In the past year we’ve become friends with a young woman visiting from China. Trained at the Culinary Institute of America, she apprenticed as a pastry chef at a Michelin star restaurant in Napa. But with the latest shutdowns in California, she’ll be returning to China. The journey won’t be easy.
She’ll get tested 48 hours before her flight. Then fly 17 hours direct from LA to Shenzhen. She’ll wear an N-95 and protective glasses, including and especially after the flight has landed and people stand to disembark. She’ll be tested again. A bus will carry all passengers to a hotel where they’ll quarantine for 14 days. Food will be delivered.
All citizens are issued QR codes on their phones indicating possible exposures. You must scan your QR before entering a building, public space or riding on public transport. Those who have tested positive are not allowed to do so.
If a positive case is detected in China, public health officers do contact tracing and may shut down an entire region to stop the spread of infection.
This is what public health and a sound, fearless, and coordinated pandemic response founded in public solidarity can look like. It’s also the same playbook shared by other countries on the Pacific Rim, including New Zealand.
The consequence? Life for nearly 1.5 billion people has returned to normal. People go to work, ride the subway, go to nightclubs, go to school,
dine indoors and socialize with friends. Hospitals are not overburdened. Few are required to wear masks, though out of courtesy and habit many choose to do so.
On December 1st the New York Times reported the average number of daily new cases in China was 16.
In the US? 161,000.
It’s hard to imagine what it would feel like to have no cases. It might even feel like freedom.
The calls come slow and steady. The issues are sometimes serious, at times simple, at times nuanced. A woman in North Carolina received both her ballot and a card stating that she was not properly registered. An early voter in Texas reports that a poll worker has illegally changed his vote. An 18 year old boy voting for the first time in Pennsylvania is so worried that he might do something wrong that he’s on the verge of tears.
All of them value their suffrage.
I went to bed late that night, the windows open just in case, so that I might smell the first whiff of smoke from an advancing fire. Sometime after 4 my phone chirped. A woman monitoring a scanner had heard word of a new blaze up on the Occidental ridge. Crews were being dispatched. She posted an alert on Facebook. Did anyone have any information?
I lay in the dark and I thought of Thomas Merton, the Catholic monk and theologian. I thought of how he had once written of the night offices. He described how the Trappist monks would arise deep in the night and would keep vigil in the darkened silence until dawn. He imagined monastics all around the world, each taking a night shift in their own place and in their own time so as to carry and hold all people through the darkness. They would tender hope or solace until the sun would rise again. It was necessary, he wrote, to see the first point of light which begins to dawn.
I was tired, but nonetheless I got out of bed in the dark. The sun was just rising in Pennsylvania. I sat down at my computer. I logged into the Voter Assistance Hotline. And I began my shift.
She lay on her side on the pavement. When we found her, she had already been flapping in vain for hours, baking in the unseasonable heat.
My mother-in-law had planted milkweed in the hope of attracting Monarchs. And it had worked. The butterflies came and fluttered about for days. They lay eggs that hatched into larvae that were eaten or disappeared.
But one was different. She had found her way onto a wall where she had spun a chrysalis and had hung silent until this morning when a beautiful wet winged Monarch had emerged.
During the day, though, something had gone wrong. Her wings were not tucked properly and she could not fly.Sponsored
I considered how if given a chance, in her own short life she could accomplish more, proportionally, than I ever would. She would travel unimaginable distances, buffeted by wind and rain and smoke toward a destination she had never known.
We stopped what we were doing and picked her up and nestled her in some milkweed. She allowed us to reset her wing. She clambered weakened, her wings now erect. We left her in the garden shade.
By the evening she had died.
Saddened, I sat in the warm dark. I thought of this fragile miracle that survives less often than not. These gossamer things journey the length of the Americas. The Monarch is not a butterfly. She’s a system, comprised of wing, and plant and wind and temperature and even ourselves. And when the system works, the migration, the annual improbable pulse of life continues. And that pulse is now threatened. But like her, we still have to try, I thought. We have to stop. We have to observe. We have to listen.
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.
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.”
And you can’t be a winner if you don’t play the game.
So last night we took up Safeway Monopoly.
We bought 24 cans of Friskies cat food for our dying cat.
And we got 48 Safeway Monopoly tickets. Safeway tells me that if I just buy enough Friskies and Poptarts, we’re going to be winners. We’re going to win a million dollars. And a big TV. And lots of other stuff.
Last night we spent one hour tearing and sorting and pasting. Now the Lewis family is running the table.
Because in the end we won 6 more tickets. And so we’re going back to Safeway to buy some more stuff and get even more tickets. And it’s just going to get better.
We’re going to be winners. And you can be a winner, too. You and all of our country will no longer be losers and the rest of the world will stop laughing at us.
In a few more days, I’m nailing Park Place. And I’ll have my Dawn Dishwashing Soap.
And you just wait and watch as I build me my Trump Towers.
In my imagined heaven (unlike the fundamentalist heaven muddled in moral condemnation) van Gogh, along with Rothko and Francis Bacon, while away the mornings appreciating and talking about color.
But for now you’re not yet in heaven.
Instead it’s a warm September evening in 1888. You still sit on a stool in the Place to Forum glancing to the south down the Rue de Palais in the town of Arles. Your paint brush dips all over that lead and chromium palette. The constellations of Perseus and Andromeda shimmer in the sky wedged above the narrow alley: although you capture them imperfectly, some life forms long extinct once unknowingly cast their own eyes toward your future visage that would receive them.
As for us, you remain anchored in a world of substance while I hover in the immaterial world that has not yet come to be. The street is filled with ghosts, future and past and present, and perhaps you find our presence claustrophobic. The film between us remains impermeable. We will never touch.
A blue cloaked waiter ferries glasses of Lillet. A woman cloaked in a thin coat crosses the street with her husband. None of them pay any heed to you. You’re nearly as invisible as I. But if not for you, their even now scant mark on history would be lost forever. If they’d known, they might have interceded or perhaps offered corrections.
But the crowd thins until it is just you and I. You are tired. You will be dead within a year. And people will champion you and fight over you for a very very long time. You will ignite passion and fury much like the first wandering preacher. But if the truth be, I wouldn’t even be here with you on this night but for that odd portal you created with a bit of oil and pigment brushed on to a tightly stretched piece of fabric. Tired yet exultant, you pack up your oils in a wooden box and set to walk home. You carry a canvas, the paint still sticky and wet. I follow. You can’t see me and you never will.
It turns out that it wasn’t really yellow at all. It was anything but yellow. Canary, mustard, gold, fire orange, caramel, honey. All the hues were in there. But when broken apart, all the eye really detected was yellow. And only with close observations could you parse out the discrete shades, and only with reassembly did it make sense.
Van Gogh obsessed over color. He was drawn to it emotionally and as a line of inquiry that he explored in his bountiful letters to his brother Theo and sister Wilhemena. What color, really, is the night? How do colors give rise to emotion and thought? What effect do complementary and countervailing colors have on one another?
You can sense in Van Gogh’s writing how even his bold application of paint fell far short of what he saw. Describing the night sky above the Mediterranean, he wrote of how it was “flicked with clouds of a blue deeper than the fundamental blue and others of a clearer blue, like the blue whiteness of the Milky Way. On the blue depths, the stars were sparkling, greenish, yellow, white, rose, brighter, flashing more like jewels than they do even in Paris.”
Despite his struggle to accurately render that perceived world, his emerging fields of yellow and blue also reveal how Van Gogh prefigured the pure abstract expressionism that in 80 years would follow.
Van Gogh, however, still clung to object, both as representational object (this is this) and as signifier (this means that). We still have our stars, our sowers, our reapers, our ravens, our sunflowers. But you can sense him wanting to break free from object bound so that he could freely exist in jet black, flax, dandelion, and citron, or in the physicality of brush strokes and the thick globs of paint itself.
I imagine the Dutchman would have had quite animated and affirming conversations with the Latvian Mark Rothko.
I picture Vincent and Mark huddled in the chapel in Houston, their conversation tugging back and forth on the charcoal and gray and metallic black, Van Gogh calling for an interjection of violet and olive. And can you maintain the emotional content without referencing a physical form (the flash of a bird wing, the grimace of teeth, the wind bent sheaf)?
And the conversations with Piet Mondrian might have summoned frustration.
For the tempermental Van Gogh, color wedded with object could be a conduit for emotion. Rothko decoupled color from object to achieve the same effect. And Mondrian did so with the opposite intent, allowing color to exist in some cerebral platonic form.
The painter of the future, Van Gogh once wrote to Theo, will be such a colourist as has yet ever been. I wonder if he would have found further ecstasy, and perhaps even peace and rest, within Turrell: pure color at last untethered from the brush stroke and form itself.
Yesterday our friend Carrie sent over some photos of her puzzles inside her puzzle room.
A couple of observations:
She has a puzzle room.
She has lots of cool puzzles.
Clearly Carrie is one of the one percenters of Puzzledom.
Those vying to become our leader agree on few things. And in these strange and fearful times, they present even fewer options.
I can vote for Donny and then I will become a winner so that one day I can have a puzzle room and lots of cool puzzles of my own.
I can vote for Bernie in which case we will seize Carrie’s puzzle room and puzzles and redistribute them to all the other citizens in the land of Puzzledom. (BTW, if this happens, I call dibs on the 4D puzzle of San Francisco.)
I can vote for Teddy, but then only God knows what will happen (and I mean his own particular God which doesn’t include all the other Gods floating around out there.)
I can vote for Hilary which will result in Carrie keeping her puzzle room and puzzles and me keeping mine and Puzzledom will muddle along much as it always has.
There is, of course, the option presented by another friend, Mary Anne, who sent over an image of her recently completed puzzle of the door to Francis Bacon’s Reece Mews studio in Kensington.
Mary Anne presently lives in Scotland. In her world they will one day declare independence and establish their own self-governing Puzzledom in which they will drink Scotch, do drunken imitations of Scotty from Star Trek and while away the long dark evenings puzzling wistfully at Bacon’s door.
The chaos began when Mazie lay down on the puzzle field.
Later that night she and Anna staged an insurrection and suspended all rules. They fumbled around with pieces. They tried to place pieces that lay outside the border. They worked all helter skelter on one little area and then another little area and then another without any rhyme or reason.
Yesterday morning I instituted martial law. All rules reinstated plus an additional 5th: You were allowed to place three pieces and then had to walk away.
Last night we happily listened to the Republican debate as the cafe slowly came into focus. I learned last night that a civil society can only prevail in these fearful times through strength and waterboarding and things far worse.
Which is not all that remarkable. I was nice to them once and so they now come pretty regularly.
And since that first time, it always seems to be at the wrong moment: I’m under deadline, preoccupied, sad, dealing with the catastrophe of the moment. Today I happened to be sick and coughing and in no mood to have a conversation.
Some days I hastily answer the door and shoo them away. Other times I cower in a back room, peeking out the window until I see t
hem drive off.
What gets me though is how they just keep showing up.
I page through this month’s edition of “Awake!”. There’s a delightful three paragraph article about Liechtenstein where perhaps one day I might visit. I see a picture of Käsknöpfle, a dish that Liechtensteinians apparently like to eat. The photo of the cheesy onion pasta makes me feel hungry.
I take a quiz on what Jehovah Witnesses believe and get half the answers wrong. There’s an article about staying positive. And another on how to make real friends. Looking at the photographs I feel safe and happy.
Once while teaching Sunday School my Uncle Eriks asked the young children to define faith.
“Faith,” answered one young boy, “is believing in something that you know not to be true.”
Do these adherents believe that one day I shall invite them in and we will discuss God over tea? True faith, indeed.
Or do they believe that even if I never answer their call, the Lord’s will shall be wrought simply by knocking on the door, that the knock itself is the instrument of God?
It’s hard to make sense of them big masses of color. When you’re in a sea of yellow, there is only yellow. And if you exist in a sea of blue, only blue.
It helps to course the boundary between the two. And certainly the painter himself was drawn to these areas. As you reassemble the disaggregated color, you become more aware of all the vertical and diagonal lines he dashed out cutting between light and dark.
And once you’ve spent enough time exploring these areas, it’s easier to dive into the small blotches of color that previously warranted no attention.
Take the green for example. Easy enough to pick out the few laurel pieces.
And Wa-la! A small part of the world has been made whole again.
I should confess at this point that I’m a bit of a puzzle Nazi. Here are the rules:
Once pieces are on the table, no looking at the box. Ever. Life is much more fun when it’s a mystery and you have little idea where you’re heading.
Don’t touch a piece unless you know exactly where it will fit. This leads to lots of slow pondering and a lot less fumbling. Plus you get the satisfying click when you seize a piece and snap it neatly into place.
If you’re wrong, session ends. You walk away. Allows you to retrieve yourself from lost afternoons and lost lives fixating on the wrong thing. (I have to admit, I don’t always abide by this). Sometimes it’s superseded by rule #4.
Well, if you insist. If a piece doesn’t fit, you have to hold onto it and within a reasonable amount of time find it’s rightful home. If you don’t, you’re out. If you do, you get a pass.
And then this kicker that I just made up:
5. Only use the pieces within the frame. Few of us start with a full deck. So we make do with what we got. In this case a third of the pieces are outside the puzzle frame. But I’ll soldier on, using only what I have at my disposal.
As you can imagine, these rules may well explain why I don’t have many friends.