in Ireland: the monopolization of subsistence agriculture by a lately-introduced crop, the potato, which excluded most others and became a so-called "mono-culture"; and a vast increase in population driven by the availability of this cheap sustenance. Phrased this way, this is a classic set-up for a Perrowvian "Normal Accident", in which a third development combines with one or two other loosely related ones to kill a lot of people. I have elsewhere in the Mad Manuscript analyzed many other things, including the Titanic and the 2008 mortgage meltdown, as Normal Accidents.
The trigger which caused millions to die and emigrate was the pandemic. What makes it relevant to our time (and I had to get two months into Coronavirus Time to see this, because I am a Slow Learner), is that Late Capitalism, caused it, then didn't do anything to solve it. The British power-hierarchy, slowly confronting the appalling spectacle of mass starvation in Ireland, appointed a consummate bureaucrat, Trevelyan, who for the next few years, put on a performance of Rescue without saving anyone. Trevelyan was a hard worker, always displaying fierce effort and intelligence, in ways which rather designedly never translated into actual food being delivered to Irish people. Many of the statements Trevelyan publicly made, in the vocabulary of his time, translated into ours, are scarily modern: welfare creates shiftless, dependent populations; the evils are not our responsibility anyway, but someone else's; we cannot tax and harm business by diverting copious exports on their way to foreign countries, to feed the dying Irish. Similar to our transient stimulus funding, which did not reach most of the people who needed it, and now seems as if it may not be repeated, Trevelyan energetically supervised some intentionally inadequate and transient efforts which he then publicly and rather self-righteously terminated, as if to say, "There! We have done what we could!"
I recommend Cecil Woodham Smith's The Great Hunger, an Exemplary, short, lucid history book.
Stuff Eats Stuff. That leads to today's last Epiphany. I have a Flashing Fish Memory of standing in a scuba store circa 1978 looking at a salt water aquarium, in which one animal was devouring another, literally by chopping it to pieces. I think it was a crab eating a sea anemone. I had what I now call a Basilisk Moment, that I was hearing the basic theme of our universe, that Things Eat Things.Listen attentively to the Irish Potato Famine, or our President's behavior during Coronavirus Time, and you can at least faintly hear that deathly music.
May 27. Sometimes there are Things One Must Bat Out of the Way to Get to the Point. Then one discovers the Things One Must Bat Out of the Way to Get to the Things, and So Forth. An Almost-Book Shimmers, My Longwindedness, which could easily be 900 pages long, ha.
Anyway, I feel the need to Bat This: I had the thought that this Coronavirus Journal is a sort of Ghetto within the Mad Manuscript, in that there are Epiphanies the Putative and (for now) highly Imaginary Mad Reader may never discover, if I place them here, rather than in a section on Schizophrenia, Schopenhauer, Syllogisms or Silt. I decided that I will flag them by using a recently Defined Term, Read That Twice. At some indeterminate future moment, an Imaginary Mad Reader could then Putatively search the Mad Manuscript for occurrences of Read That Twice, and in the process would find those statements and insights I wish to promote from the Journal to some Huger or more Generic Status.
(If you are still reading me, you are an Exemplary Mad Reader, in fact the very person I am writing for.)
That said, I had a Pandemic Epiphany which knitted together three ideas I have been wrestling with for most of my adult life. I saw there are three phases to History. This is in fact my Rebuttal of Hegel, Spengler, Marx and everyone who has ever proposed a Theory of History:
First is a "Renanesque" phase in which a band of humans, forming a polity, adopts a Narrative (or, more properly, are adopted by a Narrative).
Second is a "McMullenesque" phase in which the Narrative is pitted and corroded by little meteoric insults of Late Capitalism. McMullen wrote specifically of that moment when an Emperor wants to order a particular Legion in Gaul to war, unaware that it effectively no longer exists because many of the men bought the right to desert from their commander, and its equipment and weapons are defective because purchased from a corrupt supplier, etc. What I never quite stepped back and saw was the way in which the individual greed of Billionaires directly interferes with Competence, in instances which are often much broader in occurrence and influence than mere "corruption". For example, a Koch or Mercer accumulates so much money that he uses it to warp the Polity of which he is a citizen into his own vision of a "governmentless" Libertarian entity. This may involve breaking no law--but there is a direct Throughline from the incessant activity in the last thirty years of the Kochs, Mercers and Thiels, and the Sophistical, science-less, leaderless response to the Coronavirus in Trump Universe.
The third and terminal phase is the "Tainteresque Moment", the Loss of Narrative, in which the middle class and wealthier citizens of the Polity recognize that there has been such a Grotesque Loss of Competence, that the Polity no longer provides any significant value in exchange for our taxes and other sacrifices. For the last two months or so, I have been preserving my sanity by reading a chapter of Gibbon a day (highly recommended medicine). Gibbon repeatedly expresses the same insight across 1300 pages of his first volume, that as early as Caracalla's time (the emperor who made every resident of the Empire a citizen so he could tax them) Roman citizenship was a degraded currency. By the end of the Western Empire, when Goths and Huns were chopping up the remains like bluefish eating bait, Gibbon mentions, for example, that the Roman citizens of Gaul saw clearly that the Emperor in Italy could provide no further protection whatever (though he was still taxing them). The Tainteresque Moment radiates like the Northern Lights behind Trump's statements, for example, that Democratic states should receive no financial bail-out from the federal government. "Then we secede!" seems the natural Rebuttal.
Read That Twice!
Here is another Coronavirus Epiphany, which seems closely related to that last. Rome, from Augustus through the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, understood that the minimum needed to keep the common people quiet was Bread and Circuses. We are in a strange era in which the Billionaires and their captive Politicians seem to have discovered that, if you mount particularly vivid, hateful (and extraordinarily inexpensive, for them) Circuses, you can stop the Bread. In the Mad Manuscript, I am still wrestling with the proposition that the Eastern Roman Empire found a formula for stability, based I think on Breads and Circuses, which outlasted the Western Empire by a thousand years. Circuses without Bread seems like something which should only last five years or so (but, depending on what you regard as the start date, has variously already endured since the 2016 election, or the 2000 election, or the election of Ronald Reagan, or maybe since the year that the House UnAmerican Activities Committee was founded). If the Powers That Be have found a formula for distracting and deceiving the American people that can create a thousand year reign (or Reich, frankly) while allowing them to die of Coronavirus, obesity, suicide, gun violence, opiates, homelessness and hunger, then I wish for Huxley's Kindly Comet.
Read That Twice!
Liking, as I do whenever possible, to end on an Optimistic note: I have the sense, for the first time since I bought it in 1997, of really living organically in my house. I sadly have not kept count, but I think I have cooked our dinner for at least 60 days in a row, with pleasure, as part of a fulfilling routine of daily living that has facilitated a sense of place, of belonging, of having a pleasurable routine and a life, which I have always longed for.
June 7. I want to write about the George Floyd protests. But first I want to dispose of the last unwritten items on my Coronavirus topic list:
New York is dirty PD/ hijacking PPE working on a case moment of gross negligence Medicare automated phone call All roads lead to the pandemic
New York is dirty: Many of my formative memories of New York City have to do with garbage and litter. There was a sanitation strike in my childhood. I vividly remember not only sights but terrible smells. For some reason there weren't many rats in my Brooklyn childhood, but I have seen a million or so since, including rats swarming on the garbage cans outside my otherwise sedate Astoria apartment. I have also always found the crowds, on the rush hour subway, or in Times Square, to be alien and overwhelming. Though I was born there and lived in New York City for most of my life, I always felt the city to be outsized, larger than life. In recent years, after 9/11 and Occupy Wall Street, I began to see the fact the City maintains, that it doesn't simply melt down or fall down from day to day, to be a sort of continuing miracle. The way New York was ravaged by Coronavirus, worse than anywhere else, seemed to be the Conflagration I had always imagined, the city burning down.
PD/hijacking PPE. I have written in the Spectacle and in the Mad Manuscript that, once I understood the concept of the Prisoner's Dilemma, I started to see PD's in every human interaction. When a cashier gives me a dollar too much change, and I return it, I am playing a cooperation card in a PD. Someone who sees you have blood on your collar from your shave that morning, and doesn't tell you, is playing a betrayal card. Coronavirus Time involves many simultameous, ongoing PD's, but a Huge one was the federal government and states in a free-for-all, seizing and diverting each other's shipments of masks and gloves.
Working on a case. In the middle of the pandemic, I got a phone call to join an Exemplary team of pro bono lawyers, who won a Huge federal victory together, persuading the courts to reinstate the New york presidential primary the Governor was seeking to cancel. The phenomenon of working from home on constitutional briefs, holding Zoom conferences with six wonderful lawyers to discuss, and then even attending an argument in the Court of Appeals by phone, was lovely, Meaning-inducing, good medicine in bad times.
Moment of gross negligence. All day long is a routine, to deal with the fact the simple has become difficult. There is a repertory of routine, small, even inane actions which may layer into seven or ten steps just to accomplish something as simple as pumping gasoline at the self-serve station: one glove on; remove credit card from wallet with ungloved hand; place it very carefully into slot without touching the metal; other glove on; type the PIN number on the keyboard; remove card with now-gloved hand for later decon; etc. etc. The moment of gross negligence, which is very rare, is the one at which your mind wanders and you lose track of a step: coming into the house, you remove your mask and put it in the washing machine, but then touch your eye before rinsing your hands. There is always the background knowledge that a mistake can be fatal, shades of the people I am reading about who accidentally cut themselves on a syringe of Ebola-infected blood.
Automated phone call. After signing up for Medicare supplemental insurance, I got an automated phone call from the company, which asked me some questions about my health and well being, in order, the robot voice said, to better serve me. The call was squarely in the Uncanny Valley; the fact that the company cared enough to ask me to rate my loneliness, for example, but could not be bothered to have a human do it, hovers somehwere between astonishing and Ironic.
All roads lead to the pandemic. A classic of Theater 101 (a book all eggheaded theater people recommend to newbies) is called Backwards and Forwards. It takes the position that the ending of a play should be so clearly driven and required by the events preceding it, that the play would be equally satisfying, have the same Click, read backwards or forwards--never a sense of "I don't see how this led to that". I had the Epiphany that the pandemic is like the finale of a classical tragedy, driven inexorably by Late Capitalism, Sophistry, inequality, moral and financial bankruptcy, and the decline of Competence.
OK, now for the real topic. Last week, a local progressive group I follow, emailed me about a demonstration, in Bridgehampton, to protest the killing of George Floyd. For two weeks, I have had a sense of ever-heightened unreality, when I wouldn't have thought it was possible: We have nationwide protests....in the middle of a pandemic....in a Trump presidency. That ties in to another idea of mine, that our current history feels Unreal, that if a potsmoke-filled Writer's Room had come up with these plotlines in the last season of, say, The West Wing, we all would have felt that the show had Jumped the Shark. And I think also of Playwriting 101, the tired Truism all new Playwrights detest when uttered by the senior Officious Busybody in the group: "You need to raise the stakes". I had an insight long ago that it is frequently true that, The Kitschier the Story, the Higher the Stakes. A great play can turn on a glass unicorn breaking, but in Kitsch the fate of civilization always Hangs in the Balance.
The way the stakes have been raised in our daily lives, and continue to be, is almost unbearable. But a way of learning to live with it is to exercise some Agency. All of Coronavirus Time as I have lived it has been small and large exercises in Agency: how to wear a mask; how to make the seven or eight moves that get me to the gas pump, or the Dump, or running on Napeague Meadows, and Back Again; acting as pro bono attorney member of a winning team on a Huge federal case; and then, last week, attending a demonstration. There was also a great sense of contradiction: I am more fearful and conservative than anyone, have hardly been out of my house, wear a mask when riding or running as almost no one else does, have no desire to socialize with neighbors in their backyards, distanced and masked, when we could talk on the phone instead. I put on my radioactive green Legal Observers hat and went out to a demo where I naively expected twenty old people (as some prior demos organized by this group have been). There were about two thousand instead. Everyone was masked but six foot distancing was impossible. I did the unexpected, stayed, watched out for the protesters (the police behaved themselves), and felt fulfilled, even though I suspended all my own rules and caution for an hour. I love demonstrations; they are a cornerstone of my life, Meaning-bringers. I have stayed in my house until there was a reason Grand enough to come out. That was it. I am not retroactively frightened and I have no regrets.
June 20. I have at last met The Man With The Hoe. This 1899 poem by Edwin Markham so offended my Sad Father (whose idea of being an intellectual largely meant reading the Sunday Times book reviews, but not the actual books) that he would talk indignantly about Markham's elitism in daring to assume that there was another human so benighted that one could ask: "Who loosened and let down this brutal jaw?/ Whose was the hand that slanted back this brow?/ Whose breath blew out the light within this brain?"
As I related in another entry, I avoided the post office for the first two months of Coronavirus Time. Then I thought I had worked out a strategem, which I successfully followed for a month I think, but which spectacularly Failed this morning. Quadruple-masked (cloth mask with coffee filter in between two layers; Ninja mask over all) I arrive at the tiny Amagansett post office at 8 a.m., look in through the door, establish a clear line of sight to my mailbox. Gloved, with a plastic bag in one hand, I commit a sort of heist, getting in, opening the combination lock, sweeping all the mail into the bag, and getting out in under two minutes. On a good day, I don't encounter another human inside. I take the mail out to the car, look through it for yellow slips indicating I have a package. If I do, I go back inside at 8:30 sharp and am one of the first three people to get inside the inner sanctum (if not the first). The clerk inside is behind plexiglass. Three of us wait inside six feet apart, and the fourth, if there is one, is outside the inner door in the area with the mailboxes.
Today at 8 there was an old man planted two feet inside the front door, his mask around his neck instead of over his mouth. He was waiting for the inner office to open at 8:30. I asked him to step back and he answered, "I am not giving up my spot". I explained I was not trying to take his spot, I just needed him to move a few feet away so I could get to my box without passing too close. He refused. I walked away, took a breath, came back to the door, and asked, "Is your mask on?" He had at least done that. As I opened my lock--it took three tries, I was so upset--I began to shout at him, a rant which ended: "These are the little things we do for each other out of common humanity". His response: "You're a wild man. You ought to go home and get some rest".
I had two yellow slips. This was the day the clerk did not open at 8:30. I waited on the lawn for an hour, standing twenty feet away from everyone, coming up to the door to confirm the Man With Hoe was still right inside. Here is what else I observed: people who walked all the way up the narrow walkway before putting their mask on, sometimes with the door already open. People passing each other two feet away, stopping to hold the door, pulling their mask off as soon as they exited and walking close to masked older people entering. Nobody else spoke to the Man With The Hoe, and everyone had to pass him twice for an hour, on the way in and out. He himself Hoovered up all their coronavirus germs. The flow of people got noticeably more intense as nine approached. At nine I gave up and went home. My beautiful plan for getting my mail in Coronavirus Time had emphatically Failed, and I need to start at zero and make a new one.
I already had another serious problem which started yesterday, Friday. I came back from a run. I think I wrote recently about the rage I experienced when unmasked bicyclists pass me two feet away. I had solved that by expecting no courtesy or intelligence from anyone else, and taking full responsibility for all distancing. I am a slow learner, so it took more than two months in Coronavirus Time before I figured it out. I run or bike on the left side, facing oncoming traffic. When I see a runner or an approaching bicyclist, I cross over, because I know they won't. Just once, last week, I could only get to the yellow line because of a car on the other side. A Lycra Gangster shouted: "Wrong side!" I answered, "Because I'm looking out for people like you, who won't mask or distance", ya fuckin' moron. A runner (safely distanced on the other side) called out smiling yesterday: "You're really rockin' that!" (if I heard him correctly). Old man in Ninja mask, bobbing and weaving on a no gear bicycle!
Back in the house, the phone rang. A deal I had been negotiating pro bono, out of nostalgia and affection, for some old clients winding their business down, was possibly cratering after months of work. I got so focused I sweated on my Google Pixel--and killed it. First it jumped at ghost touches for an hour, and ignored my actual inputs. Then a darkness, reminiscent of the thing which eats the sky in A Wrinkle in Time, took several hours to spread across the screen. This is the second time I have been phoneless in Pandemic Time. Something annoying but easily solved in normal times--a trip to Verizon or a repair shop--involves Huge logistics now.
I had the phone in the car in a plastic baggie---I was planning to drive up to the Northwest and leave it in the repair guy's mailbox after I got my mail. I never picked up my packages, and then, since I had burned an hour and had no phone, I figured W. might be worried, so I drove home.
I keep thinking that the only journals that will matter are those of doctors, nurses, demonstrators, cops. But I know that's not true. Those are about death, emergency, adventure. My journal provides the details of what its like merely to live, to get by, in a pandemic. That's Huge too. Historians discovered that in the 20th century, when they started to write books about everyday peasant life, or following the correspondence of the well-to-do Paston family in the Middle Ages. Aries' Centuries of Childhood, which I hope to reread soon, is focused more on how people raised children, not only on how they buried them.
There is no shortage right now of death and misadventure. Last night, there was a rather stunning report about Trump's coup at Voice of America, a classic page from the Hitler-Putin-Duterte playbook. He has his own wholly-owned Fox News now, which his base will at least be able to tune to on the Internet, and on which I suppose he himself will have a nightly call in show. His first renewed campaign rally is today, tens of thousands of Lost Boys without masks, all of whom clicked their consent to a waiver not to hold him responsible if they get the virus (more Men With Hoes; that's likely where the guy in the post office was longing to be). I am starting to believe that perhaps after all he deliberately picked Tulsa, site of the 1921 Greenwood massacre of hundreds of middle class black people, on Juneteenth, the African American celebration of the day the news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached Galveston (six months after the Civil War was over). His tweet threatening violence against counterprotestors made me wonder if today will be Trump's Reichstag fire (another classic leaf from the playbook)--and if not today, what and when?
Tomorrow is ninety days from the first entry in this journal. I have excellent days and bad days. On the good ones, I mostly stay home, encounter no Men With Hoes, and feel I have found a Methodology. On a bad day, you can't escape the Hoe Men, and all plans fail. Today was a bad day.
June 26. The word of the day is "re-opening". All around us, quite rational people (or, more correctly, people I thought were) are going out with friends, back to stores, getting hair cuts, inviting relatives to their houses. W. is confused and tempted--she spends much more time worrying about the Joneses than I do, while I remember the parental Trite Trope, when your teenager says, "All the kids are doing it", and you reply, "Yes, and if all the kids were jumping off the roof..."
There is a fundamental divide between me and the rest of the world, apparently, as deep as a chasm in the Grand Canyon. Everyone else (in what I call a version of the Plan 9 Plea) is saying, "Can you prove its not safe?" I ask, "Can you prove it is?" I require evidence, about immunity, vaccines, and the reliability of testing--goals towards which we made almost no progress in three months. I may not go back into the world in 2020--or possibly ever. I am privileged beyond measure to be able to say that, and mean it.
The nation is on fire, burning up with Coronavirus, but the fire has burned out in New York (at least for now) and is flaring in Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, Florida and (strangely) blue California. Charts of American "progress" compared to any European country, Japan or China are quite frightening as (despite New York's "victory") they show an upward-rushing line. The Punch Line was a suggestion that the European Union might ban American tourists this summer.
One talking-head epidemiologist on MSNBC uttered a truth almost no one else has: it appears as if the leaders of many polities, ours included, have now decided that we have gone as far towards "crushing the curve" as is possible, without engendering a worldwide depression which will last decades (and we may already have), so we are now turning to "herd immunity", without publicly admitting it. What this has always meant, as I have already said in this Journal, is "sauve qui peut" and "Whoever dies, dies". It involves a complete abdication of agency, an admission of the Death of Competence. I decline to be a Sheep or to die for my country under these circumstances, especially because anyone who does, is actually complacently dying for Late Capitalism and Billionairism.
I have been up and down for months, as this Journal attests: I am frightened. I am calm. I am nervous. I am reflective. I am happy cooking. I am enraged by the Man With the Hoe. These days, I am at the meeting of two rivers. One: I have learned how to live in Coronavirus Time. The other: but there are people, like the Man With the Hoe and the Lycra Gangsters, who won't let me.
Every Luminous Word is vulnerable to repackaging as a Stink Word--think "liberal" and "secular humanist". An Almost-Essay Shimmers, "An Ology of 'Human"". For most of my life, "human" has been a Luminous Word, emanating compassion. Recently, I have been working with the Idea that Humanity is a Virus, destroying the planet and the other species on it--a Stink Word.
I am calm, yet at moments I feel I am having a nervous breakdown. For much of the Pandemic, I envisioned an American Narrative in which the President was evading responsibility, denying the Titanic had hit an iceberg, saying as captain it was not his responsibility to save anyone. But, earlier this week, he traveled to Phoenix, a city where the virus is raging and which is in terrible trouble, and, at an evangelical church, addressed six thousand enthusiastic unmasked people who sat pressed shoulder to shoulder for hours.
There is no way to make sense of that. I have spent thousands of hours now reading Greek, Roman, and medieval history and have found no example of a person in power going so many miles out of her way (invoke an increasingly common MSNBC Trope, the "unforced error", here) to wither and die. The closest I can come is emperors like Julian who launched unnecessary invasions, miscalculated their own forces, and were killed. Trump's rush to infection (his own and his base's) seems like a different phenomenon entirely, more analogous to the Ghost Shirt Society who believed that the bullets could not puncture them. But I have analyzed them as a pathology of the Weaker Speaker in murderous colonialism. How does the most powerful man in the world become a Ghost Shirt? This dovetails with the sense I have already expressed that in writing about the Trump Base, whom I have called "The Lost Boys", I only ever understand them 70% or so, never fully, though I would like to believe that "nothing human is alien to me".
Whether you wear a mask or not has become a weapon in a Culture War. Last week, while I waited on the post office lawn for an hour, I watched a man whom I am pretty sure I recognized as a local Republican kingpin (the one who called me a "Stalinist" when I quoted Dr. King at a meeting) strut into the building without a mask--only to be ejected, walk back to his truck, and put his mask on as he re-entered the door. He came out bearing packages he exceptionally received (the counter was not open yet, so I couldn't get mine) and then took the mask off to stand on the narrow pathway, talking with another unmasked man two feet away. I thought: you are trolling me by seeking your own death, really??? Please don't kill yourself, I will be devastated???
How do I live calmly and safely in an insane world? I first worried about that as a teenager in the Nixon years. I suppose I have gone a decade at a time in which the world made sense (the Obama years except of course during the height of the Mortgage Bubble 2008-2010). Other times it clearly seemed on the verge of ending again (9/11 and now). On the whole, I have spent more of my 65 years in a visibly schizophrenic polity than I have feeling reassured. The difference is that, at the worst, for example in the Nixon era, America seemed only (only?) murderous, while today it seems bizarrely suicidal. And Polyphonously so, as in: We now interrupt our death by Climate Change, to die by Coronavirus instead.
I invented a truism: In the land of the schizophrenic, the neurotic person rules. I hope to expand on this in another entry, but in Coronavirus Time, my agoraphobia, which began in 1978 when I was held at gunpoint in a Paris post office, and which has now become absolute, seems like an Evolutionary Stable Strategy.