Dispatch 3 — Learning Gentleness

Late March

Day by day, we walk into the wilderness of our inner lives. The internet deepens our information silo. We have no streets to confirm reality. Our sidewalks are empty, and without them we have less to affirm a common reality underneath spring rains. We have a window view and a playlist of music that will one day trigger us to remember when we were forced to contend with ourselves, apart from the commerce of the world. Time seems to stand still — and yet the demarcations of change accelerate with the exponential rise in deaths from COVID-19.

Spain converted an ice arena into a morgue to store bodies. They pile up at the foot of churches. Italy had a shortage of coffins and crematorium ovens for the bodies. There are mass graves for the bodies. And I want to imagine a graph that shows deaths going up over time if the economy is shut down, and deaths from COVID-19 going down over time if the economy is shut down – I would love to imagine Trump is listening to his advisors as they look for the intersection between those two lines and turn the engine over in order to save the most lives, but I know he just wants his toys back. He wants to preserve wealth. He wants his reelection more than he wants to save people, who some Republican senators suggest are sacrificial lambs to the Dow Jones. I say fuck them. Fuck all of them, and their exclusive senatorial health care. Forgive my digression.

At the end of March, my temperature had ranged from 99.5F and 102.1F. I had not seen my unemployment check. Everyone I knew was strapped with little savings. Congress, bless them, was in gridlock over how much money to give to the candy industry, the cruise ship industry, the airline industry, the insurance industry, and to the human beings they serviced. The message was simple – no one is coming to rescue you – not fast enough, anyway. As much as quarantine felt critical, indeed was critical, I still had to keep our home. So I looked for side work to keep our creditors and lender happy and our fridge full. I found a fence to build, a solo gig. While I was non-essential, and a public health hazard, my family’s health and happiness are essential to us. I tear up with righteous clarity at the idea that any child should suffer for the ineptitude of this government’s response to the pandemic. No child should go hungry in this country. But again, I digress.

The nurse techs waved me in to park next to the pop up shade structure. A man in his 50s was leaned back in his green SUV as the nurse inserted a swab deep into his sinuses. She wore a tyvec suit not unlike the ones vineyard workers do when applying pesticides. I overheard his temperature was 99.6F, oxygen saturation 93%. I felt like cattle being inspected for disease. The techs came to my window and asked me to lay back. Oxygen saturation 93%, heart rate 75bpm. It was a sunny day with scattered storm clouds. Traffic moved by more thinly than usual. The swab made me tear up involuntarily as she inserted it straight through to the back of my throat for 10 seconds via my left nostril. Not too bad. Six more seconds… I was risking everyone’s safety by moving about, so I drove home and arrived to the regular condition.

Leon’s toys are strewn across the den. Lea and I have run out of clean underwear and Leon has no more PJs. Without on-site laundry, I run a half bath. I pour ½ cup of Dr. Bronners into the tub and submerge our clothing until the water turns into grey broth. Lea puts on 70s soul funk and we scrub out the nasty. We use the baby pool to stage scrubbed and wrung laundry before soaking it again. My hands become raw and red.

I make a pot of popcorn. It pops with the same pattern that we wish to avoid with COVID-19: innocuous sizzling, then a flurry of popping, then burning. It would be damned difficult to pop a few kernels at a time for several hours. I crack a ginger ale and sip it. Unable to cope, I pour melted butter, salt and yeast over my feelings and eat them.

For a time, the walls grew taller every hour. My cell phone screen became the size of a bed spread. We were running out of money, and there’s a clock counting down the slow creep of scarcity. In this frustration, I am oddly eager to sip the last ginger ale or scoop the last bit of honey into the last cup of coffee. I am looking forward to the last bit of faith in government failing too, so I can finally convince Lea that this country can change for the better. I am tired of inventing excuses for why our nation leaves so many behind. Ah! Digression…

I wonder how Leon sees it. Surely he feels the pressure in the house and notices we don’t leave to see people anymore. This all coincides with terrible teething pains, interlocking physical pain and abstract angst. His teeth bite him before he bites us in frustration. His spirits seem good mostly, but what do I know? I want them to be good. When Lea and I fight, he suffers and acts out, so we are careful what topics we discuss, and how we discuss them. I believe we are growing gentler in this time of separateness.

I walked Leon down the gravel road kicking a four-square ball with an atlas on it. There is no north pole on the graphic. The ball bounces down the road, through puddles, and into a depression between the redwood trees. After watching Leon walk in that uncoordinated way toddlers do, I put him up on my shoulders and stride towards the ball. He absorbs every texture and flickering detail and yet engages without comprehension. Down on the ground, he mulls redwood fronds and fistfuls of rocks thrown into the roadside stream. The springtime rain gradually increases. Every oak leaf is a drum head tapping out an ancient sound. What is this? He seems to consider. He has weak control over his limbs. We hold hands and head back, kicking the ball as we go. We have no words for these things. He tumbles like a drunk leaving a bar at 2am. He is loose. This is what I have been missing.

It’s my 4th night in a row awake. Lea tells me this is her life since Leon was born: Isolation, sleeplessness. It is 3am. Leon wakes me up. He cries from the teething around 2am like clockwork. Can’t put me down after. I sit here wondering how to lecture the world out of their problems, but I can’t help but feel my powerlessness. If that can’t be beat, how could I lead? This entire country should be locked down tight for the few weeks necessary to contain the spread of the disease, and no one in any position of real power has the balls to do it. What will the costs be for us tomorrow?

Dedication to Alby

Alby was from my father’s generation. I remember him singing and dancing at the small Jewish community gatherings of my childhood. He was where we drew our ability to drop into celebration with ease, bringing our secular speculations and shyness. He was with his friends, and they loved the music they played. He was one of the few people I saw celebrate for real. He had a charming, nearly effeminate masculinity that was actually just kindness, but in the greater hyper-masculine cultural context seemed otherworldly in its tenderness. He was the Judaism I understood.

We never had a rabbi. I did not understand or identify with religious Judaism. This pot-smoking bash of baby boomers who busted out of Israel and New Jersey seeking Aliyah – like Zionism was actually a place in ourselves – and it didn’t matter if it was on land we lived on thousands and thousands of years ago. It was here and now, with our friends, with music and Alby’s arms in the air. 

Alby died in San Francisco from COVID-19. It felt like a small library burned down. I don’t remember anything concrete about Alby as a person, but I recall him as a kind of figurehead in a community. As a secular household, we never had God or strongly defined credos. I could sense what Jewishness meant to their generation by their gentler ways with one another. It’s more difficult to know what it means for me. We like different music, and I am a very terrible dancer. When men like Alby leave us, it feels like a repository of tradition and knowledge and character are lost, but for this world, their gentleness shall remain our greatest asset.


The Value of L

Early Spanish accounts of the California coastline describe salmon runs that choked the mouths of rivers. The skies were black with birds. Deer and lion and bears lived right down by the waters. Today, even the bugs are disappearing. There is a horrific paradox of seeing China’s emissions drop off (while they tackled COVID-19). It gives us a very real understanding of how the interests of industry and ecology stand in opposition. Both serve life, but one is going to kill the golden goose. We have thrown our ecology into crisis for the sake of manufacturing novelty on top of necessity, and are now being culled by a novel virus.

The trees outside are vibrant and green in the morning grey. Lea is baking bread and Leon is tossing an apple across the floor, alternating between the German and English words, ‘Apfel’ and ‘Apple’. It is his first words, or the first I can understand. Carrot is ‘ka ka’. Banana is ‘na na’. Drips of condensation fall from the skylight due to the laundry drying in the living room. Brazilian music is playing on Lea’s Apple and I am gearing up to tell you about the Drake equation.

The nurse called. I tested negative for COVID-19.

I’ve been reading about it lately. Basically, it’s a guide to researchers who seek to successfully contact aliens. It is a jagged equation that consolidates a very large amount of information. The value of L is the length of time a technologically advanced civilization (one with at least radio communication) exists before catastrophism comes like a high tide to wash it all away. In Adam Frank’s book Light of the Stars two premises are put forward. First, such civilizations exist briefly or exist for hundreds of millions of years. Second, using our own civilization as a model, they blow themselves up with atomic weapons or global climate change gets the better of them.

At 11am we put on Tracy Chapman to serenely knock out the child. We may only have an hour or two while he naps in a given day. I have known Lea longer as a mother than as a single woman. I remember leaving the maloca in Peru and finding her standing beneath a storm the size of anyone’s inner demon. Thunder clapped and flashed beneath the darkened sky. The deluge drowned the forest chatter to a hush. I could see in the dark from the subtle moonlight illuminating the clouds. My eyes were alive then, not tired and weary as now. Lea wore black appearing as a silhouette. Hearing the rain on her body was more information than my eyes could see, alive as they were. I can still hear the Icaros of the shaman helping me cry harder than I had ever cried before. I had trusted my eyes too much, and I had never truly had compassion for myself before that moment. The crisis that had followed me my entire life ran in fear of me that night. My miseries were no less, and no greater, as the storm ceased and we all sat on the path smoking mapachos and singing in the moonlight.

It relieves me that we still live in a rainforest and that I do not trust my eyes to see what’s really going on in full. The hinterlands of Northern California host a dynamic and diverse ecosystem. We are connected to the earth here, like yourself as you read this today. While nuclear weapons are the greatest acute danger we face, according to Light of the Stars, we owe the ICBM delivery systems a debt of gratitude, for without them we would never have put satellites in orbit and studied the climate so scrupulously. Survival is everyone’s priority on all sides. The inextricable link between the military and scientific knowledge softens the sins of the former and tempers the virtues of the latter, and we will need both in order to stop the second threat of climate change. The most dangerous event happening right now is not COVID-19, and it is not the economic fallout. It is Trump’s suspension of EPA limits on industry. It is the denial of our stewardship here. And with any luck, Leon will be asleep by the time you read this. I’m

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