Staying Here: Dispatch from Quarantine — Day 1

We hid from the smoke of the Camp Fire during my wife’s pregnancy in 2018. My oldest friend and I went to deliver supplies to shelters and stomping out fires behind the exclusion zones. That winter, my wife and I stayed in as the flood waters rose along the Russian River. We were trapped at home with a failing culvert four days past his due date. Water began to destroy the road, but as with the first crisis, the same friend showed up to help me build barriers to direct the waters back into the ditch. The next autumn we had another round of fires. This time, we left under mandatory evacuation to Fair Oaks (east of Sacramento) and stayed with friends for a week. It was Halloween and the neighborhood was filled with free roaming roosters and climate refugees. It was almost peaceful. What was happening was beyond our control. Either we would have a home, or a pile of ash.

In Fair Oaks, our presence was at worst an imposition. This time, as the world economy squeals like ungreased gears, we have little community to share the time with except the most immediate family. Greater community, in any quantity, for any reason, is a moment of transmission. My crisis-hardened friend is in Mexico. I hope he stays there – for now. The subtle yearning for human contact feels like the cigarette cravings from before Leon was born on March 16, 2019, at 1:43pm.

I have cautious conversations with my employer. He insists I’ve made a choice not to come into work, even though my coworker and I both have parents who would suffer the worst possible odds against COVID-19. He says this because he assumedly doesn’t want to pay out on unemployment, but he could also just no believe the pandemic is real. After failing to get us consistent work, with weeks of downtime, it is suddenly it’s my choice! We both stand facing a pile of debt like a wall of pikes that keeps coming towards us. So here I am. On the cusp of a labor struggle while our president uses our community’s terror to attack entitlements and blame immigrants for something he does not understand. I wonder what walls will close in around him one day. If I were his boss – and we all are – I would pay him to stay home… Please, Mr. President, sit this one out. But I digress.

The White Album is playing on the record player. We’re hiding out in the house, hidden underneath the canopy of a grey afternoon. Leon turned one yesterday. We asked everyone to stay home for the party, except immediate family. The joy of his existence has done things to me I cannot summarize here. He is beautiful, beyond what I can explain to you. Inalienable as this truth is, to celebrate him would be a Trojan horse for the dreaded COVID-19. Shut down as we are, I have to keep my eyes open, my heart lifted, and be here and now. I have worked constantly since he was born in order to keep this house afloat. Spending time with him (impending bills aside) is a damned amazing luxury. In this single respect, I have never been so happy to see this world grind to a halt.

And so there you are! The only people who haven’t changed their social lives are full-time gamers, who never see anyone real. But this is real. The threat is real, and so is the potential for government overreach. I tell myself not to be afraid. I am afraid. I am afraid for you. For what we represent to one another – vectors. For the first time, we have an acute proxy to illustrate how shared our planetary fate is. No longer can we generalize some as worthy and others as expendable. The economics say otherwise. If a province in China can shut down Italy and half the planet due to supply shortages and one nasty novel virus, then one melting ice cap can end life on every coast and burn the green from the forests and bleach the blue from everyone’s sky.

We made an excursion to drop off some tax documents. It is gray and cold. The liquor store is among 5 open businesses of over 50 businesses in town. The usual blend of Hispanic labor is absent. Our diner is open but empty, its owner is on his phone at the front counter. The face of the town is dark. I can’t tell if that’s the view from within my shell or the absence of open signs.

I have tried to follow the Trump presidency from both sides of the media aisle since he took office. While opposing views are present on opposite ends of the media spectrum, neither side lacks alarm or intensity. We have been at DEF COM 2 for three years or more. In the way that large predators have a concentration of heavy metals in their flesh from eating tens and hundreds of smaller animals, so too are my podcast hosts abbesses of the media ecosystem. I drink of the fire hose of hot takes, and my news stales faster than a slightly cold french fry or a slightly warm, cheap beer. My gums are burned back to the bone, my eyes pecked bare by thoughtful ramblings of political junkies sturdier than myself. When COVID-19 appeared, I knew it was no worse than what I was already too emotionally exhausted to react to. I felt like I was thinking, but I was just absorbing hate and distrust. When the noise got louder, I became distrustful of the hype. STOP SELLING ME FEAR, I thought. DEF CON 1? Really. Tell me more about your bad cough.

Me and Lea. Photo credit: Talia Herman

Not a moment ago, I received an order to “shelter in place” from our local municipality. As of midnight tonight, I am unable to leave my house. The freaks on the radio are suggesting Netanyahu is going to become the first prime minister of the new world government that will emerge to combat COVID-19. I could think of 1.2 billion people who might not like that. In actual news, Israel is considering tracking the cell phone movement of sick people retroactively. My son is on the floor with his new toys as my father tells me this. It is necessary for a short time, he says. I can’t help but remember the Patriot Act, and how shortly that was supposed to last. The next thing that scares me is the internet going down. All of America on the internet, all of the time, deferring to the state for safety. I hope to god my inner psychotic paranoid cynic is wrong many more times before he is even slightly correct.

My sister sends me a picture of her doing yoga by conference video. I can’t help but think of I, Robot. I’ve played real sci-fi, so I know this isn’t The Expanse, or Halo, or Resident Evil. I don’t know what it is, which makes it more like some fucked up Hitchcock film if Danny Elfman wrote the score. A movie about a bowl of bat soup that flew around the world and put us all to sleep. An angel of death to a world without a mezuzah to fight it.

Leon is playing with the vacuum cord. Everything is interesting to him. He sees it all without history or culpability. He’s throwing his little yellow car with the coordination of a stick figure across the kitchen floor. It’s like fetch without a partner. He makes progress every day, and like him I strive for progress. Not perfection. It is very difficult to not expect that from any government on the morning of our first day in quarantine.

In 2018, we began shooting at a target the moment we learned of our pregnancy: Get financially stable. This was the mantra. We were both on the far side of 20 (or early side of 30), we were in love, and (if I can make the error of speaking for my wife) we felt called to participate in a new life. We had considered aborting, and resume our infinite trespasses. There was still so much to see, and to know. When we realized we could do it all while raising a child, the direction of liberation went toward parenthood. It is tempting to say we decided to do it. We decided not to fight our instincts. And so began the journey so people make. My wife began to immigrate to a new country and I went to work, leaving my writing career for a tool belt and a hammer.

This week was the grand finale of that goal. We worked extremely hard for almost two years. For two years, we had poor credit and slowly improving incomes. Now we have better credit and no incomes. Our home is ready to refinance from the hard money it was stuck in when we acquired it and for Lea to get her green card. This week, USCIS will close before giving out another green card and I have no job to pay the bills. The Trump Administration has a new rule that deems immigrants who become a public charge risk having their applications to emigrate denied. What aid can our family accept that isn’t itself a liability to our immigration process? What will happen when I ask a bank to consider my mortgage application without an income? What future can we depend on when the story changes every day and the urgency only increases each interval?

And then there’s the overarching reality that all of you, around the world, and in every corner of the internet, have your own stories. Your communities have their own burdens. Your local governments are negotiating with states who are talking to the federal government and higher authorities still. What goldilocks solution gets us all back to work without risking such a high fatality rate that we consider building a monument to those fallen in the name of restarting the world?

My son is wandering around the kitchen with a funky looking carrot. Lea is speaking to him in German so he becomes bilingual, bicultural, and transatlantic. I love watching it, and how simple it is: Keep them fed. Keep them safe. Keep yourself sane. This, my friends, is my dispatch to you in your own foxholes. The fear we feel is out of concern for ourselves and those we love. I have discovered a deeper fear, though. It is private, until now. It is that we are connected – and I can feel your fate in my own.

Every enemy you had is now a precious ally whom we cannot afford to quarrel with. We face a disastrous economic situation, a dangerous virus, and a changing climate. No matter who we elect in November, this trembling you feel is the same inspiration that shook the Old World in the age of Enlightenment. It is a pulsing bridge with a surging of floodwaters beneath. We remember death, and we are better for it.

I am going to challenge myself to demand more from myself rather than criticize what is simply misfortune. Still, the rules of engagement do apply though. This is no alien invasion uniting all disparate factions into a monolith. You can still – and must – hate people for being dicks. We must watch closely for predators who would buy up sanitizer in order to gouge the free market (and have the blind arrogance to complain about their failed fuckery to the New York Times). When you hear them pushing to remove the Payroll Tax, you should hear business pushing their spent labor force into an early grave. This kind of unregulated capitalism is why the Overton Window has expanded to the idea that capitalism might be the bad guy here.

Regardless of your stance on unregulated capitalism, be vigilant of abuse during this crisis. Never tolerate it from government, grocer or groupie. Don’t let them normalize continuous monitoring of your cell phone’s location for anyone’s “safety”. Be leery of ideas so creepy they require the caveat of “temporary” to justify them. I don’t know if the dystopia we could leave the future would be worse than a few more deaths from COVID-19, but the measures we as a society adopt will need to strike a compromise between safety and liberty. For every meek heart caught in the crossfire, be decisive and bold. Triage is more than ventilators and quarantines. It is also about keeping our houses in order, our society open, and our governments accountable.

Leon is approaching naptime. We have nothing but time, toys, an enough food to last for two weeks. Come to think of it, it’s kind of felt like this the entire time. It’s really simple to sit at home (or in my car at the park, currently) and blog about this time in life as though it were a mangy ball of facts that can simply be teased apart. If I write for anything today it is to be a lighthouse of my own creation on a dark coastline where information is kidnapping our imaginations into buying toilet paper and stockpiling ammunition. Sail on, friends! Since we can’t share the space, I will leave our internet-less house in order to send this out and share my piece, and how we are finding peace beneath the tempest.


Ari Herman

Guerneville, CA

March 18, 2020

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