Plague Diary, November 22, 2020

COVID / Plague Diaries

On average, I feel like I’m at least mildly losing my mind about once a day. The more acute freak-outs are maybe once a week these days, a real improvement from the early days when every morning felt like a siren. I don’t know if that means that things are any better—survey says they are, at least Covid-wise, they’re manifestly worse, but at least, I know that right now, for me, things are kind of as okay as they’re going to get for a while, and that okay is not so bad.  

I still freak out, though. I freaked out today because I had hypochondriacal attack. Not about Covid, at least not really (I got negative test results back today), but that I thought my ankles werre tingling and my feet are periodically achy and numb and my right arm is a little weak, and WebMD tells me it’s probably liver failure or kidney disease of diabetes or a stroke. OH MY GOD AM I HAVING A STROKE RIGHT NOW?!  I’m embarrassed to call my doctor and afraid of a self-fulfilling prophecy. I don’t want to go in for a test because Covid. I call my mother. She laughs at me, especially after I report that I’m wearing newish running shoes that are, actually, kind of tight and I have, actually turned my ankle a couple of times on the trail and I do, yes, have recurrent plantar fasciitis and hey, now that you mention it, I have been trying to do pushups (the lady kind– I can do, like, two) in the morning, which might explain the arm. Also there are fibroids and the sciatica and I am in my mid-forties and things don’t always feel the way they used to and maybe you pinched a nerve, honey. And all these things. I nod and smile and try not to cry because on some level, even though all of these things are totally rational, I am convinced that I have a grave and possibly terminal illness, and it will invariably be one of those things that I brought on myself because I am an irresponsible hedonist who doesn’t take care of herself and every jackass in my life who ever tried to talk me into trying some new diet or lifestyle hack will be 100% vindicated once I turn up chronically ill because I am a shitty human and a terrible grown-up.  “There goes Alison,” they’ll say. “Don’t let yourself turn out like her. She lived by the fork; died by the fork. Could have told you that would have happened to her.”

And my mother will look (via Facetime) at her forty-odd  year old daughter, lip trembling like a child, scared shitless of a thing that is maybe, probably, not even real, after her long,  comforting, utterly rational monologue of Things More Likely Wrong with You than End-Stage Liver Failure and say, “But I can tell by looking at you that, you don’t really believe a single thing I’m telling you, right?”

And in those moments? I want to. I really, really want to. I’m sorry I can’t. I’m disappointed I can’t. But on some small but essential level, I don’t.

My mother sighs, reminds me that I maybe need to find a therapist (she’s not wrong), and changes the subject. Because what do you do, really when you are stuck trying to pry out something stupid and awkward from a sticky, irrational groove and it just won’t give? At some point, you just can’t pull any harder. You have to accept that there is probably nothing more you can say.

I don’t live in a world where I regularly have to talk to either Trump supporters or Covid deniers. Most of my friends and family are cautious when it comes to getting a beer outside on a patio at six feet distance, and at, best, nervous if that patio is public and there are other people around. We’re barely traveling and hardly shopping. We don’t leave home without masks.

But we’re all one or degree of separation from someone who doesn’t. You know, the relative who is absolutely having Thanksgiving with twenty-five people, or flying down to vacation at a resort in Florida with her three college buddies, or going to the mall to shop Black Friday, or dining out three times a week inside. Maybe those people believe in Covid, but believe it won’t affect them. Maybe those people don’t believe it exists at all, that it is conspiracy pitched by leftists in order to distract the general public from seeing that Hilary Clinton and Hunter Biden and are stealing children and selling them to George Soros and furniture websites in order to advance Gay Space Communism (I think I have that right).  

Talking to those people is exhausting. Especially now, if you’re still trying. Even the ones that you love, especially the ones that you love, especially the ones you think are not too angry, not too stubborn, not too far gone. You can give them all the facts. You can give them all the rational arguments. They will nod along. Maybe, just maybe they will try to believe you. And it will be painful because you’ll probably see in their eyes the same thing my mother sees in mine—“You don’t really believe a word I’m saying, do you?”

Because they won’t.

I don’t know how to work them out of their own collective delusion, the irrational fears and lies they tell themselves any more than I know how not to worry that maybe I’ll have to have my foot amputated between now and Thursday because my ankle still feels tingly. I wish I did, for all of our sakes. We all have to live in this world together, and the world will continue to be objectively more difficult, painful and virus-filled so long as they continue to operate as if it isn’t already.

I came home tonight after a much needed head-clearing drive past by the parking lot of a restaurant a couple towns over. The parking lot was packed. The patio was full. People were crowding outside waiting to go in. They were few visible masks and no evidence that it was anything but a normal Sunday, in a normal November, on the weekend before Thanksgiving. I thought, I want to be on that patio, and, right now, I can’t be. And I’m bitter about it. I don’t begrudge the restaurant for being open for opening—they need the money. I don’t even begrudge the patrons—we all make our own choices. But l I want to be able to make that choice. I want to sit in a crowded restaurant.  I want to have a dinner party. I want to have holidays where we can be together. I want to go to plays and concerts. I want to be able to hug my Dad or my little sister (haven’t done that since February).  I want a life back that isn’t so goddamn lonely and stressful and swirled with anxiety that I spend whole weekends at home because of plague, arguing with myself about whether I am dying of some other kind of plague and driving everyone I love crazy because I can’t just go do something else and snap myself out of it.

But those people in the parking lot, on the patio, crowding the foyer maskless . . . those people are stuck in their groove. I can’t push them out. I used to think the virus would, but, I mean, look at the White House.

So here we are stalemate at the holiday. Eventually, people tell me, things we’ll get back to normal. They’ll loosen, we’ll compromise. There will be a vaccine. There will be a new president. And it sounds exceedingly rational, so comforting. I want to believe it. I really, really do.

But if you look at my face, you’ll see a  forty-odd year old woman, trying to look hopeful, trying not to freak out, trying.

As of this writing, 40,765,702 people have recovered from Covid-19.

Plague Diary: November 20, 2020

COVID / Personal History / Plague Diaries

Recently I’ve been thinking about Richard the III, the play, not the historical character. Not so much for the political allegory (among other things our current, still-hopefully outgoing, overtly criminal tyrant-in-chief not only lacks the wit but the demented charm of the only great historical egomaniac/Shakespearean villain to have  turned up buried under a Social Services parking lot, though I still holding out for more). Also I can’t imagine Donald Trump offering his kingdom for a horse, because I can’t imagine Donald Trump  trying to get on a horse (okay, fine, I can, and it’s hilarious).

Specifically I’ve been thinking about the winter of our discontent, because I’m pretty sure that’s right now, or, if you’re a nerd about seasons, coming for you on December 22. That’s three days before what is almost certainly going to be a perfect Christmas in Hell, with a bewildering range of torments, running from loneliness, isolation and the kind of trivial dread that comes with privilege, loneliness, isolation and streaming services to the actual nightmare of people you love dying in overwhelmed hospital wards and people going hungry and homeless because they’re still unemployed and the stimulus money has run out to, I dunno, has the combination of Biden victory and epically high Covid numbers among Trump supports put the kibosh on Violent Coup and Civil War double-header US Tour in 2020?  Because I’m a feeling way more confident about things not going that way then I did three weeks but I still feel like I need someone to loosen the laces and fetch the smelling salts whenever the NYT alert comes through on my phone.

I memorized Richard’s opening monologue when I was a teenager, because I was the kind of teenager that was into Shakespeare in a way that made anyone with the slightest tinge of cool about them distinctly uncomfortable. My notion was to learn as many soliloquies as possible to show off my range as an actor, an idea handily abetted by my high school’s requirement that each year, every student, stand up in front of class and recite a soliloquy in a school wide competition. I never won, because I was neither as good of an actor as I thought nor as beset by conveniently timed real life drama[1] as the actual winners typically were. But winning a school competition wasn’t my goal. No, nothing so small. My goal was to pull a Sarah Bernhardt, play all the big parts, no matter the written gender, honestly because so many of the good ones were written for dudes –I mean, why limit yourself, right?

Suffice to say, this did not pan out. It took about a semester of college to realize that I wasn’t really cut to be an actor. For one thing I didn’t have leading lady looks (I spent my entire, brief theatrical career playing eccentric old ladies with wacky accents, eccentric  servants with wacky accents, eccentric  civil servants with wacky accents, eccentric animals with wacky accents,  eccentric old men with wacky accents, and, once, a Shakespearean eccentric, fat shepherdess, no accent but pink gingham ruffled bloomers) or the will/income/lifestyle to change them. More importantly,  I lacked the talent and massive amounts of determination and chutzpah in the face of relentless and devastating rejection to continue on that track. I mean, there were millions more talented actors than I even vying for the eccentric old lady with a wacky accent role. Also, I wanted to go to shows instead of rehearsals and shave off half my hair and dye it pink without having to ask a director’s permission and honestly, how on earth was I supposed to be able to memorize lines when there were so many band names and record labels I needed to know about? I’d missed out on a lot of quality 7”s when I was declaiming from the back deck of my mother’s house at age fifteen as a gender-swapped Henry V.  In any case, I suppose NOT becoming a Shakespearean actor was, by any standard, a much more practical career track (and I say that as someone who writes for a living and spent nearly fourteen years working in a record store), especially right now, eight months after the plague closed the theatres and (at best) probably 12-18 before they safely open again.

And thus here we are at November 2020. Time doesn’t work anymore. So you know several eras of geologic time have passed since March, but I can’t believe it’s been almost nine months since I, like, went to Target. Sometimes I wonder how much more I can isolate, how much less I can do, so as not to add another chore for a contract tracer or a gasping, desperate body for a hospital bed. Things will get better, but almost certainly not before they get much, much worse, and that makes even thinking about the positives fraught with worry.  

Grief flickers on the edge of all  days. I find one of my grandmother’s lighters in a box of objects that came from her house. I think about Thanksgiving, and how not Thanksgiving it will be. I watch a video of a jazz trio in Central Park and miss New York with almost breathless intensity (it’s been at least a decade since there was such a gap between visits). I miss travel, generally, even more. And holy fuck, I’ve said it before, but the spontanaeity. The ability to just pick up and go and explore, for friends to just drop by. It is the surprises that make life worth living and the happy ones are in short supply the days.

On the plus, I don’t wonder so much anymore about whether I can survive the boredom and isolation of this dark and brutal season. I’m pretty sure I can. Or at least I can so long as I have heat and power and books and pens and paper and internet( and probably more cheese, gin and records than are strictly advisable). I can so long as I can still walk out into the sunlight even on days when it’s chilly. As long as I see the faces of the people I love, even though I can’t touch them.  As long as I can smile at people when I pass them on the trail or on the sidewalk, even though I’m wearing a mask, even if they almost certainly can’t tell or don’t care.  As long as I can stand in the shower, doing Shakespeare for a tile audience Sometimes the falling water sounds like the murmur as a crowd in the last nervous moments as the house goes dark before you step out and find your light.

I.i

(Enter Richard, Duke of Gloucester, solus)

Now is the winter of our discontent

As of this writing, 39,978,863 people have recovered from Covid 19.

Picture is of yours truly as aforementioned eccentric fat shepherdess, Phebe (As You Like It, III.v), circa 1993.


[1]  To wit: senior year, a popular, overachieving jock and  presumed Olympic hopeful  had an unexpected injury and was denied trials, so he shaved his head, turned pale, sad, slightly morbid, and inclined toward black clothes for a season or so, and won the competition (and the lusty appreciation of the black fingernail cohort) doing what my best friend still disparagingly (if accurately) refers to as “That Whole Grunge Hamlet Thing.”

Plague Diary: November 2, 2020

Uncategorized

So how’s everybody doing?

I’m a bit rattled.

I’ve been doing a lot of things that I shouldn’t—stress eating, stress drinking, stress shopping. I probably won’t surprise you to know that I’ve been handling our historic crisis (pandemic + election that may very well plunge my world into a level of sustained chaos that ranges from –depending on who you ask–a few burned out cars to, like, sustained battles in the streets) via over-consumption (although I have been taking long walks to listen to political podcasts, which is itself over-consumption). And all the things I should be doing—sleeping, writing, creative projects, meaningful work, meaningful exercise, blah, blah mindfulness bullshit,—have pretty much been cast aside in favor of another turn round NYT and 538 via SHOULD I BUY THESE LEOPARD PRINT CHELSEA BOOTS BEFORE THE WORLD ENDS AND IF SO DO I ALSO NEED A CHEAP CASHMERE TURTLENECK while my iPhone screen gums up with fake cheese powdered fingers and is it 5 yet? Maybe I should I pour a gin and tonic with extra limes for “health.”

I joke that I’ll need rehab to recover from 2020, but rehab honestly feels like a thing for more civilized times, when white supremacists aren’t stalking polling places dressed like Hawaiian-shirted commandos and even some of my otherwise sensible, moderately liberal, seemingly mild-mannered civilian friends are earnestly discussing the pros of building an armory for the incipient hot civil war like it’s a foregone conclusion.  It’s real precipice of doom stuff in a year that has pretty much been a hell’s catalog of precipice of doom stuff. I just left my desk in the middle of the day today for a therapeutic walk  and got so panicked in the middle of a “This American Life” episode (repeat, a “This American Life” episode) that I felt like I was having a heart attack. A bunch of deer wandered past, so close I could have touched them, and looked at me like, Yeah? What’s your deal. Then the sun spotted through the changing leaves, all red and gold. Beautiful. I took a deep breath and put on Leonard Cohen, and remembered that four years,  fifteen pounds, a dozen worry wrinkles,  and several eons of sleepless nights, waking nightmares, and lost innocence ago, the morning of the election, I also went out for a run, thinking, How could anything terrible happen on such a beautiful day.

How indeed.

I want to be hopeful about the tomorrow, but I’m superstitious, inexorably damaged by 2016. Also, there are actual nazis, wild-eyed Q Anon-ers, the fleets of Trump flagged pick-ups shutting down bridges and menacing the opposition on the highway, police officers that pepper spray children on a peaceful march to the polls scarcely twenty miles northwest west of my house. A president egging them all on. I read today that overnight someone turned up at a local Baptist church and burned the VOTE and  Black Lives Matter banners hanging outside. Reading that hit me hard. I’m not a Baptist. I’m a not a religious person at all, but I am a southerner. The words “church” and “burning” that close in a sentence trigger a nauseating historical vertigo. I figure the guys who did it know it. That’s the point. Because as their signs say, “Fuck your feelings.”  

For them, there’s no compromise, no middle path, no reasoned discourse. I’m hesitant to even bring up the old points of order because lamenting civility at this point feels like wishing the invaders had wiped their feet before burning down the house or offering an olive branch to someone who will only use it for kindling when they burn you alive.  

A friend tonight told me he’s scared either way it goes tomorrow.  “If Trump wins, it feels like everything is just definitively rigged and everything will feel truly hopeless and desolate. If he loses, I feel like his supporters will not go gently and that everything will just fall into chaos.” He said he was thinking about buying a gun. “I just worry there’s no way to rationalize, to break through to them and they will just keep relighting the dynamite until it finally explodes.”

His parents are Trump supporters. “They’re sweet people. I always thought they were sweet people, but. . .” He sighed. He loves them. The last diehard Trump supporter I unconditionally loved passed away eight weeks ago.  I feel relieved that I don’t have to discuss the election with her. I feel guilty at feeling relieved. I feel lucky that I don’t have to deal with a brother or a parent or a spouse informing me that they’ve already planned to take up arms against me in the coming conflagration, as I’ve heard from other friends recently.  But I still suffer the general heartbreak of that comes from feeling the seams of your world pulled out until they start to fray. I don’t want my world torn apart.

Human beings do vile and terrible things. We make stupid mistakes. We fall for conspiracies and scams.  We act of ignorance and fear and self-interest and unexamined privilege. We take the easy path, the one that makes us feel good, or, in the moment, less bad. I try to rationalize because I want to understand. Maybe we do the destructive awful things because it makes us feel something— like, power or closure or catharsis. Or maybe we just manage our sadness and fear by going into debt drunkenly ordering leopard print Chelsea boots and a cashmere turtleneck  instead of say, volunteering all day every day at the polls in a rural county like a decent person, insuring that we will spent most of the next two days hungover, awash in regret, shame, self-recrimination and a soupcon of lingering nausea, because did I really eat that whole bag of Doritos tonight? (yes, yes I did)

The ideological positions heading into Election 2020 are well-nigh immovable. No minds will be changed. I’d be more useful and probably healthier if I’d just accept that there’s an chasm between us and the other side and  stop pinning my hope that a few chastened ex-fuck-ups might remember that we’re all human beings and stop it with the fascism for, like, five minutes.  I’m told they probably wouldn’t extend me the same courtesy. After all, these are people who evidently look at a nearly quarter of a million people dead since March from a virus—including their friends, their families, their coworkers, their community members and think, “Not a real thing. Who cares?”

But it’s hard for me to give up on anyone entirely (fact). Not just because that’s me, but because somebody has to be willing to blow out the match and step away from the precipice. Because a nearly a quarter of a million people have died since March in US of Covid alone, and that’s way, way too many. I’m not the slightest bit interested in seeing how we can increase that total if a bunch of vicious, scared, heavily armed assholes take aim at their own private Fort Sumters, and the rest of us have to decide, individually and collectively, how and when and whether we shoot back.

I can tell you right now that I probably won’t. Among other things, I have terrible aim.

So I hope this goes hitchless. I hope we get through this election and all my horrified rambling looks like a terrible, awful, absurd overreaction. I’ll invite you to laugh at me then. I’ll hopefully be laughing myself. Then maybe we can get back to the business of trying to survive pandemic winter without losing our minds and arguing about politics in the traditional “you know, I think I should pay less taxes”  vs “I don’t think Biden is progressive enough on health care” way that doesn’t feel like playing with firecrackers on a narrow wooden bridge over an active volcano.  

I, despite any evidence to the contrary, hope.

Suffice to say, if you haven’t, vote. Please. Vote like your life depends on it. Tell your friends to vote. Then, go home and settle in, find some snacks, self-medicate, because tomorrow is going to be a historic doozy, and it’s entirely likely tomorrow won’t even end tomorrow.

I want to have dance parties and feasts again. I want to hug people again. It’s really the only thing keeping me going,

I hope, above all, we make it through to do so.

As of this writing 34, 012,944 people have recovered from COVID-19.

Plague Diary: September 28, 2020

COVID / Plague Diaries

A week ago Friday , about fifteen minutes after news broke of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, I was walking up and over the hill connecting my suburban neighborhood with the next one over where a friend lived. As a forty-something, flabby, puffy-eyed white woman with a four-pack of Guinness (medicinal, obvs) under an arm trying to navigate my way between streetlamps without using up the last 4% of battery life on my phone, I realized I did not cut a particularly dashing figure. I always imagined myself, at moments of great import, at least appearing more together.

“But history,” I said, to the bats and deer skulking up at the corner of Pathway and Spring Valley, and whatever neighbors lurked silently in the shadows. “History will not wait for you to look cool.”

I felt stupid for thinking it, even worse for saying it aloud, because these are serious, heart-breaking, panicky times. But because these are such serious, heart breaking, panicky times, anything else sounded cheap or obvious. I’ve been riffing on “the situation sucks I hate that we’re here and oh shit, what if we don’t get out” more or less constantly since March, and with regularity since at least 2016. I am tired of saying it. As a woman, like all women (even Conservative Christian women, who have spent their lifetimes trying to convince themselves that they’ll be able to upgrade to Business Class in the afterlife by denying themselves and their sisters our civil rights, our avenues for justice, our bodily autonomy, and our health, wellbeing, and economic security while actually being alive), I am also tired of living it. And I say that aware that as a nominally heterosexual, middle class white woman, who, say, stands at significantly less risk of being shot to death in her sleep by police officers high on bad information and white supremacy, I am way less tired of it all than so many others.

I’m tired of writing the same sentences over and over and over again for the same crowd circling the same old drain of rage and fear and neurosis that I am, like any of this is tantamount to doing anything.   Nero, justifiably, gets a lot of shit for fiddling while Rome burns, but what about the people that complained about the fiddling. Were they really any better? Wouldn’t  the world have been a better place if they’d just shut up about it and maybe filled a g-d bucket of water?  Maybe you can’t always control your psychotic emperor, but you might be able to keep your neighbors from burning alive. Isn’t that better than raging about it on social media, which is maybe more effective than raising a fist to the heavens and giving Jupiter what’s-what, but probably not?

So I’ll vote. I’ll give money to the people I vote for. I’ll tell you to vote. I’ll even tell you who I think you should vote for, if you’re looking for ideas. I’ll spend election night ( week? Month?) gnawing my fingernails to the quick, trying to remember all the perfectly sane reasons I quit smoking eleven years ago, working out the ethical math of whether it’s better flee or stay and fight if things go truly tits up, and if flee, whether there is any place on earth that would have me, where I could still safely seek refuge, given Covid, and let’s be 100% honest, do I have enough room on the emergency credit card to get there? Plenty of time to regret the glitter sneakers you bought back in April when you’re fleeing penniless to (checks list of counties that will still welcome Americans during Covid times) Albania? under cover of darkness.

But I’m tired talking of coups and civil wars with people that seem to secretly yearn for coups and civil wars LIKE ANYBODY HAS TIME FOR THAT, UNCLE MARTIN. I’m tired of conspiracists and cultists. I’m tired of global elites and the apocalypse. I’m tired of having my politics informed by what a bunch of nerds are doing for lolz on internet messageboards. I’m tired of having to even know that Twitter exists. I’m tired of the lack of empathy. I’m tired of the cruelty, the indifference, the scoffing, the snarling, the callow playground power games. I’m tired of the impatience. I’m tired of the selfishness. I’m tired of “I deserve to be selfish.”  I’m tired of bullies shouting in the microphones. I’m tired of millions of people losing their voices by pleading and being willfully ignored time and time and time and time again.

I’m tired. And I’ve asked the cat what to do about it. He thinks I should considering feeding him a second breakfast and maybe going back to bed, which is probably as valid as any other idea. I was thinking maybe kicking off from work early, eating Nachos for dinner and rewatching “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” (which is maybe problematic now? I don’t remember). Whatever the case, What To Do About It probably doesn’t need another furious, overwritten jeremiad aimed squarely at the choir that is my Friend List.

I don’t know where this boat’s going—probably past the sirens, through Scylla and Charybdis, then second star to the right, straight on til Iceberg or There Be Dragons (or both)—but I’m pretty sure my version of the ship’s log has gotten pretty self-indulgent. I think I’m probably way too hung up on recounting crew morale to check the horizon line. Or to put another way, I need some perspective, at least the kind of perspective you can get on Day 202 of quarantine. I’m thinking, here at the end of all things, I might go use my words for some fiction or even non-fiction not immediately informed by the NYT front page five minutes ago for a while like a useless, commie, Antifa, coastal, elitist, baby-killing, child-trafficking, suburb-destroying, blasphemous lib or a useless, bourgeois, capitalist, counterrevolutionary, equivocal, trivializing, collaborator Karen (Your Choice).

It’s been a bit since I was posting Plague Diaries regularly, but I might bow out for a little while—a few weeks, a few months, until the Constitutional Crisis that ends Democracy  or the  coming fall wave of Covid means the whole global epidemic thing is not relegated the six or seventh scariest story of the day—maybe until I have something new  to say on the subject that doesn’t just sound like a shitty remix.

Thanks for listening to me freak out for the last few months. Now let’s gather our wits so we can all go out there and do something about it.

Picture today is a straight-up selfie of me in my cool new t-shirt (courtesy of the great Ron Liberti) that I think reflects accurately my feelings about this time, this place, and the current unfolding disaster we call home.

As of this writing, 24,701,5064 people have recovered from Covid-19.

Voting

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My first election was November 1980. Carter/Reagan. My understanding, from a historical standpoint, was that it was an election in which a surprising lot of Baby Boomers, who all reputedly had grown their hair out just in time for 1968 and then spent most of the intervening twelve years experimenting with drugs, communes, cults, macramé, multi-level marketing and revolutionary violence (not necessarily in that order), suddenly discovered polo shirts and jumped ship because, I dunno, Reagan made them feel nostalgic for the Westerns of their youth or something?

I was a Carter girl. An avid campaigner, I led the most vocal faction of Democrats in Miss Nina’s four year old preschool class. It seemed like a lot of newly polo-ed ex-hippie grown-ups were pooh-poohing Jimmy Carter, both amongst each other and in the press. And that, to me, seemed like a solid enough reason to throw my support behind him. Really the only reason, because I was  four and a half and wasn’t 100% on policy.   

“Jimmy Carter has personality,” I told the local news reporter who came to cover our mock election for their Kid’s Say The Darnedest section. He smirked and patted me on the head, and shushed me before I got add, And Reagan has no soul. I felt condescended to, which is the fastest way to push me into a rage blackout.  I sulked all the way through the accompanying photo shoot.

The reporter had me pose with Reid,  a fellow preschooler who’d refused my offer of marriage the year before (another humiliating defeat captured for posterity by the local paper, fyi) and had annoyed me ever since. Recently Reid had been cast as Captain Miles Standish in the preschool Thanksgiving pageant and I had been cast as his wife. “What’s his wife’s name?” I’d asked Miss Nina and she’d smiled and patiently explained that none of the women on the Mayflower had names (or lines in the pageant)but we were welcome to make one up. When she shot down “Empress Cynthia Galactica Violet” on the grounds that it didn’t sound American enough for the Mayflower, I told her that was fine, though technically hadn’t she just told us the Mayflower was from England. I’d be Diana Ross . . . Standish, I guess. She didn’t like that either, I might add, but there was a critical Crayon eating situation happening at the time so she yielded the floor.

I told everyone on Election Day that I’d voted for Carter. Mom. Dad. My sister, in utero. The bank teller. The cashier at the supermarket. The German lady at the bakery. Skip, the man from the dry cleaners who dropped off dad’s shirts on crinkly paper hangers. Carter didn’t win, of course. There will be differences of opinion about that here and now. I’m not going to weigh in on that, except to tell you that I was, again, four years old and disappointed because a thing I wanted did not come pass. It was my first (but not only, and far from greatest) electoral disappointment, and it obviously made enough of an impression on me that, forty years later, I remember it.  

I have friends/family that don’t always vote. I have friends/family that have philosophical issues with voting. I have friends/family that vote differently than I do. That’s their right, (even as I struggle with the latter in recent years). We still operate on the idea we live in a democracy (of a sort) and no matter how broken the system looks. I hold by that idea, because I was a four year old girl who was motivated in a mock election. Because I was genuinely thrilled to turn 18 so I could vote. That was a big deal to me. And, look, gang, I turned 18 in the midtermiest of midterms– 1994. No one I voted for (absentee, ps, because college) won. I continued to vote, though and voted in every single election, no matter whether it was a school board bond or a Presidential, no matter whether the poll worker was like “You’re number 17” and I was like, “Today?” and she was like, “Total,” no matter how many of my cooler, more interesting friends and mentors told me it didn’t matter, or I was supporting some capitalist death machine, or I was just stroking my own ego, trying to make myself feel better.

I’m perhaps too stupidly optimistic, too naïve, too enthusiastic, or even too American to believe it. And after enduring the paralyzing horrors of 2016 (with 2000 as a little shitty appertif) snd waiting for recounts in local elections when the winning and losing could be decided by one vote, I’m pretty sure my vote is not just a self-congratulatory gesture. I know it matters.

I can’t talk all of you into it—a few people I love would bristle if I tried–but there is something to it. Even if your candidate doesn’t win (I live in the South, my candidate almost never wins). Even if you wake up the morning after demoralized. Even if things are worse. Even if the guy you voted for isn’t the guy he turned out to be. Even if.

It’s perhaps not an exaggeration to say that our civil rights, our nation, our humanity, our very lives are at stake. Even if you don’t currently think they are. Maybe even especially if you don’t thinj they are. I feel the “Why Didn’t You Stop It?” stare from History raising my hackles all the time, and I think it’s high time to come up with solid answers.

Start in voting booth. It won’t solve every problem. It’s a start, though, and maybe the first and easiest step you can take to stop the whole cavalcade of awful coming down the pike until we can figure out a plan that doesn’t solely involve, say, barricades and bloodshed.

But I’m trying really hard, for my mental health and yours, not to harp on the negative. I’m just in under the wire on Voter Registration Day. I’m a hours late and you’re headed to bed. Tomorrow, though, register, if you haven’t. Encourage the people you care about to register if they haven’t. Hell, tell the people you don’t give a cuss about to register. You don’t have to make them feel bad about it. Just tell them to do it. Tell them it’s kinda great. Tell them it makes a difference. Tell them I’ll be there, as I have been, for every election in memory, even before my vote counted.

And if they actually make it to the polls, tell them we can trade some good stories (masked) while we stand in line, waiting for our chance to change our world.  

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.