Each time a black man or boy is killed by the police, from some quarter the tiring statement inevitably arises, “Well. He did something to deserve it.”He was selling CDs on the corner, he didn’t follow orders, he had a warrant for his arrest. These are infractions, yes.But in a civil society, no crime justifies immediate public execution.
It should not be tolerated from a 17 year old vigilante brandishing a gun.And even less so from those appointed to be our guardians.A system of policing that allows or even prompts officers to kill citizens under the guise of “control” is not“Law and Order.”In fact, it is the very opposite.
We are a nation of laws.Imperfect though they may be, they are what we have. And it’s the responsibility of each generation to help perfect them.That means that beyond all, neither citizens nor the police are allowed to be the sole judges and the dispensers of justice.
Regardless of the color of our skin, our current politics may boil down to one question.Do we believe officers and private citizens alike have the right to render judgement and kill with a knee or a gunshot in the back?
If we allow private citizens to patrol the streets with guns, we call that anarchy.And if we subject non-compliant citizens to immediate execution, then the word for that is fascism.
If we accept or attempt to justify such killings, then rest assured, one day you or I will be next.
We do have words for that.And those words are not “Law and Order.”
Feeling eroded by the vitriol poisoning so many of our online conversations these days, I recently posted my desire to leave Facebook.
The response from my friends surprised me. Nearly all urged me not to go and their advice and quips reminded me of a complicated fact: all those seemingly insignificant likes and angry faces and posts were all part of a conversation that, though virtual and disembodied, was no less real. A click on a thumb was equivalent to the daily salutations to the milk man or the smile to the grocery store clerk back in the day when we physically shopped.
In a diverse and civil society, a multiplicity of weak ties are the filaments that bind. And in a world where my friends are now scattered about the entire globe, and with many of us in some degree of isolation, Facebook offers the potential to perhaps keep some of those weak links intact.
Some folks asked for a deeper explanation, something that the truncated shorthand of social media posts makes difficult. A letter seemed in order.
I’ve never been a sophisticated social media consumer. I haven’t created friend’s circles. I don’t limit the audience of what I post. I don’t consciously seek out content. I willfully accepted whatever the algorithms dished up to me without establishing rules or filters. If I didn’t respond to someone’s post it was most likely because I hadn’t seen it. Show me the wild ecosystem, I thought. Serve up the stuff from varied quarters of a varied life in a varied world. Leave it all to whimsy and chance.
My daily drip included lovely images of my friend Larson’s cakes that he would bake at Hopi as well as inspiring updates on his weight loss. I had a daily window into my classmate Jonathan’s lawyerly reposts of fact-based reporting on the duplicity of the Trump administration. And even more lawyerly and rage-filled posts by my elementary school friend Robert about much the same thing. And justified rants about meth dealers in Polacca, Arizona. And consoling words from friends. And truly heartwarming posts from an acquaintance on the wonder and difficulties of being a first gen college student while raising her two young children on her own. And my friend John’s encyclopedic knowledge drawn from the far recesses of an encyclopedia that has not yet been written.
It was as if I was frequenting a neighborhood bar where I found bar stool commentary and consolation. It was friendship in that it engendered camaraderie. And yet not quite friendship, because it was after all just a darkened bar. But in the barren desert of the 21st century, you take love where you can find it. It allowed me to remain in touch where I might not have been.
I make it a point not to unfriend anyone. I think it’s important to at least have an inkling of where other people stand and how they feel. To pretend that they don’t exist may make my life easier, but possibly poorer. I feel that at its’ most basic, my job as a citizen is to simply be a welcoming and sometimes dry-humored friend.
And despite what we all know about the moral complications of Facebook, it seemed largely good. But I didn’t fully consider how the algorithms themselves would come to shape my experience.
Social media companies want their machines to learn as much as possible about us. The more the algorithms know, the more effectively they can learn how to act like humans. And the more the algorithms know, the more effectively they can push product. The thumbs and angry faces are one of many currencies in this economy. Users get a low-grade endorphin bump: “Yea! Someone likes me! Yea! Someone shares my anger!” And every like and dislike adds to FBs ever fine-grained understanding of who we are, what we might like, what we might buy, where we might travel, what hot button issues might divide or shape an electorate, and with devastating accuracy even who we might vote for. As a predictive agent, FB might have a more nuanced understanding of me than I do. They may even know the secrets that I am keeping from myself.
Facebook’s viability depends on my reactions. The more I react, the more the algorithms know about me and my friend network: our needs, our desires, and what we believe in. Every year roughly 1,500 petabytes of data is pushed through data sausage grinders on vast server farms in Eastern Washington and the deserts surrounding Phoenix to later reappear as ad placements or memes on some screen trying to sell some shit or some point of view, or encourage uncivil behavior, or cajole one to follow the lead of a miscreant politician.
Facebook doesn’t care how I react, only that I do. So the algorithms float me posts that in high probability will make me happy, at least enough so to toss a thumb. But they’ll also intentionally serve up things that may make me angry. A glowering face becomes just another data point.
With the emergence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus now stewing in the soup of our already poisoned politics, the tenor of our virtual conversation became ever more disturbing. I would step into the bar hoping for a cheap cocktail, and instead encounter vituperative rage from friends or acquaintances blaming Democrats and fascists and the left and scientists and doctors and illegal aliens and abortions and vaccines and voters about this and that and the other. Hoping for camaraderieor emotional release, against my better judgement I sometimes even joined in.
In some room way in the back (you know, that room that you might not normally go into), I detected the sound of raging voices and the crack of pool sticks breaking over skulls as a full on brawl unfolded. And it was getting nasty. People were gathering material to make pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails. Some were brandishing guns. To one of my sensitive temperament this watering hole felt neither a safe nor happy place to be.
The ever diminishing shared assumptions only amplified the discord. I felt as if a pack of mean-mouthed and mean-spirited bullies were challenging my knowledge of Santa Claus. I know he exists and I know he is good. I mean, we all do. He has always existed. I have decades of proof. Even though my parents are long dead and I’m married, presents have continued to appear each year under the tree. And each year when I leave out a plate of cookies and carrots, in the morning only a few bites are taken. Who in their right mind would leave half a cookie except for a very busy Santa? Imagine my sadness when I first saw angry memes claiming that he was fake, that I was a sucker for believing in him. Wait. What? Some people don’t believe in Santa Claus? Santa is as sacred a cow as there ever was. Some mornings mid lockdown would begin with a pit in my stomach.
The mechanics of this strange watering hole began to interfere with the shape of my days. Back in the era when we still had dining establishments, my time at the neighborhood bar was bounded. I might drop in after work, share the counter with friends for 45 minutes and then be home in time for dinner. The FB bar, though, was open for business 24/7. Back in the real world, I might get into a heated conversation over beers with my friend Leo and at 5:50 it was bottoms up. We’d pick it up tomorrow. But at the FB bar I might offer something and individuals up and down the line would provide their commentary. Out of courtesy I tried to respond where response was due. And folks in turn would riff. And all the while I needed to get home to put dinner on the table.
I responded not just out of politeness. As an informed citizen, had I not an obligation to call out falsehoods or dangerous ideas I encountered? And Facebook ensured that encounter them I did. Increasingly I found myself fighting with people at the end of the bar who — Christ — I’m loathe to repeat the horrible things that they said.
When the gal at the end announced that I was being played by the toy industry, I could not in due conscience let it stand. I lidded my rage and put forward scholarly proof of Santa’s existence. She countered with a meme. I felt drained. How in god’s name could I convince this ninny that Santa lives at the North Pole and I was feeling super scared for him because now the North Pole was fucking melting?
Given the location of my bar stool, my ears filled with competing noise. Soon not just my knowledge of Santa was being questioned. The Sanderites insisted that Biden was a serial molester and a shill for the fascist liberal elites. We would be better off, they said, to have the whole shit house go up in flames than elect him President. And the MAGAites said that Biden was a pro-death and senile racist allied with Obama the Islamist.
Staked positions were so rife with contradictions that they stopped making sense.
My counterarguments themselves soon descended into nonsense. Don’t you remember the Man in the Iron Lung?” I shouted. You don’t because the polio vaccine put the friggin iron lung industry out of business! Go visit Youngstown! Listen to fucking Bruce Springsteen!! There’s no more iron, man! The demand completely dried up!!!
And then I heard some Russian accented voice slurring something about the dangers of voting by mail and I suddenly myself defending enfranchisement in a democracy. It was goddamn eight pm, my family was waiting, and I was trying to prove the virtue of Santa Claus.
The more facts I provided, the more unyielding patrons became and the more reactive and foul mouthed my own responses. The shouting occurring at the separate ends of this horrorshow bar met in my own brain as a maze of convex mirrors with no exit but for the shattering of glass.
And the data points? They grew into a veritable flood.
Two blows put me on the ground.
I watched powerless as a cultural divide was manufactured over fundamental principles of public health. Right wing political action groups aided in part by foreign bots encouraged citizens to resist requirements to wear a mask, or keep distance, or shelter at home, suggesting any efforts at disease prevention violated civil liberties.
It was as if no small number of people had come to believe that the highest expression of our civic values would be to roar up in our cars and tailgate a Suburu driving mom with a Baby on Board sign dangling in the back.
Or that I had the right to blow cigarette smoke in the face of a bystander because I have the right to smoke.
Or to not wear a seatbelt because it violated my right to free movement in my own car.
Or that when passing a flashing sign warning of black ice, that the person ahead was correct in accelerating, believing that he was a good driver, or had airbags, or that the sign was wrong and the black ice didn’t exist. To this driver it seemed not to matter that hundreds of cars and eighteen wheelers were creeping along behind him, and that if he was wrong in this dark winter weather and he spun out, my EMT friend Paul would be the one to risk his precious life to save him.
Here I am even now, sufficiently agitated that I’ve spent precious time defending public health — or let’s just call it at for what it really is — the health of our public sphere, the higher interest, the social good, the health of the polis itself.
What, I wondered, has become of us? What foul air was fomenting within us such anger?
Many have written about how we got here. But how dearly do we find our way out?
These Facebook fissures make me long for an America that we seem to have lost, or that perhaps was only imagined. I’d like to believe that we as a nation rallied to fight the scourge of fascism in the 1940’s. That’s the story we now tell ourselves 75 years later. Perhaps lost to our sensibilities are the erratic dissent and cross purposes that prevented us from engaging for so long in the first place.
And we so easily forget the people who were excluded or endured their own tribulations (Nisei or Walker Evans poor,African American soldiers or African American anything). Perhaps our current fractiousness and ill will are congenital and not so different from our discourse and tensions of the past.
George Caleb Bingham’s 1846 painting, The Jolly Flatboatman comes to mind, though my remembered version is nothing nearly as serene as the one hanging in the National Gallery: on that raft the dancing figure creates a perfect triangle with the boat deck, not unlike the idealized dimensions of a Grecian pediment. In my minds eye, I remembered the boat as something more careening, jugs a swinging, the dancer teetering on the edge of the raft in a absinthe and mustard gloom as the flat bottomed boat drifted directionless downriver. Bingham’s brazen dancer still suggests something of my American ideal however, the America that perhaps posits strength and conviviality, resilience and ingenuity. America has always been rollicking and unruly, the only true rule being that in the end we are still just a mob. And if you let the mob mash long enough, well, meh, perhaps something may come of it. We are that dancer and we’d like to believe that his exuberance and unbridled joy will carry us.
But in this moment, I feel sadly and with no small amount of fear that we are witnessing the profound darkening of that buck dancer’s shadow.
In recent days I’ve found hope in two touchstones. One comes from a conversation years ago with a dear Hopi friend. He was lamenting some injustice by community leadership. You should exercise your rights, I suggested.
He smiled. Hopi don’t have rights, he said. We only have responsibilities.
In this challenging reframing, the individual matters less and the health of the community more. The wellbeing of one depends on the wellbeing of all.
The second consolation came from the well of friends who chimed in on my Facebook feed. Sociality, even in social media, provides the tender connections by which we remain a society. The message I received was unequivocal and clear: turn away from the darkness if you must. And let’s warm our hands together around the fire. I found myself reflecting on the nature of the hand warming and all the forms it took.
I took solace from my friend Larson, a Hopi man who posted a description of his first shopping excursion after 60 days of isolation. He described how he traveled to Phoenix and wore a mask. How he wiped down every surface he touched sometimes both before and after. How he kept his distance. How he looked about in dismay in those places where few did the same.
Larson wore a mask not because he is a shill of some conspiracy. Or because he is afraid of the virus. He did it because given our current emerging understanding of the disease, he does not know what he carries within him. He may be largely certain that he is not an asymptomatic carrier. But he is not 100% certain. So he felt that his highest obligation was to simply exercise care. He cared about the other people in Phoenix. And he has a great and abiding love for the community of which he’s a part. For Larson to show his love, to express his respect, to protect care givers and grocery clerks and gas station attendants and lots of hard working people, he need only wear a mask. Perhaps sanitize a shopping cart. Perhaps be alone for such time that it makes him feel sad and lonely. For Larson this hardly counts as a price to pay to do his part to ensure the well being of others. He was not asking what he could do for himself. He was asking what he could do for those around him. Larson embodied his civil liberties by wearing a mask.
I found solace in the poems that my friend Dan regularly posts.
Believe This By Richard Levine
All morning, doing the hard, root-wrestling
work of turning a yard from the wild
to a gardener’s will, I heard a bird singing
from a hidden, though not distant, perch;
a song of swift, syncopated syllables sounding
like, Can you believe this, believe this, believe?
Can you believe this, believe this, believe?
And all morning, I did believe. All morning,
between break-even bouts with the unwanted,
I wanted to see that bird, and looked up so
I might later recognize it in a guide, and know
and call its name, but even more, I wanted
to join its church. For all morning, and many
a time in my life, I have wondered who, beyond
this plot I work, has called the order of being,
that givers of food are deemed lesser
than are the receivers. All morning,
muscling my will against that of the wild,
to claim a place in the bounty of earth,
seed, root, sun and rain, I offered my labor
as a kind of grace, and gave thanks even
for the aching in my body, which reached
beyond this work and this gift of struggle.
How can we invite ourselves toward that content that elevates rather than diminishes our collective humanity? Dan expresses his civil liberties by reminding us in words that are beyond his own words of what it means to be human.
I thought of my Hopi friend Samantha who on one of her recent morning runs in the desert posted a photo. Above she wrote the words, “Morning prayer run for my mother.”
Samantha believes that social distancing and isolation may be the best tools she presently has to keep safe the grandmothers and grandfathers in her fragile community. If you’d like a deeper understanding of what it means to have your world destroyed by a virus, ask anyone in Native America.
For Samantha, social distancing feels not at all like the death of liberty.
It feels instead like a shield protecting her community from death.
Until we know more about this novel disease, the risks for this small, already embattled people are too great. Samantha embodies her civil liberties by praying alone for her extended family members with whom she cannot be.
I am heartened by my friend Gary, not by what he posts, especially not for what he posts, but because in person, in the real world outside the Internet, I have seen his face filled with a glowing love for those human beings around him. I would encourage Gary to give voice to his civil liberties by expressing the part of his nature that is deeply compassionate and kind.
I am heartened by my childhood friend Scott who I’ve watched tread confidently into the middle of bar brawls and not engage, but instead put a consoling arm around a shoulder and offer up memories of a shared past. He exercises his civil liberties through goodwill.
I am heartened by my friend Julie — not necessarily for what she posts, (The algos rarely serve them up in my feed), but more for knowing that her fierce intelligence still exists. She embodies her civil liberties by being ruthlessly practical, by working to ensure that her counterpoints are, to the best of her ability, grounded in fact.
My friend Karin expresses her civil liberties first and foremost by being civil. And no less importantly by being civic. She follows local politics down to the school board. She writes letters to her elected representatives. She lobbies through the civic apparatuses available to us regarding issues that will make her local community a happier, more supportive and caring place to be.
My friend Mary has exercised her civil rights by assiduously studying how the Holocaust unfolded in Amsterdam and how it was resisted, and sharing those learnings through her writing and guided community discussions. She strengthens the meaning of the word citizen, by providing support to refugees in confinement who’s only human crime has been the harboring of hope.
My friend David exercises his civic duties by painstakingly weaving beautiful baskets.
And my friend Poppy recently cast her civil liberties wide by sharing some Jerry licks on some version of Shakedown Street, guitar peals so softly articulated yet so exuberant, so full of joy that they squashed my inner curmudgeon and made me smile.
And I guess I’ll probably always remain Leo’s friend. Partly because we’ve been friends since childhood. When I was young there was no food in our house, and so every afternoon for a good stretch of time I would go to his place and raid his refrigerator. He fed me when I needed to be fed. I don’t know why he did it. But I would count it as a civic virtue. I’ll remain his friend simply because he’s Leo.
Lastly, I am heartened by images sent by my friend Mary, a fellow American and epidemiologist who has devoted her entire professional life working to save millions from the scourge of malaria. She presently lives in Geneva.
The signs were everywhere, she said, in the town and in the countryside. One read, “We are all in this together,” Another, “You are surrounded by love.” In another, a hay bale statue depicted a nurse wearing a mask.
In Switzerland, Mary said, folks are largely of one mind and they feel as if they are working toward a common purpose. Certainly that is not alien to us as a people? What has made it so foreign to our own selves and to each other in this moment? These signs remind me of what we can be.
How interesting I thought, that the word to give thanks in French is remercier, the granting of mercy, literally that price which is to be paid.
May I grant mercy unto you.
And may you grant mercy unto me.
These thoughts are partly about the infection of our politics. In Facebook and in our national conversation I feel both scared and sad that we have become so merciless, so quick to anger and cruel in word. From what vicious and damaged soul has this division on a daily and hourly basis been nurtured and spawned? And why have we allowed ourselves to adopt it?
These thoughts are also about bodily infection. So here are some provisional truths based on our current knowledge. SARS-Co-2 is a pathogen that our bodies, the human body, in it’s 90,000 years of evolution has never encountered. Our bodies do not know what the hell to do with this thing. Our bodies are learning as quickly as they can. Our bodies are paying the cost of that learning. And based on our knowledge of virology, without intervention, our education and the cost of that education could be borne for a very long time.
Secondly, no one alive today on the planet Earth has living memory of what it’s like to live through a global pandemic. So too our body politic is learning. And the cost of that too been great. And early indicators suggest that it may be greater still.
We don’t know what this disease is going to do. It could burn out. Or it could not. It’s mechanisms may allow us to gain immunity. Or it may not. It may have seasonality or it could mutate. Or it may not.
But it matters not what you or I believe. The virus itself in the end will be the exclusive arbiter of truth.
So if we believe life itself to be precious, does it not serve us to move thoughtfully and with care, and to do so together in a way that serves not just our own personal needs, but also the needs of the most vulnerable among us? I am young. I am invincible. I have a strong immune system. But others may not. And so perhaps I should adopt a standard that will help them feel safe.
And as for the social media stuff? I won’t leave the Zuckerchamber just yet. I’ll do the best that I can. For the moment we’re in this together. I’ll don my armor. Erect my privacy filters. I’ll do my best to turn my own voice away from dark words and toward all of you and the doggies and the fluffy bunnies and the pictures of sunrises and evening light. And I’m never gonna stop defending Santa Claus. There’s a healing yet to be waged. And it’s not about Covid.
It’s partly about me.
And it’s also partly about you.
But it’s mostly about us.
May 25, 2020
For those who want a deeper or more nuanced dive into some of the stuff I’ve touched upon, you might look toward the following:
To learn more about the darker corners of the internet, the growing information divide, and the manner in which our information feeds are shaped by algorithms in ways we may not be aware of, take a listen to Rabbit Hole, a new series that is part of the New York Times Daily.
If you feel suspicious of the public health enterprise and the workings of the World Health Organization and the CDC, you might want to read some in depth profiles of the deeply committed professionals within these organizations. You could start with two from the New Yorker, one a fascinating window into the Epidemic Intelligence Service, and the other a profile of one of the early researchers into Corona viruses. Hopefully they can provide a more dimensional understanding of these hard working public servants, complex organizations and fields of study.
Folks who are feeling suspicious of vaccines might want to look at some of the critical reportage drawing connection between the current pandemic response backlash and the far right. I’ve seen an increasing number of vaccine hesitant reposting from Breitbart and even troll sites. :-/. It’s chilling to see how this stuff spreads.
If you’re interested in super duper solid in depth reporting on pandemic conspiracy theories, the predations of this administration, and the ways in which the pandemic is being used as a fulcrum by outside actors and the ill-willed to foment division in this country, the June issue of The Atlantic is outstanding. I strongly encourage people to read online, or better yet subscribe if you can afford it.
If you want a brief advisory on surviving and exercising our civic virtues in this challenging moment for our democracy, consider Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny. This review in the Guardian is a super good start.
If you prefer a more dense read regarding Kremlin disinformation campaigns and the spawning of the authoritarian movements in Europe and the US, take a look at The Road to Unfreedom.
Or else if you have drive time and want a more concise and human voiced distillation of these ideas, you can turn to his talk at the Ideas Festival. Timothy Snyder, fluent in nine or so European languages is darn smart and kind and funny — he is a sobering and soothing tonic for those souls who perhaps wonder if they are going crazy in this moment.
If you’re looking for ways to bridge the many divides we are now experiencing, you can look toward Better Angels and Braver Angels — the latter of which sponsors facilitated meetings between people of different political persuasions to help us learn to talk again.
And for those who want to know a little bit more about Santa, there’s no better place to start than a rereading of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas.
I recently spoke with an acquaintance who works on a local farm supporting their CSA.Each day she has had to decide if she will go to work and help pack the boxes of vegetables for the waiting families.As she considered the family that ran the farm and the various workers, she decided at last to not go in and sequester herself for a period of time as a precaution.
It gives pause for thought.Just like our health care workers and grocery store employees, in this new environment our farm workers are in fact first responders.
Between 47 and 70% of our farmworkers in this country are undocumented workers.73% are immigrants.Upwards of 60% of those working in the meatpacking industry are migrant workers from Mexico.
That means that much of the fruits and vegetables and nuts and seeds and frozen meat that we have emptied from our grocery store shelves in recent days, came from the labor of hardworking people who came from elsewhere.And in this crisis, this vital population is as vulnerable as the rest of us.
This is why Public Health for the entire public is a Public Good.
If our undocumented farm workers and meat packers become sick, the linkages in our food system begin to break. And if they can’t get help or are afraid to seek help because of their citizenship status, the problems for all of us become much, much worse.
Even though we all may be in isolation, let us perhaps consider the ways in which we can support and help these vital members of our community.
I’ve had a chance to sleep and to breathe and now it’s time for a cautionary word.
Consider this a letter from the future.Depending on where you are, California may be living in a time five to eight days ahead of you.As of this morning, in our state we have over 1,500 Covid-19 cases and 48 deaths.The number of cases in our county have nearly tripled from 8 to 22 in the last day.These numbers will feel far away and quaint three days from now.
Our governor is presently requisitioning school gymnasiums, sports facilities, and thousands of hotel rooms to hold patients. And Department of Defense resources are being deployed to set up triage tents. School has been cancelled until at least September.This is what we are preparing for here and in this moment – eight days ahead of where you may now be, going about your daily business, perhaps thinking that this is a short term thing, or that since you work from home or are so remote that it will not affect you.
But this may be the strange and uncomfortable truth.
The Covid-19 virus most likely is already in your neighborhood or community.
This is no longer about you as an individual getting infected.
It may now be about keeping you from infecting everyone else.
In essence, you need to function as if you yourself already have the virus and that you are at risk of infecting your family, your children and every one of your loved ones.
Why?Because several preliminary studies suggest that Covid-19 can spread before you show symptoms and that may explain in part why it is spreading so rapidly.
This is why you must act before anyone shows symptoms, not after.Once you show symptoms, once sick people start appearing in your family or in your community, the window of opportunity has already begun to close.You may already be too late.
This is why Louisiana is in trouble.Eight days ago New Orleans celebrated Mardi Gras, and hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the country and the world gathered and drank and danced and kissed and vomited in proximity to one another.Now, today, Louisiana is facing a public health emergency.The rate of increase in Covid-19 cases that are presenting in that state is one of the highest in the nation.
This is why, in our household, we have already begun to live as if it were eight days past our current situation.
Controlled laboratory studies suggest that under certain conditions the Covid-19 virus can survive for up to three days on metal and plastic surfaces, and up to 24 hours on cardboard or paper surfaces.When you touch something, you are not just touching that surface. You are in a sense touching all the people who themselves have touched that surface.
When I say surfaces, I mean everything.The doorknob. The toilet lever. The shower handle.The dresser drawers.The top of your dresser. Your car door handle.Your steering wheel.Your mop handle.The shopping cart.The handle to the freezer door in the grocery store.We touch hundreds if not thousands of surfaces every day and we are not even conscious of it.
As well, and more importantly, instinctively and habitually throughout the day we all constantly touch our faces.We scratch our noses. We pull our lips. We wipe our mouths.We kiss.
If someone is sick and coughs and touches a surface, and then you touch that surface and touch your face, you are in danger of contracting the virus.
To make this real, I’ll describe what it looks like in our family.
My wife is a physician.The current modeling suggests that she may very well soon be on the leading edge and taking care of a great number of people.She is also very much the linchpin of our entire family.She keeps us all together.As a family, and as a larger community, we very much cannot afford for her to get sick.
Two days ago I started to experience a sore throat and a mild cough.Nothing at all bad.Our lilacs are blooming as well as the crab apple.It is almost certainly allergies.At the same time, in recent days I’ve been in a lot of public places in a county that has already presented with the virus.I was in Safeway multiple times, touching multiple surfaces.I was in the hardware store, in the Mexican market to buy tortillas and cornhusks, at Best Buy and in the checkout line at Whole Foods.I gassed up at the gas station, touching the plastic gas handle.In nearly all instances I passed people who were congregating.I walked alongside people who had coughs.
I touched multiple surfaces.
Because of the possible consequences to my wife, and my family, and my community, I have to assume that I have come in contact with the Covid-19 virus.And now, when I cough, even if at the moment it is only because of allergies, I’m spreading droplets.
I may be a vector.
And now we’ll take it up a notch.Two weeks ago, our daughter was living as an au pair in Paris.France presently has the seventh highest number of cases in the world.Last week she flew from Charles DeGaulle Airport to Geneva to visit friends. As a function of population, Switzerland presently has the second highest infection rate in the world.That weekend, both France and Switzerland issued shelter in place orders.The borders in Europe began to close.Our daughter remained in Switzerland for another week.The United States further tightened travel restrictions and our family collectively decided that our daughter needed to come home.Over the next 72 hours she passed through four airports and four global capitals.She passed by hundreds of people from dozens of countries. She sat in a bar with a person evacuated from South Africa where a national emergency has been declared. Two others in Border Control had come from Iran.Another from Delhi.She passed through border control with hardly a question.
She touched hundreds of surfaces.
We have to assume that our daughter is now a vector.
While she was in flight, traveling from Los Angeles International Airport, I drove down to SFO from Sonoma County. As I drove down 19th Street in San Francisco on that late Saturday afternoon, I saw small groups of young men and women walking huddled together down the street. People laughed and joked. They ate sandwiches while standing at the bus stop. They wiped their hands on their pants, and their mouths on their sleeves. They spoke and kissed and coughed because of their seasonal allergies.They shouted and spit. At that same moment, hundreds of people were walking and congregating in crowds at Point Reyes National Seashore.They were all being human, living and loving one another.
And the thought of it all made me frightened.
When I met my daughter outside SFO baggage claim, she sat with her luggage, a mask on her face.We did not hug. We did not come close to one another.Instead, I had brought her doggie who was able to run up to her. They hugged and greeted, I wiped off my hands with a sterilized wipe.I gave one to my daughter and she wiped off her hands with a sterilized wipe.We tossed them into the trashcan on the curb. We loaded her luggage into the back.
And then my dear daughter and I and her dog drove home together for one hour and fifteen minutes in close quarters in our car.
Today is no longer today.A little over a week ago, it was today.
On that day, I stocked split wood and kindling for the wood stove in our field house.The following day it was tomorrow.On that day I moved some of my clothes and books into the field house.Two days later it was in the middle of this week.I moved in a box of food and stocked the fridge with beverages.
Yesterday morning, as a final preparation, we did a deep cleaning of our house.And then today, which is eight days hence from where you all are, my wife and I and my daughter went into fourteen days of relative self isolation.
My wife and daughter have occupied different areas of the house. We try not to share bathrooms.For the next fourteen days, except for cooking and gardening duties, I’m living out in the field house.
Our daughter’s luggage, her guitar case, her backpack, all touched by multiple baggage handlers, remained outside on her porch until my wife could wipe them down with bleach. We had our daughter change out of her clothes as soon as she got home and we washed them.We all washed our hands repeatedly that night.
We eat meals together, four feet distant.We have cleared all the counters and every surface of objects to make them easier to wipe down. We have disinfectant and rags out at all times.In our family, I make the coffee.I am the only one to touch the machine. After I touch it, I wipe it down.
You touch a surface, you wipe it down. You touch a surface, you wash your hands.You touch a surface, you wipe it down.
We are starting to be conscious of our hands and our faces.Where are they?I recite a mantra.Hands, hands.Face, face.When idle, I try to hold my hands in front of me, fingers touching so that they are aware of each other. This keeps me from idly reaching out and touching surfaces.Hopefully it keeps me from touching my nose and mouth and face.
I rub my hands across my nose and face.Dammit.I wash my hands.We each have different hand towels put in separate places.
These are extreme measures, perhaps far beyond what might be recommended in a normal situation.But you have to remember why:today is no longer today.
In our family, our today is eight days from now.
And what does that world look like on that day?That day is the day that Italy experienced seven days ago.On that day, California hospitals are beginning to feel overwhelmed.Triage rooms are filled. We do not have enough ventilators. We do not have enough physicians. My wife and many other physicians no longer have the luxury of performing telemedicine.On that day, physicians start to work fifteen hour shifts. Patients line the hallways on gurneys.Nurses and doctors and medical assistants start to break from the strain.Personal protective equipment is increasingly no longer readily available.Soon everybody knows someone who is sick or dying. As is presently happening in Italy, bodies start to accumulate in the churches and morgues.
And for that day, my wife needs to be well.We cannot get her sick.When she comes home, she cannot afford to have any additional vectors. All of our lives, not just in our family, but in our larger community, may depend on it.Touch a surface, wipe it down. Keep your distance.
And here is the crazy part of all this dystopian time travel.If we all do this, if we act in the extreme, if we actually succeed – then that tomorrow will never come.We will actually prevent a terrible future from happening.And then we will have the greatest of luxuries. Once again,today will only exist as today.
Our cat Jupiter who held dominion over our house for nearly 20 years – a third of a lifetime — passed away yesterday morning.
Jupiter was born in the summer of 2001 in the Taft dairy barn in Huntington, Vermont.She had the colorings of a Holstein. And though small, and short of leg, her muscles were strong and her temperament was fierce.She spent her first days with us in a small bed in the kitchen of Jubilee farm along the Huntington River.And a few weeks later a stranger brought her to us in Seattle as a carry on.
Jupiter had more volition and more natural ability than some people I know.One evening in Seattle when she was still a kitten, we came home and found her locked out of the house.She sat on the porch and glared at us through the pouring rain.She turned, walked to the door, leapt up, looped her paw through the front door handle, hung there and stared at us while she swatted at the latch attempting to open it.
Each day she would awaken before the sun rose, climb on my chest and tag me in the face.Sleepily, I would crawl out of bed and follow her to the kitchen.She insisted on leading, yet would stop every few steps, turn and tag me on the foot, as if to say, stay in line and follow in step.
For two decades all animals and people that came into our lives would sit or stand in abeyance to her.The dogs would refuse to mount the stairs or go through a door until she had stepped aside.
She lived in Vermont.And Seattle. And Hopi where unlike many other cats she managed to survive.She came to California.She prevailed through fires and floods and moves and evacuations.
Seven years ago, a Thai hunting dog seized her in his mouth and shook her like a rag doll. Even then she held her own, rendering the dogs snout into ribbons of scratches.A few years later, her appetite waned and we took her to the vet.He looked in her mouth. She has cancer he said.He gave her one to two days to live.We returned home and fed her milk as a form of palliative care.So much for cancer.The two days turned into four years.
Our daily routines became more contorted around her needs and desires.We would evict the other cats so that she could eat in peace.At other times the dogs would sit and stare from a distance. She would eat a small amount, cast them a glance and then walk away so that the dogs could have the rest.This is how she held her power.
In her last few months she refused to give.Friends would call and through the telephone they would hear her meow loudly.Is that Jupy? they would exclaim.
And in the very last month family members begged me to put her down. But even in her weakened state, she would exit the bathroom where she slept and make her way down the stairs to be with people and all the other creatures. She spent Thanksgiving surrounded and stood over by friends and family. Jupiter, of all animals, if she had the will to live, then dang it, she deserved to live.
During her last two days we were in San Francisco.The daughter of a friend spent the days at our house and fed and bathed her.When we returned home, Jupiter could no longer stand.I picked her up, lay on the couch and placed her on my tummy – her favorite place to be when she was a kitten.She purred and fell asleep.
We buried her this evening with a foundation stone and some manure from that dairy barn (long since torn down) where she came into this world. Beside her we placed some Taft maple syrup from the sugar bush just up the hill from where she was a born.
That cat kept everyone in line.Get up, she would say.I demand to be fed.It doesn’t matter if you are tired or sad or disheartened.This is not your time.Get up, she would insist, and get with the program.
During the last wind event of the Kincade Fire, I along with a few neighbors had returned to our Sebastopol homes to prepare for any flying embers. All of us had been without power or water for days.
PG&E was in a bummer of a position, I thought. “Sorry folks. We have to turn off the only service we provide. And if we turn it back on, it might kill you!” They were powerless.
I set to cleaning spoiled food from our fridge, raking up possible debris, setting aside additional possessions that I would take if I had to evacuate. As dusk fell and the Diablo wind picked up, I carried a box of perishables through the pitch down to our neighbor who had been running a generator.
While there, another neighbor walked in the door. She had just returned from a shelter. Alone in her darkened home, the stress of the previous days had overwhelmed her and she was having an emotional meltdown. She sat on on the floor and sobbed violently.
We did what we could to console. We made tea. We cooked up an Angus steak that had been on ice for a few days, opened up a jar of olives and braised some chard picked from the garden. We got some food in her. Others showed up. One with a bottle of Japanese whiskey. It became a kind of mid-apocalypse party.
We told our neighbor that she was fine, that she was safe. She was surrounded by powerful people. One of them, after all, even had power. But then I realized that she may have been the most powerful one of all. If not for her, we would all have been sitting alone in our darkened homes. If not for her, we would not all have come together.
First and foremost, Anna and I would like to thank everyone for their concern.We and all the animals are safe and things are temporarily stable.
In short, it’s kind of like in the olden days when every so often you‘d go outside and see a big fire breathing dragon a few miles away up on the ridge line.You knew that at least for a little while you might be fine.But then….It’s kind of like that.
And for those wanting a little more narrative detail, here you go. There might be some helpful tidbits for those who find themselves in a similar situation:
Our dog Tierra and I had been in San Diego for the previous 10 days.On Wednesday, a Sebastopol neighbor called me after midnight (thank you, Toby).He was out of town, but had word of a blaze that had ignited near Geyserville.He was worried, he said, about the wind speed on the ridges.The winds were gusting at 90 mph, driving the flames 200 feet in the air. The next morning I looked at the weather projections for the coming week and my amygdala went into overdrive.In anticipation of the current situation, I composed a meticulous multi-paged fire preparedness punchlist, organized by event and threat level, and I emailed the list to Anna.And yes, in case you’re wondering, Anna’s attorneys could easily put forward the document as evidence if she were ever to initiate divorce proceedings.
Sick as she was with a bronchial infection, Anna started preparing on Thursday.She wet down the property (before the well power would go), filled buckets and trashcans with water, schlepped family archives and photos and journals to the steel shipping container (still on the property from when we rented out our house to Tubbs fire victims), loaded the cars, charged her electric car and all devices, etc.
We stayed in intermittent communication. She prepared all through Saturday until the power was cut.She could not access the internet (even on her phone), but I was able to keep her apprised of the situation and sent text updates from San Diego. Evacuation warnings were issued that evening. By then I had decided to come home, but couldn’t leave because I had misplaced both sets of glasses. With limited night vision it would have been foolish to drive the 10 hours in the dark.I lay down at a midnight, but continued to check notices on my phone through the night until the mandatory evacuation order was issued at 4:30 am.
Tierra and I got on the road. I figured it would be light by the time I hit the Tejon Pass and I could drive blind until then.A dear friend texted and said I could pick up some Latvian pirogs on my way out.I stopped in Oceaside at 5:30 am, scrambled some eggs, placed them on a stack of Latvian rye bread, and grabbed the pirogs (Thank you Raz and Velta Sulcs!).Most important of all, Raz gave me her glasses (Thank you again, Raz).
Back home, our friend Toby helped Anna carry the remaining irreplaceable items into the steel container. The thousand dollars of All Clad? Replaceable. The moldy journal from high school? Not. Anna loaded three dogs and three cats into her car. She left the chickens. With Jupiter clambering back and forth on the dash,she called for advice on evacuation routes because she could no longer access Google Maps. I pulled over at the Las Pulgas rest stop at Camp Pendleton and took a look. The patterns were self-evident. Rather than descend into the line of dead standstill evacuee traffic on the Gravenstein Highway, I encouraged her to drop off the back ridge from our home into Valley Ford from where she was able to quickly make it to Petaluma where one of her patients had generously offered up a one room cottage.
I continued on up the 405 – fortunately the Getty blaze had not yet ignited. The Central Valley was a sea of dust.The winds were sufficiently strong to create white caps on the California Aquaduct.
Dropping in to the Bay Area, the skies were eerily clear and things felt strangely quiet.Power had been shut off to much of the Berkeley and Oakland hills.I thought it curious how even close to major situations, life can continue to feel quite normal.
I arrived in west county around 1:30 pm.With no power anywhere in Marin, I couldn’t get gas, but I did find a zone in Petaluma that still had functioning pumps.
In Petaluma I entered a 21st century climate change version of Noah’s Ark.It’s definitely not as big as they make it out to be in the Bible.But we are so very grateful and it is definitely cozy and welcome.I, along with all the animals and a sick and exhausted Anna, are now clustered together in the small room. We have internet via our phones.And we’re close enough to home where I can check on our property.
I visited the house last night and it was definitely a little spooky and forlorn. The winds have desiccated many things.Water and power are off.A pallor of smoke infuses the air.I ferried more things tothe shipping container and fed and watered the chickens. Tierra sniffed and explored the perimeter. I checked adjacent properties for fallen trees. I foundmy first edition copy of Stephens Hopi Journals and Titiev’s Study of the Hopi (one of only two type written original copies that exist in the world) and placed them in the car. After I locked up, I felt like I was forgetting something. I returned to the darkened house. I rummaged in the warming freezer and there I found it. I grabbed the foie gras.
I drove south through the smoky pitch.By the time I reached Petaluma, the winds were receding. Anna was passed out. I crawled into bed.Tierra jumped on top of me and we fell fast asleep.
As for the current situation:
Last night fire containment slipped from 10% to 5% and the grew from 55k acres to 66k.Firefighters were battling most of the night to control the blaze in the Foothills Park neighborhood in Windsor (you can see the concentration of hotspots on the Sonoma Incidence map).They are also working to hold the line at the 101 Freeway.
Depending on the shifting winds, smoke can be pretty bad.Presently (Monday afternoon) much of it appears to be blowing south toward San Francisco and the Bay.
The biggest present concern will be what happens when the second wind event hits tomorrow afternoon thru Wednesday.The 50 mph winds will be coming from the north east.If they carry embers over the 101 it will be a big problem and could spread quickly down the entire Russian River corridor. Our property would be in the path of that event.
For those who are concerned and want to follow, you can check out the dynamic incident and wind maps I posted on Facebook.
At present, however, we are all fine and any effect has been largely collateral:At our home, no power and no water.Lots of smoke.And us and our animals living in our own private refugee camp in Petaluma.
For those who know the full demographics of our household, Jupiter, our 18 year old Vermont barn cat (thank you Bruce and Mary Taft!) is napping in the cottage bathroom. Every so often she comes out and demands that we get with the program.I love having her here because she is the definition of fortitude and resilience.
At a recent North Bay Bob Dylan tribute, I met a biochemist who manufactured blood proteins to treat hemophilia,.As we talked, however, she announced that one day her work would go away.
She explained that blood coagulant requires twelve distinct proteins.The genomes of hemophiliacs, it turns out, are unable to manufacture number eight.But it’s now possible to engineer a virus that contains the missing gene sequence.And if we introduce the virus to hemophiliac bone marrow, the DNA will repair and gain the ability to manufacture the missing protein.It all sounded miraculous and strange.
Musicians took up their instruments and the lilting chime of Mr. Tambourine Man filled the room.
Fifteen months ago, a young Greta Thunberg left school and held a sign outside the Swedish Parliament. She stood alone. Skolstrejk för Klimatet her sign read.
A year later, millions of young people around the globe struck for climate change.
In this long hot summer without precedence in human history, it feels indeed as if our planet is burning with fever.And yet I feel tremendous hope. I marvel at the mechanisms by which the genome of the body politic can repair itself.Change does not come just through governmental edict, but can sometimes begin with a single act.Any small act taken by any one of us. We need not wait to take those small, but necessary and infectious steps — gene therapy, if you will — that will allow our children to have a future.
We need a system change, rather than individual change, Thunburg said to the body of the UN.
On the eve of the invasion, the Allied commander penned a letter in the event of defeat. “The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do,” he wrote. “If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.”
Before dawn, 13,000 boys fell out of the sky into the hedgerows of Normandy. My mother-in-law’s father was among them. Don Bowman was a radio man in C Company, 501st Regiment, 101st Airborne. Each by each, the boys flew off the stick into a hail of fire. One out of five would die that day. Bowman did not.
There was the Day of Days.
And then there were the days after.
Bowman’s military records hint at his story.That year the 101st fought their way across Europe. Operation Market Garden. The Ardenne. Battle of the Bulge. Liberation of Dachau. Eagles Nest. One Purple Heart. A Bronze Star for meritorious valor.
Bullet after bullet.
Medal after medal.
Body after body.
Until victory was had.
But even in victory, the price paid cannot be measured. In 1969, estranged from his family, alone in Los Angeles, an alcoholic traumatized by war, Don Bowmanpurchased himself a cemetery plot.
When asked to list friends or family, he wrote, “None.”
Those boys gave their lives to save Europe. And now that confederation is being abandoned for want of leadership and the erosive force of nationalist and isolationist fervor.
On this day I think of Don Bowman.
I think that perhaps we owe him more than simple remembrance.
People gathering near the cathedral in August 1944 after Allied forces recaptured Paris.
Why does the burning of Our Lady affect me so?
I’m not a practicing Catholic or even a Christian really. So why should this conflagration matter?
Although I am not of Christian faith, Christian tropes do apply here.
The Notre Dame Cathedral was designed in the form of a cross, and the bell towers stand at the position of Christ’s feet when he was brutally nailed to that Tree of Life.
The spire once rose directly above the center of the architectural crucifix – that ashen vehicle of sacrifice – and when the spire burned and fell, it pierced the nave like a spear piercing the heart, not of Christ, but of the Christ.
And like the original crucifixion was so intended, this sacrifice may perhaps have shaken us again from a slumber.
When the great teacher and expositor of belief Joseph Campbell was once asked where he prayed, he answered simply, “Notre Dame,” Our Lady. Even if he had not been there in years, he explained, her profound space was still his spiritual home.
But the sorrow over her burning is not about denomination. Nor is it necessarily about Christianity or Islam or any other belief system. The burning matters not so much because it is even a religious thing.
It matters because it is a human thing.
It matters because for many it was a place of secular pilgrimage. How many of us have taken pictures of ourselves with family or a fiancé there among the gargoyles and demons, as if to say, we one day will die, but here, if just for a moment, we once lived and we once loved.
It matters because Notre Dame is the symbolic center of France (and you could even argue modern Europe and in general the West) – Ground Zero if you will – from which all distances are measured.
And the center – in a time in which the center struggles to hold – matters.
In his recent book, The Road to Unfreedom, Yale historian Timothy Snyder documents how in a highly calculated way foreign actors have worked to undermine political and social cohesion in the United States and in Europe. A third of Brexit twitter posts were generated by bots as part of a covert Russian media and troll campaign. The same forces have launched sophisticated social media campaigns in the Ukraine, Hungary, Poland, France, and the US intended to invalidate liberal democracies. Deliberate untruths foment social divisions, including the Yellow Vest movement that has torn apart Paris.
But this is not just about one nation’s imperatives pitted against another. It concerns an assault on truth itself. We are being incited to let ourselves be governed by emotion and impulse, by vague belief in what we wish to be true and not in facts themselves.
As our fears are stoked, the spectres of authoritarian governments have risen across Europe and within the United States. Authoritarian leaders do not necessarily seize power. Afraid, we willingly give it up.
In this strange world, fact and truth are denigrated. Chaos becomes the brand, disintegration the goal. By turning us against each other, more can be accomplished than through a multitude of guns.
As our passions become inflamed, the centre cannot hold.
And without a moral or spiritual or truth-bound center, unhealthy impulses grow to fill the void. We frame anyone beyond our immediate tribe as outsiders to be either vilified or feared or destroyed. We turn our selves away from one other.
It took 183 years to build Notre Dame, slightly less time than the United States itself has even existed. Our Lady represents the greatest of human endeavors – that painstaking and collaborative work that contributes in some small way to a great edifice beyond our own cognition. Something so vast in conception that in Our Lady’s first construction, neither the first stone masons nor their children nor their grandchildren would ever live to see her completion.
She is about honoring something greater than one’s self.
Call it the perfection of democracy. Or human emancipation, or equality, or the extension of universal rights to all forms of life, or the prevailing of truth over momentary whim or lies or fancy.
So, strangely then, her burning may now promote a different kind of faith. Not necessarily in God, but perhaps in us. Not the us vs. them, but the very center that is simply the collective and embracing us.
For decades the foundation dedicated to preserving Notre Dame struggled to raise funds. But in the hours after the fires were extinguished, more than 600 million euros poured in from donations both quite large and incomparably small. We donate because, perhaps, we’ve been awakened to the thought that the center must indeed hold.
Her burning matters because it reminds us of the profound need to come together in a time when individuals and forces are doing all that they can to drive us apart.
A deluge of rain outside, though the air is saturated with a brilliant light.
Perhaps these are not great things, but they are the small matter that is my life.
I intended to reflect this morning on this slightly beyond the midpoint, but instead I found myself texting the son of a friend who sat somewhat bored in his high school history class in Rhode Island.
Why?Because he faces forward.And because I am facing back.And I can’t help but think that he could use an outstretched hand if not from me, than perhaps his future self.Someone perhaps to just assure him that everything is going to be alright.
On most days I work on the creek.Our friends call it Frog Creek, but I call it the Mighty Froggy. I imagine it as having the grandiosity of the Mississippi, the potent history of the Ganges, the raging force of the Amazon.
But it’s really just a little creek that cuts across the property.
And when asked, I tell people that I’m restoring it, but really I just spend a few hours each day carrying about buckets of dirt and stone debris and placing fallen branches against the banks.
I watch how the water flows.I’ve learned a little bit about water and silt.I’m slowly learning the personality and rhythm’s of this little stretch of water and the plants and animals that co-inhabit it.I tell myself that by doing this I am making the world a better place.
Granted, it’s not much.So little in fact, that my wife rightly asks if that’s what I want to be doing with my life.
The answer is, well, no.But it is, in fact, what I am doing.For whatever that’s worth.
On the occasion of his fortieth birthday, Joseph Brodsky wrote
I have waded the steppes that saw yelling Huns in saddles,
worn the clothes nowadays back in fashion in every quarter,
planted rye, tarred the roofs of pigsties and stables,
guzzled everything save dry water.
Even with an additional 14 years logged, my life has lacked such grandeur.I have braved neither wild beasts nor steel cages.Depending of course on what kind of steel cages to which one might be referring.
Brodsky was born in Leningrad, but I might hazard that he was really born in St. Petersburg, or affectionately known as Pyötr by native born Russians.
His language seems to predate all things Soviet. And his body now sleeps in the San Michelle Cemetery, in the Venice lagoon, in the spit of that city that he so loved, the canaled dream that he ventured to only in winter because it reminded him of some foggy glassine version of the city from which he’d come.
Fitting that the rising oceans will subsume equally his native city and his final resting place.
The summer after he won the Nobel prize I was in Moscow during the optimistic dead center years of perestroika.I was there on a general tourist visa under the auspices of Volunteers for Peace which sponsored non-traditional tourism in the Soviet Union.While there, the organizer, Peter Coldwell from Vermont, fell ill, or broke his back or legs or something, and he had to return home.I was one of the few participants who spoke a bit of Russian so he asked me to assist two graduate students at Moscow State University in coordinating things for the group.
The day after Peter left, however, the students, pulled all 25 of us together.They were exhausted, yet running on a kind of manic energy.They had to apologize.It was terrible, they said, but they had done the impossible.It had taken days, but an opportunity had presented itself and at unheard of pace and through good fortune they had commandeered the necessary papers and resources. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity, they tearfully explained, for which they had to abandon everything. In a few hours they would board a plane and they would fly to New York City in America.They were going to visit Joseph Brodsky.
You are in charge, now, they told me.And one sobbed and hugged me as he stepped off the bus.I’m so sorry we are letting you all down, he said.I am so sorry.
On my 54th birthday I wonder about those two graduate students.And I wonder about the conversations that they must have had with the poet.
And I wonder if this in fact even happened, or if it happened in the way that I recall.If our lives are composed of memories and those memories themselves are suspect, then what really do we have left to call our own?
We all are in the process of dying.
I think today of friends who, if not dying, are driving perilously close to the abyss.And I can say for certain that such a vantage, despite its commensurate fear and sadness, promotes a heightened if not unwelcome sense of living.That’s not meant as a consolation because there can be none.So it stands only as an assertion of limited truth.
I think of you all because you’re the ones I want in the room right now.
This morning I also binge listen to my daughter’s music.I listen to her all of seventeen singing on an open stage one of the first songs she had ever written.
She writes far more fluently than I ever did at her age. And I would trade all my future years for the youthfulness and competence and execution of her written voice.
So perhaps if ever there were to be a suggestion of what I’m feeling on this day, fifty-four years from when I was born, it would be this.
And I tell myself as I do each year, I am going to write something for you all.
As a 14 year old girl she travelled on foot the breadth of Europe fleeing the advancing Soviet troops. If she and her father and brother had not fled their native country, they would have died. Their knowledge of this fate was so certain that they eventually risked death to escape it. And for that, they journeyed on a hard, hard road.
My mother would spend her teen years in displaced persons camps in Germany. For five years she lived in detention. She did not have a country that she could go back to. And neither did she have a new one to which she could belong.
And she was abandoned in more ways than one. Her mother died during the war. In flight as a young girl, she was separated from her father for months at a time. These things took their toll. Later in life she would have a hard time forming attachments. She was prone to depression. As a grown woman, she would have difficulty sleeping. She would cry uncontrollably in the night. She was short of temper. In her bouts of sadness and rage, she could sometimes be violent.
But then again, perhaps she had it easy. In February 1945, as a young girl she joined hundreds of thousands of European refugees as they pressed toward the Elbe river. The Yalta Conference had just concluded, and by word of mouth, she learned where the borders would be drawn. Get across the Elbe, the people told one another. Across the Elbe you will be with the Americans.
My mother and brother were instructed to make peace with the American soldiers when they arrived. They were told to just surrender. If nothing else, at least you will get fed, people said. That was quite often the sentiment, my uncle once recalled. You will get fed and you will be taken care of.
Because the Americans don’t mistreat their prisoners.
Bread, the very symbol of daily sustenance across time and cultures. And to Andrew Lewis and his World War II surviving family members a special bread has special meaning.
As a last act before a recent move, I baked two loaves of rupmaize.
It’s basically a Latvian rye bread – but it’s much more than that, partly because it’s much less. It’s essentially rye flour, water, a little yeast, and some sort of yogurt or kefir (call it turned milk). Mix it up, let the yeasts start to do their thing and then throw in a warm box (call it an oven) to arrest the action. You end up with these loaves that are some crazy cross between that hearty bread eaten by dwarves and that ethereal cake of which elves partake. It’s both sweet and sour. And it sustains.
During World War II, when Latvian families were loading up their wagons preparing for evacuation, no doubt women all over the countryside were hastily wrapping still warm rupmaize in cloth and packing it in baskets. It’s powerful stuff: One slice in the morning and you’re good until mid-day when a second slice keeps you going until afternoon. It can keep you fed when you may not have access to a kitchen for days or months on end.
The year I lived in Cleveland with my aunt and uncle, my uncle would end the day with a slice of rupmaize and some tea. As part of his ornate ritual, he would fill a ceramic mug with deep black tea and would slowly lather a slice of rupmaize with butter and honey. This was his dessert. He was very particular in the details and I remember him once giggling as he explained them to me. But I was only twelve and I didn’t get it.
For my uncle, a survivor of war and tragedy, this was sacrament. Literally, give us this day our daily bread. As if to say, this stuff is the staff of life. We deserve no more, and just this is enough. A little bit will carry us in a time of need.
A few nights ago, some critter got our chickens. The coop latches had been chewed off, the door pulled down.
Bobcats are neat and artistic in their massacres. Coyotes: they take everything. But here, two Buff Orpingtons lay dead in an area of matted grass and strewn feathers. A third bird was gone entirely. So probably a raccoon which kills for the killing sake.
I grabbed the two dead hens and carried them into the kitchen. Years ago, a neighbor had killed an orphaned raven that I’d been raising. I was away at the time and the house sitter had buried the bird carcass in the desert. A dear friend – an omnivore woodsman from rural Maine – lamented that “it was a terrible waste of perfectly good protein.”
So, that evening I go about the dirty business. I set a pot of water on the stove on a medium heat. I dunk the birds in the water. Again and again. And again until the feather’s slip from the flesh as if from butter.
I strip all the down from the body, revealing the teeth marks and contusions. The birds had been savaged until their necks had snapped.
I severed the heads with a cleaver and then incised the rumps and reached in and removed the gray feces filled intestines, the ruby heart and livers wedded in deep yellow orbs of fat. It smelled distasteful and putrid.
The gathered fat, an unearthly gold, was a different matter. I would render it slowly at low temperature into that delicacy which generations of itinerant and dispossessed would call “schmaltz” — the ignominious word for that crucial ingredient in chicken soup that may perhaps make you well, and that thing that lends the crisp to latkes. It’s that thing that can only be extracted from a bird that has known a real life; that thing which at the very least gives meaning to death.
These sentient creatures loved to explore our home and sit on our porch. What more can I do than to ensure that their being will in some way become a part of me and that it will matter?
Yesterday afternoon, I disassembled our deep amber American Empire bed. In a few weeks I will drive it to San Diego.
My wife’s family hails from Texas, part of the original Texas Five Hundred. When we first met thirty years ago, she spoke wistfully about her house growing up – the old wooden furniture, the strange objects and curios repurposed by her parents. But her family had dissolved and the furniture had been cast to various storage lockers and garages of relatives and strangers.
I dreamt that one day we would rebuild that life for her, that we would bring that furniture together in a some grand house, and appoint that space with her childhood memories and somehow make her life whole again.
Which over time we did. The last couple bits, including this ancient bed from East Texas — the bed, we imagined, of her great grandmother and the bed of her parents came to find it’s home in Sebastopol. We fit it with an organic latex mattress. And now life, I thought, could once again be whole.
Except not so much. The headboard was too tall and would not fit in any room except that master bed. But the bed itself was small – more narrow than a full, and of such insufficient length that it betrayed how height deprived our ancestors truly were. When our dog jumped in the bed, we were truly squished.
And now we’ve come to abandon our house, making room for a family that lost their own home to the Sonoma fires. We are clearing our home of detritus, of those things – all those things – that don’t work. The new family is coming with their own king sized mattress. And so one afternoon I call my wife at work. “I think we should get rid of the bed,” I tell her.
Get rid of it, she answers. Her family failed to survive an alcoholic father and the suicide of her mother. I look at this American Empire, and I think, some things can’t ever, in all their undoing, be reconstituted. The only thing left, well, is to seize the future and make life new again.
And perhaps, that is what that bed was meant to be.
Recently as a last act before an upcoming move, I baked two loaves of rupmaize.
It’s basically a Latvian rye bread – but it’s much more than that, partly because it’s much less.
It’s essentially rye flour, water, a little yeast if you want, and some sort of yogurt or kefir (call it turned milk). Mix it up, let the yeasts and bacterias start to do their thing and then throw in a warm box (i.e. oven) to arrest the action.
You end up with these loaves that are some crazy cross between that hearty bread eaten by dwarves and that ethereal cake of which elves partake.
It’s both sweet and sour. And it sustains. In 1944 when Latvian families were loading up their wagons preparing for evacuation, no doubt women all over the countryside were hastily wrapping still warm rupmaize in cloth and packing it in baskets.
It’s powerful stuff – one slice in the morning and you’re good until mid-day when a second slice keeps you going until afternoon repast. It can keep you fed when you may not have access to a kitchen for days or months on end.
In the year I lived in Cleveland with my Uncle Eriks and Aunt Ingrid, I recall how many evenings after dinner, Eriks would end the day with a slice of rupmaize and some black tea. I may entirely be making this up, but I remember this ritual where he would sit at the kitchen table and would fill a ceramic mug with deep black tea and he would lather a slice of rupmaize with butter and jam.
This was his dessert.
He was very particular in the details and I remember him once giggling as he explained them to us.
But I was only twelve and I didn’t get it then.
For my uncle, a survivor of war and tragedy, this was sacrament. Literally, give us this day our daily bread. As if to say, this stuff is the staff of life. Just a little bit will carry us in a time of need.
And we all have, in every moment, a time of need.
So in this moment, on this morning, I think of my Aunt Ingrid who baked the bread. And my Uncle Eriks who so appreciated it. And for both these things I thank them.
The evening of the Falcon Heavy launch, my wife Anna and I sat at home and watched at the video stream of Starman driving oh so calm past the planet Earth before his booster launched him into the middle reaches of the Solar System.
Anna grew teary eyed. “You know,” she laughed, “that’s what makes our country so cool. A Dane would never do it that way. Only an American would think to do something like that.”
I know. The Vikings, the original nordic explorers, were in fact Danes. David Bowie was a Brit. Nikolai Tesla was Croatian. And yes, Elon Musk is from South Africa. Which is perhaps the point.
I think what Anna was getting at was not an America that is different or opposed to the world, but one that is the world. An America composed of all people who have a belief that there in fact might be something better or different over the horizon, that at the very least there is going to be a future, and gosh darn it, with a laugh and spring to my step, I’m going to find it.
Innovation and exploration, two fundamental aspects of this thing we call America, are fundamentally ridiculous acts: they both are premised on a belief in something that does not yet exist. It means doing something simply because it’s crazy, or at the very least to show that it can be done.
And what could be a more American (and ridiculous) gesture – to cast into the sky a hunk of metal equipped with four tires, and set it’s crash test dummy driver toward a horizon that is truly boundless.
It’s the ultimate car commercial – as if to say, “look at how great we are,” and then with a chuckle, “and how truly small.”
Those two competing ideas can and must coexist if we are to go out and beyond.
No doubt they were present in the minds of countless young people as they gazed at that small red car as it left the orbit of our Earth (reminding us all not to panic) and they thought secretly to themselves, “I’m going to go there.”
This morning, an alumni retreated into the courtyard from the locked gate of Branford College.
“How do we get out of here?” she pleaded.
The answer can be simple.
You put on your running shoes. You wait until someone enters from the outside. You slip out the gate. And you set out for parts unknown.
While in school, my attention (perhaps our attention) was turned inward toward whatever adventures and drama were insulated within those many stone courtyards. Rarely did I venture beyond the bounds of the residential colleges. And if I did, only a few blocks distant to a late night falafel joint or a beeline to the pizza at Wooster Square.
But I was rarely driven, nor did I incite myself, to truly explore. It was impressed upon us that beyond the moated buildings of our campus lurked threats and dangers. It was better to stay safe.
On this morning I ran out on Chapel Street.
To my chagrin, I was reminded that I never learned the cardinal directions of this landscape. I lived here for four years and never thought to contemplate the prevailing winds or through what tributaries and estuaries the water flowed. I didn’t know how the neighborhoods and town functioned.
Today on this run I learned that there had once been a blizzard in 1888 that had dumped 52 inches of snow over three days.
I learned that double streetcar tracks once ran out into the countryside, far beyond any point that I could imagine.
On several corners I saw connects hanging out, waiting for their peeps.
I saw Seventh Day Adventists dressed up and walking to worship.
I discovered a wetland laced with paths and trails.
I saw a monument to the Spanish American War, but stripped of it’s memorial plaque. I wondered about pyrrhic victories and what would drive someone to remove the plaque, and was reminded that every victory implies another person’s loss.
I discovered a skate park.
I found a boy who could ride a wheelie for a very long time while spinning his front wheel in the air like a top.
I learned that cattails are native to the wetland, and that they are under constant threat from the advancing phragmites. If you look closely, you can see them preparing for onslaught, amassing in the distance.
I remembered that the world is ripe for teaching if we choose to learn.
I was reminded that the victor always controls what and whom we choose to memorialize.
And perhaps, in this case, that the victory was premised not on an absence of slavery, but on the promotion of an economic arrangement that merely privileged slavery in a different form.
I learned that Joan Baez and the Doors had once played in the New Haven Arena. In it’s stead, an FBI building now stands.
I learned that there once was a man named Camp. And he played football at Yale Bowl. He developed the snapback from center and the system of downs, things of which I still have scant inkling.
I learned that a network of rail lines once filagreed throughout New England and that this network capillaries once promoted all manner of human interaction and communication. I longed to travel and engage in that way.
I saw how community is woven from the most frail and ephemeral of connections. And that connection may be that thing for which, in whatever way possible, we must constantly strive.
I realized that although Yale may have been my whaling ship, it was an ever beautiful and ever imperfect vessel indeed.
That’s what the masseuse Laura said as she did some Lomi Lomi thing on my back yesterday. Double-triple Aquarians (whoever they are) have a really hard time on these islands, she said. They just kind of float out into space. But you need land. You need to be grounded. And there’s not much of that here.
Laura’s Lomi Lomi, I guess, may be immaculate proof of that.
It really was a string of non-sequiturs, a string of non-sequiturs that had an audience of precisely. . .zero.
So post it I did.
Then some people read it. And one person in particular, Poppy Davis. (Some day ask me for the Poppy story). And Poppy shared the post with some of her friends. And then things kind of blew up. Because one of those friends happened to be Laura who in a former life had worked for Bill Graham Presents. And so the post went to her FB and then to all the former Bill Graham staff and acolytes and that all apparently turned into a conversation. And it turns out that Laura is here on Maui. Not only is she here on Maui, but she’s, like, two blocks away from our new hotel in Wailea.
And not only is she two blocks away, but she just worked a benefit that involved Jackson Browne and Wavy Gravy among other musicians and they had all come to Hawaii and were booked at….you guessed it….the hotel from which we had checked out.
And like us, the talent couldn’t take it. They found the environment strangely strange. One singer left to stay somewhere else. Wavy Gravy was weirded out (and that guy comes pre-weirded. I imagine it might take a lot to further weird him out…) Who knows on what dark and lonely road Jackson Browne set himself trudging.
So that’s how we ended up with Laura the fantastic traveling masseuse from Na Alii Massage in our hotel getting fantastic complimentary massages. Laura wanted to make sure that I got all the dead body ju-ju out of my system. Which she certainly did.
And on the way, I learned where to get good fish tacos. And about Laura’s husband who is way into history. In particular WWII history. And in particular what went down in Eastern Europe and precisely who’s village was slaughtered by whom. And about an elder relative who in her 80’s had nowhere to go until she heard from someone that in New Mexico you could live in University dorms as long as you attended classes. So this ancient woman enrolled in some classes, moved into the dorms, hoarded shit to the ceiling, and all the other freshman students kind of looked after her. It went on for years. And about how one can be trapped (by addiction, by life, by whatever) and the discipline of self that can help one break free.
I also learned about the second-to-last-Jewish-refugee kid to be adopted from the Army barracks in upstate New York. And a little more about why a man who should have been so reviled was in fact so loved. “Bill Graham single-handedly created the system,” Laura said. “He was the one who built the socket that allowed millions of people to plug into the Universe.” The Dead on their own? They couldn’t have done it. They were the channel, but they needed this huge system – a system of Graham’s devising – to make it happen.
In 1988 soon after Anna and I started dating we went to a New Year’s show at the Oakland Coliseum. Anna had confessed that she didn’t really like the Dead. She said that she would have preferred watching the The Tom-Tom Club comprised of the leftover members of the Talking Heads. That night they were playing their own New Year’s show at the Warfield over in San Francisco. But there we were, in the Oakland Coliseum, waiting for something to happen. There was some warm up band that I can’t remember. They left. Then the lights went down. More folks walked on stage and picked up there instruments. It was none other than the Tom-Tom Club. And they began to play.
That was Bill Graham.
So floaty floaty we’ve been the last few days. If you asked me what exactly we did after the massages, I’d be hard pressed to tell you. Give it up to the wind and water.
Except for one more thing. Remember the pig boat to Moloka’i? Well when we didn’t get on it, we had to call Anna’s friend on the other island and tell her we weren’t coming.
No worries, she said. She would just get on a plane and come here. Soon, very soon, the wind and water will carry me (and by extension you) into her story.
Today’s rout includes stories about running, smart phones, strongmen, and choices. And also about the screwed up way that we roll when we travel.
The facts? Severely non-interesting. We ran in the morning. We bought some fruit. We read on the beach at Ka’anapali. We floated in the water. We drove south and checked into a hotel in Kihei and switched rooms once and hotels once. I walked in the dark to Wailea.
We had a few conversations with other people. But I had at least four thoughts.
1. Andy’s Philosophy of Running. When you run, you’re mapping your body to the landscape. My favorite kind of running is just running around: – the kind where you don’t know where you’re going and you go down that path until it intersects with this path and then you follow a trail to just see where it goes and sometimes you double back around and find yourself in some totally unexpected place.
It’s exploration by running. In the process you feel the air of the place. You feel the different and ever changing texture of the volcanic and coral ground. And spiderwebs in the face. And the sounds and fragrances and cast of light that are unique to every place and each sliver of the day.
It’s a great way to get around.
2. Seeking. A few weeks ago Mazie wanted to get rid of her smartphone. I keep looking at it, she said, expecting to find something inside that’s never there.
It’s as true a statement as any. We have wedded ourselves to a device of wanting, one that leaves us perpetually leaving the moment and physical space that we presently inhabit to go find something somewhere else. I believe the Device has reinforced us as a nation of dissatisfied seekers. At every moment we have the somatic experience of wanting to fill “dead space” by peering into an object for something that is not there.
At the same time, we enter the Device because we want to be anchored in certainty. We look at the Map app to know exactly where we are. We go to Yelp to make sure we go to a good restaurant. In an idle moment we tap on Google News and scan the headlines so we know exactly what may be happening elsewhere in the world at that moment.
Yet the more we outsource our native intelligence to a smart device, how more dumb do we as individuals become?
So here’s the embarrassing confession. On this trip we’ve tried (and sadly it does take trying) to disengage from the devices. In any given moment, rather than turning to the device for the answer, we’ve had to turn back to the world and back to people. That’s where a lot of the conversations have come from.
Sadly, the feeling is strangely revelatory. And even more strangely, this was how we would move through the world as recently as a decade ago. It changes everything.
I used to pride myself on my sense of geography and direction. And in the brief span of the Device Era, I’ve all but lost it. So over the last few days when we drive and we haven’t known where we are, we’ve had to look around and think about it for a moment and let the landscape tell us. Or we just go and hope to get to where we’re going. Or we ask someone for directions and listen closely to the landmarks they mention because those are the keys to finding your way around. I begin to feel like myself again.
We ask people on the sidewalk where they would get a good cup of coffee. Random people on the street tell us where to run or to find the best poke. We look for signs and pieces of paper. I’m craving paper. Paper newspaper. Paper maps. Paper paper. Something that feels material and textured.
There’s still MapMyRun (I do it because the maps are kind of totems and when I run around randomly it’s nice to know how far I’ve gone.) And there’s the Facebook (a lot of times I feel like just some guy floating out there and FB provides a feeling of connectedness). But even these things it may be soon time to ditch.
3. The Benevolent Strongman. This is not a non-sequitur! Rather it’s exactly the sort of thing one can think about while lying on a beach in Hawai’i.
The man in the White House and Bill Graham are/were strongmen. Why, I wonder, do I detest one and have an abiding love and appreciation for the other? Strongmen are usually damaged souls. Bill Graham certainly was – as damaged as any soul that has ever been.
It’s one of my favorite stories that I never mind retelling. So for those who don’t know:
Wolfgang Grajonca was born in Berlin in 1931 during the restoration of the Reich.
When his father died shortly after, his mother kept him and his five siblings alive by selling fake flowers and costume jewelry in Berlin markets.
In 1938, the year of Kristalnacht, his mother placed him and his sister Tolia in a children’s home to save them.
His mother and remaining siblings would later be gassed on the way to Auschwitz. He would never see them again.
At the onset of the war, Wolfgang and the other orphans would be evacuated to France.
In 1941, when Paris fell to the Germans, the International Red Cross escorted 64 children on foot and by bus to Lyons. Wolfgang’s baby sister Tolia became sick with pneumonia and was left behind in an infirmary. Grajonca would never see her again.
The 10 year old boy then walked to Marseilles and from there he was carried to Madrid. And Lisbon. And Casablanca. And Dakar. He was placed on a boat to America and survived on cookies and oranges. When he arrived in New York Harbor on September 24th, 1941, he weighed 55 lbs. Of the original 64 children evacuated from the orphanage, only 11 would arrive in America.
Those refugee orphans were taken to Army barracks in upstate New York. One by one the eleven children were adopted by families who were paid 48 dollars a month to take Jewish children. There Wolfgang waited for nine weeks. He was the very last child to be taken.
And I’m fairly sure that somewhere in that time, deep in the core of that little boy, that is when he decided that no one. Absolutely no one. Would ever. Ever. Fuck with him again.
That’s when he became Bill Graham.
I believe he understood people in a fundamentally profound way. He knew that, after a Dead show let’s say, when you have a whole lot of people not in their right mind, that all those people needed somewhere safe to go. So in this case, he set it up so that no one would have to leave – they could all stay camped out in the parking lot for as long as they needed. But (and this is important) he also understood that in order to have the parking lot, you also needed rules. And for rules to work, you also need an enforcer. And if you operate in a world of the vain glorious and narcissistic and among those who lust for power (which was the world of rock ‘n roll) – you needed someone who was willing to fight back and fight back hard and was not afraid to leave bodies and hurt feelings in his wake. He didn’t care. I believe he was fundamentally driven by a misanthropic view of humanity. Yet (and this is where he may differ from the other guy), I believe he genuinely cared for other people – he longed deeply in a way that he could perhaps not articulate for something righteous and good. “This. is. Your. Fucking. Job,” I imagine him saying. “Do. Your. Job.”
Once at a New Year’s show, my brother-in-law Vaughan was standing on the floor and looked over to see Graham standing right there beside him. “Yo man,” someone asked. “What are you doing here?”
Graham shrugged. “I wanted to be down here with the the freaks,” he said.
In a sense, Graham was a kind of Holden Caufield: the wounded soul who struggled angrily – sad and valiant – to catch the innocent as they tumbled into that field of rye.
4. Where You’re At. Anna got up at 2 am the other night so she could finish up a boatload of work before the close of the weekend. She sat there at a wooden table in an old Lahaina hotel while the drunken loudly caroused home in the street below. “It doesn’t matter what you’re doing where you’re at,” I reminded her. “As long as you’re where you’re at.” Which is another way to say that it doesn’t matter if you’re in front of a computer screen at two in the morning if that computer screen is on a wooden desk in a delightful old room in Hawai’i.
And with that said, yesterday afternoon we checked into the Maui Coast in Kihei.
What we had imagined: Anna’s conference was in Wailea. No rooms available. But whatever. We’ll be in Maui. We’ll stay in Kihei and each morning we could ride bikes to Wailea and what delightful mornings those will be. When we arrive they have no rooms readied, but no prob, we say they can take their time. We are absolutely fine. Mary the reservation lady, visibly relieved, suggests that we check out the strip malls down the street.
My heart begins to sink.
We ask about the bikes. Turns out we have limited use. Wailea is four miles away uphill. And we can’t use the bikes past 6:30. My heart sinks further. But a room becomes available. Second floor. The window basically looks out at wall.
We head back to the front desk. This time Manny the super nice supervisor greets us. “Any chance we could have a different room?” we ask guiltily. Everyone is so terribly nice. We are totally willing to wait. Manny punches the keyboard. “Complimentary upgrade.” he says. Now we find ourselves on the top floor in a suite. Big soaking tub. Windows looking out over the mild sprawl of Kihei. Anna takes the car keys and heads off to the conference in Wailea.
I lay down on the bed. I flip through one of those weird vacation activity guides. I stare up at the ceiling. And that’s when I realize that this is exactly the kind of room where a person kills himself.
Feeling my lease on life growing rapidly shorter, I head downstairs and start walking toward Wailea. I walk past the strip malls. I cut over to the beach and walk on the sand as the sun sets. The beach runs out and I pop up a trail and walk cliffside in front of a line of condos, vacationers outside grilling on the barbecues. In the growing darkness I trudge through a park past a lone bagpiper playing an aching ode to the crashing waves of the Pacific. I walk and I walk and I walk through the darkness. Now on a grassy shoulder I cross over to a sidewalk. The road curves up into what appears to be a posh neighborhood. I take a narrow street that deadends and then a concrete staircase down to a beach, hardly a couple feet of sand gently pounded by the black surf as the night tide comes up. I continue walking along the white liminal sand and then through water and then rocks and over driftwood until there is beach no longer. Just me and the surf. I detect a narrow sand trail that cuts up through some undergrowth and I follow that maybe 20 feet and there on those narrow trail in the darkness I see a naked body lying in the sand blocking the whole trail – and I mean a Sumo wrestler size body just lying there – and in a split second I think, ‘okay. This is either a) some dude who’s probably sleeping and I need to carefully step over and around him and risk some kooky altercation, or b) he’s dead.’ And either way, even just in the process of finding out, I got a problem on my hands.
So I wind back down the pitch trail and back into the inky surf and along the night shore and the rocks and the driftwood trees until I find luminescent beach again and then back onto the road and into the posh neighborhood.
The phone rings. It’s Anna. “Where you at,” she asks. “I’m on a grass island by the side of the road,” I tell her. I sit down on the grass, but it smells faintly of sewage and gray water. I stand. “Never mind,” I tell her. Come find me, I’ll be walking on the road to Wailea.” I walk on up a long hill through the darkness beneath a line of towering and twisting banyon trees and eventually a car pulls up slowly beside me and I climb in and find myself sitting beside Anna.
“I don’t think we can stay in that hotel,” I tell her.
“I was thinking the exact same thing,” she says.
It’s nine at night and we drive on to Wailea and up to a Marriott Residence Inn within true walking distance of the conference and we talk with Kody the super nice desk clerk. He can set us up. It’ll cost us an extra few hundred bucks for the week. Anna and I get a beer and go sit in the darkness by the blue glow of the pool to sort it all out.
We take some time to do our figuring (It seems she and I spend a lot of time figuring). We agree. The Coast is a perfectly nice hotel. And we can drive into Wailea each morning together. And I can hang at the whatever whatever resort in whatever lounge chair and write. What difference, really, does it make where we lay our head at night?
Well, there was something vaguely soul destroying about Kihei.
We don’t need posh. But we want to be some place. And unfortunately these days too many rooms and too many spots feel like no place. Perhaps it was an absence of greenery or an abundance of stoplights. Or the pizza hut on the corner. Or roads and distances best trafficked by auto. Or the inclination of the light. Who knows?
But some differences do make a difference.
“If we decide to move,” I ask Anna, “Is that a good choice?”
We roll in yesterday, 36 hours little sleep trying to forge our way out of Sebastopol. We stop for repast at a shrimp truck and lemonade stand on the side of the road outside of Kahului. And then the slow meander over the saddle and up the coast to Lahaina.
We’re all gling glong. We grab a sixpack of bikini blonde and a stack of raw fish and settle in on the porch of the Lahaina Inn. Nap and up to Ka’apalani to throw ourselves in the ocean at sunset.
What do I love about conversations? They’re all fundamentally false. They’re basically stories that we tell one another. And for the very same reason in the deepest sense they are absolutely true.
Conversation #1. Ten at night at Cheeseburgers. Surf crashing on the sand beneath us. Sitting at the table next to us a guy, Del who grew up in the Fillmore in the sixties. In Maui for the first time. He’s been there for a week with his girlfriend who he flew out from Buffalo. Come to San Francisco, he told her, and I’ll take you somewhere warm. He lived for a long time in North Carolina working as a general contractor building golf course homes and then his ninety year old mom begins to slip away so he went back to San Francisco, back to the Fillmore with his boy, and then he was going to stay and take care of his mom and his wife was going to join them. She shipped her stuff. And three weeks before she was to get on the plane she died. He and his boy never saw her again. Flash forward a year and his boy, seven years old, he sees his dad so sad, and he’s so sad, he goes onto on online dating site (Seniors Dating dot Com) and he makes a profile for his dad and one night he goes up to him and he shows all these pictures of women and he’s weeping and he says “How ’bout that one, dad? Or how bout that one?” And together they set on a few and he calls this woman in Buffalo. She has a couple grandkids of her own. She works the night shift in a tire factory and they talk every morning on the phone. It’s been three years now. She’s come out twice before and now Hawai’i. And we tell her he must like her a whole awful lot and she starts to laugh this big full laugh and she flashes her finger and asks, “Where’s the ring then?” And he starts to laugh and he looks to us and he laughs even harder and I suddenly feel happy for him and I feel happy for the world because without any further information I trust what’s coming.
Conversation #2. 6:30 am dawn breaking over the harbor. I trudge to the coffee shack adjacent. Espresso girl not there yet. But they got drip. Bank card thing not working yet. You staying round here? the owner asks. I nod my head next door. You can pay later, he says.
Conversation #3. Anna and I running south on Front St, to get to the courthouse banyan tree and the beaches, and then up and over the curb plows a dude in a wheelchair, he has a stump of a leg, he’s attired in an immaculate vintage black suit and a pressed t-shirt with South Park style characters. I turn back. “Yo,” I say. “Who’s on your shirt?” Dude does a split quick pivot – his thin face gnarled and smiling and tweaked – “Cheech and Chong,” he says. “Cheech and Chong.” “Where’d you get that shirt?” I asked. “I saw it on a dude,” he said. “And I said, ‘that’s my shirt.’ And he gave me the shirt.” “That’s a good way to get a shirt,” I said. We bumped fists and went our separate ways.
And I thought, this guy was basically a peg leg pirate. Except that he didn’t even have a peg leg. He was blazing through Lahaina in a suit in a wheelchair and was about as empowered a person as I’ve ever seen.
Conversation #4. We run along the breakwater, crowds lining up to board the whale watching excursion boats and we stop at the Hawaiian Ocean Project booth and have a word about Snubaing with Eric.
He struggles to be polite, but then confesses that he’s a free diver and he doesn’t particularly like the Snuba thing. You’re stuck in that 10-20 foot range, he tells us, and even as an experienced diver the breathing is kind of tweaky at that depth. You can’t really breathe until you go deeper. Which of course leads to conversations about where we’re from. He’s from Mill Valley, he says. He use to own a string of car washes. Palo Alto, Marin, Fairfax, but he lost it all in the divorce. All of it? I ask. All of it, he says with a full smile. 962 grand worth. I said she could take it all if I could have custody of my boy. And that’s what I got. Day after the divorce, I went with my baby to the San Francisco Airport and asked when the next plane was leaving for Hawai’i. Lady told me 12 hours. I told her I wanted one one-way ticket and she handed it to me and I never looked back.
His son? Healthy as an ox. He surfs. Grown up in the Caribbean, Virgin Islands, Maui, this island, that island. Sixteen years old, had an amazing life and he’s an amazing kid. Still thinks his dad is as cool as his girlfriend. And in all that time, not once has his mom asked to see him. I got the better end of the deal, Eric says.
Conversation #5. Walking past the boats to the beach and Anna spies a set of baby pigs all crated up. They’re adorable. Picture twelve little Wilburs. Three dudes standing dockside. Where you taking them? Anna asks. Moloka’i, one guy answers and nods to a pint size cat boat half the size of the Minnow. Moloka’i? Anna asks. Could we hop on? We have a friend living there and plane fare is a hundred a piece, but it’s only 45 minutes by boat. Could these guys take us there? The three guys, nice guys, shrug and laugh. It’s up to the captain. It’s his boat, one guy says. Pigs though get priority seating. Nice guys. Would be a fun trip. We go back to the hotel, grab an extra shirt and toothbrush. Girl at the coffee shack says it’s kind of gnarly in Moloka’i. We might have to hitch a boat to Lana’i and then take the ferry boat back from there. Back dockside captain has shown up. Tough dude. As he should be. It’s his boat. The vessel and all manner of life and limb are under his command. A hundred bucks, he says. A fair price. But not fair enough for us, knowing that we were shanghaiing ourselves and might not even make it back. Some things best saved for another day.
A few days ago a friend asked if the ravens in my Facebook banner ( Albrecht Schenk’s painting ‘Anguish’ which now hangs in Melbourne) were “mean”, and generously offered that those black birds might work in solidarity with the lambs. I considered a quick reply, but held back. We know enough about ravens to know they beg no simple answers. And the seemingly simple question about ‘meanness’ is actually not so simple. It smacks a bit of “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” To which Dorothy frantically answers, “Why I’m no witch at all.” She’s just Dorothy and she wants to go back to Kansas.
And then, of course, we are left with the not so small irony that for Dorothy to complete that journey back to the world of black and white, she must in turn become a slayer of very bad witches. Which of course makes her simultaneously both a bad witch as well as one who is good.
In the Middle Ages or perhaps even long before that, the raven was perceived as a portent of death, of imminent and profane destruction. When villagers would see a dark unkindness of ravens approaching on the horizon, they knew that the armies would soon follow. Ravens are omnivores, but most of all they are carrion birds. They dine on the dead. As well, they are sentient. They have sufficient cognition to recognize men bearing arms as armies. And that armies are for one thing: the making of death. The shedding of blood. The leavening of slaughter.
The Raven does not do the killing. But his arrival serves the advance warning. And then he bears witness. And here, at least in Schenk’s image, the unkindness evokes the sadness wedded to communion.
Whenever we eat, especially when we partake of bread and wine, we are taking the flesh and blood of the Host – of the sacrificial lamb – into our own bodies. In this act, we acknowledge our own complicity in his death, and the subsuming of his power, his humility, and his promise into our selves. In the Host’s death we find our own sanctification.
The raven was born to be a sentinel. And when there’s nothing left for which to be warned, the bird must fly so that it may dine on the burnt offerings. That is his task.
When I posted that banner image just after the election I actually wondered where in that picture I figured. And today I realize it is everywhere. I am at once the bleating ewe, the falling snow, the fallen lamb, and the raven in waiting.
Perhaps ask yourself where, if anywhere, do you find yourself in the image?
Germany, February 1945
After my family left Latvija in 1944, they walked across Poland and Germany a day at most ahead of the advancing Russian troops. They were accompanied by family friends who in turn travelled with a wounded Russian soldier. His name is now lost, but the families valued him. Though disabled he had served as a kind of farmhand. He looked after the animals and he scavenged food and he did what he could to care for everyone. One day in Germany, under the Allied bombardment, he gathered potatoes that had fallen from train cars on the side of the tracks. He lost his footing and he fell down and was crushed by an oncoming locomotive. The train would have been bearing German soldiers, or food, or even the final bodies to be executed in Bergen Belsen.
In these days, especially in the smoke and mirrors and confusion of the last few weeks, it bears remembering that there can be a world in such chaos and moral ambiguity that one can be a victim even while dining on the fallen.
The German painter Gerhard Richter, born in 1932 on the eve of the burning of the Reichstag, would grow up in Dresden during the rise of National Socialism. Distrusting the reality of received information, he would later say that “style is violence.”
What did he mean by this? Style is ideology. And ideology, by definition, is visionary. It is declarative and absolute. At an extreme, it depends on discounting or even silencing the opinion or worldview of others.
When we condemn entire classes of people with blanket words – terrorist, bad hombre, enemy of the people – without any consideration for their discrete truths or histories and life stories, we deny the complexities of reality. We deny fundamental humanity.
This is violence.
Authoritarian ideology frames the world in absolutes: A total disaster. A complete mess. Police and society become militarized to ward off an impending and, more often then not, exaggerated or even fabricated danger. The urban bourgeois become enemies. People who are different, perhaps with darker skin or a foreign bearing, are framed as “an infestation.”
Mass spectacle replaces discourse and reasoned argument.
Authoritarian ideology begins by declaring outsiders or others as terrorists, foreigners, or criminal elements. It leads to the infliction of suffering and, if left unchecked, unspeakable acts of violence.
This happens under a veil of social confusion, but also a tragic normalcy. Heinrich Himmler himself, the architect of the Final Solution, actually considered himself to be a good father and a Good German. He felt quite genuinely that he was restoring his culture by ridding it of an infestation, of other strange identities, of a decadent cancerous rot.
After the war, notions even as simple as “family” or “nation” or “good” become strangely indeterminate. A fundamental distrust of the world and even language itself may be the hallmark of those whose understanding of reality has been shaped by authoritarianism.
What can we learn from the people who in other times fell inexorably under the sway of nationalist and exclusionary ideologies? Ideology and emotional or physical violence come at a cost. Who bears it and what does it look like?
We might turn to the enveloping canvasses of the German artist Anselm Kiefer, born a few months before VE Day and the close of the war. While Richter came to us during the convulsive birthing of Nazism, Kiefer’s infant eyes received it’s horrible conclusion.
To sit with Kiefer’s pieces is to be swallowed whole in the terror of the rounding up and of the rousing of the dogs of war.
Kiefer’s mucked and unruly residue is the inevitable outcome of the pattering martial tattoo. It’s the consequence of a seething resentful voice that declares that he will do something to North Korea, to Mosul, to Syria. The world exists as a being that has wronged him. And for this, he will inflict violence and war. He will eradicate his enemies, however he defines them, from the face of this earth.
In the presence of Kiefer’s paintings you immerse yourself in the ashen remains that are left after the blistering attack.
Have no illusions as to what it looks like and what will follow. There is nothing pretty, nothing kind nor valorous, nothing redemptive about it.
It is straw caked in black tar. It is burnt feces. Fields after a dark harvest, barren of life and able to offer no feeding. It is a world set ablaze.
The fields harrowed in the winter by tanks are sown in the spring with blood. Horses we are. Gaunt frames. Ribbed chests exposed. Grown from this ground, we dine on dirt and broken straw.
And here, at last, we return to our raven.
In this case, the carrion bird’s leaden wing falls upon a burnt and destroyed landscape. And yet it offers a bleak shred of hope.
Is the Raven mean?
He offers a bleak promise of regeneration; of the alchemy that comes when he feeds on rotting flesh and transmutes ruined matter into language and dark winged flight.
After the murdering has been had, the very sad truth is that there’s nothing more that can be done. Nothing will bring back the dead.
The Romanian poet, Paul Celan survived the invasion of his country by the Soviets in 1940 and in 1941 the butchering of the Jews of Cernauti by the German Einsatzkommando. In his poem Todefuge, he would later write
Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken sie abends wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken sie nachts wir trinken und trinken wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Lüften da liegt man nicht eng Ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit den Schlangen der schreibt der schreibt wenn es dunkelt nach Deutschland dein goldenes Haar Margarete er schreibt es und tritt vor das Haus und es blitzen die Sterne er pfeift seine Rüden herbei er pfeift seine Juden hervor läßt schaufeln ein Grab in der Erde er befiehlt uns spielt auf nun zum Tanz
Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening
we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night
we drink and we drink
we shovel a grave in the air there you won’t lie too cramped
A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margareta
he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are all sparkling, he whistles his hounds to come close
he whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground
he commands us to play up for the dance.
Yes, we can and should try to stop it. I would really like for the ravens to join with the lambs. And in a sense they do. They fly ahead of the advancing armies and their squawk fills the air as if to say, “Please. Listen. Bad things are afoot. Fight or flee, the days are numbered.”
And if there’s no listening, then the birds are left only to bear witness.
In Keifer’s Sulamith, the artist leads us to the entrance of the Funeral Hall for the Great German Soldiers. But this hall, designed by the Nazi architect Wilhelm Kreis and intended to commemorate the perpetrator, under Kiefer’s hand instead transmutes into the terminus of the iron track and the burning flames of the oven.
We find ourselves descending into hell.
“What would you do in this moment? Would you turn away from something so dark? Or would you intercede? Would you have the strength to gaze deeper and to feel it?”
Kiefer’s expressionism and experimentation of form is neither decadent nor abstract, but rather cemented in an amorality and horror unlike any the world has ever seen. Even more disturbing, it emerged in the very cradle of modernity, in a technologically advanced Western democracy not dissimilar from our own.
A Holocaust is not necessarily savagery in a some other savage place, but quite the opposite: savagery wrought by us. Richter perhaps challenges us to detect the darkness and violence inherent in the seemingly placid sea.
To experience Kiefer and Richter, one can learn from a generation forced to ask where their parents or even they themselves were when these things happened. How could they stand by and tacitly allow others to be hurt? What did they fear? What did they have to gain? How did they not see it coming? How did they come to believe the propaganda?
Where do you find yourself in the picture?
When presented with Gerhard Richter’s Lesende (The Reader), the German writer Luisa Beck asks who is this girl? And what does she have to offer?
Beck’s answer? She is a German. And she is us. And the look on her face betrays something important. That inhumanity can be born from and live commensurate with normalcy. As with our relationship to the raven, if ungood comes to pass and if we survive it, what will be our relationship to this girl? If we ourselves become war borne, how will we reconcile our own inhumanity with this profile and with this face, so lovely and so hardened?
Today I sit in a coffee bar in San Francisco. It’s evening in the Lower Haight.
Today I turn 52.
History’s anodyne gaze renders all things banal. To the future: this is what the face of imminent horror may look like.
Today, on this day, leak sources reveal that the administration was in communication with Russian intelligence for months before the election.
This week, a spokesman for the President stated that the powers of the President are substantial and are not to be questioned.
The President himself accuses those who leak information of being guilty of treason.
In a news conference he refuses to take questions from established media sources. He categorizes Palestinians as hateful violent people. He threatens darkly that we will crack down on criminal elements and make America great again.
He accuses anybody who speaks against him as being a purveyor of fake news.
On this day I turn 52.
I was 17 when my mom turned 52. Alone and long widowed, in that moment she thought that her life was over.
A few years earlier she had told me that she would kill herself on my 18th birthday, because then her filial and parental duties would be over.
As events would have it, she wasn’t too far off her mark.
But she’d crumbled long before that. The mother I’d known since I was six or seven would sleep most of the day. She would not cook or clean house. For many days or weeks growing up, she would simply be gone. My brother and I would fend for ourselves as best we could.
It was the only life I knew. And I never thought to ask why it was or if perhaps it could have been any different.
It took years of maturation before I would have the wherewithal to even seek an explanation. What could have possibly left a once brilliant and vivacious woman, so disabled and so damaged that at such a young age she could imagine no future for herself?
It’s taken a lot of excavation over a lot of years to find the answers.
In 1989 I sat in a nursing home with the shell of that poor woman. Her skull was indented from a frontal lobotomy. She didn’t have many words then. She sat in a breezeway in a nursing home, a Time magazine in her lap, the cover showing bodies in Tainanmen Square. I found her crying and I asked what was the matter. Because this happened in my country, she said.
It took a quarter of a century for me to learn something of what she meant. She was a war child. She was born in 1930 and the only conscious life she knew until she was 20 was under the dark shadow of authoritarianism.
The man in the White House talks about carnage in America. But he does not know carnage. And I fear that the true carnage may be the one which he and his cohort threaten in word and deed to bring upon us.
Carnage is the tactical unleashing of the fear of the other, of declarations that we must be afraid and that we are under threat of terror.
Carnage is the disintegration and dismemberment of civic institutions.
Carnage is the consenting transfer of power from the body politic to a small cadre of individuals.
Carnage is to have your neighbors, and inexorably you yourself, declared an enemy.
Carnage is to declare war in order to consolidate power over a people.
Carnage is having your childhood playmates and their families loaded in trucks and then onto trains and then carried away to points eastward.
Carnage is having 143 men, women, and children – residents of your village – receive dispensation with a bullet to the head.
Carnage is eating bread baked of sawdust and straw.
Carnage is to know insufferable cold and hunger.
Carnage is to smell for months on end the toxic stench of rotting flesh and burning rubber and powder and fire.
Carnage is seeing the bloated bodies of deserters hanging in trees because they were traitors.
Carnage is to have no home to which you may return; having no country for to call your own.
Carnage then, is to experience such loss, that you for the remainder of your life can see no future and you become paralyzed by the very processes of living.
The lived experience of that carnage, if not the memory itself, is passed on to the descendent. You find yourself risk averse. Or perhaps strangely paralyzed when it comes to the most basic decisions – even the most petty can result in life or death. You question the reliability and certitude of all things – relationships or even the persistence of our own democracy.
You grow up hungry, and you learn to double or triple down when food is presented. You look for brake lights, not just in the car in front, but three cars ahead. You bolt at explosions and loud noises. You awaken in the middle of the night with an undefinable dread.
And even when the administration appears to be in chaos and in threat of toppling, you know better. You know that the deranged beast, when wounded, is in fact the most dangerous. And that it will unleash a fury with which there is no reckoning, that we will be at war within months.
I asked folks on Facebook this morning to read and perhaps share the following interview of historian Timothy Snyder. It suggests only obliquely the surreal horrors that my mother and her generation knew. And here, now, 75 years distant from those shadows, I feel we are not safe, that the demons will yet be visited upon us.
Perhaps more than anything else, the circumstances and events described by Timothy Snyder give shape to who I am today.
And this is why, for your pleasure or perhaps only my own, I want people to read what he has to say, today, on the day that I turn 52.
Today, on this day, I don’t want the horror and grave sadness lived by the woman who brought me into this world to have been for naught and vain.
Today I can brook no quarter with this administration and the currents which they are stirring.
In their recent report on global wealth distribution, OXFAM International revealed that in 2016, eight individuals held the same amount of wealth as the poorest half of humanity.
What does that look like on an a properly scaled graph?
It turns out that chart is actually impossible to find. And for good reason.
Not only does it not even fit on a sheet of paper, it doesn’t even fit on the planet Earth.
But lets try and imagine. Grab yourself a pencil and make a pencil point dot. The width of that dot represents one person. The height: one US dollar.
Now imagine a line that basically stretches all the way from San Francisco to Lincoln, Nebraska. That 1500 mile line contains the number of pencil dots that would represent all of the 4.8 billion adults on the planet.
For the first 180 miles of dots – all the way to the Sierra Mountains, the line basically doesn’t exist. These dots have nothing. For the next 600 miles, the line is a couple inches wide and eventually a couple feet thick. Most of those folks in the first half of humanity are worth less than a thousand bucks a piece.
In case you’re wondering, if you’re a newly minted millionaire, you’re way near the end, somewhere in the burbs, about eight miles outside of downtown Lincoln. And your line of dollars? It’s somewhat less then the height of the Worlds Trade Center.
The line continues at about that height essentially until we get to the last 3/8ths of an inch of the 1500 miles. That last little itsy bitsy bit is the width of pencil. These folks, keep in mind are eight miles away from the new millionaire, and (keep in mind, he’s just a dot) way out of sight. That 3/8ths of an inch consists of just 8 people.
Now. As for the very last two pencil points, how high are their lines?
This is where it gets really crazy.
Mount Everest? 5 1/2 miles high. The highest jump from space? Twenty-six miles by Google VP, Dr. Alan Eustace. The orbit of the space station? 248 miles above the surface of the earth.
But the wealth of the two richest men on earth? Get this. Those pencil dots representing each of their dollars side by side would extend 22,059 miles into space.
As for the eight guys? Their amount of pencil lead in the last 3/8ths of an inch would equal all the pencil lead representing all the wealth owned by all the dots in the line stretching from San Francisco to the border of Wyoming.
And now, whoever’s reading, pretty much all of you, you can basically stop. Because at this point it might make sense to narrow this audience to just the last eight guys (and they are all guys). They’re all pretty smart and, as far as I know, pretty good folks.
Bill, Amancio, Warren, Carlos, Jeff, Mark, Larry, and Michael, here are four questions:
1. Is this necessary?
2. Is it moral and just?
3. Is it effective and efficient?
4. Is it stable and safe?
And now a fifth question. Based on your answers to the first four, does the disparity matter, and what would you each propose we do about it?
On Saturday, Market Street overflowed with more than a hundred thousand undaunted people. That night, one thing above all became abundantly clear.
Both civil and profane, the sound encompassed both the lady’s diction and the withering honesty of the nasty woman. Yet it was far more than that. Around the country the air carried the voice of a manifold population gathered from all manner of lived experience.
This was not the voice of me above you. Nor was it the voice of “I”. Nor “Them” against “Those”. It was the voice of “Us” demarcated neither by gender, nor age, nor geography. It spoke to what America truly is. We are strong not because we are this thing or that thing. We are strong because we are Every Thing.
In 1883 the poet Emma Lazarus wrote the words now inscribed in New York Harbor, describing that New Colossus. She towers not like a brazen giant, but “a mighty woman whose flame is imprisoned lightening, and her name, the Mother of Exiles.”
We also know her as Liberty.
She shrinks neither from fear nor the immensity of her challenge.
Send these, the tempest-tost to me, she asks. And she embraces them with a mother’s arm. This act that might speak of weakness becomes our greatest strength and reveals a moral wealth that casts shame on any gilded tower.
It rests in the belief that there can exist a nation able to accommodate all manner of creed and idea. In this way, the many, so different, can become a resolute and indivisible One.
On a recent rainy morning, I was decorating a particular tree — the one that represents that great Tree of Life — and I paused to consider how many presents my true love gave to me.
It’s a simple problem, really. One partridge, plus two turtle doves, plus three French hens: It’s basically the summation of an arithmetic series and there’s a simple formula for it.
That formula is sometimes tied to the great 19th century mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss. One day when he was a young boy, his school master was feeling particularly cruel and he asked the class to total all the numbers from 1 to 100. So the class set to scribbling, 1+2+3 etc.
But Gauss noticed something. He saw that you can break the one hundred numbers into fifty pairs: 1+100, 2+99 and so on. Basically you have fifty 101s. Fifty times 101 is 5050.
Gauss walked up to the teacher and lay down the sum.
“There it lies,” he said.
So what’s this story really about? It’s not so much about math but about tyranny, about an insecure schoolmaster working in a subject that may have far exceeded his reach. In reaction, he bullied those around him.
But by using his powers of thought, Gauss was able to resist.
There are perhaps two ways to vanquish tyranny or the threat there of. The first may be the generosity of Christ, that very thing that we celebrate in the Christmastide; the power to give and love in the face of selfishness and greed.
And if that fails? Well, on the 12th day of Christmas, my true love gave to me 78 presents, the last of which was a Partridge in a Pear Tree.
The Lord on High, in concert with one of his lesser Angels, gave us life and within that life the power to reason. With that gift may joy prevail, and may all manner of ignorance be defeated.
These are the things for which I am grateful today.
I am grateful that I have a home and that I am warm.
I am grateful that I have Facebook friends who could laugh at me and cheer me on yesterday as I crawled home with an injured back.
I am grateful for a long suffering partner who brought me a cup of hot chocolate this afternoon.
I am separately grateful for the milk and for the chocolate.
I am grateful for my daughter who hung a Santa Rosa marathon medallion around my neck as I lay immobile on the floor.
I am grateful to have two pillows to tuck between my knees and one behind my head.
I am grateful to have windows that allow me to see the fog and the sunlight and tonight’s epic moon.
I am grateful to Kaiser Permanente for their excellent back care videos.
I am grateful to have hot water and to have a shower with walls so that I can stand and brace myself.
I am grateful to have high speed internet so that while I’ve lay prone, I’ve been able watch no small number of documentaries about the European theatre in World War II.
I am grateful to the persons who perhaps without any foresight of the future shot film and took pictures and wrote words so that three quarters of a century later we have evidence of all the things great and terrible that occurred.
I am grateful to have guidance for what may come.
I am grateful to the mathematicians of Bletchley Park who broke and broke again the Enigma code so that we could keep open the American maritime supply lines to Britain.
I’m grateful to Alan Turing for imagining the impossible.
I am grateful to the ruthless Germans who invaded my mother’s country. If it were not for them, I would not be here today.
I am grateful to the ruthless Soviet troops who brought an end to the Third Reich and in the process chased my family all the way to the Elbe. If it were not for them I would not be here today.
I am grateful to each and every one of the boys who fell from the sky on the dawn of June 6th, 1944 across the hedgerows of the Cotentin Penninsula. If it were not for them, I would not be here today.
I am grateful for my thrown out back that gives me cause to be. And the aching back that affords a moment to be grateful.