Plague Diary: August 6, 2020

Plague Diaries

Yesterday I did the most irresponsible thing possible in the middle of a pandemic. To wit: I packed myself, a bag of books, and a bunch of booze into a car, driven by my oldest best friend on her birthday, so I could ride with her up the eastern seaboard through declining Covid numbers to Brooklyn, where I would spend a leisurely five days with my other best friend, while first best friend drove on for a leisurely five days with her oldest friends at a house in Vermont. We’d all had fresh negative Covid tests (swabs and antibodies). We’d all be quarantining. We were all aware of New York State’s mandatory fourteen day quarantine for travelers from any state in the red zone (North Carolina, plus thirty-four of the fifty states + Puerto Rico). We were planning to be careful, but we were also planning not to really tell anyone. I mean, technically, we were all planning to kind of, sort of, definitely break the law .

“There’s a pandemic. There’s illness. There’s an actual hurricane. You worry about the ethics. You worry about being embarrassed at getting busted for a borderline unenforceable regulation no one is actually getting busted for. I mean, it’s not like there are check points. Of all the things to worry about,” said one of the few people I told about the plan, when I made the plan.

In fact, I was worried about the other things–literally all the other things—too but “What keeps me awake at night is the idea that I might be being a bad, selfish person and a worse citizen? Do you think I’m a bad, selfish person?”

The person I was talking to didn’t. “Sometimes, Alison, I worry you might be conscientious to a fault.” But that person was also mostly worried about the fact that I might encounter sharks on the trip. “There have been so many shark attacks in New York,” she said. “It’s extremely upsetting.”

Sharks in Brooklyn? I goggled. It sounded to me like some kind of guerilla marketing for some misbegotten, plague-ridden “West Side Story” revival, but what did I know. I was a bad, selfish person and a worse citizen.

I might have backed out of the trip early on, but I love my friends and I’m desperate for anything approaching “Reasons to Keep Going” in a time when going on in the world promises, at best, an increasingly dim, and possibly non-existent flicker of light at the end of a very long, very dim, very painful and tedious tunnel, which may last for months or years or forever. I had one trip planned with one of those friends. It was to the beach, and the promise of sitting under an umbrella, sun drunk and salt slick, hearing the waves and feeling warm sand beneath my toes, even if only for a precious few days, was enough to make this whole terrible, no-good, very bad season feel survivable.

When it fell through (resort closed, staff members having literally died of Covid), the irresponsible idea arose as kind of a last minute “Hey, what if we,” a couple of stiff Negronis into a Zoom cocktail hour. We discussed with family and significant others. We weighed risks. We put plans in place. I got heat exhaustion sitting in a high school parking lot trying to get a Covid Test with 500 of my neighbors. I worried. But it was something. A break in the monotony. A different view out different window. One night of the three of us reconvened with homemade cupcakes and gold balloons, watching old videos from college with small batch gin that tastes like Maine, and the physical closeness of two of the handful of non-blood related people that are closer to me than anyone in the world. Just that night. I could probably cross the desert with a broken leg and only salt water to drink for just one of those nights right now.

Of course we knew it might not happen. We prepared to be disappointed and heartbroken because if 2020 is anything, it is Disappointment and Heartbreak made manifest in gargantuan world-crushing, all-human-life obliterating size. My grandmother is dying. My job is complicated. I have a raft of chronic, if not particularly serious, medical issues. We all have families. We all have obligations. We all have natural disasters and financial woes. We all have an equally good chance of getting Covid. We all have an equally good chance of giving it to someone else. Any one of us could change our minds “If this doesn’t happen, we have to accept that and be cool.” Up until the moment, I physically got in the car and felt my friend pull out of my driveway, I could not 100% guarantee that we were going. “Anything could happen,” I said, fearfully, hopefully, ambivalently. “Anything,” I said, as we bought gas, and I started a 15-hour playlist, built around nostalgia, probably misplaced optimism, and dumb pop songs about facing the worst things in the world and just deciding to live it the fuck up.

North of Richmond, somewhere between Fredericksburg and Quantico, we pulled into a rest area so we could switch shifts at driving. I took over and turned up the jams and slid out onto the highway like I wasn’t even Part of the Problem. I think we made it two miles before my friend sighed from the passenger seat and announced that she’d gotten a news alert from one of her friends in Vermont. “They’re checkpointing bridges and tunnels into the five boroughs,” she said. “They’re randomly stopping cars.”

We pulled over two stops down. Friend got out to smoke a cigarette in a traffic island and I frantically tried to call my other friend in New York. Cell service was bad. Towers had been knocked down by the hurricane. We drove another few miles down the road and stopped at another rest area. I called and called and called some more.

“This was exactly what I was afraid would happen,” I said. Because, like, every single other thing I’ve been afraid of since the beginning of this pandemic. It happened. It came to pass. I was right. It sucks to be right.

After a little more than an hour my call went through and my friend in New York thought we’d be okay, but she could tell I was stressed, and she sounded resigned. And it broke my heart. Because she knew I was going to make the safe, the boring, the responsible choice, and by making the safe, boring, and responsible choice, I was going to disappoint her. I was going to fail her. And I loved her for knowing me well enough to know then, and hated myself for not being a different kind of person.

Yesterday, I did the most responsible thing possible in the middle of a pandemic, when I told my best friend, with finality, that I was not going to come spend the weekend with her in Brooklyn. She took it well. She told me it wasn’t my fault, but I’ve never felt like anything was more my fault in my life. “This is why I hate making decisions,” I said. “I always end up making the saddest one.”

I tried to convince my friend in the passenger seat to take me to a car rental joint so I could drive back and she could drive on to Vermont without me. She played though a bunch of different scenarios, but ultimately decided she didn’t want to drive alone, and so she sacrificed her own trip as we faced driving the whole way back.

“Think of it like this,” I said. “Someday we’ll tell our grandchildren we drove 500 miles round trip in one day, in the middle of historic plague and possibly the end of everything a day to eat an Impossible Whopper in a hot car in the parking lot of a Nordstrom Rack in Dale City, Virginia.”

She laughed about that for a while. Laughed hard. I did too. Even though it wasn’t that funny. Just gut-bustingly tragic and absurd. Just so goddamn 2020.

I needed some kind of closure so I googled Chesapeake Bay and drove us to a pretty little state park about four miles away. We paid too much to park the car and walked under the branches of shade trees at the water’s edge, watching children splash in the shadows and old fisherman cast out into the distance from the end of a rickety old fishing pier.

We didn’t talk much, because talking hurt and there was nothing good to say. I looked out over the water and said something dumb but true about how the vast majority of my ancestors came to America via the Chesapeake Bay and spent their early years as colonists alongside its wetlands and tributaries before heading the western end of Virginia, where they mostly still reside. I thought about what they expected when they came and whether they thought it was worth it and whether they gave a thought to what miserable crapsack scene the New World would turn out to be the day their depressed, bored, increasingly hopeless eighth-great granddaughter aborted mission halfway through an ill-advised, quarantine-flouting trip to New Amsterdam to see her best friend.

“If the shoe had been on the other foot, she would have done it for me,” I said, to my oldest best friend, on the way back to the car. “She has done it for me.”

“You made the right decision,” my friend said. “You can’t think about that right now.”

But I did think about it. I thought about it all the way home through the golden glow of a summer twilight back through southern Virginia and into the Piedmont. I thought about it through multiple texts from the few people I had told, telling me that I had made the right decision. I had made the moral decision. The ethical decision. The smart decision. All I could do was think about my friend, alone in her apartment, and all the new things we weren’t going to do or say we did, added to the list of missed opportunities and lost chances and crushed dreams that is the world we live in, now indefinitely, without seeming promise of improvement, no matter what we do.

I made the right decision.

I cried all the way home. I cried through a Zoom call with the friend in New York, seeing her apartment cleaned and decorated, strewn with gold balloons for the night we weren’t going to have. I cried most of this morning. I’ve cried mostly since March. I am so tired of crying.

I realize that half of you have written me off for even thinking about doing this. I realize that you probably (rightly) believe I got what I deserved. But you can feel confident that I recognized the error of my ways and thus saved you the trouble from notifying Cuomo that I am a possibly murderous scofflaw entering Clinton Hill from the Red Zone.

I want you to know that I know made the right decision, so you don’t have to tell me. But it doesn’t feel like the right decision. It feels like regret and grief and one more totally necessary, but unsolicited adjustment into a New Normal that no one wants to be forced to live in.

It feels like nothing left to look forward to.

It feels like 2020.

Picture today is of the Chesapeake Bay, taken 249 miles and a little more than 24 hours ago.

As of this writing, 12,336,390 people have recovered from Covid-19.

Plague Diary: August 3, 2020

Personal History / Plague Diaries

Once upon a time, back when there were bars and we still went to them, back when I was still young enough that having intense conversations in bars at midnight+ was sort of my jam, back when the bars were still smoky, back when we were wearing boot cut jeans and The Strokes were a new thing and we were pretty sure that the combination of George W. Bush and 9/11 was the absolute worst thing that could ever happen to the United States, you know, back when the bar in question was still called Henry’s, I sat at a table on a winter night and tried to provide framework so two of my best friends could start a conversation and (hopefully) become friends.

“You’re both from picturesque New England. You’ve both relocated to the South. You’re both from Italian families. You’re both avid readers. You like similar bands.” I listed off a few of each and smiled expectantly as my friends just stared stonily back at me. I think I’d made it to, “You both like pizza,” when the older of the two friends sort of held a hand up and stopped me.

“Do you always draw all these boxes around people?”

I think I probably ruffled at that. I might have even looked offended. Because they weren’t boxes. Never boxes. “They’re webs.”

I liked webs. I always had. I liked the little electric charge I’d find when I’d follow one name into the labyrinth and come out the other side at another, unexpected one. So I kept doing it, getting myself a little most lost every time. After a while, I stopped helping whatever hypothetical Theseus find the minotaur at the center (or even the exit on the other side) , and got sort of obsessed with the web itself, the bonds that held things together, the paths that diverged and branched off and circled back around and the dead ends (but they’re almost never really dead ends).

Because it was the connections themselves that were the most interesting part. Not just the boring DNA stuff, but the likes and dislikes, the neighborhoods and communities that bring people together. This is useful for dinner parties. As a southerner bred on Edith Hamilton’s Mythology and Emily Post, I’m aware that the first obligation is being hospitable and the second is suss out what your guests would like without them having to tell you (or at least tell you more than once) about their dietary restrictions and triggers and hot button political issues. I’ve devoted a whole wing of the string house memory palace to remember who likes jam bands and who hates banjos and who is most likely to get their feelings hurt because people make fun of their favorite band and who is most likely to make the fun. Who hates superheroes. Who loves Disney. Who has a problem with cilantro, with spice, with mayonnaise, with gluten. Who likes sports. Who likes God. Who will be too ashamed to ask to spend the night in the guest bedroom if she’s overserved. Who will be too polite to mention that they’re cold over the vent. Who will demand the moon. Who is allergic to your cat. Who will bring their dog. Who will bring their kid. Who doesn’t really like dogs and/or kids. Who will probably end up crying in a back bedroom and, even though you didn’t do anything, you’ll feel awful about it, because whatever was said, was said at your house. “And if I’d just remembered, if I’d just anticipated, maybe I could have hit it off at the pass.”

That strand leads to the worry web, by the way. And while I haven’t been able to put my hostess brain to work for about 145 days, the anxiety wing of the string house memory palace has been jumping like a joint in a Destiny’s Child song and I’m pretty much stuck there all the time. All those awesome webs that used to tie together friends and foes and famous people and historical anecdotes? Abandoned to worry. I worry about the big stuff—the world, the economy, the government, the pandemic, the structural racism, the people protesting, the hurricanes, the natural distasters. I worry the way the big stuff affects me—will I lose my job? My house? My family? My friends? My liberty to do or say what I want? My ability to continue in some semblance of a normal life? Am I doing enough? But I don’t mind saying where I mostly get trapped is on the personal, the material, the immediately physical, the profoundly selfish? This phone call from a family member? Will it be bad news? This decision I make? Will I hurt people? Will I regret making it? Will I regret not making it? Will the hurricane blow all of my new porch furniture into the pond? Should I open every single email alerting me to changes in my credit rating (they never say positive or negative until you log in)? These aches and pains I feel? What horrors to do they presage? Is it Covid? Is it creeping middle age? Is it one of the dozens of things I worried about before Covid after last fall left me with a profound and seemingly unshakable case of medical PTSD after being repeatedly told there was nothing wrong with me until it plainly obvious there was something wrong and then I was misdiagnosed and infected with something worse in the hospital?

Science and medicine have always been foundations for me. I mostly trust doctors. I like smart people. I have no patience for woo woo and conspiracy and yet, and yet . . . I worry about ending up back there again. I worry that someone will not believe me when I say it hurts. Or I worry they’ll see something that’s not there and my life will once again be altered permanently for the negative.. And I’m mad about it and bitter and scared, because even when it wasn’t a pandemic, I felt like and inconvenience and an afterthought. And now? I worry I wouldn’t be essential enough to help. Then I worry that someone would try to help and get sick themselves. I worry that I would end up back at the hospital and they would take piece after piece until I would be nothing left but a brain in a box full of exploded webs, unable to connect to anything at all. I worry until I make everything worse. And I worry I’m making everything worse. I worry that I’m slowly, steadily losing my sense of humor. I worry that I’ve lost my mind.

“You need to stop worrying about the things you can’t control,” a best friend tells me. “Don’t worry about them until you have to.”

But how do you do that and how do you know? I feel like we’ve been staring at the gathering storm now for so long that I don’t remember what it’s like to see a blue sky. The thunderheads don’t always bring the cyclone, but the bad storms come just often enough that my inner pessimist know-it-all just swaggers around all the time like ,”See? I told you so.”

My webs are no longer fun or pretty or intricate. They’re gross and unsanitary and probably full of dust bunnies. I need to clean out the whole space, strip it down to the studs and start fresh with a new spool of thread that can stretch out to a life beyond Covid, beyond Trump and beyond all this ceaseless worry. That’s really hard to do, by the way, and I’m quite sure I don’t have all the right tools yet.

But at risk of torturing several mixed metaphors to death, let me say that I’m trying to figure it out because there is still part of me that hopes that all the things I worry about maybe won’t come true, maybe not right now, maybe not the way I imagine, and that maybe I’ll look back and think, “That thing I was so worried about. It ended up being not a big deal at all. Just a cobweb in the corner. Just a strand of silk stuck to a jacket collar. Nothing worth writing home about.”

Sometimes I even believe it too.

Picture today is of a Louise Bourgeois spider in at the end of a labyrinth, so to speak, at Dia: Beacon about exactly two years ago today.

As of this writing, 11,672, 623 people have recovered from Covid-19.

Not Quite a Plague Diary: August 2, 2020

Books / Lists / Plague Diaries

Good morning friends. Over the last few days, several people have asked what I was reading to get through these weird times. And my honest answer is too many books. In general, I read 2-3 books at a time, which is not recommended, but 100% how my brain is wired unless I’m on vacation. I haven’t necessarily been reading for escape (note that I finished The Power Broker last weekend, which mostly just made me terrified and furious). But reading books keeps me from doing what the NYT calls “doom scrolling,” which is to say, just reading an endless catalog of bad news as updated over and over throughout the day. So I just finished Patti Smith’s Year of the Monkey (dreamy, and on the nightstand for months) and started both Anna Burns’ Little Constructions and John Rechy’s City of Night (which I’ve somehow managed not to read yet) over the last 24.

Here’s the current nightstand, subject to change/addition, but in rough syllabus order:

Sweet Days of Discipline—Fleur Jaeggy

The Bluest Eye—Toni Morrison*

Death In her Hands—Ottessa Moshfegh

Vernon Subutex #1—Virginie Despentes

Kristen Lavransdatter—Sigrid Undset

Among Strange Victims—Daniel SaldanaParis

Stamped From the Beginning-Ibram X. Kendi

The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas—Machado De Assis

Honeymoon—Patrick Modiano

I Hotel—Karen Tei Yamashita

Walking With The Wind—John Lewis

Insurrecto—Gina Apostol

Giovanni’s Room—James Baldwin*

Fraud—Anita Bruckner

Three Women—Lisa Taddeo

The Frolic of the Beasts—Yukio Mishima

The House of Government—Yuri Slezkine

Dear Life—Alice Munro

A Paradise Built in Hell—Rebecca Solnit

The Summer Before the Dark—Doris Lessing*Planned re-reads

New Books Coming Out that May Bump Titles:

Summer- Ali Smith

The Last Great Road Bum-Hector Tobar

The Bass Rock–Evie Wyld

Red Pill–Hari Kunzru

Caste: Origins of Our Discontents–Isabel Wilkerson

Sisters–Daisy Johnson

Jack–Marilynne Robinson

Luster–Raven Leilani

The Searcher–Tana French (I’m a sucker for these. They’re like candy)

So there’s your answer. Absolutely up to discuss any of these as I get to them. No guarantees on when, exactly. Oh, and if you need something that is actually wonderful and will not make you want to burrow down into a pit of despair, let me once again recommend the absolutely stellar, hilarious and moving “Deacon King Kong” by James McBride, which is currently vying for the top slot on my “Favorite Book of the Year” list. And remember: you can always enjoy a beach read even if the beaches are evacuated because of hurricane and you’re terrified of being around that many people because you might die of plague. Just don’t drop your book in the baby poolHappy Sunday. Picture is of said baby pool. As of this writing, 11, 406, 767 people have recovered from Covid-19.

Plague Diary: July 28, 2020

COVID / Plague Diaries

Some people are extremely good at being grown-ups. They save money. They know how to fix things. They know what all the buttons do on their appliances. They can grow things and raise things and build things. They can iron. They can operate Saran Wrap without wasting a whole roll or nearly amputating a finger. At sign of a crisis, they seem to know exactly what to do.

I am not one of those people. In fact, as I enter the “is this Covid or peri-menopause” era of my life, I am forced to accept that I am not just incompetent, but perhaps pathologically bad at, what the kids calls “adulting.” Sure, I can fake it. I’ve been playing dress up since I was five. Many of my best childhood friends were old ladies. My youthful theatre career mostly consisted of me playing wacky middle-aged/elderly women with funny accents, because I was never cute enough to make a credible lead. As a result, I can do “wistful flashback” or lament a misspent youth or prattle on endlessly about the aches and pains of advancing age with the best of them. I can arrange flowers and put cheese out for a cocktail party. I even live in a place that looks like where a grown-up might live.

But I’d put my relative emotional/life skills at approximately age seventeen. Though honestly I think I was more enterprising (and certainly had more bravado) at age seventeen. Have I regressed then? Maybe. Let’s say sixteen, then, sixteen going on seventeen.

Last Wednesday I went to get a Covid test because they were available for one day for asymptomatic people, and I am both a good citizen and a guilt-plagued (sorry) hypochondriac. Drive up testing was to occur in the parking lot of a local high school. I signed up online and sat through a virtual visit with a distracted looking PA. I arrived at the testing site about fifteen minutes before start in what was already a mass of traffic. About forty-five minutes in, I realized I had just less than a quarter of a tank of gas and was stuck in a the center of three endless lines of cars on a sunny July day with 107F heat index and air conditioner at full tilt. About five minutes later my gaslight flickered, and I determined to open the windows, mask up and sit inside without air for as long as possible to preserve what I had left, because I could see no way for anyone to get to me.

An hour and a half later, I started to feel dizzy so I flirted with giving up the ghost for a few moments before I flagged down a census volunteer who was distributing Census-branded swag bags for the several hundred cars lined up for an interminable test. She in turn flagged down a Health Department worker who found a fireman who found a cop who went somewhere to find a gas can. Another hour later, twelve cars from nasal swab, my car shuddered off and a fireman showed up to pour gas into my tank, just as the cars behind me started agitate for me to move. I got swabbed. I went home. I ate a takeout burrito, drank a beer and some water and went to bed.

Overnight, I started to feel terrible, vacillating between drenching sweats and wracking chills. I woke up exhausted, with a pounding headache, fatigue and dizziness. I called my mother because I am a child, and sniffled out “I’m dying of Covid or maybe I have cancer.” She encouraged me to call the doctor, which I did and learned that my GP had basically disappeared.

“He’s not here anymore,” they told me.

“Where did he go?” I asked.

“He’s still around, but you can’t see him,” they said.

“But is he there or not?” I asked.

“He is here sometimes, but you can’t see him or talk to him. You’ll have to see a resident, but you also need to find a new doctor.”

This was a stunning revelation. How do I find a new doctor? I wondered. How do I find a new doctor during a pandemic? Is that even a thing I can do?

I told the resident, who looked and sounded like an actual child, but seemed more confident in his adult style pronouncements than I ever have, about all of my symptoms. He mulled them over and said it sounded like I was on the mend.

I said, “I just told you that I had like seventeen things wrong with me.”

And he said, “And you’re feeling better” as if he could make it so.

At five, weeping about how ill-prepared I was to die on a ventilator, I went downstairs to try and settle my stomach with canned chicken soup, which I ate and promptly felt almost entirely cured better. Later, when I told my ex-roommate, she was like, “Dude, you obviously had heat exhaustion. You needed salt.”

And I was like, Oh. Right. Because that is a thing that I should have obviously known. Adults know about heat exhaustion. Just like they know about filling their tank up with gas and finding doctors in a hurry.

My friends are sending children to college and renovating homes themselves and I’m still wondering if anyone will make me a mixtape and invite me to sit with the cool people at lunch. I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. Or I do, rather, I do know what I want to do (write), but I’m still naïve enough to believe that someone might pay me to do that, even though I have no idea how to go about asking anyone. I own a house that I often feel incapable of managing. Things break. Shit happens. I stare at it in mute horror and if I can’t Google an answer I find myself mired like, How in the world do I fix this?

“You have to hire someone,” says whatever long-suffering friend/family member receives my flustered call.

And I’m like “Who? How? Won’t I be bothering them? Don’t they have more important things to do?”

Then there’s a long sigh, sometimes accompanied by “For real, though, how have you survived this long?”

It’s a good question. Dint of luck? The kindness of strangers? White Privilege? I’m aware that mine is a shaky foundation on which to build a real life. I’m some coming up on seven months of being a homeowner and the house still feels like I’m pulling one over. Like, at some point somebody will figure out that I don’t belong here and I’ll shuffle back off to a rental where half the windows won’t open and none of the doors close all the way. Better make the most of it while I can, right?

In college, my dad once opined that I was probably fated to end up living under an overpass. He was half-joking when he said it, in that dry, David Letterman-ish sort of way of his. It’s haunted me ever since, though. That fateful paternal pronouncement. The specificity of it: not just a bridge—a bridge is kind of folksy —but an overpass. My rational brain knows that while there are many things we cannot control, fate is mostly bullshit, and you can try to operate in the world like free will exists, pay your bills on time and and make the sort adult choices that will, at least, keep the overpass at bay for as long as possible.

Those choices are the ones I think I’m the worst at. I don’t follow up on opportunity. I don’t learn new skills. I haven’t spent quarantine doing productive things– baking bread, making blankets and sweaters, planting and harvesting vegetables, or figuring out how to deal with the rotting railroad ties that are in danger of disintegrating and sending my back yard sliding into the pond. I’ve ordered a lot of takeout. I’ve survived off a lot of meals that could be generously described as hors d’oeurves. I’ve worn formal wear to water the entirely decorative potted plants on the deck I spent way too much money decorating. I’ve spilled a bunch of (virtual) ink on just how ill-prepared I am to handle any crisis I can’t read, write and/or entertain my way out of. Everything is unsettled just now, unsettled in a massive, bewildering way, which I can feel rumbling through the floorboards of my metaphorical shaky foundations. And I wonder if I possess even half any of the necessary tools to hold it together. Even I make it through this relatively unscathed, how long until we go careening toward the next iceberg? Is there any guarantee that I’ll be any better at this being a grown-up shit by then?

I did stock up on Gatorade for the next time I get heat exhaustion, though. I made sure to fill up the tank at the gas station. I called someone to haul away the dead tree in the yard and fix my broken stove. And I got my Covid results back today: negative. Which maybe means I’m not dying yet. Which maybe means I have a little more time to try and figure out how to grow up.

Picture today is me at actual sixteen going on seventeen, but don’t get any ideas, Rolf. When fellas I meet tell me I’m sweet, I tend to believe they are trying to con me.

As of this writing, 10,429,405 people have recovered from Covid-19.

Plague Diary: 7/21/20

Plague Diaries

I don’t go in for patriotism. The flags, the cannons, the sentences that combine “proud” and “American?” I don’t give a toss for Betsy Ross. I think the 4th of July is a real downer of a holiday. Look for me at a cookout and find me complaining about fireworks, rolling my eyes at the national anthem, complaining that the Pledge of Allegiance feels kind of fascist, and trying to explain to a bunch of hot-dog stuffed, historically inept, gunpowder junkies that the so-called American Revolution wasn’t actually all that revolutionary. Blame it on the misfortune of being born in a bicentennial year and forced to grow up surrounded by its already-dated kitsch in the 80s. Blame it on coming from people who have been in this country so long, no one can remember why we came or what we hoped to find there (best theory: “Dude, you can totally get rich planting tobacco in the New World! And Jim says it rains less in Virginia, so BONUS!”). Blame it on a childhood spent believing (inaccurately) that my alienation and inability to fit in were almost entirely the result of being born on the wrong continent.

I believed I would grow up to be an expat so deeply that, at eleven, I used to get emotional considering my own incipient homesickness, as I would invariably spend, say, Thanksgiving sipping coffee at a crowded Parisian café, feeling a particular trans-Atlantic ennui, as I considered the turkey I was missing, as I signaled the waiter for fresh crusty bread, perhaps a selection of fine cheeses, and perhaps, une bouteille de vin rouge, s’il vous plaît.

Obviously, none of this came to pass. More than three decades later, I’ve made it exactly 221 miles east from the hometown where I once imagined my seemingly inevitable lovely, moody, continental self-exile. And though the locals jokingly refer to this place as Paris of the Piedmont, no one would mistake it for anything other than it is: a friendly, southern, small town in the United States.

I’m not exactly disappointed about it. In fact, when on a good day, I might even tell you that I love it here when I’m sure no one else is listening. And though I still may personally think the United States is the national equivalent of a spoiled, stubborn, delayed adolescent long since aged out of it’s cute, precocious phase and settled into its messy, arrogant, entitled young adult asshole phase, it is MY messy, arrogant, entitled young adult asshole of a country. I’m inexorably bound to it by birth, character and, God forgive us all, ancestry. I am an enormous fan of much of the art and food and culture (even with all the implied complications and contradictions) a truly shocking number of its people and some notion of its baseline philosophy (even when it’s kinda bankrupt). Or as I literally wrote in an email circa 2017: “Our nation is a infuriating, embarrassing, horrifying place, currently (and frequently) hijacked by the zealots, bigots, psychopaths and brazen opportunists, but on the other hand, the First Amendment. On the other hand, Beyonce.”

Of course saying something like that belies a fundamental truth. To wit: that being a famously contrarian, pretentious, pinko sympathizing, “I’m-blowing-this-star-spangled-popcicle-stand” wannabe expat cynic ironically demands some degree of faith that the US is not a failed state, but a place that will improve and survive and (even if slowly and begrudgingly) figure its shit out so it can continue steamrolling, mostly unscathed, through the 21st century, high on optimism, Big Ideas, and a nearly complete lack of self-awareness.

These days, however, I’m menaced by the thought that it is falling apart, that it maybe all the things I naively thought couldn’t fail will, and no one will stop it without the kind of reckoning I’m not sure any of us, including/especially the true-blue flag-wavers can truly imagine. Everyone seems to have a lot of big ideas—we love Big Ideas—but no one seems to be doing anything. It’s like we’re all waiting for someone else to fix it. Who? No one seems to know, but everyone seems kinda confident that it will happen as days go on and nothing happens, except that more Americans get sick and more people refused to take responsibility for the over hundred thousand dead and the millions unemployed and the twenty million or so who will lose their unemployment benefits this week alone in a nation that is still mostly shut down for all but the most essential or reckless, and we’re all increasingly stressed, isolated, scared, hopeless, and depressed.

It’s enough to make anyone wave the white flag, pack a suitcase and Irish goodbye before the neighbors even notice you’re gone. But that’s the other thing, right? We can’t go anywhere now. As of last week, only fourteen other countries (mostly in the Caribbean, but for now anyway–with a 14-day-quarantine–our tragically Brexited former colonial overlords) would allow Americans to enter, our freedom to be loud and obnoxious globally having been briskly curtailed when we failed to grow up, act like an adult, for like, five minutes, and take responsibility in the face of (I hate this word too now, so forgive me) unprecedented crisis.

Being shut out of other countries was a defensive move made by the governments of the other couple hundred other nations of the world who seem more concerned about keeping its citizens alive than we do right now. But it a feels (a little) like getting authoritatively cut off by the parents after that last illicit kegger ended with the house burning down. It feels like we’re on our own for real, with only ourselves to blame, and absolutely no way out unless we fix it.

I am, by nature, an intensely claustrophobic person, But I don’t mind spending the rest of my life in the US, here in the Paris of the Piedmont even, so long as I know we’re going somewhere, and or even more to the point, there’s something to go. I mean, I could bound myself in a nutshell and count myself the queen of infinite space so long as I could believe I might see the Mediterranean at twilight (or hell, enjoy a relaxing, easy, week at a Lowcountry beach one state away, without the constant worry that I might get sick and die or I might make someone else sick and they might die) again any time soon.

The United States is a country founded by people that abandoned the places they couldn’t change. We tend to throw stuff away when it breaks. We leave town when it gets boring. It’s maybe not in our DNA to stay put and rebuild from the ground up, which is maybe why people are still spending time and money trying to figure out if we could live on Mars instead of investing their time and money trying to clean up the mess we’ve made right here.

That’s the most American thing about me, you know. It is the reason why I spent my young life, dreaming myself Elsewhere, because I always had the hubris to believe that I could go anywhere, whenever I wanted, and I literally lacked the imagination to envision what it would take to make the place I felt trapped a place worth calling home.

I’m not actually ready to give up on the United States. I haven’t yet. I have some sense of civic responsibility. I have a that tiny, persistent flicker of FOMO and undiminished idealism, common to both entitled, hopelessly delayed adolescents and the nations they resemble. And that flicker has flared up brighter over the last months, even as circumstances have turned objectively darker. I don’t want to sink into such bitter disappointment and resignation that I quit, because I truly have nowhere else to go, and, for most of you reading this, neither do you.

So now what?

Picture today is of the People’s Parade, here in the Paris of the Piedmont, back in the salad days of 2013.

As of this writing, 8,991,175 people have recovered from Covid.

(I swear to God, I’ll lighten up on the next one of these. I used to be funny. Remember when I was funny?)

Plague Diary: July 14, 2020

Plague Diaries

So in light of absolutely nothing improving, absolutely nothing I can do, absolutely no one in charge and a vanishingly small chance of me being able to 100% avoid this thing, I’m just going to steer the old pirate ship toward whatever direction seems most pleasant or interesting right now, and stop worrying about the icebergs, hurricanes and unknown leviathans in the way.

There’s a line of thought right now about keeping safe and secure, locking down, minding your health and your finances and trying to be responsible. That line of thought loves to recite lengthy internal monologues at me at 4am about how bad I am at life skills and how I’ll probably end up bankrupt on a respirator from COVID because I’m financially imprudent and I’ve never managed to lose the 30-40 pounds the world has been on me to lose since I was roughly 10 years old, no matter how little I eat and how much I exercise.

There’s also a line of thought that basically suggests that none of that shit matters in the slightest when tomorrow is only going to be worse than today and by the way, the economy is tanking, you live in a joke of a country run by racists and blowhards and you and your loved ones may very die of Covid even if they follow all the protocols.

Want to guess where I’ve landed?

Am I eating brie for breakfast? Why not? Have I started cocktails at three on weekdays? Sure? How about new dresses, impractical shoes, records, books, flowers, plants, decorative items, art supplies, donations to things I like, gifts, donations to things I care about, takeout, booze, art? Bring it on. Can I afford it? Probably not. Who cares? No one else gives a toss about our hopeless tomorrow? Why should I? Am I gathering rosebuds? By the bucket load. Do I dare eat a goddamn peach? I just ate a bushel. Selfish? Sure. But give me a day and I will seize the shit out of it, because honestly, right now, that feels like the only thing I can do and maybe it’s the only thing worth doing at all.

Because the rest is not happening. The rest is unsafe. The rest feels like the most disappointing and protracted end of the world ever. I can’t even live it up the way I really want because 1) I don’t want to kill anyone by visiting places or doing things and 2) most of the places I’d like to visit are closed or certainly closed to me as an American right now anyway. I can’t have parties. I can’t do anything fantastically new and interesting with my hair. I can’t get massages or hugs or, god help me, any physical contact more satisfying and less family-friendly. I can’t even seem to get to a beach and stare at a large body of water and get high off salt water, waves and wind (because, among other things the place I was maybe going to try to visit closed today because of spikes in infection). Someone today asked how I was going with a long term creative project and I was like “Long-term? Future? What’s that? Have you tried out this new mojito recipe?I’m going to wear a ballgown over a bathing suit have it for lunch with peaches and salted caramel gelato then go spray myself off with a hose so the neighbors can have ‘Is the new girl next door totally losing her mind?’ as a topic at their own depressing, endless dinner table conversations”

It’s not just being stuck. It is being stuck in time with no movement, no help, no improvement, no one marshaling people to do anything to end it. So what? We putter along, hoping the distant shore will miraculously come closer, in an inflatable raft with an ever-expanding leak until we drown?

You do you, but I’m going rosebuds and peaches until (unless?) we’re swimming distance from land. At least if I go down, I’ll smell like flowers and remember what summer tastes like, even if everything else about this summer is, as my friend Sam would say, “a devastating suck.”

Photo today is of me gathering rosebuds (not technically, I know, but work with me here) at last Saturday’s Farmer’s Market.

As of this writing, 7,822,952 people have recovered from Covid.

Plague Diary: July 13, 2020

Plague Diaries

I live in a college town. I chose to live here in large part because of what having a college at the center of the local culture and economy affords me. The kids are the kids. They’ve always been kids—entitled, invincible, narcissistic, reckless, and also impassioned, creative, eager, earnest, energetic and hopeful. Kind of exactly like we were when we were their age.

I have a hard time getting more than annoyed at the kids. It’s true that they’re being careless and irresponsible in the face of Covid-19. They’re not behaving like the anxious, sober-minded, NYT reading middle-aged people freaking out about their (possibly?) impending, and by some late-night conjectures, apocalyptic arrival to town. And I suspect no degree of well-intentioned moral panic will force them to do so (in fact, It may do the opposite).

The kids are not the enemy. They’re just a much easier target than the politicians and business owners that enable, empower and exploit their recklessness in order to protect their bottom line, preserve their bullshit traditions, maintain power and profit off a bunch of teenagers (or just past). Kids you can teach. It’s literally why they come here. They will get older and (at least many of them)through age, loss, and the wisdom that comes with it, understand their mortality and literally start to feel all their myriad and undeniable vulnerabilities as the protective trappings of youth fail and fade. They’ll learn how dependent they’ve been on others and how dependent others have been on them. Maybe they’ll have enough imagination and empathy to get there sooner rather than later. Maybe it won’t take watching someone they love suffer and die. After all, things only get harder from here on out. Maybe they’ll find hope and joy and promise in this unrelentingly fucked up time and be able to enjoy the simple business of being young and new in the world without causing a bunch of people to die. You know, like we all did.

I can’t imagine being young now, in this world, at this moment.

Can you?

But the actual bad guys? The ones that are fine sacrificing kids and staff and the families of kids and staff? Those guys are not the kids. And those guys have no interest in hope or joy or learning or the future or the kids or the people that will die. They only care about their bottom line at any cost. Don’t get distracted by the parties and the pearl clutching. Remember who got us here. Remember who is doing everything they can to keep us here. Remember who is squandering every opportunity—and every day is a new opportunity—to keep people alive.Those guys are the enemy. Because those guys will never learn. They refuse to.

Picture today is a favorite spot on campus, a few weeks ago.

As of this writing, 7,624,536 people have recovered from Covid.

Plague Diary: July 8, 2020

Plague Diaries

Pandemic time is a thing, a psychological truism, a meme, a joke passed among friends. Remember March, all two-thousand years ago? Remember this morning, which feels like it happened last week? Remember January, when everybody was mostly just talking about the primary, and I freaking out about closing on a house, and thinking forward, as I always do, every year to summer—everything is better in the summer. Remember back then? A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away?

It feels forever ago, but it also feels like stasis. Like I paddled into an eddy on March 11 and I haven’t been able to work my way out since then. I can tell that time has passed because my hair is longer and I no longer have any polish on my toenails. I can tell that time has passed because when this started, the view of the pond from my office windows was mostly unobstructed, and now it’s a dense thicket of green. I can tell that time has passed because it’s been a minute or two since air conditioning became my nearly full-time natural habitat. But the typical measures by which I gauge time’s passing (I’ve never liked watches or clocks) tend to revolve around Where I’m Going and Where I’m Going is Nowhere. Or at least Nowhere particularly fast.

Back at the beginning of this thing, I spent most of the days just trying to power on so I could crawl into bed at night and mark another day off. This was depressing as hell for a person that doesn’t much like going to sleep. And the dreams were weird. The dreams are still weird. Mostly they’re about traveling—by train, by car, by plane. In my dreams, I go to the beach. I go to New York. I go to Europe. I go to Mexico. Last night, I went through rural Texas with a strange man I was evidently married to, the two of us playacting a documentary about a former cult leader turned musician (him) and the journalist telling his story (me). Then I ended up in Charleston, South Carolina in a rainstorm in a crowd of people and woke in a sweat when I realized I didn’t have a mask.

The popular opinion is that we’re supposed to live in the present and enjoy each moment as if it’s our last. But the former kind of sucks and the latter rates somewhere between “extremely bad idea” to “you are literally killing people.” I try to avoid the past, which is a challenge. Radical acceptance of the current situation and all. I like the past, and not only because I’m inclined toward both history and storytelling. I could wallow there forever, mourning the passing of some personal, mythical golden age that was actually pretty crappy only sparkles little in some cheap glitter hindsight. Maybe I’d be one of those people you feel sorry for because they can’t stop talking about how good it was when they were twenty -five (actually not my experience). Maybe I’d go full Preservation mode, take up petit-point or crewelwork, learn to make out the handwriting in old family letters. I don’t think there’s a danger of me going full-reactionary, but you never know. I could start prattling on about the Founding Fathers. I could join the D.A.R.

Hopefully Trump gets ousted in the election. That will help with the future. Hopefully a season of protest with lead to a season of transformative change. Hopefully I will get to travel to Europe again in my lifetime, or see live theater, or go to a concert, or kiss someone I might be falling in love with at the edge of a crowd on a noisy summer night, but be careful with even a whiff of hope because, like, 2020, am I right?

What day is it again? What month? Is it 5’oclock yet? Cool. I have gin and tomorrow is only seven hours away.

Picture today is of me, late afternoon on the 4th of July, standing an almost unpleasantly warm Haw River. (Mask in dress pocket, ps, because I was afraid I would drop it in the water)

As of this writing, 7,003,748 people have recovered from COVID-19

Plague Diary: June 30, 2020

Plague Diaries

What is the thing with masks?

I spent the weekend in my hometown, a place filthy with maskless tourists, observed, primarily, through the passenger window of my mother’s car, as we drove around gawking at the hordes of popped collars and fanny packs crowding the sidewalks and breweries in downtown Asheville. We tried to come up with excuses using ranging from “they look to be very young” to “I’m guessing they are very Republican.” But neither category comprised all the barefaced, just as neither category described me, a forty-four year old woman, riding in a car with her mother during the height of a season in which most sane people are virtually living in a fall-out shelter, rationing cans of beans.

During a pandemic, “going back home” is the kind of thing you do when you’re feeling chancy. I was not. I am not. I played my cards pretty close to the chest on the front end. I took precautions. I worried I was going to give my mother COVID. She worried she was going to give me COVID.We’ll probably worry about this for the next 2-4 weeks. As if we weren’t already.

Such is the calculus for the time we’re living. The risks we take. The risks we won’t. The vast, foggy gray zone separating the two. It’s pretty crowded for a no-man’s land, full of hypocrites and penitents, nihilists, optimists and the slightly intoxicated, “maybe just this once.” I’d wager we’ve all spent some time there over the last few months, even though we won’t, or maybe can’t, admit it publicly, for fear of the recrimination, which largely doesn’t stop us from doing it, but does maybe does keep us from being totally honest about it if we do. COVID has refashioned us all as high schoolers, stuck at home, doing homework with our families, trying to figure out whether we should sneak out later and walk down to the park to drink wine coolers and smoke cigarettes with or just straight up go to that party at Amanda’s house, and once there, should we have a beer? A cigarette? A joint? Should we go skinny dipping with that kid Sean from the soccer team? And if so, should we take a ride with him, even though we’re not on birth control and he’s had a couple beers and we might not get home before our parents noticed we were gone? I mean, nobody wants to get pregnant, and your parents will freak about the drinking, but Sean has these super long eyelashes and this way of looking at you like he can see your soul and he smells like delicious trouble and laundry detergent.

This is not to downplay the risk of the actual high schoolers and just past high schoolers hard partying right into the pandemic, if I’m reading the reports right. They’re a bunch of the people I saw over the weekend flouting guidelines in cute summer dresses, blithely Beer Ponging their way into the zombie apocalypse because they’re invincible and enabled by a bunch of olds who believe in FREEDOM and therefore won’t, like, enforce social distancing or shut down the damn bars already. I worry about the kids, because no one wants Ash or Emma to get COVID between here and grad school, but also because no one wants Ash of Emma to give COVID to anyone else. On this second point, I am particularly wary. I live in a college town, which has, so far been a polite bubble of relative safety and compliance. If the college opens—as currently planned– in a couple of months, I don’t know how long it can stay that way. (In the meantime, just to be on the safe side, where can I find a glitter HAZMAT suit in a women’s size 14? PLEASE ADVISE.)

Is that selfish? Sure. Just like it’s maybe selfish for me to want to round up the legions of maskless and let them quarantine together, so they don’t have to endanger us, and we don’t have to put up with their bullshit. Let them Pleasure Island their way into the indefinite future and the rest of us can keep doing what we’ve essentially been doing since March, waiting for any indication that it might one day be safe again to enter a non-essential business or sit outside at a café table with a friend or have a fleeting chance of experiencing something like joy that doesn’t risk a body count .

I suppose I should be more angry that everything we’ve done so far feels like it was done for nothing, but just about the only thing about losing your mind by going full Cassandra back in March is that you aren’t surprised when the brazenly optimistic best case scenario doesn’t play out the way people hoped.

Still, I’d personally rather not be hard locked down indefinitely—a condition that is going to look a lot more harrowing once we round toward winter and the weather outside turns frightful. And it seems to me that maybe some of that could be avoided if people would just do the simply things like, you know, wear masks and try to maintain a modicum of distance. And if the shame, guilt, fear of hurting someone else, and crippling fear of embarrassment doesn’t work(a perfect quartet for an already guilt-wracked, pathological apologizer such as myself) doesn’t work on them, maybe the re-emergent shutdowns will. After all, that’s really what they’re afraid of, isn’t it? Being locked down? So maybe the beatings will continue until morale improves. Maybe we stay locked up and lonely until 2022.

Or maybe you stop sulking and wear your fucking mask like a goddamn grown-up.

Picture today is from just up the mountain from Dad’s house, where I walked over the weekend, and a masked hippie popped out of a fern grove to ask if I had a light for his joint. (True).

As of this writing, 5,871,180 people have recovered from COVID-19.

Plague Diary, June 24, 2020

Plague Diaries

A couple of minutes ago my best friend, a New Yorker currently working from my deck, received a News Alert on her phone informing her that the state of New York had issued a quarantine order on anyone coming into New York (and New Jersey and Connecticut) from a handful of states with raging COVID numbers including my own (North Carolina), as well as Florida, Texas, Alabama, South Carolina, Utah, Washington, and Arkansas.

“They didn’t include California,” I said, which feels like an oversight, but I’m ornery and maybe not following the numbers as closely as I should. I didn’t say, this feels like another excuse to pile on the south, to justifiably mock the dumb rednecks who’d rather cook hot dogs in the flame of their burning surgical mask than, like, wear one.

Of course, New York state is not wrong to do this, especially given how many of those states issued quarantine orders for New Yorkers eight weeks ago. The south is self-evidently awash in disease and stupidity and misinformed, heavily armed a-holes who believe patronizing a Myrtle Beach Wet Willies maskless counts as some kind of patriotic act of political courage. Also teenagers and barely more than, vast quantities of teenagers who are filling bars and throwing parties and acting like COVID is another thing they can Ferris Bueller their way through without breaking a sweat. I want to tell you that as a nineteen year old, in the time of plague, I’d avoid crowded bars and beach parties and whatever half-illicit gathering is popping up just past the peripheral of the older and wiser and worried about getting sick. I can’t promise you that would have been the case. After all, I have been nineteen. I survived it, but barely.

It rankles though. It rankles a lot. It rankles so hard that I crawled off the chair and rolled around on the deck rug sniffling like a big fat baby because I want North Carolina to be better than that.

To be clear, this is not the first time I’ve been ashamed of/for my home state. In fact, it’s hard for me to recall a time in which I didn’t partially blush when I had to tell people where I was from. Sometimes they seem nice about it, but often times you get the exact same reaction you do when you’re forced to admit to smart strangers with advanced degrees that you have a questionable BA from a mediocre state university. Best case they flatter with a “well, that’s surprising! You seem so _______(synonym for clever)! And you don’t even have an accent!” Worst case, they look at you with pity and you can see them recalibrating their opinion of you and waiting to see if they can catch you fulfilling some stereotype.

It’s so exhausting I built a large portion of my youthful identity in the fertile ground of hating the south (in general) and North Carolina (in specific) because devising lengthy monologues to catalog all of the reasons why was easier than waiting for someone from California or Connecticut to tell me why I should. This was pretty easy. I wasn’t proud of my heritage; I was horrified by my history. I didn’t like bluegrass or, for most of my life, barbecue. I didn’t give enough of a shit about sports to even follow basketball. The bands were pretty good, but I mean, Jesse Helms. Remember him?

I thought I was pretty tough, but the whole deal was transparent as all hell. Hating the south is the privilege of anyone forced to grow up in it, but it’s also kind of like “hating” your Mom. Like, I’m allowed to talk whatever shit I want about her, but god help the non-sibling that attempts to follow suit. I may agree what with what they said. It may be objectively true. I may have even just said it myself. But when it came from someone else. Especially someone else from somewhere else, someone who didn’t have skin in the game?

I believe the phrase, in the local tongue, is something like “them’s fightin’ words.”

But look, it’s hard to fight back when the writing is on the wall. I’ve spent a whole lot of my life, since it’s looked like my life will indefinitely center around North Carolina, trying to drum up reasons for Why This State Is Different . Those reasons are not too hard to come up with. North Carolina is . . . kind of awesome? Even now? We don’t have some wingnut anti-science governor running the show (although we still have most of a wingnut anti-science legislative branch attempting to undermine every statement he makes). We have communities—plenty of them (including mine) passing mask ordinances and coming up with their own shutdown protocols and social distancing guidelines. You’re not here, so I’d probably have a hard time convincing you of this, but whatever Lake of the Ozarks style picture you have in your head to accompany whatever “Re-Opened Too Early South, Spiking Cases” headline looks nothing like my daily life or those of my friends, or, for that matter, anyone I know in this town or county.

I haven’t seen a maskless person in a store since March. I haven’t seen crowded bars overflowing with people. I know they’re there. I know the people I love in the communities I love are doing the very best they can and making all the sacrifices necessary to get through this safely. It pisses me off that we can’t seem to get this under control. It pisses me off that we have become an example of What Not To Do and Who Not To Be again and again and again. I hate living in a cautionary tale. I feel like I’ve been living in one my whole life, for decades before COVID, and that is just one more inflection point.

We need to do better. We must do better. And I can sit here all day and tell you I will, but ultimately nothing that I do can do a damn thing.

Picture today is of me fretting on the rug a couple of hours ago. As of this writing, 5,105,721 people have died from COVID-19.

Updated to reflect that our awesome governor just made masks a statewide requirement and paused reopening and 100% did the right thing.