Plague Diary: July 13, 2020

Plague Diaries

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

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

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

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

Can you?

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

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

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

Plague Diary: July 8, 2020

Plague Diaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plague Diary: June 30, 2020

Plague Diaries

What is the thing with masks?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plague Diary, June 24, 2020

Plague Diaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plague Diary, June 22, 2020

COVID / Plague Diaries

For anywhere between ten minutes to six hours every day since roughly March 20, I’m pretty sure I have COVID. Sometimes I’m able to chase off this worry with a long walk, sometimes with a stiff gin and tonic, sometimes just with fretting and eventually going to sleep, during which I wake up throughout the night and try to figure out whether my throat is sore or my chest is unnaturally tight or the lingering array of concerns left over from my weird intestinal stuff last fall is EXPRESSWAY TO DEATH.

That all of this has happened during allergy season is a thing, and allergy season in a new house is definitely a thing, and allergy season in a new house partially shaded by a hickory tree (which I’m officially allergic to) is definitely, definitely a thing. But still every day. Like clockwork.

COVID isn’t the only thing keeping me up right now, obviously, and that’s kind of the point. I’ve spent a good part of the week mulling over repeated claims by fellow white people in which they earnestly admit to having never really thought too hard about race before the last couple of weeks. This sounds improbable to me if not impossible. Even if you grew up in Idaho or Utah or some insanely expensive New England suburb, what did they teach you? I mean on a very basic level: have you been asleep for the for the last twelve years? Did you assume the blowback to, say, Barack Obama was because he was a democrat? It smells like bullshit to me, but I I’m also a southerner. I literally cannot imagine coming up in this country without “thinking too hard about race.” I feel like race informs just shy of everything. You don’t have to come up in the WTF cognitive dissonance of a summer afternoon singing Nina Simone songs while reading a children’s Harriet Tubman biography while swinging on a porch swing, dressed in an ersatz kid-sized southern belle dress, staring down the path of the Virginia family farm toward an outbuilding your great-grandmother still refers to as “the slave kitchen” with zero sense of irony.* You don’t have to spend family reunions trying to work out which of your elderly relations is the worst bigot (correct answer: all of them).You can just walk through any town in the south and look at the old houses and wonder who built them and who for and read a single damn historical marker or look at the stupid, fucking statues or notice who is getting pulled by police or living in what neighborhoods or working what jobs or attending what schools. You wonder, “How did the bullshit happen?” about just about anything that doesn’t make sense. The answer is almost always racism

Of course, white southerners are not the only bad actors when it comes to race. And the above exercise works in a shockingly diverse number of places (some of them not even on this continent) even if the names of the statues are slightly different. You could be in New Hampshire or Oregon or Arizona and probably still have a gaggle of honking Well-Actuallys dying to tell you how tearing down a statue is erasing history.

Erasing history, though. What a phrase. What a notion. Were it possible to erase history by pulling down a piece of tin outfitted with confederate epaulettes, it seems like white America would be all over it. Because what is America, as we know it, but centuries of concerted effort to erase history starting with everything that was here before us and revise the rest until we can look in the mirror and live with ourselves. But history doesn’t really disappear, no matter how many bronze plaques you hang over it. No matter how many times you edit, you can still see the original bloody draft. And that’s the thing, right? People are rising, people are fighting back, in large part because four centuries of history cannot be erased. That story demands its reckoning. It always has. I mean, isn’t that why the statues went up in the first place, to try and scare the truth back into silence? To keep history from getting any big ideas?

And I guess it worked. Maybe it even worked enough that some white kid that went to college in the south, at a university built by slaves, that never integrated until the latter half of the 20th century, in a town still largely segregated, in a state that still that goes out of its way to keep its African American voters from casting their ballots (and gerrymanders districts such that those ballots will have minimal impact, even if they can get to the polls) can say they’ve “honestly never thought much about race” until last week.

I guess.

Maybe.

But all the lights are on and History is wide open. There’s no excuse for not thinking. There’s no excuse for not knowing. At this point, at best, it’s willful ignorance and delusion. At worst, it something that looks like the old banal evil that would prefer to trudge along in service of the status quo no matter (or maybe even because of) how many bodies it must trudge over to do so. I don’t know about you, but I’m done even tacitly allowing for that to be an option.

Picture today was taken in Charleston, SC in August of 2019.

As of this writing, 4,888,316 people have recovered from COVID-19.

*Autobiographical truth.

Plague Diary, June 16, 2020

COVID / Plague Diaries / Uncategorized

I haven’t been sleeping well lately. I wake up at 3 at 4. Sometimes unprovoked, sometimes when the neighbors across the street turn on their floodlight and my bedroom windows glow silver behind the curtains, crosshatched with the veiny limbs of the tree in the front yard. I rarely try to will myself back to sleep. Instead, I rise and read or write until I drift off again. I pet Walter, who snores or purrs or snurrs beside me undisturbed. I’ve always had an unsettled affection for 4am, going back to the days in which I was more likely to see it coming from the other side. There’s a long, dark quiet to the hour. A touch of menace before the first notes of birdsong, the last dark shadows before the pale of dawn. The world of the inbetween.

Broadly, I think I live in the world of the inbetween. In between plague and protest, between denial and despair, between dread and something not quite like acceptance, but maybe its second cousin . There are people marching through a pandemic for justice in masks and just across the road are barefaced revelers, queued up for brunch cocktails, seemingly oblivious to the world around them. In between there’s me in the house, living roughly the same version of quarantine life I have for the past ninety-eight days, occasional trips to the supermarket aside.

At the beginning I thought the quarantine would be an inbetween too. I guess it is, but the parameters are, if anything, more unclear. It used to be I was waiting for it to be safe. I was waiting for a curve to flatten. I was waiting for a cure. Now? I don’t know what I’m waiting for exactly. All those things, to be sure, but with a big fat if and an asterisk because are those things even relevant or possible? I’m waiting to rejoin the world. I miss the world. Mine feels quite small, no matter how many nights someone drops by the deck for quick chat or a socially distanced drink. I’m waiting for each new sign of reckoning with collective horror show of history. I’m waiting for what comes next. I’m waiting for July. I’m waiting for August. I’m waiting for my still-living grandmother’s forthcoming funeral. I’m waiting to see how long it takes before I get COVID. I’m waiting to see if I can wait it out. I’m not sure I’ll be able to. I’m waiting to make sure I don’t give it to anyone else once I do. I’m waiting. And waiting. And waiting some more.

It’s comforting to think that most of the world is similarly muddling through the inbetween, but I’m increasingly aware that this is not the case. Remember when we were all this together? How tragically hilarious did that end up being, right? My close friends, my neighbors, my social network may mostly be keeping close to home, save the occasional well-masked foray through a march or to the outside part of the garden store. We feel like rebels when we sit eight feet apart on people’s driveways and go home to use the bathroom. My town passed a mask ordinance. I don’t remember the last time I saw a human being inside a public space unmasked, but holy hell, do I ever live in a bubble. And I hear reports from even inside the bubble that people aren’t or don’t and I’m like, “Have I just stopped seeing? Am I just blind to the world outside the inbetween?”

Outside the inbetween the world is churning on. Here in Limbo, a place I understand to contain a Jimmy Cliff record, a thing I could never master at the roller rink and maybe some unchristened, medieval Italian babies if you’re Dante, nothing much is cooking save the six or seventh pot of chickpea curry I’ve made since March and a snurring cat. It sounds relaxing but it’s not really. Life in the inbetween is still too variable and undetermined. No matter what you do, you may still get buffeted around the in wake of everyone else’s decisions. You can follow the rules. You can wear your mask. You can barely leave the house in months and the numbers will still go up. You can talk at length about four centuries of white supremacy, in as much or as little detail required, and still you run into someone you kinda liked from high school on social media who wonders why they have to take down all the monuments. “I mean, what next? Will they rename Washington DC? It’s a slippery slope.” On some level, life in the inbetween is all about making peace with not knowing and trying not to be bitterly disappointed when you’re unhappily surprised. It feels like a waste of time. It feels like there is nothing, really, you can do. And the inbetween is like, “Oh hey, you’re just figuring this out? You’re adorable. Have a cookie.”

I want to end this on a hopeful note. And a hopeful note less ambiguous than “I think we’re headed squarely for another lockdown that will be largely unenforceable because at least half of the world operating outside the inbetween will refuse to respect it and the government doesn’t care.” So here you go: The Supreme Court did something beautiful yesterday. Change—actual real deal, long time coming change—feels like it’s in the wind. Peaches are in season. And most of us, many of us, here in the inbetween are doing the best we can, even as we keep trying to do better. It’s not enough and it won’t get us out of here tomorrow or next week or even next month. It won’t fix the world. But I guess it’s something.

Picture today is of one little corner of the world I miss, taken during a dusk so beautiful I literally cried, in Riomaggiore, in 2016.

As of this writing, 4, 260,420 have recovered from COVID-19.

Plague Diary, June 8, 2020

COVID / Plague Diaries / Uncategorized

My social media is a blur of memes and reading lists, of heartfelt pleas to listen, to amplify, to defund, to abolish. I watch friends get in fights with their relatives, their neighbors, a friend of a friend in a comment section on Instagram. Most of the time those relatives don’t say the really awful, overt stuff—though the Nazis and the Confederate Flag wavers and whatever unctuous post-post-modern fusion of has been enjoying a bit of a cultural renaissance in Trump’s America—but the shit they still say is still terrible, if terrible in an “acceptable” way. A friend’s republican uncle would never say that he views George Floyd as less of a human, per se, but he would absolutely find some bullshit excuse to justify the thousand ordinary horrors endured by black Americans that he would never, ever, not for a moment countenance for his family, his friends or himself.

At the end of the day, I’m not sure the republican uncle is any less of a lost cause than the dudes with swastika tattoos and KKK belt buckles. I don’t know what good it does to spar about the relative humanity of other humans over the internet or over Zoom (or over the dinner table, if you’re feeling reckless). Life is short. I don’t know what to say to a person who could watch George Floyd cry out for his mother and remained unmoved, intractable, and oblivious enough to split hairs about crime statistics or economics. Is it worth it? Your call. Your time. In a pandemic, some of us feel like we have nothing but time. But in the United States, in June of 2020 , every wasted moment feels like the possibility of another life lost.

I don’t want to disparage the small efforts. Every things helps, I guess, except the stuff that doesn’t, which varies depending on who is writing the editorial, and who comments in the thread. Transformative change– real, radical paradigm shift change– is hard. The incremental work, done in baby steps and the baby steps taken by thousands of people at the same time, across the country, all over the world, makes the road ahead look less daunting. That’s good, because it will be, as the kids say, daunting af. My internal loudmouthed pessimist likes to remind me that humans, especially white American humans don’t tend toward entropy so much as inertia. The status quo can be seductive, even if it’s self-evidently sucky. People don’t like to be uncomfortable, and the sacrifices required for any real deal change? Those will not be comfortable for anyone who has, unconsciously or not, enjoyed the real benefit of being a white person in America. It doesn’t take that much imagination to see that. I want to believe that we’ll all stick to it. I want to believe we’ll continue to rise to the occasion when circumstances require more than a one-time donation, a hashtag on the bottom of shared article, or a sunny afternoon with a bunch of likeminded people at the only morally justifiable mass social gathering after twelve weeks of quarantine. I have to believe it—that there’s another side of this and it’s better and fairer than where we are and we’ll get there. Because where we are? Where we are has no future. Where we are is not acceptable for anyone.

The other option is pessimism and despair. And my despair? Well, that’s definitely a privilege. I am a white person who has enjoyed all the benefits of being a white person in America. And so I can sit here throwing stones and virtual $20 bills at various non-profits, because I’ve read the books and seen the memes and still can’t shake the sense that I’m not doing anything meaningful. I feel like I’m not doing enough. Those challenges coming and sacrifices required? I’m not at all sure I could convince anyone to make them. I can’t honestly promise I won’t complain when I have to make them myself. I feel guilty about that. Am I just standing in the way, taking up too much space? Am I not taking up enough? I feel guilty because I’m not marching because I have family shit but maybe my family shit isn’t that big of a deal. Maybe this is more important? I don’t know. I feel guilty for not knowing. I feel guilty for feeling guilty.

“You know your guilt doesn’t help anyone,” said a friend when I said so, and it never does. She doesn’t say that my guilt is privilege. She doesn’t say I need to put up or shut up. She doesn’t say “It’s privilege to assume you get to decide what’s meaningful” But she could have. And she would have been right.

When I was a middle-aged woman, I lived in a pandemic. When I was a middle-aged woman, the world erupted into rallies and protests. When I was a middle aged woman, I I saw possibility of real change and spent a whole week trying to find the right words to say about the future, so I looked to the past and said too many and kept deleting until what was left didn’t make much sense at all. I should have kept it simple. I should have just said: Keep going. Don’t stop. I’ll do everything I can to help.

Keep going. Don’t Stop. I’ll do everything I can to help.

As of this writing, 3,535,554 people have recovered from COVID-19.

Plague Diary, June 1, 2020

COVID / Plague Diaries / Uncategorized

I had a hard time getting up this morning. I read the news in bed, so I could have the option of turning over and crying into my pillow, should the mood take me. I didn’t. Maybe I’m cried out, dried out, not so much toughened up as turned brittle by Events. Maybe I’m too far up on the knife age between fury and despair to wring out any weeping. My life is okay, but if feels like every morning I wake up into a slightly worse time to be alive. Doesn’t really matter. The self-indulgent tears of a middle class, middle-aged white lady are the very last thing the world needs right now.

I didn’t go to protests over the weekend. Protesting is a young person’s game, or at least a younger-than-me person’s game. That’s what I tell myself, even though it’s probably a cop-out. I don’t want to court risk because I don’t want to be in jail or in the hospital when my grandmother dies. That’s true, but in context, it feels petty and trivial, dangerously short-sighted considering the big picture. I also don’t want to see people beaten or tear-gassed or fired upon. I don’t want to see journalists arrested. I don’t want to see the moment when a police force arbitrarily decides to escalate, to provoke the crowd, to try and unleash violence they can then quash. Because even though I’m not there, that’s the view from here. Peaceful protests until. And then. Someone throws a plastic water-bottle. Police disproportionately respond with tear gas and rifles. Then things spiral .

It’s worth noting that I don’t want to be beaten or tear-gassed or fired upon. I’m claustrophobic. I’m afraid of fire. And though I try to heed the promise of flowers rising from ash, it’s hard to hear the sound of a new world being born over the helicopters, the sirens, the people screaming, the boots of riot police. It doesn’t sound like justice. It sounds like a terrifying vacuum of leadership. It sounds like a mass chorus of angry, grieving, desperate voices and a few rocks and torches facing off against a vast paramilitary force that no longer even pretends at peace or accountability, held up by a four centuries of foundational racism and inequality, currently empowered by a cruel, venal, ignorant sociopath, who sits protected in his bunker under the White House trying to incite his fear-addicted, heavily-armed, ignorant (and also cruel venal, ignorant and sociopathic), plague-ridden supporters (including a not-small number of the police officers firing tear gas into the crowd) into something like a Civil War. It sounds like terror and violence and heartbreak. It sounds like America, the America we conveniently ignore until it finally claws its way through the mirror in the middle of the night, and we sit up in the smoky pre-dawn and are forced to remember what we look like.

There are people I can’t talk to right now, not about this anyway. A friend called at midnight last night, sobbing at the callousness, the intractable indifference of family member. “He has no compassion,” she said. “He has no compassion at all.” I wished I could hug her—we were separated by geography and COVID. I didn’t tell her that I’d spent the part of the evening unfollowing the last remaining friends whose commitment to social justice turned to scolding at sight of the first broken window. “Don’t you realize, you’re doing more harm than good. You must be peaceful.” And yeah, that’s the ideal, but it’s far too easy to ignore the peaceful. It’s easy to pretend it isn’t happening because it’s not happening to you or near you. It’s easy to let it get swept under a status quo that keeps you “safe” and provided for at an unthinkable current and historic cost. It’s already too easy forget that the tear gas came out before the windows were shattered and the buildings burned. It’s easier than you think to sound like you value an individual business more than a human life, or for that matter, a whole community of human lives. It feels like déjà vu. I mean, like, weren’t we just talking about this with the pandemic? The end of lockdown orders. The people bearing brunt of the risk, as we venture out, as we depend on them to safely shelter in place. “The vast majority of our COVID patients are African-American or Latinx,” writes a friend in a hospital. “The demographics are stark.”

The demographics are stark.

Are you paying attention? Have you been paying attention?

Did it take George Floyd plaintively calling for his mother as he was choked to death? Or was it seeing Minneapolis, a friendly, reasonably progressive city, the home of Prince, hardly a tinderbox, hardly a hotbed of violence and corruption, go up in flames for you to notice? Was it your friends and coworkers getting gassed? Was it your hometown under curfew?

How much more catastrophe must be endured by those least equipped to bear it before we get it?

I don’t like the way this feels. I don’t like violence. I don’t like those looking to profit off all this, via power grab, or just use it as an excuse to push their own agenda, whether to try to summon up some apocalyptic race war, or work out their personal vendetta against a local bookshop, or take part in wanton destruction for the lulz because they’re a young white dude who likely will never get shot by police and can return home after trashing a neighborhood, without fear of retaliation. I don’t like the unsettling sense of fissures spreading and widening beneath me, of lava churning under the surface, hungry to swallow us all. I don’t like people talking casually about Civil War, like they’re trying to will it into existence. I really don’t like people being murdered in cold blood by the people theoretically charged with protecting them for no reason other the color of their skin. And I really, really, really don’t like the entire elaborate racist system that allows it to continue unabated.

This isn’t about me, though. And it’s maybe not about you either. So maybe I should just shut the f@#k up for a few days and listen. Listen to the sounds of grief. Listen to the sounds of fury. Listen to the sounds of despair. Listen to the sounds of the old world cracking under the weight of so much horror, injustice and needlessly lost life. Listen that shitty old world fights back, and tries to take us all down with it. Listen to the voices from the fray. Listen carefully and pay attention. Because maybe, somewhere, in all the deafening sadness, fury and confusion, I’ll hear something that sounds a little like hope.

As of this writing, 2,874,179 people have recovered from COVID-19. #blacklivesmatter

Plague Diary, May 26, 2020

COVID / Plague Diaries / Uncategorized

Over the last few days, one county, thirty-five miles and about 180 degrees removed, politically, from the overeducated, progressive oasis where I make my home, about 4000 mostly-unmasked white people descended upon a local track to socialize, crowd into the stands, and watch car races on a national holiday to commemorate war dead, hours before COVID-19 neared its 100,000th (reported) American life since, roughly, March.

The smiling race fans, many of whom in a high risk category for COVID by age alone, bristled at the suggestion that they were doing anything untoward, or, in fact, illegal (North Carolina’s current Phase 2 guidelines prohibit gatherings of more than 10, inside, or 25, outside). They cheered the season, celebrated a return to normalcy, groused about the economy, and assured reporters that they weren’t scared of any virus, which is probably just a liberal conspiracy, and nothing worth getting in the way of their red, white and blue, Mel Gibson-invoking FREEDOM!

Local law enforcement, when pointed toward the thousands of people gathering in breach of the governor’s order, refused to step in. In fact, they went on record as saying the orders were unconstitutional, and that they did not recognize the governor– a nice, middle-of-the-road democrat, whose nice, middle-of-the-road handling of the pandemic and the soft reopening has afforded him 60% approval ratings, but varying levels of opprobrium from both edges of the political spectrum– or his authority.

Over the last few days, North Carolina had the highest single day spike in Coronavirus cases. Today, North Carolina achieved a new single day high in COVID hospitalizations.

Over the last few days, a Harvard educated author, editor and enthusiastic birder asked an affluent, young white woman if she would follow posted guidelines and leash her dog in Central Park. She responded by calling the NYPD to report that she was being threatened with violence by a vicious African-American man, an accusation that could easily lead to the man’s death. The author filmed the incident. The woman was rightfully excoriated.

Over the last few days, my dreams have all been terrible acts of violence that I have not been able to stop.

Over the last few days, a white man, spokesman for a ReOpen North Carolina group has gone on the record as being “willing to kill people,” should the partially re-opened state not acquiesce to his demand for everything to return to normal. Obviously he is willing to kill people if he is fine with everything reopening and people flooding back in the streets during the worst local surge of an unfolding pandemic. But he’s not talking about the virus. He maybe doesn’t believe in the virus. He’s talking about the automatic weapons he wears as he stalks people around the capitol, unmolested, screaming about his freedom, which has, evidently, been compromised.

Over the last few days, a forty-six year old man named George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police after being handcuffed, forced to the ground, and slowly strangled to death, pleading to breath, while a white police office knelt upon his neck. Bystanders pleaded, cried and cursed. The police didn’t stop until the he was dead. A bystander filmed the incident. The footage was devastating. That death was the opposite of freedom. It is the reason we, the people, theoretically, yell about freedom. And yet, and yet and fucking yet . . .

Over the last few days, US law enforcement has allowed thousands of white people to willfully flout public health guidelines, leading to exponential infections and deaths in a pandemic disproportionately affecting the poor, the elderly, and minority populations.

Over the last few days, US law enforcement murdered George Floyd, who did nothing to deserve it, who suffered greatly, slowly losing his breath, whose death will become another horrifying entry in another in a cruel, and impersonal catalog of lives lost to racism and ignorance and fear, of names remembered not for the men and women they were or the lives they lived or the people they loved or the people that loved them, but for the way they were brutally slain, as if they meant nothing, as if they were nothing at all.

Over the last few days, it strikes me that freedom means something different when you’re dying, when don’t know if you’ll survive, when you realize you have no value. Say you’re a black person, or worse, a black man apprehended by police. Or maybe you’re some other variety of not white or not white enough. Maybe you’re just old, you’re handicapped, you’re poor, you’re sick, you’re alone, you’re struggling to breathe and the only people that can hear you, if they can hear you at all, if you even have a voice to cry out, are strangers watching through masks, maybe they plead impotently on your behalf, maybe they remember your last fearful glances, and maybe if you’re very, very lucky, one of those strangers will not go out of their way to find some reason why you deserved to die in such pain.

Picture today is of George Floyd, age 46, a former high school football player and restaurant bouncer, who was murdered by Minneapolis police on Monday, May 25, 2020.

As of this writing, 2,477,342 people have recovered from COVID-19. O black people have recovered from being murdered by police.

Plague Diary, May 25, 2020

COVID / Plague Diaries / Uncategorized

A woman I know once told me that when she was young, lonely, and broke, she would venture out to the nearest box store—a K-Mart, perhaps, in those days—take a cart from the dispenser by the front door, and wander each aisle after aisle, filling the metal basket with anything and everything that caught her fancy. Dishes, housewares, games, toys, art supplies, dresses, jewelry bedding, candy, whatever. Sometimes by the time she reached the far edge of the store she would have filled more than one, and as such, would have to navigate the narrow passages and customers with these towering, wheeled monuments to appetite. And just before she would have been expected to check-out, the woman wheeled the carts to the edge of a display, took her pocketbook, and rushed out of the store, sometimes feigning an emergency, sometimes simply averting her eyes and just sklunking toward the exit, where she’d flee to the car, both disappointed and impossibly relieved to jot have spent all that money and come home with all that stuff.

I don’t know if she ever got busted, per se, but at some point it dawned on her that every one of these transgressive shopping trips ended with some hapless store employee having to spend God knows how long having to reshelve her non-shopping, shopping spree. She felt bad about it. She wriggled out of her lonely funk. She found other ways to spend her time. She found other ways to spend her money, once she had it (it is, in my experience, much easier to not hunger so desperately for a thing once you have plenty of money to buy it).

I relate though. I get the impulse. I always feel like I have to apologize when I tell people that I genuinely like shopping. It relaxes me. I find it thrilling, I’m a product of several generations of antique dealers, artists, epicures, and bargain hunters, though I’m less in it for the spree than the treasure hunt. I like to collect. I take enormous pleasure trying to dig out the holy grail from a rack of clearance fancy dresses, an overstuffed, dusty shelf at the thrift shop, whatever might pop up on a random end cap at Target or, like, between broken appliances on the card table at your next garage sale. I try to set parameters even if they’re artificial. “I have to find a perfect gilded mirror for the hall, but it has to cost less than ten dollars.” I maintain lists of mostly unfindable books and records, so when I find them it feels miraculous. I literally have, like, six or seven cups that look like a Holy Grail of some sort of another. All of them cost less than $5. And yes, I will absolutely tell you exactly where I bought/what I paid for them that if you mention them. That’s part of them fun.

So I’ve reached the part of this pandemic–Day Seventy-Six of Quarantine, Day Five of Partial Re-Open in NC, But Let’s Be Serious, No Reasonable Humans Are Actually Going Out Unless They Have To–where I’m trying to soothe my soul by filling online carts with things I’m not going to buy. I set my typical kinds of parameters (say, an A-line midi/maxi dresses, sleeveless but wide strapped, waisted, not too many gathers, with a geometric/Bauhaus-y sort of print, maybe sort of Mondrian, a bit late 60s/early 70s throwback, but more Anne Bancroft than Katharine Ross, in my size, under $150, ideally washable, and for real, I’m still looking for variations of this dress to wear on the deck this summer, so hit me up if you find it). I wander the digital corridors. It’s not the same as doing it in person I run my virtual fingers over the hems of hundreds of dresses and think This One? though I can’t feel the quality of the chiffon I do it because I’ve probably bought enough sparkly sneakers and I don’t actually like how I look in athleisure (like a convalescent slug waiting for sleep or death, though I suppose that’s perfectly reasonable for exercise) or how I feel in athleisure (like I’m sweaty and lazy, even when I’m objectively neither). A new dress suggests that one day I may have something to look forward to greater than a new series on Netflix or the fleeting thrill of the COVID death count only going up by a hair in my state (where COVID cases are actively on the rise, fyi). A new dress portends some possibility other than illness, failure, and whatever other apocalyptic rough beasts are slouching toward Carrboro even I refill this delightful G&T.

Shopping depresses a lot of people I know, and for plenty of good philosophical/political reasons. A friend of mine who didn’t actually like me very much once told me I would never make a good Marxist because I loved fancy department stores too much. I told her that was only because fancy department stores were the only places that usually kept ballgowns* in stock and my dream has always been to be invited to more events requiring ballgowns. This, she said, proved her point.

But there is something to the fact that I’m filling carts again, just as there is something to the fact that I have, after two and a half months of trying and failing, started reading books again. I’ve finished, like, five, in the last week and started on the stack** I collected at the beginning of Quarantine, back when I thought I would read the whole time. I still wake up and feel my pulse quicken as read the headlines, but the weight on my chest doesn’t feel like it might crush me.

I don’t know if I’ve simply grown more accustomed to living in upside-down world or if I just smacked so hard against the metaphorical concrete floor at the bottom of this, that it just knocked everything left out of me. I still try to give a shit. I really do. I wear my mask. I stay at home. I support my local businesses through takeout and curbside. I give money to the people that need it. I try to figure out what, if anything, I can do on the political end. I keep going. But guys, past that? I can’t do a goddamn thing, except float on the tides of this endless bad dream and hope when/if I get pulled under, the world as I know it, the people I care about, will still be breathing on the other side.

So until then? Dresses. Virtual shopping cart full of hypothetical dresses to be bought with imaginary money for events that may not ever happen. This, I believe, is maybe best I can do for now.

Picture today is of the interior of one of my favorite vintage stores in Edinburgh, which I last visited a couple millennia ago, back in October of 2019.

As of this writing, 2,430, 543 people have recovered from coronavirus

*Again, it’s worth pointing out that when I’m stressed out and trying to lower my heart rate and achieve solid “Happy Place” vibes, I like to imagine myself sitting on a velvet chaise, surrounded by fluffy kittens and corgis and piles of multi-colored, ruffled, tulle crinolines, drinking tea and a smidge of whisky with Billy Porter and I just listen while he tells me about all the gowns in his closet. Feel free to join me there the next time you freak out.

** I included a lot of popular/genre books I’d never gotten around to, because I thought, “These will be fun.” Controversial opinion: some of them are not that fun. Like, I’m forty-four years old and I’m finally trying to read “Dune” and for the love of all that is holy, I can’t figure out what you guys like so much about it. On the other hand, where do you go when you run out of Richard Price and/or John LeCarre novels? This is also a serious question.