Personal Pieces posts
Thursday September 17, 2020
My Summer of Looking at Bar Graphs
If 2020 were a movie, what would you call it?
I was asked that recently, and, remembering a 1985 coming-of-age Yugoslav film, “When Father Was Away on Business,” which I saw at the U Film Society on the University of Minnesota campus, and whose title is a kind of bland missing of the point—the father was sent away to labor camp for anti-Stalinist rhetoric—I went with this: “The Year I Let My Hair Grow Long.”
Our windows have been closed since then. Open windows is normally my thing in the morning. Making coffee, and listening to George Harrison's “All Things Must Pass” album, which has become my pandemic staple, I open the kitchen window for the morning briskness and freshness. When I take the coffee into my office, and before settling down before the computer, I open the horizontal window there, and lean out to take in the day. Is traffic heavy? Are people walking dogs? Is a crazy person cursing passersby? I haven't been able to do that since Labor Day. I miss it.
The bar graphs have a similar kind of sad sameness. For Covid cases in the U.S., it's a quick rise and slow fall (March-early June), then a steeper quick rise and slower fall (June-present). For the Seattle AQI, it's a quick rise 10 days ago at 10 PM, and then a kind of stasis. Despite various predictions otherwise, our AQI only dropped below 150 for a few hours last Thursday. Sometimes it shoots up into the 200s (Hazardous), but mostly it fluctuates between 170 and 190 (Unhealthy). Yesterday was a little better: mostly in the 150s. This morning I was up early at 4 AM, wrote for a bit, then refreshed the page after 5 AM and knew hope: 137! Not that horrible red but a hopeful orange! Unhealthy only for people like me with respiratory issues! Yay! Then I did the coffee routine with George but without opening any windows, came back to my office with my coffee but without opening any windows, refreshed the page and ... 151 again. So it goes.
I could also title my 2020 movie “Mornings in the Plague with George.” I've relied on him a lot. From the title song:
Sunrise doesn't last all morning
A cloudburst doesn't last all day
Seems my love is up
And has left you with no warning
But it's not always going
To be this grey
“All things must pass,” yes, but the problem with the smoke is it keeps returning every late summer now. We got it bad two summers ago, mild last year, bad again this year. And it's all the west coast. That conversation needs to happen. The climate-change conversation needs to happen. Because it's happening. This time of year, it might always be this grey.
Sunday June 14, 2020
Friday afternoon, I walked over to the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, or CHAZ, to see what's going down.
That last bit, “to see what's going down,” is from The Book of Daniel. Doctorow, not God. Daniel is the son of the Isaacsons (really: Rosenbergs), the Jewish couple executed for treason in the McCarthyite 1950s, and now it's 1967 and he's in his 20s, at grad school, and leftist kids are storming the barricades. He's writing his book/thesis in the library when a young hippie arrives to tell him they‘re bring the “motherfucking university to its knees! ... Close the book, man, what’s the matter with you? Don't you know you‘ve been liberated?” To which Daniel smiles and decides to go outside and see what’s going down. That's one of the book's last lines. I love Daniel for that. I love Doctorow for the book.
Yesterday morning, in that haze between dream and wake, I was trying to remember the acronym protesters took for the several blocks they cordoned off on Capitol Hill. Had to be CHEZ, right? “Home” in French. Then I remembered: No, they went with CHAZ. As in “the spaz.” Kids.
I was only down there briefly on Friday afternoon so I don't have much to report. Basically 12th is no longer a thruway. They blocked off the street between Pike and Olive, and then for several blocks to the west. The abandoned East Precinct is right in the middle of it, on Pine, and now covered with grafitti. That's also where Northwest Film Forum is located, and Northwest Liquor, and that Chinese place Vinny and I went to a few times in better times. You can still walk around inside just fine. You kind of get looked at as you enter—at least I did—but no one's hassling anybody.
A block to the west, at Cal Anderson Park, where I used to play softball, tents have been set up and garbage was overlowing the bins. Again, I didn't stay long. It was way too crowded for a 57-year-old asthmatic-germaphobe in the midst of a global pandemic, but even without Covid it still wouldn't have been my scene. Both too dirty on the ground and too clean in the minds. The “We don't need cops” crowd feels hopelessly idealistic to me. They‘re kids. They’re the Bernie folks, working on fucking up another presidential election for the rest of us. And Seattle City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant, who helped set up the zone, and told others not to allow cops in, is about the last person I'd follow anywhere. She declares orders within the zone while leading chants on impeaching the democratically elected mayor.
Tonight, the six-or-so-block radius within Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood was filled with more teach-in tables, murals, free food, tents, and people than it had been since this conflict between demonstrators and police began over a week ago.
Protesters have called this an uprising and have a long list of demands that include rent control, free college for the state of Washington, and abolishing the Seattle Police Department and “the attached Criminal Justice Apparatus.”
Yesterday, Fox-News spread lies about the zone, because that's what Fox-News does, when all they had to do was just report what was going down. It's teach-in tables, murals and free food. What's being taught, who's doing the painting, and who's paying for the free food are part of the unanswered. (FWIW, my wife is impressed by the artwork.) The bigger unanswered is how it all ends. When the free food runs out? With the first act of internecine violence or power struggle? I assume it‘ll be more whimper than bang. Give it a few weeks and it’ll become a drag. That's my hope anyway. We definitely don't need any more bangs.
Tuesday May 26, 2020
The Monster in the Middle: Thoughts on Unfriending Facebook
I joined Facebook on December 31, 2008, because friends urged me to join, and I left Facebook this past weekend because it’s undermining American democracy. I joined when we were in the midst of the global financial meltdown and I leave as we’re in the midst of a global pandemic. I joined when that idiot Bush was president and … don’t get me started.
Donald Trump is actually the main reason I left Facebook.
I assumed in the wake of news that Facebook helped turn the 2016 election in Trump’s favor that Mark Zuckerberg and company would act as responsible corporate citizens—like Tylenol did after the 1982 poison-murders, or Jack in the Box after the 1993 E.coli outbreak. I assumed Facebook would be the place where ads were vetted and bullshit exiled. Nope. The opposite. To Facebook, political ads full of lies aren’t bugs, they’re features.
To be honest, I should have bolted after the Data Analytica scandal broke in March 2018, the way my wife did. One minute she was there, the next she was a ghostly blank avatar on my Friends page. That kind of freaked me out a little. She was gone … but still here? Seemed wrong. And dangerous? Some part of me—the part that doesn’t know anything about tech—thinks it’s easier for hackers to take over such accounts, since they’re just sitting there. So I decided when I left Facebook I wouldn’t leave any ghostly blank avatars behind. I’d get rid of it all.
Pro John, anti Jack
I’d been unfriending for a while anyway. In recent years, if Facebook reminded me it was So-and-So’s birthday, and if I had trouble placing them—someone I met at a dinner party once?—I’d just unfriend. It was kind of fun. Last fall, after Zuckerberg announced it wasn’t Facebook’s job to vet political ads, I sped up the process. I became proactive. I’d go to my Friends page and be merciless. Who are you again? Poof. I also began to see more blank avatars there. Others were bolting, too. I got down to 200 friends, then 100, then 50. I have to admit my Facebook feed became more interesting. It was news about people I cared about.
Soon I began to get rid of the photos I'd accumulated as well. I archived the ones I wanted and deleted the rest. It bugged me that I even had to delete Events—things I went to, or didn’t go to, two, four, or seven years ago: Vinny’s 50th, Erika’s 50th; a Prince Memorial I couldn’t attend; Silent Movie Mondays no one would attend with me. Why didn’t these go away once the Event was over? For a site that didn’t give a shit about chronology, it was an odd policy.
Then I went whole hog: I got rid of every scrap of “About” info: where I worked, lived, went to school; my family relationships, my life events. I got rid of Videos, Check-Ins, Sports, Music, Movies, Groups. There was so much of it. I was like “Park & Rec”'s Ron Swanson trying to get off the grid: ERASE ALL PICTURES OF ERIK! And yes, I assume deleting something on Facebook doesn’t mean it’s deleted for Facebook; I assume they keep that data somewhere. Deleting, in fact, is just another form of data for them. But it still felt good. I’m a bit anal—I tend to clean apartments when I move out—and this was like that. It was cutting ties. I wanted to leave a blank fucking slate.
Finally, I went after 11 years worth of posts. It took a while. Facebook is a bit like a scrapbook, and this was mine, and I wanted to archive the stuff that still mattered to me. It also took awhile because I kept watching stuff: clips of John Mulaney, or John Oliver, or Jon Stewart. (God, I miss Jon Stewart.) Here’s when Randy Rainbow seemed to post a new video a week. I watched a genius clip of Scott Thompson’s Buddy Cole character on “The Colbert Report” helping the 2014 U.S. Men’s speed-skating team appear less gay for the homophobic Russian Olympics. I watched my nephew Jordan, last spring, singing “Corner of the Sky” from his senior-year high school musical “Pippin.” He was 7 when I joined Facebook, and his brother Ryan 4. Now they’re nearly 19 and 16. Their whole lives were on the feed I was deleting.
Before I began, I assumed I posted way too many articles, particularly political articles, and not enough of those personal “status updates.” Turns out: Yes, I posted way too many articles, particularly political articles, but there were also tons of status updates:
- 2017: Steve Inskeep is the Joe Buck of NPR.
- 2016: Am I the only one who finds it hugely embarrassing that the biggest movie to play MLK weekend was called “American Sniper”?
- 2015: My New Year’s resolution is to unsubscribe from more things.
- 2014: Well, at least I won’t have to listen to Joe Buck for another 11 months.
- 2013: Caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror in boxers and dark socks and realized that eventually we all become Walter Matthau.
- 2012: Lesson for the day: never put a ripe pear at the bottom of your backpack next to a heavy Kryptonite bike lock.
- 2011: Those internet ads for big muscles and tight abs are getting grosser and grosser.
- 2010: Voting Republican in November is essentially rewarding monstrously bad behavior.
- 2009: Man, the volume on the TV can’t be low enough when Joe Buck is announcing.
I was pleasantly surprised. Then I became a little annoyed. Finally I began to tell my younger self: “Shut up.”
At least my feelings about most of these things haven’t changed: Joe Buck still sucks, voting Republican is still rewarding monstrously bad behavior, my Walter Matthau-ness progresses apace.
What has changed? The times. In July 2017, I posted a news item about Kevin Spacey playing Gore Vidal in a Netflix biopic and wrote: “I’m there!” In 2016, in one of those “Who should host the next Oscars?” free-for-alls, I suggested Louis CK and everyone was like: “Love him!” I quoted Garrison Keillor quoting Christopher Morley. I kept writing: “Franken 2020!”
There was a lot of melancholy in past posts. In 2015, Cinema Books closed; in 2014, it was the Harvard Exit theater. I came across a jaunty invitation to a friend’s surprise birthday from his wife. They divorced eight years ago. Acrimoniously. There were obits for Philip Seymour Hoffman, Meadowlark Lemon, Gore Vidal, Harmon Killebrew, David Carr, Dave Niehaus. Some deaths were more personal. I couldn’t unfriend from my friend Jessica’s memorial page until the very end. My mother’s 2019 obituary, with nearly 200 comments from family and friends, was the first post I kept coming across in my backwards march but I could never bring myself to delete it. It stayed there at the top of my page, the hump to get over, the lump in my throat.
The further back in time I went, the quainter it became. Oh right, flash mobs. Oh god, word clouds. I came across the “Mad Men”-yourself meme, the Benedict Cumberbatch name generator, Alex Pareene’s “Hack List.” (God, I miss the hack list.) Here's when everyone was doing the “You’re in a horror movie” meme, and the “You’re a serial killer” meme. Top 15 albums. So much crap we did.
This must have been pre-Messenger because there are posts from friends but no conversational thread. We talked out in the open back then. There’s a real sense of excitement, too. Hey, it’s you! How fun to see you in here! I wound up reconnecting with the girl I had a crush on in my 20s, the girl I had a crush on in high school, the girl I had a crush on when I was 5. “Welcome to stalker central,” Myriam told me three days after I joined. Truer words.
But we didn’t really know what Facebook was. In January 2009, my former boss, 20 years older, posted this on my wall:
What the hell is this site supposed to do for me? I keep getting these e-mails telling me to join because So-and-So wants to be my friend. At the same time as I got the message from you, some guy I don’t even know, and who doesn’t even know me, says he wants to be my friend. Why would he do that? And why would I want to even respond? Help bring me into the Brave New World of Social Networking.
I was the wrong person to ask. I pimped my own blog too much, then chastised friends for commenting on Facebook rather than my site. I chastised friends who commented on the headline of a news article witout having read it. “Click through” was a new concept. I had zero idea what the Brave New World was.
But the toughest part of my scorched-earth march backwards wasn’t any of this; it was the monster in the middle.
The monster in the middle
2017 might have been the toughest year to comb through. Another gray, anti-Trump march that did nothing. Another shocking Trump scandal that didn't bring down his poll numbers.
There were a few surprising bright spots in 2016. Throughout the year, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s paean to immigration was forever competing with Trump’s xenophobia. Even back then, it felt like a battle for the soul of America to me, and I kept warning everybody. In June I posted about the idiot way the mainstream press kept steering Trump toward safe answers. In July, I wrote “the worst of the DNC leaked emails aren’t nearly as bad as the things Donald Trump says every day in public.” I posted a link to Jane Mayer’s great article about Trump’s ghostwriter Tony Schwartz, who calls Trump a sociopath. (He was the first, I believe.) For the idiot left, I quoted Dan Savage: “If Donald Trump becomes president, the people who will suffer are not going to be pasty white Jill Stein and her pasty white supporters.” He couldn't have been more right. Andrew Sullivan railed on the GOP for saying nothing when Trump asked a foreign government “to use the fruits of its espionage to help defeat his opponent.” That one turned out to be evergreen.
After one such warning, a friend tried to console me. “The country has a lot of numb-nuts,” he wrote, “but not enough to elect Trump.” I wasn’t consoled.
He was still all over 2015, too. He disparaged Mexicans, Muslims, John McCain. If I was right in 2016 I kept getting it wrong in 2015. I thought the McCain quote would be his end. Nope. I thought Megyn Kelly handled him in that first GOP debate. I guess she did. But she only won the battle, he won the war. Aterwards, hetalked about the the blood coming out of her eyes, and her wherever, and then refused to apologize for it. And that became the story. I posted:
That awful thing I did last week? I will not apologize for it. That way the story becomes NOT the awful thing I did last week (which is awful) but the fact that I won’t apologize for it (which signals a forthright, stand-your-ground personality). So I turn a negative into a positive. What a neat trick.
Trump kept pulling this neat trick, and the mainstream media kept acting as his able assistant. Ta da.
Even before 2015, I wasn’t free of him. There was an Onion article from 2012 in which Trump owns up to what a “sad, pathetic human being” he is. Made me laugh back then. In 2010, vis a vis Alex Pareene’s “A patriot’s guide to still hating Obama for killing Osama,” my father wrote, “They threw his body in the OCEAN? How do we know he’s dead and this is not some cunning Democratic campaign ploy? Donald Trump is already asking to see the death certificate.” Back then, we all had a Trump joke. Now it all just seemed ominous.
Plus the forces that helped propel Trump were always there. The old stuff wasn't just quaint. Oh right, Cliven Bundy. Oh right, the “Ground Zero mosque.” Ted Cruz and “Green Eggs and Ham,” and Joe Wilson and “You lie!” Here’s when the GOP thought Scott Walker was the next big thing. Here’s when the GOP thought Bobby Jindal was the next big thing. Henry Louis Gates, an African-American Harvard professor, is arrested in his own home, Obama comments on it matter-of-factly during a press conference, and Obama has to apologize. There has to be a beer summit with the arresting officer at the White House. That’s how stupid we were. That’s how stupid we’ve always been.
This was my status update for Saturday, Nov. 4, 2016. It was a plea to the void:
According to 538.com, Hillary’s chances have gone down more than 20% in the last week—from 85% to 64%, with many of the swing states now swinging the other way. This is a direct result of FBI director James Comey’s unprecedented meddling, which somehow he’s gotten away with, just as Trump has gotten away with not disclosing his taxes, being caught on camera bragging about groping women, chastising a Gold Star family, etc., etc. He’s a disgusting, incompetent, race-baiting man who never did anything for anyone but himself. He may be, as his ghost writer called him, a sociopath.
So today I donated to Hillary’s campaign again, and I’ll be part of the get out the vote campaign this weekend. I’d recommend anyone who can, do the same.
If you have any friends on the left who are not voting for Hillary, warn them. If you have friends on the right, tell them about all of the Republicans who are voting for Hillary. I don’t want to wake up Wednesday morning with a President-Elect Trump. Your healthcare will suffer, your 401k will suffer, our prestige will suffer, and the U.S. Supreme Court will veer right again for the next 30 years. It may even be the end of the American experiment.
So do what you can. GOTV. Or just vote.
Here's my status update four days later:
Shorter Allen Ginsberg: America, go fuck yourself.
Also to the void.
So I wiped it all from my Facebook history. Maybe I was trying to wipe it from history? But we’re Lady Macbeth now. We’ll be scrubbing that spot into eternity.
Back in 2009, when my former boss asked me to explain the Brave New World of Facebook, I assured him it was like any new communication platform: great for keeping up with friends and family. It had the added attraction of learning the degrees of separation between people. I told him I'd come across a woman who was friends with two of my friends, Ben and Josh. Except Ben and Josh lived in different parts of the country and didn't know each other. So how did she know both of them? Turns out she lived next to Ben in New Jersey and now shares an office with Josh’s wife in Chicago. “That was fun, finding that out,” I wrote. “The unseen connections between friends. You’ll probably get a lot of it.”
I don’t know if he did, but I didn’t. The above was a one-off. Facebook was a small world and it stayed small. It was supposed to bring us together but it drove us apart. It’s still driving us apart.
I thought about deleting everything from my Facebook account except for my mom’s obituary. I thought about deleting everything and then adding a screenshot from “The Social Network”: the scene after Mark Zuckerberg creates a website for rating women and then gets passed a note from a woman in class. Two words on a piece of paper: “U dick.”
Instead, after looking through Jessica's memorial page and reading the comments to my mother’s obituary one last time, I just got rid of it all.
Friday May 08, 2020
‘One of the Dumbest People Alive’
Trump says that the fact a Pence staffer tested negative for a long time but now tested positive shows “the whole concept of tests aren't necessarily great,” because someone can get the virus between tests.— Daniel Dale (@ddale8) May 8, 2020
This is precisely why experts say we need widespread frequent testing...
Cue: Little Alvy Singer slapping his forehead.
It's such a horror show watching this guy make every wrong decision he could possible make. Meanwhile, Germany, which has flattenend its curve, is cautiously reopening its country and economy—including schools.
George Conway, top litigation attorney in New York, and not-yet-estranged husband to KellyAnne Conway, quote-retweeted Trump's above comments about why “the whole concept of tests aren't necessarily great,” and added this thought: “He really has to be one of the dumbest people alive.”
Saturday March 21, 2020
Walking Seattle During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Message left on Capitol Hill, Seattle, Washington, USA, Earth
Last Sunday—just last Sunday—I was talking to my brother in Minneapolis and told him that we in Seattle we pretty fairly locked down now. For several weeks, it was “Should we ... or shouldn't we?” and now we'd definitely landed on the shouldn‘t side. We were trying to socially distance ourselves and be vaguely responsible. I still went to Trader Joe’s that morning, and had taken a walk the day before to Volunteer Park. But even the latter instance, I told my brother, made me worried. I was like: Should I be walking? is this safe for me and others?
“Now you‘re really overthinking it,” he said.
The New York Times recently raised the same point: Is it OK to take a walk? Their quick answer: Sure, just stay six feet away from everyone you don’t know, everyone not in your family. All of which makes sense. To be honest, I was already practicing it. Last Monday, I did the same walk out to Volunteer Park but veered off before I got there because it became too crowded. it was like everyone was going to Volunteer Park, which shouldn't be the game plan. Tuesday, to avoid the crowds, I walked down to the International District and over by the waterfront. That was less crowded but more depressing: a lot of homeless, Chinese in masks, and shuttered businesses. Thursday, I went for a run; Friday, a bikeride. Today, instead of heading north toward Volulnteer Park, I walked east toward Lake Washington. It was good. I like walking the less-populated neighborhoods, where, if you need to, you can just step into the street if someone is coming toward you. I try to do this with a smile but sometimes forget. We‘re all in the same boat, and should be banding together, but ... Yeah. You might kill me and I might kill you. It’s the weirdest of vibes. But I try to smile.
I did run into a friend of my wife, and we had a good conversation from 10 feeet apart. She complained about the social isolation but she's an extrovert. To me, that's the easiest part of all of this. The hardest part is anticipating where we‘re going. Right now, the world is basically divided between those who understand exponential math and those who don’t, and the latter group is ruining us. Six days ago, despite (at best) spotty testing, the U.S. had the sixth-most confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the world: 3,774. As I write, we have the third-most confirmed cases in the world: 25,493. Our curve ain't flattening at all. And we still have spotty testing.
Stay safe, everyone.
Sunday March 15, 2020
Three Trips to Trader Joe's
I usually do our weekly shopping at Trader Joe's on Sunday morning. I used to go at 8 AM (Madison, Capitol Hill, Seattle), but a few months ago they pushed back the opening to 9. Something to do with when trucks could arrive with new goods? I rarely went at 8 AM anyway, and not because I wasn't up that early but because that's when the Type-A folks tended to go, and it's no fun fighting for space with them. I'd usually wait until they cleared out. 8:30, 8:45 wasn't bad. But then the switch and it hasn't been as good. 9:30, 9:45 is much busier.
Two weeks ago, doing my usual Sunday run, there were entire shelves unstocked. Like the cereal aisle? Almost all gone. I assumed some trucks hadn't gotten through, and it wasn't until I was talking to my father later that day, and he mentioned that they'd been stocking up on some items in anticipation of the coronavirus situation, that the other shoe dropped.
Last Sunday, my wife went with me. She normally goes to yoga on Sunday mornings but that class was canceled for the time being. In the store, a lot more people looking worried. A lot more facemasks. Purell by the cash register. But the shelves were better stocked.
This morning, a beautiful, crisp morning in Seattle, with the mountains way out, it was still busy at 9:30, 9:45. But not as busy? The shelves looked like they were being depleted again. Barely any pasta left, for example. Even I grabbed more than I normally would. Are customer-service centers like Trader Joe's giving time off for older employees? One hopes. These people are part of the front lines, too.
Will they stay open long? Today, Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio ordered all bars and restaurants closed. “Every day we delay, more people will die,” he said.
Meanwhile, this morning on Twitter, during his National Day of Prayer, the president of the United States: defended the medical screenings at airports even though they are causing huge crowds to breathe the same air for hours and hours—the exact opposite of what is recommended; talked up the “catastrophe” of H1N1 Swine Flu response and incorrectly stated that Joe Biden headed it up; attacked Chuck Schumer; talked about a full pardon for Michael Flynn; and defended his claims of a Google website.
Saturday March 14, 2020
‘Should We Be Doing This?’ A Coronavirus Update from the U.S. Epicenter
Two weeks ago today.
I‘ve always been a germaphobe—I had a sickly childhood, etc.—but I always feel guilty about it. Some part of me thinks I’m just being too paranoid about germs and sickness and disease. I should be braver. I should be a better person.
So throughout the novel coronavirus/COVID-19 situation, I‘ve been two minds about things.
A week ago Tuesday, we were hosting a farewell dinner for one of our friends, who was heading back to Australia to look after her mother after the death of her father last summer, and some part of me wondered, “Should we still be doing this? Is this responsible?” More cases and more deaths were being reported in Seattle and King County, where I live. A death in February at a hospital three blocks from where I live was reported two weeks after the fact. The thing seemed to be getting bigger and closer. It was supposedly deadlier than the flu and much more contagious. Or was it the same? I assumed the former because responsible people said so while Fox News said no. That’s the giveaway. That's the tell. I wondered “Should we be doing this?” but I didn't see a way out. What was the alternative? Not going anywhere for anything? Holing up for weeks at a time? Or longer? That would never happen. The economy would stagnate. The stock market would crash. Businesses wouldn't allow it. Plus the world wasn't as germaphobic as me, so this thing would continue to spread while we were holed up.
Anyway, we had the dinner, and the next night I went to a work event where people were still inclined to shake hands. I always offered a fist, which led to laughter and a move to touch elbows, and people joking, as you do in a crisis, with gallows humor. All last week, too, the first week in March, we had workers at our place. They were painting our bathroom, the final stages of a remodel that began last June. (Yes, last June. Don't ask.) And while some part of my brain was thinking, “Is this smart? Is this responsible?,” another part wondered, “If not now, when?” So we did it. I still don't know if it was smart, but it's partly why I wasn't as worried as I might ordinarily be. The world was coming in and we were going out and that's the way it had to be.
But changes kept happening. The thing kept lapping up on us. A dinner got canceled last Saturday so we went to the movies, “Emma.,” at SIFF Egyptian. There was a good crowd there but the people behind the concession counter were now wearing gloves and there was hand sanitizer next to the napkins. Thursday, two days ago, we went to the movies again, “The Traitor,” at SIFF Uptown. Yes to gloves, yes to hand sanitizer, but now there was only one other couple in the theater. Then yesterday SIFF announced it was temporarily shuttering its doors.
SIFF was actually late to the party. Cancelations have been happening for a while. Initially it was annual events like the Emerald City Comicon, which was scheduled for this weekend but was postponed until the summer. That made sense. But what about non-annual events? What about the baseball season? Broadway? We were going to New York for a week in April, and we had tickets to “West Side Story,” and I was hoping for a Yankees or Mets game. Initially the prices seemed exorbitant. Then I began to wonder if they might go down becaues of COVID-19? Then I began to wonder if they might happen at all? And yes, they‘re not happening at all. And yes, we’re not going to New York.
The NBA canceling the rest of its season seemed the big one. That's when I went “Wow.” I'm trying to remember the timeline, the cancelations came so fast and furious. I kept relaying them to my wife. A section of Italy. No wait, all of Italy. Gov. Inslee warned against gatherings of more than 250 people; then it shrunk to ... 50? Then all bets were off. We were also trying to be brave and not panic and carry on. People reported that Seattle was a ghost town and I responded that it was less ghost town and more like a 2014 Seattle Seahawks game. Ha ha. Then it became more like a 2014 Seahawks playoff game. Then it was the Super Bowl. Today, this morning, I opened my second-floor window and leaned out for fresh air; and I was just hanging there, watching the world go by, when I realized the world wasn't going by. No one was out. It was Saturday morning, 8:30, and my office overlooks Boren Avenue, which always has traffic on it, car and foot, and I usually see people walking along Cherry Avenue, too. But it was maybe 15-20 seconds before I saw my first person—a jogger down on Terry. Then I saw a woman walking on the other side of Boren. And eventually a few cars. But just a few.
More people have been getting in touch lately. Familly and friends, texts and phone calls and email messages. “You guys OK?” It was my sister last weekend, and I told her it's a little odd seeing the world becoming more me than me. I think I was kind of proud of that; now not. Now I feel I should‘ve been more me than me.
I finally ran the numbers last week—Wednesday or Thursday. Very contagious, no vaccine, 1% mortality rate (conservative estimate). If everyone gets it, that means 78 million people die. Conservatively.
It was just two months ago, Jan. 8, that The New York Times first reported China had identified a pneumonialike illness with this subhed: “The new coronavirus doesn’t appear to be readily spread by humans, but researchers caution that more study is needed.” It was just two weeks ago, Feb. 27, that Trump accused Democrats and the news media of exaggerating the coronavirus threat. He said it was like the flu, which has a .1% mortality rate and a vaccine. His then-chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, told conservative activists that journalists were hyping the coronavirus because “they think this will bring down the president; that's what this is all about.” Their current line is that everyone should look forward; they‘re saying that no one should politicize this. But they already did. Which is why they don’t want us to look back at it. They are horrible people. Fuck them. But never forget.
I'm not of two minds about it anymore. And I‘ll be fine with the social isolation. I’m a writer and a reader and a movie watcher. I'm a walker and a biker and a jogger. There's tons of Cagney films to watch. There's tons to stream. So I‘ll be fine as long as I’m fine. I hope I'm fine. I hope you're fine.
Monday January 13, 2020
I‘ll have something up on the Oscar nominations soon, I guess—although we’re back to Daniel's sister's line, aren't we? “Just what the world needs, Daniel...”
Anyway, nothing yet. I‘ve been sick for the last nine days. It started a week ago Sunday as a dry cough and a tightness in my chest, then four days later leapt into the usual horror show of spewing uncontrollably out of most available facial orifices. It got really bad Friday night, which always seems to be the way. It waits for the weekend. Worst night was last night: chills, massive headache, achy, coughing, difficulty breathing, little sleep. The difficulty breathing is the scariest part. Saw a doctor this morning and she asked the usual questions and did the usual tests. Good news: Not flu (I had a flu shot but some strain is making the rounds anyway) and not pneumonia. Just viral gunk mixed with my asthma. (Leading to miasma.) Got meds. I often wonder where I’d be if not for modern medicine. Dead, most likely.
While at the doctor's office, and before the diagnosis, the nurse gave me one of those “Don't spread your germs” surgical masks to wear while I was in the medical center. I did better. I wore it outside, too. Kind of fun. No one's going to come near you if you're wearing one of those things. I might make a habit of it.
Tuesday December 31, 2019
To a Kidney Stone of a Decade
This will be my last post of the 2010s. My first post of the 2010s, on Jan. 1 2010, 8:44 AM, was short:
Bushed: The word I'd use to sum up the decade. I'm bushed, you‘re bushed, we’ve all been Bushed—the country and the world. We need a new starting line. Hey, here comes one now.
Everyone is trying to fathom what the hell we just went through. Yesterday, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich tweeted, “I don't know about you, but I'm ready to put this anti-democracy decade to rest. It began January 21, 2010 with Citizens United and ends with Donald Trump in the White House.” Over the weekend, Michiko Kakutani wrote an Op-Ed in the Times, “The 2010s Were the End of Normal,” in which she quotes others quoting Yeats (“The centre cannot hold”) and Auden (“Waves of anger and fear...”).
I, too, have been thinking Auden and “September 1, 1939,” but I‘ve been focusing on the “low, dishonest decade” part. That’s where we are. The propagandists won; they got away with it. Meanwhile, the legit press still offers both sides even if one side is a known lie. Russian chess champion Garry Kasparov, who lived under Soviet lies, is trying to school us on this: “Stop giving equal times to lies,” he said last week on CNN. He said the legit press' “outdated sense of fairness is killing our democracy.” He's not wrong.
What a decade. Who knew a social media platform would help upend democracy—and its CEO wouldn't care? Who knew we'd elect, as president of the United States(!), a fatuous, Mussolini-ish real estate moron, who appears to have survived bankruptcy with loans floated from Russian oligarchs, and who, as president, has enraged allies, embraced dictators, taunted the powerless with third-grade insults, paid for the silence of porn stars, obstructed justice, obstructed Congress, ignored the rule of law, lied every day and in every way, and has repeatedly asked foreign governments, either vocally (Russia, China), or secretly (Ukraine), to interfere in American elections? And yet he's never fallen below a 35% approval rating? Who knew Nazis would ever be a thing again? And on American soil?
More than Yeats, though, more than Auden, I think of Trudeau. As a kid we owned “The Doonesbury Chronicles,” the big history of the “Doonesbury” daily comic strip through the 1970s; and on Dec. 7, 1979, he published the strip below. I think I read it before I knew what a kidney stone was:
Who helped in the 2010s? Beyond the personal? A few names: Lin-Manuel Miranda, John Mulaney, Joe Posnanski, Jane Mayer, John Stewart, Jill Lepore, Rick Perlstein, Kumail Nanjiani, Jacques Audiard, Martin Scorsese, Marion Cotillard, Zhou Xun, and the 2014-15 Kansas City Royals. Also the New York Yankees—for being the first New York Yankees team in 100 years to not win a pennant in a calendar decade. Bless you, boys.
Mike Doonesbury was right about disco, so maybe the same will be true for a few of this decade's villains: they, too, shall pass. One can hope. Toot toot, beep beep.
Wednesday October 09, 2019
This has been my cover photo on Facebook for the past year or so. I read it in one of those PEANUTS anthologies and somehow it just spoke to me. Posting it here because I don't know how much longer I'll be on Facebook, given their policies and politics.
Zuckerberg sucks. Schulz rules.
Thursday October 03, 2019
Walk Straight Even Though It's Deep
In second grade my friend Mark and I were playing Tuesday-afternoon hookey in and around Minnehaha Creek, which had dried up. We began to march down the mostly dry creekbed but I balked when it became wetter and wetter and more like a real creek. Why walk through water? It wasn't even summer yet. And in your shoes? But Mark invented a marching song in order to keep me going. He began to chant:
Walk. Straight. Even thouuughh it's deep
Walk. Straight. Even thouuughh it's deep
In that way, we spent the afternoon chanting and getting filthy.
In college I told this story to my friend Craig, who's now a writer-producer in Hollywood, and we both thought it pretty great life advice. The next time I saw him, Craig set a chair next to a piano and played me a new song he'd written that included the line. It was the first time I'd ever been an audience of one, and, being who I was/am, I found it unnerving. But Craig pushed on through. Craig was already following the life advice, while I was still balking.
I do wish I'd followed it more. In retrospect, in certain moments of my life, I needed Mark standing behind me, chanting.
Wednesday August 21, 2019
Betty Lundegaard (1930-2019)
“She loved horses more than she loved most people,” my sister wrote in the obit, “but she liked people enough that she coveted the middle seat on an airplane.”
My mother died two weeks ago, August 8, 2019, at Jones-Harrison nursing home in Minneapolis. I was on my way to see her. I was waiting in the security line at SeaTac airport when I got word.
After my sister Karen told me the news I asked if should delay coming out. “Are you kidding???” she said. “You know how much there is to do???” Truer words. There should be a book on it. “So You‘re Going to Die...” or “So A Loved One Is About to Die...” or “1,001 Questions to Answer Before You or a Loved One Dies.” I’m not talking existential questions, although those, too. I'm talking the mundane:
- Open casket?
- Which casket?
- Which vault?
- What's a vault?
- Makeup? Hairdo?
- Flower arrangements?
- Minister? Pastor?
- Funeral procession?
- From where?
- Chapel service?
- Deceased's father's name?
- Deceased's mother's maiden name?
On some of the bigger questions, I knew where Mom stood. Considering that she'd had a stroke in Sept. 2016 and couldn't speak afterwards, just nod or shake her head, we actually had some fairly deep conversations. This year, for example, on a Saturday morning in May, I found her crying in bed. She'd been crying a lot since the seizures began in December and they'd put her on anti-seizure meds. We were never sure if it was the meds, the seizures, or what, and we'd tried different meds, and different doses, and some seemed to work better than others, but not completely. Mostly we were in the dark.
When I found her that day, crying like she no doubt found me crying at the age of 7, or 3, or 3 months, we had the following conversation.
- Are you in pain? Physical pain? (No.)
- Is someone here hurting you? (No.)
- Being mean to you? (No.)
- Do you feel like it's the anti-seizure meds? Chemistry? (Confused. No.)
- Are you scared? (Yes.)
- Are you scared of dying? (Yes.)
- Are you scared of being judged after you die? (Yes.)
I did my best with that. I told her that if we‘re judged on our actions in this life, and she, of all people, is judged wanting, then heaven wouldn’t be a very populated place. It certainly wouldn't be a place I'd want to be.
I confirmed she didn't want to be cremated; she wanted to be buried. Two weeks ago, it was up to my sister and I to figure out the rest.
Some of our answers to the 1,001 questions helped answer the other ones. My sister wanted a closed casket (open caskets creep her out), so we didn't have to worry about hairdo and makeup, and since burial was within six days of death, we didn't have to embalm, either, thank god. My wife's advice was to avoid the ornate and go simple, and we tried, even though the impulse is to spend, spend, spend. What—don't you care? We chose a finished pinewood box which promised that for every such casket purchased, 100 trees would be planted in Wisconsin. We eschewed the gaudy floral arrangements for flowers from the Farmers Market—a place Mom loved. We did the photos ourselves. The chaplain at Jones-Harrison was away on vacation but my sister had a friend who was a minister who agreed to do the service. Initially it was a graveside service. But after visiting cemeteries in the Twin Cities, and deciding on Lakewood Cemetery near Lake Calhoun/Bde Make Ska, we found out they had a chapel there we could use for free, and which was gorgeous. So that's where we did it. Lakewood is where Hubert H. Humphrey is buried (Mom would‘ve loved that), and it’s only a little more expensive and you get so much for that: Not just the chapel, and the beautiful grounds, but a sense of space in figuring out what you want. I felt rushed and pressured at the other place but none of that from Lakewood. The rep there gave us space; and she was so helpful. If you want a name to contact, let me know; I can't recommend her, and Lakewood, highly enough.
There was also an obituary to write, and a eulogy (below), and a service to put on. Thankfully Karen married into a talented family and had talented kids. Here's Jordan singing one of the songs we went with, “Anytime (I Am There),” from the musical “Elegies,” by William Finn. He played it for Karen and I in the basement, and reprised it for me here after the ceremony. As impressive as the singing is, it's equally impressive that he suggested it—that he plucked this perfect song for the occasion, and it dovetailed so nicely with what I was writing in the eulogy, and with what I was thinking and feeling. We'd Googled “funeral songs” but that wasn't among them, and it's much better than the others. Apologies for the hand-held camera.
And now I'm back in Seattle, and there's nothing else to do for her now; there's just a bone-deep sadness.
Here's the eulogy.
Shortly after Mom’s obituary went up on the Star Tribune website, and was shared on my sister Karen’s Facebook page, and then mine, I got a text message from my sister-in-law, Jayne. Over the past 10 years Jayne has lost several family members to cancer, including her mother and sister, so she knows her away around this. She knows what to say. She sent her sympathies, of course. She also added this thought:
We only get one mother and no matter how many years we get with her, it’s somehow never enough.
It was the perfect sentiment for that imperfect time.
It certainly resonated with me. Thursday morning, just five days ago now, I was working at home in Seattle when I got the call from Karen. Jones-Harrison, where Mom has been living since the stroke in Sept. 2016, called and said Mom wasn’t good and we’d all better gather soon. As I made my plane reservations, I was already thinking of what I wanted to say to her. I wanted to say that because of her, I was able to move through life knowing there was someone, somewhere, who loved me unconditionally. There’s a lot of strength in knowing that. You always have a base somewhere; and she’d given me that base.
I remember when I first moved to Seattle, I arrived abruptly, unprepared, and without much money. I felt like a failure and didn’t want people to know where I was. She was the first person I told, the first person I reached out to for help. Because I knew she would give it without judgment. And she did. She sent me money, even though she didn’t have much of her own, and helped right me again.
The Seattle story I tell more often, though, because it’s funnier, is one from a few months earlier, when I was simply visiting Seattle for the first time. My sister was living there then, and Mom had come out a week earlier and so she knew the lay of the land. She got to show me around. I think she liked that—showing me the ropes. On my first full day there, we walked down Queen Anne hill to take the bus downtown. When the bus arrived—I don’t know why, maybe because she's my mom, maybe because I thought she had a bus pass for both of us—I assumed she would pay. So I just walked in and down the aisle until the bus driver called me back. “Hey, hey, didn’t pay!” I walked back, digging into my pockets for coins. Mom was still standing next to the coin box. “You have to pay,” she said. I did; I dropped the coins in. “Now ask the man for a transfer.” I didn’t have to. The bus driver, suppressing a laugh, just handed it to me. And when I turned to go back down the aisle, I saw an entire busload of people smiling with suppressed laughter. But she was happy. She was showing me the ropes.
We all have such stories. One of Mom’s best, oldest friends, JoAnna Vail, a nurse like mom, who actually introduced Dad and Mom, and so is the reason we’re all here—certainly Chris, Karen, and myself—she called these stories “Bettyisms.” One time, for example, they were cooking dinner and Dave Vail, her husband, tasted the sauce and said, “Needs a certain je ne sais quoi." Mom said, “You mean salt and pepper?”
Mom had a tendency to collapse hierarchies. She was the farm girl who liked working people and the British royal family. When my father was a young reporter, he introduced her to the owner of the Minneapolis Tribune and she responded, “Oh, you work for the paper, too!” In the late ’60s, a party was thrown for John Berryman, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet, who had recently returned from Ireland on a Guggenheim fellowship. It was thrown by the mayor of Minneapolis, Art Naftalin, and was full of the movers and shakers of the Twin Cities. Plus Mom and Dad. At one point in the evening, John Berryman gave a poetry reading, which he dedicated to three women in the room: Fran Naftalin, the wife of the mayor and hostess; Maris Thomes, the wife of his friend and physician, Boyd Thomes; and Betty Lundegaard. At the mention of the third name, all of these people, the movers and shakers, turned wondering, “Betty Lundegaard?” And there was mom, sitting on the floor, almost preening, as proud as could be.
She didn’t have much formal education. There’s a movie that reminds me of mom and me: “Philomena,” with Steve Coogan and Judi Dench: His college smarts learning her wisdom. Mom was just so kind and genuine. She liked people. She loved animals and they loved her. Everyone here knows about the horses. She was all about the horses. I can’t have a eulogy for Mom without mentioning Jody’s Nifty Bee, her favorite.
She loved being a nurse. That’s why she kept doing it until she was 80: open-heart surgery, eye surgery. If any of us were sick in the middle of the night, she would be ready in the bathroom with a cold washcloth for our forehead. Me especially. I was a sickly kid. Mom was a nurse for 50 years but 60 if you count my childhood. She had a nurse’s instinct. She knew Karen was pregnant just by talking to her on the phone, long before Karen told anyone.
She loved doctors. She would quote her favorite, Dr. Segal, as if her words had come down from Mt. Sinai. Her time nursing also made her somewhat blunt about medical matters. I once came home and found the following on my answering machine. It was her stern voice, meaning something serious had happened: “Erik. This is your mother. Uncle Roger is in the hospital. He’s bleeding from his rectum.”
But my sister-in-law Jayne is right. We get so many years but it’s somehow never enough. I was waiting in the security line at Sea-Tac airport when Karen called again with the news that mom had passed on. At the Minneapolis airport, my brother-in-law Eric picked me up, and we drove out to Jones-Harrison. It was past midnight. My sister made sure they didn’t move the body until I arrived, so I had time with her. So I could say the things I wanted to say. And I did. I told her that because of her, I was able to move through life knowing someone, somewhere, loved me unconditionally, and what a gift that was. But it wasn’t the same. Of course not. There’s a blunt finality to death. When I was talking to her, she didn’t react, as Mom always reacted; Mom lit up when you talked to her. And when I kissed her goodbye, her forehead was the one thing mom never was: cold.
But I’m glad I had that moment. And the truth is I’d been saying these things to her as soon as I’d heard the news in the security line at SeaTac airport. Ever since, I’d been talking to her and telling her things. Going through security, waiting at the gate, on the plane. It’s like in the beautiful song that my nephew Jordan just sang. “I am there each morning/I am there each fall/ I am present without warning/ And I am watching it all.” My wife’s mother died six years ago and she says she talks to her every day. I imagine I’ll be the same. I’m already talking to her about all this: Mom, look at this chapel. And free. What a deal Karen got! And did you hear the songs your grandsons sang? Thank god they have Eric’s voice. And look at all the nice people who showed up. What a time, Mom. What a time.