Dangerous Lineage

Family History / Women

I come from a long line of dangerous, complicated women.

For generations back, they’ve defied expectation, edict, convention and commandment to go out into the world and be the women that they were, as opposed to the women they were supposed to be. They built businesses and communities. They took care. They took risks. They never lost sight of a world bigger than the one they were told to accept, and in so doing, they stitched at their own edges of history, weaving their own triumphs, small and large, personal and political, l into the greater fabric of their age.  They weren’t perfect, because catalysts rarely are. And they weren’t always easy, because the it takes a lot of loud talking, stubbornness, smarts and all the other things that can’t easy be captured in the soft focus, rosy lens of Women of the Past to get the job done.

Maybe it’s not manifestly better (despite my personal feelings), but it’s a certainly a harder path to be a dangerous, complicated woman. Even if you butter your arguments and honey your demeanor, even if you wrap your tiny revolutions in Perfect Lady, you’re probably going to frustrate a lot of people a lot of time. Complexity has not been expected–to say nothing of wanted– from the fairer sex at basically any point in history. It’s easier to swallow, maybe, if you’re conventionally pretty, if you are conventionally attired, if you, at least, play act at conventional gender roles, but no guarantees they’ll want to listen when the time comes for you to make demands and make your voice heard.

I lost a great, dangerous, complicated woman in my grandmother about two weeks ago. We mourned her loss in a manner specifically arrayed to highlight the pieces of her that were neither complicated nor dangerous, that did not address her angles and edges, or the contradictory bits of her legacy that did not fit neatly into a poetic epitaph. Because many of us, raised on the myriad possibilities and likely accompanying challenges of being dangerous and complicated women, struggled with the way we even talked about ourselves, as her daughters, granddaughters, as women navigating a world that would much prefer we leave it at surface level.

But look: you can buff the edges and apply the pancake however you like, it doesn’t change the actual past. I’m can no more claim to have been raised by women who knew their place and accepted defeat that I can having ever wanted it. I was a kid who imagined herself not a princess, but a woman leading an outlaw army set on changing the world. And the reason that was my story was because of the dangerous and complicated women that I loved and t admired, not just in spite  but because of their complexity. And those women who have made me the woman that I am.  Maybe not the girl you want, conventionally, but an  acolyte at the altar of Dangerous and Complicated, steadfast in the belief that all women deserve the chance to be just as dangerous and complicated as they need to be to live their best life, be their true self, and make the world a more just and equitable place for the likes of us, no matter what.

I claim no relation to Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She was, in her own way, the best kind of dangerous, complicated woman. She was six years younger and several light years to left of my Nana on the political divide, but they died two weeks apart. Like many women of my generation and political persuasion, I found Justice Ginsburg to be an icon. She was a solid beam of light, a fierce protector of rights, and an enabler of a better world for all of us, no matter how dangerous and complicated we were or not. It’s hard to talk about my grief at her passing without delving too deeply into 2020. The  future is fraught, each decision made feel weighted with by history. But it’s safe to say that I would have been deeply saddened at her passing, even if it hadn’t been accompanied by the panic at one more light going out in the dangerous and complicated of our currently reality.

I’m not sure what to do, or where to go. As an armchair catastrophist, I’ve mapped out the paths to a million different hells. I’m not psychic, though, and I’m not so resigned that I’m ready to surrender my birthright. I don’t plan to shut up. I don’t plan to learn my place. I don’t plan to accept a reality in which I cannot  exist in the world I live in  as the person I am with the rights given to me by the hard work and struggle of all the dangerous and complicated women and men that came before me and or I certainly don’t plan for you to either, no matter who you are or who you love or what you want or where you came from.  And I know we can do so much better. We can dream so much bigger. And to that next generation of dangerous and complicated women—of all human beings afforded their basic human and civil rights—know that I will do what I can to fight beside you and lift you up and raise my voice and see that you are heard as you continue to make this world a better place. I’m not perfect (see above), but at the very least I’m not a small person and I can be loud as fuck.  

And I’m pretty sure I’d be disappointing all the dangerous and complicated women I adore, if I weren’t, at the very least, trying.

Plague Diary: September 18, 2020

COVID / Plague Diaries

I don’t remember when it started. All I know I woke up one Thursday morning in July? August? and found a bunch of workmen in crossing guard vests pulling up the peonies in my front yard. I dashed out in a disproportionate, apocalyptic-level panic, , because the peonies (a surprise when I bought the house) were this next level swoon of pink and white botanical tutus plopped down into  the absolute dregs of spring 2020. I had vases of them all over the house which made me feel a little like a princess in Imperial Japan or maybe a Henry James heroine. It was maybe one of count-on-one-hand only good things to have come out of a season of Devastating Suckiness.

I tearfully gathered the uprooted plants and briefly potted them into plastic strawberry buckets and plastic containers and watered until I replanted in the yard the next morning. None survived the transplant, I’m terribly sorry to say. A few days later I got a notice from the HOA that Google Fiber had been responsible for the peony massacre and that I could potentially file a claim for replacement of my plants. Friends encouraged me to do so. “Google has plenty of money,” the said. “Tell them they’re rare.”

But while I’ll yell at pretty much anyone if you ask me to, I’m a shit advocate for myself—I have two modes with customer support reps, polite self-abnegation and blinding white hot “I hope you get warts and your dog stops liking you” rage, and yes, I know it’s a problem– and perhaps terminally afflicted with the kind of malaise that sets in when you’re like, “I have ____ energy and everything sucks. Should I save the tatters of my atrophied and crisis-bruised will for, like, smuggling my friends out of the country if Trump wins in November or like just motivating to get through next Wednesday without falling into despair.”

Suffice it to say, I didn’t act. I accepted the fact that replanting new plants in the same spot was maybe a bad idea (the peonies were in the easement, because it’s the only part of the front yard that gets consistent sun, and it’s also not the right moment to plant). And then a second crew of safety-vested men pulled up in beeping trucks and overcrowded golf carts to dig up the yard again.

This time it was AT&T because evidently Google Fiber had messed up their pre-laid fiber, or maybe that was a good cover story for AT&T to upgrade their own Fiber to better compete with Google. I don’t know and I don’t care. When I moved into the new house I made a deal with devil (Spectrum) at the crossroads under the full moon for a least a year of wireless because they threw in an Apple TV and swore I could back out of the contract in a year (this was inevitably a lie, which means at some point in the near future I’ll end up on some purgatorial customer support call which will end with me telling some hapless call center underling that I hope he gets scabies and his dog stops liking them and they will hear from my—nonexistant, fyi—lawyer, and then I will cry and break something and scare the cat, but fail to finagle myself out of the situation so they will overcharge me for the rest of my natural born life because I am a lazy doormat and bad at adulting and  the cycle just goes on and on and on until civilization collapses and I end up living in a mudhut in the fire and flood blighted, plague wracked post-apocalyptic wasteland, which could be twenty years out or could be, like, six months from now, seeing as how things are going).  So I watched the holes appear in the front yard with a sense of resignation and relief that I had nothing pretty left on the sunny margins for them to murder.

That was weeks (months?) ago. I can’t keep track. And I can’t keep track of how many different rounds of men in golf carts and beeping trucks have circled the yard since then and dug holes. As we speak, I came up from a walk in the woods about fifteen minutes ago to find, four trucks, six men and three new holes in the front yard. Maybe they’re Google fixing something that AT&T’s men broken when fixing the thing that Google broke when fixing the thing that AT&T broke when fixing the thing that Google broke when fixing something that never seemed to be broken. I don’t know. It feels like one of those depressing existentialist plays that I used to think were bracingly clever when I was nineteen, but now I feel like, “WE GET IT, JEAN-PAUL. JUST LET IT GO AND MAYBE GIVE SIMONE A BREAK WHILE YOU’RE AT IT GEEZ.” It feels like it will never end and I will spend some indefinite period of time listening to the beeping and watching grown men dig holes in my yard and contemplate them and then fill them and dig them again. It feels like I might be about to do some analogy thing where I compare the very localized version of some corporate wireless internet war playing out among in the formerly-peony filled, now scrubby patch of weeds by the gutter in front of my house to what is happening in the US or the world or WTFever. But don’t worry, I won’t. I simply do not have the energy.

But seriously, Google/AT&T, how many holes do you flipping need?  

Picture today is of my peonies in spring (R.I.P)

As of this writing, 22,245, 156 people have recovered from Covid-19, which goes to show how long it’s been since I last wrote one of these.

Gloria

Family History / Uncategorized / Women

They say, at about 6am this morning, Gloria Maxine Mitchell Altizer Moran passed away peacefully in her sleep. Gloria Maxine Mitchell Altizer Moran. That’s twelve syllables, at least three lives and five epic novels (maybe six, “Maxine” alone is worthy of a twofer). I always thought I’d name my daughter Gloria after if I’d ever gotten around to having a daughter. But I never called her Gloria, not to her face anyway. I always, only knew her as Nana.

Nana was born in Pocahontas, Virginia in 1926. She was the third child and eldest daughter of a one-time minor league baseball player turned coal miner improbably named Jarvey Mitchell and one of the world’s great unsung culinary geniuses, his wife, Gladys. After a mine accident in the early 1930s, they returned to the Mitchell family farm on an expanse of green bounded by the Blackwater river in the foothills of the Blue Ridge in Franklin County, Virginia to heal and grow tobacco. Nana was a smart, ambitious, imaginative kid (and evidently an A+ basketball player). She envisioned a world beyond the farm and a life full of possibility.

When she graduated high school, she quit Franklin County for the closest city of Roanoke, which, in the 1940s, during the war, was a thriving railroad hub, with a bustling downtown full of nice department stores and opportunity. Nana found a place at a boarding house among a small group of similarly dreamy young women, eager to be something bigger and discover more of the world than the place from whence they’d come. Nana took a job as a typist for Western Union, and later, with the help of her housemates, found a position as a salesgirl at Hieronimus, one of the department stores, while she took night classes in business at a local college.

After the war, Nana met her first husband, my grandfather, Vernal Darnell Altizer. A charming, handsome young bookkeeper, freshly returned from the Pacific, with pretty eyes, a million dollar smile, a yellow Studebaker he called “Hubba Hubba,” and the biggest heart in Southwest Virginia. Nana was unambiguously beautiful, sassy, and a great dancer. He was besotted. She was charmed. They married in 1946 and settled into a little brick bungalow up on a hill a couple blocks from the local movie palace and maybe a mile from the church my grandfather was helping to build. A few years later, they had their first child, my mother, Karen, followed a few years later by their second daughter, my aunt Teresa.

Nana was a force. She was pure kinetic energy. She danced through life in double time with the same energy and finesse she applied on the basketball court, to the jitterbug, to her developing professional career. A lifelong passion for beautiful things and the interesting stories they tell eventually brought her to the antiques business. She was, to put it mildly, a natural. She opened her shop, Homeplace Antiques, just north of Roanoke, up in Botetourt County in the early 1970s. It was a modest place at first, but her curatorial inclinations and love of travel, particularly to the UK, soon filled the space with the most exquisite relics of the 17th, 18th and early 19th century.

A visit to Nana’s shop transcended retail. It became something more like a trip to museum or a pilgrimage for the kind of person that likes to rest a hand on the inlaid top of a table old enough to remember the petty dramas of the Stuart dynasty and commune with the past.

Her customers adored her. They followed when she outgrew to the original store and moved her furniture, her Chinese and Japanese porcelain, her tea sets, Persian rugs, sterling silver, gilt-framed mirrors and lamps to a sprawling log house on the other side of town, a couple of puffs of a Virginia Slim Ultra Light from the Blue Ridge Parkway. I grew up in that antique shop and also in a series of homes it furnished. The house Nana shared with my grandfather was a modest, mid-century brick ranch on the outside, but on the inside it was a glittering constellation of wonders and marvels orbiting around the greatest wonder and marvel of all, Nana herself, who remade herself as “Nana” and “best grandmother ever” and, frankly, my third parent a few seconds after I was born.

She was never a knitted cardigan wearing cookie baker, but she lovingly endured fat baby fingers tugging a her silk scarves and designer eyeglasses (throughout my childhood, she wore oversized silvery acrylic Dior frames, not quite Iris Apfel, but close), as she translated operatic arias and interstitials into nonsense worded lullabies. It was years before I realized my favorite, a song I only knew as “Dum-De-Dum” was actually “Gaudeamus Igitur,” which Nana had picked up from Mario Lanza doing “The Student Prince.”

She was an early riser and encouraged me (ultimately unsuccessfully) to follow suit. As a child, I’d trundle into her bedroom in the pre-dawn darkness and crawl up into the princess four-poster, under a rosy damask coverlet and an almost comically oversized crystal chandelier dangling above us and snuggle into her slender arms until she rose and made coffee.

We’d creep out to the front of the house, just the two of us. She’d sit like a queen in her velvet and satin robe, waiting for the coffee to percolate, as she finished her first cigarette of the morning. She looked like a queen. She was exactly the same age as QEII (which felt entirely correct) though she never admitted it; Nana, fifty at the time of my birth, was, if you asked, perennially 39.

Nana loved coffee and Nana loved me. These things I know to be absolutely, incontrovertibly. And thus she fixed me my first cup (mostly warm milk and a little sugar) when I was about three years old (it didn’t stunt my growth, or maybe it did, I am shorter than both of my parents, but I am the same height as Nana was—a shade or two above 5’8. She was, for most of my young life, the glorious, blazing center of my universe, my hero, my savior, my fairy godmother, my closest confidante. When things were weird (and things are often weird), Nana could be relied on to steady the ship.

I was the first, but not the only, grandchild. My little sister and my cousin have their own secret rituals, their own tales, their own fat fingers around Chanel-scented silk, their own moments of awe as Nana pulled off some bit of magic. She had a cross-stitched pillow in the bedroom reserved for grandchildren, If mother says no, ask grandmother. She was reliably good for it.

This is not to say that Nana was perfect. She was stubborn, capricious, demanding, judgmental and completely full of whatever flavor of malarkey was necessary to sell a Chippendale highboy or an opinion about what you’re doing wrong with your hair or a highway patrolman on not giving her a speeding ticket (she drove her always respectable, luxury sedans like she’d learned to drive in hopped-up jalopies on country roads in bootlegging country, which I suppose she had). She was always right in an argument (and certainly Right if the topic was politics), a fact she underscored by prefacing her remarks with “Everybody knows.” You couldn’t win. And that was fine. Because why would you want to? You couldn’t help but surrender to her. She’d flash a smile. She’d laugh. Nana had the best laugh. She’d suggest something magical. And it you’d forget to be sour because it was about the best thing in the world to simply be with her.

Nana was not just wonderful in spite of her faults, but because of them. That same stubbornness made her fiercely loyal. That capriciousness made her endlessly inventive. Her demands made her intolerant of anyone who refused to acknowledge her intelligence and her dignity and anyone that failed to treat her with respect. Nana taught me two of the greatest lessons I ever learned as a woman: 1) Never wait for someone else to give you the things you truly want and 2) (and she’ll forgive me—I hope– for saying this aloud) Take no shit. Period. I credit her with so much–she has, for so long, been my totem, my north star—but above and beyond, Nana showed me how I could be myself in the world fearlessly, even if (perhaps especially if) that version of myself was not one she always approved of.

After my grandfather died, my grandmother moved into her new house and I took to spending significant portions of summers and school vacations with her, just the two of us. This persisted through my freshman year of college (at a school a few miles from the original location of her antique shop) through the four years I spent in Greensboro. It was an easy drive up and, unless she was traveling, Nana was reliably there. My best friend, five decades removed. We spent hours, days, months together. At our loneliest moments, we’d talk until we were hoarse. It was her I’d call when I had a bad day in sea of bad days. It was her I’d call when I’d find some moment of ridiculous joy.

She called me when her friend Jocelyn introduced her to the man who would become my step-grandfather. She tried to play it coy, but from moment one, I know she was all butterflies. He was tall and handsome, a widower, an avid reader and a former Commonwealth’s attorney. I think I was a little jealous at first that Nana would add another character to our perfect late night dialogues, that her garden table would need to occupy more than the two of us. But the small miracle of seeing Nana in love? That was something. That was beautiful. They married a few years later at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. They spent fifteen years together, traveling, talking, taking in all the wonders together.

Nana filled her life with beautiful things—flowers, antiques, art, fashion. She traveled widely and made friends wherever she went. She was ambitious, brave, and famously suffered no fools, but she could be sublimely romantic and hugely loving. She loved the opera and taking high tea in England, especially at a grand hotel. She loved the walking on the beach and sitting by ocean, at the edge of the tide, in a low chair with her toes in the sand. She was a great fan of birds, especially the big, exotic ones, and fish, especially flounder, which she could prepare perfectly. She liked Florida more than is fashionable and Las Vegas more than was sensible. She loved tending to her splendid garden and hosting bridge parties. She had far more pairs of shoes than necessary and loved wearing things that sparkled. She looked beautiful in pale pink. Like any good force of nature, she loved life, absolutely and truly, up to the very end, and lived it with great style and elegance, a stubborn grace, and an indomitable spirit, rich with surprise, that sometimes bordered on the miraculous. She was so brave, so unpredictable, so luminous with a light that burned so astonishingly clear and bright, it is hard to imagine how any of us will navigate without her.

Nana was at home when she died. Home meaning the house I visited in high school, in college. Home meaning the collection of curiosities I spent half my life pouring over. She’d only recently traded out the four-poster for a hospital bed, but the curtains were still rosy damask and that old chandelier still sparkled over the bed like a haughty wink from Versailles.I don’t know what Nana was dreaming about at the end, but I hope it was a good dream. I hope she was swept up in it and borne out gently on the tides, through the mist, to blue skies and onto whatever glorious adventure awaits on the distant shore.

My mother called to report that, just prior to learning of Nana’s passing from her caretaker, her iPhone blipped and started playing Duke Ellington’s “Angelica.” That’s not what I would have expected. I would have said Puccini (which, in fact, I listened to and wept at in bed this morning because we all have our grieving rituals). But “Angelica” feels like grand hotel music and I’m thinking Nana’s just settled in. I hope she’s found her father and her own favorite grandmother. She’s found her sister and the two men that loved her. Maybe she’s even ordered a Bloody Mary and tracked down Thomas Chippendale, because I’m sure she has a thing or two to say to him. I hope she finds peace there and beauty and hopefully a luxury suite, because Lord knows, she will absolutely insist that management puts her in the best room.

I know I’m biased here, but I think she deserves it.

Rest in Peace, Gloria Maxine Mitchell Altizer Moran.

I love you, Nana. I don’t really do goodbyes, so

Bon Voyage

Plague Diary: August 31, 2020

COVID / Plague Diaries

A couple eons, several millennia, four score and seven years, a hundred and sixty-odd days ago, when the world was new and we were all still so young and innocent, I ended my first full/real week of quarantine on a Facetime call with my best friend from her rooftop in Brooklyn. New York City was shutting down at end up day. My best friend had invited several people to join her on the rooftop for a last hurrah, but most everyone had already loaded in their dried beans and toilet paper, changed into soft pants, and double latched their front doors. So it ended up just being me and my best friend and a real love of another friend, a man I always associate with good food and better drinks and the kind of irresponsible late nights that find fully grown human beings literally skipping arm and arm down Delancey Street at 4am.

You know, the good stuff.

The New York sky behind my friends was that eerie overcast red, as was mine beyond the bare-knuckled limbs of the trees above my deck, and I could hear the muddled howl of ambulances through the iPhone speaker. I always associated those red skies with London and in those days the parents and the editorial writers were already exhorting me to catch up on the Blitz to get some perspective on the lockdown (note: not actually helpful). In an effort not to be grim, we’d had copious amounts of alcohol and were almost giddy with incipient apocalypse, as if bombers would, at any moment, rumble across the sky behind us and we’d see quite the light show before the world collapsed, I’d bought a bottle of Jameson as a peripheral glance at St. Patrick’s Day, the first cancelled non-holiday holiday of the The New Normal, but the days long panic squall in my stomach had kept me from enjoying it on the 17th. But on that night, that kind of sort of last night, I poured fat fingers full into a too-fancy tumbler and wished that I hadn’t been a non-smoker for ten years. I’d always planned to buy a pack of Camels for the end of the world. I could see the orange tip of my best friend’s cigarette through the screen and thought I could almost taste it.

After the call, I poured more whiskey into a red Solo cup and walked around the pond in darkness listening to Spiritualized on headphones until I landed a the house of a friend of a friend, who was also hosting a pre-siege party, though none of us called it that. I didn’t really know anyone there, save the friend. The rest were, I think, my neighbors, though I was then, barely eight weeks into being their neighbor. We sat in our plastic Adirondack chairs and brought-from-home camp chairs around a damp, mostly burnt out fire pit making awkward conversation and experimenting with gallows humor, because if we ran out of jokes we’d have to go with panic, and, as I said, we didn’t really know each other that well. Most of the jokes fell flat and none of us really had anything to say to each other. When we drifted, around midnight, we made idle promises to get together and check in, but I haven’t really seen any of them since.

I think about that night a lot. I think about it more than I do my last party (February 22), my last trip to a bar (Friday, March 6), the last time I went out (to the movies, Tuesday, March 10), and the last time I had people over who were not (at least temporarily) living with me in my house (March 13, and yes, I know that was late). All of those things feel like they should be more memorable, more portentous, but they don’t.

That night, that last Friday, feels more like the precipice, and not just because I woke up the next morning to gray skies and a terrible hangover, and spent hours staring bleakly at a Sir Christopher Wren-themed jigsaw puzzle, which, if you’re the kind of person that knits together her overthinking as elaborately as I do, felt a little too on the nose for End of the Worlding.

Those days, those early days were impossibly bleak. I didn’t handle them well. I’m of an age, class, culture, context, and geography where the great beasts may have wandered over the landscape, but they were far enough removed that I only felt the tremors. This virus, this plague was the first one to really crack my foundations, and on a very personal level, my foundations were already buckling under too much weight, on what is, at best, fairly sandy, porous ground.

I turned 40 in 2016, which means I edged into early middle age at the exact moment the US started to wriggle into fascism. I always imagined I’d be younger when that kind of thing happened. I always thought—and you’ll forgive my superficiality– I’d cut a more dashing figure, all leather jackets and spiraling smoke as I plotted resistance in the cinematic dark between streetlamps. I always hoped I’d be healthier, more carefree, less distressed, more up to the task. I never thought when history rolled up and started laying on the horn, I’d be fat, lonely, fretting in solitude, literally afraid to go anywhere or see anyone, especially not at secret-conveying distance.

Because the virus . . . the virus was just a sliver of 2020. It turns out that constant anxiety over plague and pandemic doesn’t quite muddle into background noise, but it does become rote. You get used to the chapped hands from so much washing. You have clean masks, of various styles and shapes, stocked in every convenient location. You buy bulk hand sanitizer and refill bottles. You get used to never seeing the inside of other peoples’ homes. You get used to not seeing most people. You know the fastest way in and out of the supermarket. You adjust to not feeling another person’s touch. You know what a Covid test feels like. You’re ready for the days when you take your temperature seven, eight, seventeen times on two different thermometers because you don’t trust only one. You have a pulse oximeter in your bedside table drawer—just in case—and a post it note specifying end of life plans—because you don’t have a will–and you are aware that many of your friends do too, because they stopped being ashamed of talking about it. You realize your Friday night, Zoom Happy Hour has been going on for almost six months. You can’t get complacent. Or, rather, you can at your own peril, at mine, at everyone else’s. Plenty of people have. That’s why, when every other state’s numbers are going down, North Carolina’s numbers are going back up again. Or how my county is now a hot zone.

I read an article over the last weekend that described the virus as patient and impassive, which is terrifying and terrifyingly accurate. The national conversation has shifted from When things get back to normal to If things get back to normal. I read an article a couple days ago about whether or not it would ever be safe to stand inside and hear someone sing in public again. Not just next year but ever again. Much of my life—personal and professional– is built around seeing live performance. This is the remark that would have spiraled me into oblivion in late March. These days? These days, it’s just part of the background. It’s the low level doom we live with because, for now, at least, we have no better, safer choice.

Because the virus is not always the thing that keeps me up at night anymore. It’s certainly not the only thing. The things I thought, that night at my neighbors, I thought were the worst thing that could happen? Well they haven’t happened (yet) and they seem less likely a lot of other terrifying things. At the forefront, these days is whatever our lying, venal right wing government might be doing, their enthusiasm for the violence that long propped up American structural racism. I worry about mass homelessness. I worry about people starving. I worry about my friends, peacefully protesting, getting beaten or murdered in the streets by federal troops, by heavily armed teenagers, gun-drunk on their own unearned superiority and toxic ideology . I worry about my friends being attacked in their own homes by local law enforcement just because of the color of their skin. I worry about black people getting killed by police. I worry about civil war, probably more than I should. It is one thing to be under siege from disease. It is quite another to be under siege from both disease and men with guns. I worry about the election. I worry, about how we’re collectively going to get through this winter without falling to grave despair. I worry (and I know it’s comparatively petty)about how I personally am going to navigate the holidays.

It’s a lot to try and wrap your hands around. Therapeutic and meditative texts encourage solitary, peaceful contemplation to really come to terms with how your place in the universe and how you as an individual can accept or affect change. Sometimes, though, I think that human beings are better at coming around to things collectively, in person, because you can feel bolstered and bounce ideas off people. You can arrive at some conclusion. It’s hard to turn your brain off when your only reliable hang is your thoughts. My world was never very big. And in these overwhelming, epochal, more-important-than ever days, my little world in the shadow of the shadow of the shadow of history could not feel smaller, less consequential, but lord, is it ever noisy sometimes.

That is privilege, right? That I can still abide here outside the furor and make cakes and take long walks and still waste thoughts on dresses and records and incidental social dramas because the tempest has yet to holler through my own back yard, even though I can hear the wind in the distance and feel the first drops of rain.

And maybe that’s why I keep flashing back to that Last Friday. The whiskey toasts. The mindless chatter. The banal recollections that didn’t yet feel like an evocation of a lost world. The dumb jokes in camp chairs. The neighbors pretending to be friends. The friends pretending to be okay. That night felt like the edge of the world. That night felt like the start of the world’s longest hurricane party, when everyone still has power and plenty of beer. Now, months later, I’m tired. I’m angry and frustrated. I’m out of the good snacks and all of the wine. I’m wondering why in the world I decided to ride out the hurricane instead of just leave when I still could, if I still could.But the windows have started rattling and the water is rising. And I guess we have no choice but ride it out.

Hope we make it.

Picture today is of another edge of the world, so to speak, in Arizona, back in 2018.

As of this writing, 17,938,973 people have recovered from Covid-19. PS: Sorry for the length. It’s been a while.

Plague Diary: August 13, 2020

Plague Diaries

Over the last few, there has been quite a ruckus outside the house at night. It’s not just the normal mechanical clatter of frogs and cicadas and crickets and katydids. Or the occasional kerfuffle among prematurely roused songbirds. It’s not just Ralph, the remarkably fluffy, but most not-exactly wise owl that hoots all night at his invisible friends. Or Brenda, the doe and her entourage of fawns, who will not stay out of out of the g-d hydrangeas no matter how much human hair and ammonia spray and entire bars of shallow buried Irish Spring the internet assures me will discourage her from doing so. Or the teenagers that sneak down to the dock at night to get stoned because no one has told them that sound carries out of water.

This new ruckus involves a lot of thumping against the downstairs doors and windows, of which, in the new house, there are many, spanning the dark tree and pond-facing back of the house. I can see how this might sound creepy, especially as a child who was enjoyably traumatized by Disney’s “Watcher in the Woods,” an ostensible kids’ movie that effed me up quite a bit more than “The Shining” (which I saw for the first time at about the same time). And in fact, early on in the my residency, I watched an episode of “The Outsider” on HBO, back when I could still concentrate on television, and spent about an hour before bed wide awake and crazy-eyed wondering whether some shape-shifting murder beast might be dawdling on the back porch ready to do unspeakable things to me or maybe just steal my firewood and deck furniture in darkest night.

But if I’m honest, I live in the kind of place where the scariest thing that to show up on the back deck would be probably a giant flying cockroach (ie “palmetto bug), a perennially ornery Canada goose, or some sweet, elderly neighbor politely reminding me that two gins disable all my volume controls and I need not play to the cheap seats when explicitly comparing notes about sex with college friends on a Zoom call at 10pm. And by the way, “Are you aware that sound travels over water?” Thus, I ignored the thunking at the door. Maybe it was bats. Maybe it was vampires. Maybe it was some primal evil slouching up from the fetid boggy parts of Carolina North Forest just down the hill and over the rise.

Whatever the case it was none of my business. I was already busy feeling ludicrously sorry for myself and enviously watching YouTube videos of people giving themselves radical Covid haircuts because there is nothing left in the world but takeout burritos, not-always-terrible but still inconsistent WiFi, and the kind of otherwise bewildering aesthetic choices you make when you’ve spent months living like the suburban Count of Monte Cristo (but with said burritos and local beer delivery). I’d made a distant hair appointment back in June–when salons reopened– for weeks later and had since rescheduled approximately one pardrillion times, as I wrestled with the moral, ethical and epidemiological implications of going to the salon. My most recent reschedule was for the next day.

Things with the hair had, as they say, become crucial. Putting aside the fact that my reflection was increasingly giving me equal parts vintage David Cassidy and Your Mom’s Unhappily Married Friend Linda From Church Choir in 1982, I’d reached precisely the point of grow out when the back of my neck seemed a perennial tangled, sweaty disaster at the precise seasonal moment when having a perennial tangled, sweater disaster on the back of my neck was least desirable. If you’ve ever had and then tried to grow out short hair, you’ll understand the interminable misery of the stage at which your hair is too short to put up and yet too long to endure comfortably during the Dantean Steam Room days of August in the North Carolina Piedmont, especially if, God help you, you’re still trying to exercise.

There was a solid argument for a DIY approach, which I’d tried exactly once before. When I was fifteen, extremely near-sighted, and adamantly opposed to wearing glasses, I gave myself an orange-dyed B-minus Johnny Rotten haircut just before a hilariously abortive attempt to run away to San Francisco to become some tough-as-nails, street punk nihilist. That didn’t turn out well on either account (I made it as far as the bus station—three miles across town– before I returned to my mother’s house, crying and begging forgiveness/One of my teammates at field hockey pre-season a month later asked if the hair was because “I’d had cancer or something” over the summer). Since then, I’ve let professionals deal with my hair. Or barring that, friends with more bravado and better vision than I .

And so I sat on the sofa, watching videos, wondering if the only reasonable way out of my predicament was to buy/borrow clippers and go full Sinead, even though I have a puffy neck and a giant mole on the back of my head, and if I did go full Sinead, should I go at present or wait until I’m probably dying of Covid (which could happen at any time, I imagine, because I read the newspaper and I’m a hypochondriac) so I turn out like one of those exquisite, tragic 19th century heroines who is shorn in sickness as she coughs beautifully in an some spectacularly excessive velvet and gilt boudoir situation and dies from consumption or heartbreak wearing some extravagant ruffled peignoir as her lover (who has come too late) weeps at her side or if she’s Anna Karenina, barely recovers so she can die from train and heartbreak a few chapters later because men are terrible and Whatever, Vronsky. Or should I charge forward operating under the dangerously delusional notion that buzzcut me will somehow resemble Charlize Theron in “Mad Max: Fury Road” and not, like, Your Mom’s Recently Divorced Friend Linda after she came back from a Buddhist retreat upstate in 1997 and started wearing a lot of wacky reading glasses and striped tights and trying to get the church choir to form a theatre group to rewrite the Christmas pageant so it could be both More Sondheim and also Feminist! (and you know, now that I say it, Linda, sounds really pretty cool, and I’d love to hang out with her, so scratch that, this analogy doesn’t even work. Sorry, Linda. You’re the hero we all need right now.)

So it was that moment I was trying to figure out if I should invite hypothetical, but totally imaginary Linda over for socially-distanced Zinfandel and classic Carole King records when I heard the Big Thunk. Not on the windows. Not on the glass doors to the deck. From the garage against the door leading into the house. And my first thought wasn’t “poltergeist” or “murderer,” it was the dawning realization that I had left the garage door open when I’d gone for takeout earlier, shortly followed by my absolute certainty that there was a bat in my garage.

There are bats here on the pond. I knew that was coming before I moved in. I grew up a block off a lake and we regularly ended up with bats that would swoop in over the vista and somehow end up asleep on the screened-in porch. My mother’s strategy for handling the bats was to call one of the neighbors and have them send a slightly older kid down to deal with the problem. Because it was the 80s, this didn’t even raise any eyebrows. My sister and I would have to stay in the house, behind the dining room door, waiting to see which of the older boys would turn up. Usually it was Old Testament Name, who lived up on the corner. (This was a bonus. I had a massive crush on Old Testament Name from roughly Second Grade until Old Testament Name grew a mullet and started a heavy metal band named after a CS Lewis character, around the time that the rest of us started figuring out that the Narnia books were explicitly Christian, thus leaving the rest of us to muddle out whether said heavy metal band was explicitly a Christian heavy metal band or if they just hadn’t figured it all out yet. Either way, the bloom was off the rose, and by that time I’d gotten into shoegaze anyway. But I digress) Old Testament Name would come with a watergun and just shoot at the bat until it evacuated the porch. We all viewed this as humane. Afterwards, Mom would offer a soda, sometimes $5, and whatever snack she had on hand, while I unsuccessfully tried to flirt.

I don’t know many kids in my new neighborhood. And who knew what the 2020 protocols were for getting bats out of the garage? Are waterguns still cool? Anyway, it was nearly eleven, and I’m not prepared to be that weird of a neighbor. Yet. So I decided to handle the bat myself.

I crept around the outside of the garage, and gingerly made my way in to the side of my car. I jumped in. Shut the door. Started the engine and hit the light with the garage door opener. The bat stirred (he was, if I’m honest, pretty cute). He fluttered. He freaked out. He flew out the garage door, as I closed it behind him, probably rousing the neighbors. I hoped they wouldn’t be back later to tap on the glass and complain.

Satisfied with my performance, I came back inside the house, poured a triumphant single malt and called my mother.

“Bat handled,” I said. “I feel like a superhero. This is the most impressive thing I’ve don in days. I’m like Van Helsing or something”

Something thunked against the porch door. I gasped. “The bat is back for revenge!” I thought. But it was nothing, and I felt relieved that no one saw me jump.

Last night, the thunking came back, but this time, it was upstairs, in the round window over the stairs. Irritated, I stopped folding laundry and looked out the window, so I could face down my presumed bat nemesis. When I looked out, it wasn’t the bat; it was a luna moth, giant, pale green, perfect and beautiful. She batted her wings against the windows, desperate to get in, desperate for the light, for a world other than the one she was in. I watched her go for, like, twenty minutes, there alone at the edge of the landing.

“I totally feel you,” I said to the moth. “I wish you could come in, too. But it’s better out there, I promise. Out there, you can still go anywhere.” S

he flapped against the glass for another few minutes. I watched until she flew away. By then, I was sitting on the top step, watching the dark of the world outside the window, in all of its mystery, danger and promise, and I sobbed like an effing baby, jealous of anything that could still just up and fly away.

Picture today is not great, but it is of the luna moth, just before she inevitably moved on to a more swinging party down the line.

As of this writing, 13,900,451 people have recovered from Covid-19.

PS: I ended up going to my hair appointment. Now I have less hair and am much improved. The salon did everything to ensure their safety and mine. We all make the choices we make in these times. I’ve decided I’m not going to regret this one.

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?)