Confronting Our Deaths in a Pandemic

April 7, 2020

It’s not a good time to be watching the news. The stories of people losing loved ones to COVID-19 can have me sobbing like a baby. Parents, like, me leaving their families too quickly. Some are frontline medical workers, some are educators, some are bus drivers that an idiot coughed on. They were here and then they were gone. Most got a test too late, not that there’s much help that’s available once you slide down the hole. I have a very old friend who is on a ventilator in a hospital room in Atlanta and we’re just hoping the wind shifts direction and blows him back to his family. So turning on the TV at the moment is sure to remind you that the glass is half empty as it’s being used to waterboard you.

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I started this blog in late 2014 because I was inspired by John Lennon’s decision to leave work and become a stay-at-home father for his son, Sean. I wanted to give the same kind of intensive care to our daughter, Cozy. Cozy, 5, is now the same age as Sean was when John was killed by a gunman in front of their New York home. In numerous interviews, people ask Sean Lennon what he remembers about his dad and he honestly replies not much. That answer shakes me to the core. I’ve gotten to meet Sean a few times (and so did Cozy, in the womb), and I always wonder how his life would have been different if he had gotten two or three more years with his fab father.

The specter of death seems very real today, watching the rising death count from coronavirus. (Remember on February 26th, when Donald Trump said that in a couple of days, the virus would disappear, “like a miracle”?) You can tell me that I’m statistically more likely to be killed by a falling Comcast satellite than to die of the novel coronavirus, but that’s not going to register, especially since there’s a pretty good chance I’m already carrying it. My persistent cough worries me. There’s no fever but the “science” on what this thing is seems to change daily. We certainly don’t have any leadership on the issue from our president, just daily campaign rallies where the science is attacked along with journalists and handy scapegoats (“China!”).

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The rate at which people go from fine to dead, body stacked in a refrigerated truck, is horrifying. The Detroit bus driver who went on social media to complain about coughing passengers was dead in 11 days. And like the Class of 2020 high school seniors who will never be in high school again, no prom, no hugging your favorite teacher, there’s little chance to get your house in order and say goodbye. If you’re lucky, you’re isolated from all humans, including your family, with a ventilator tube down your throat. People have brought family members to emergency rooms “just to be safe” and then never seen them again.

I’m not obsessed with death. Other than being over 50, I’m not particularly “high risk,” but what does that even mean? I’m the family member who makes the supply runs to the grocery store, where two employees tested positive. I touched an avocado to see if it was ripe. Then I touched my face. I’m probably gonna die. It’s been nice knowing you. When I was 7, I stole a piece of Brach’s candy from a Piggly Wiggly. There, I said it.

I do worry about leaving my family in the lurch if I succumb to this thing. I know it’s fashionable and all, but it seems like more trouble than it’s worth, and I think my wife would be pissed off if I got COVID-19 after running to the store because I suddenly had a mad craving for Pop Tarts. I think she actually likes me and appreciates my ability to, um, well, do something. God, I don’t even know. I do know my daughter thinks pretty highly of me and I’d prefer to stick around long enough for her to learn that I made some life changing decisions so this wonderful family could exist. Am I the only one who is thinking about how all these fragile relationships turn out if I become a part of the daily corona body count? I mean they can’t even have a funeral for dead me. I require a wake with multiple drunken awkward moments! But I was just cremated along with all the other wheezers. Poof.

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For those of us that have wrestled with depression, there’s a real need to constantly monitor our mental states. The moment it really hit me was the first time I had to wear a cloth face mask in public. I sat in the grocery store parking lot trying to get my courage up to don a cute face covering that one of our crafty neighbors had made. I knew it was the responsible thing to do, maybe even saving lives (I had touched the avocado, after all), but it felt like I was giving into the fear. Once inside the Fred Meyer, mask in place, I saw all the other depressed faces hidden behind their masks. It felt like an awful version of The Handmaid’s Tale. The sinking feeling that this was normal now had me wanting to go lay down in the bread isle and cry. What started out as kind of funny (“Why the hell is everyone buying toilet paper?”) is now centered around saving the lives of family members. On a beautiful spring day, it can seem so dark.

Those of us that don’t die, will get through this. And maybe we’ll have that promised renaissance afterwards. I just wish we had an actual leader to help guide us through the darkness instead of a self-serving madman. I guess it’s up to us. I guess it’s always been up to us. Let’s live. At least until we can have funerals again.

Protecting Our Children from the Trump Virus

March 24, 2020

I’m not sure what day of the self-quarantine this is. I know it’s the second day of Oregon’s “shelter in place” order but the streets of Portland have been increasingly empty for over the last ten days, since the governor ordered all the schools closed a week before spring break, dropping thousands of kids in the laps of trying-not-to-panic parents. We don’t know what’s happening. I wonder if they do.

Our Cozy, at 5 and a half, is pretty smart. She rides around the car with me, secretly listening to NPR (I thought she was staring out the window, thinking about unicorns). Like most, I’ve been a little too addicted to the news about the advancing Trump virus. “Hey, Coze, where do you think this coronavirus came from?” I asked, trying to gage her comprehension of the global slowdown.

“It’s from sick bats in China,” she calmly said. I was expecting some kindergarten-level theory about it coming from flying monkeys hiding inside rain clouds. She’s probably been checking the infection rates on the Johns Hopkins website.

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But the reality of the impending sense of doom as the Trump virus shuts down the world she knows lurks like a monster in the closet. Our spring break tradition includes a trip to the super weird and wonderful Enchanted Forest amusement park, south of Salem. Closed due to the virus. We had planned a trip to Joesph, Oregon to hike around the eastern part of the state. Prohibited. Play dates, ice cream shops, jungle gyms, The Old Spaghetti Factory, all her favorite things are off limits for now and we don’t know when they won’t be. She doesn’t care about the stock market, but the fact that she can’t hug her friends is a red flag that things have changed drastically.

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This might be every parents secondary concern right now (the first being how to protect their children from contracting the Trump virus). How do we keep the kids from being infected with our generalized anxiety? Things are about to get even worse, but I don’t want my small child to know. She’s got washing her hands to “Happy Birthday” twice down pat, but does she realize that she’s not returning to her kindergarten class? The next time she goes to school she will be a first grader (God, please) and everything will be different. I keep thinking of that 1997 movie, Life is Beautiful, where Roberto Benigni and his young son are in a Nazi concentration camp and he convinces his son that they are actually in an exciting game to keep him from being completely traumatized. Dad is murdered by the Nazis in the end.

I’ll be honest, this Dad has been struggling. The Trump virus has upended the economic stability I started to find in 2019. It’s put my 70-something parents at risk. I’ve got an old friend in the ICU in an Atlanta hospital with a COVID-19 infection, and the dumbass Spring Breakers at the beach are not exactly flattening the curve. I feel like I’m inside a Joy Division album. Cozy is frustrated that Dad spends so much time watching the news or checking in on line. What to do, as we slide deeper into the social distance?

As usual, my bad ass wife snapped me out of the funk. She reminded me of all the positive things that are happening in this moment, most importantly all the wonderful family time that we’ve been gifted that will have a huge impact on our daughter. We’ve gotten to be homeschoolers, play dates, and creative time passers. (Andi has already given Cozy a haircut, two (henna) cat tattoos, and lots of weekday attention.) We’re planning some family art projects and Cozy and I are committed to learning how to play chess before this thing is over. We’re also catching up on Disney movies (Thank you, Disney+ for releasing Frozen 2 three months early!) And we’ve got a daily calisthenics routine we do on the sidewalk, to the delight out our neighbors.

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I’ve been running daily (now that the gym is closed) and reconnecting with the music of my youth. (You can run really hard to Van Halen). In the process, I’ve noticed neighbors and strangers seem more friendly, waving from their bubbles. The explosion of live music coming in from my social media platforms has put me in the room with some of my favorite performers, including Patti Smith, Michelle Malone, and Ben Gibbard (every day at 4 pm!). Something is happening. It’s like a government imposed artist retreat (as Patti called it) that’s also producing some much needed civility. The Trump virus is the great equalizer, but beautiful things may emerge from it. Andi and I have even started on a screenplay project!

She was quick to remind that when all this is over, people might slip back to their 9 to 5 grooves, complaining about how they don’t have any time to do the things that they really want to do. As a sociologist, I’m hoping this is a paradigm shift. That once we taste this new version of our lives, we won’t want to go back to the rut. We’ll create a new synthesis, transformed by the quarantine into a new global community.

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So this is what we must share out with our children, that out of crisis comes opportunity. Not to make a fast buck, like those looking for a corporate bailout from the Trump virus aid package. The opportunity to create new things, that connect us in new and beautiful ways. Cozy wants to write postcards! The social organism is adapting. We might look on this moment in history like how we look at how the Black Plague in 1340s Italy paved the way for the Renaissance, as Europeans embraced a lust for life instead of endlessly pondering the afterlife. Let the Trump virus unleash our lust for life and let our children know all the beautiful things that are coming.

Let us come out of this a new version of us, connected and complete. And let the optimism of our children be our guide.

Love In The Time of Corona

March 15, 2020

IT WAS INEVITABLE: Society was due for a course correction. We’d settled into our accepted state of idiocracy, whining about our moron leaders while sipping our over-priced coffee drinks. Their delusions of nationalism were destined to bite all of us on the ass. Brexit, “America First,” Polish nationalism, and all the rest. Build a wall and crime will fall, they said. They were too stupid to know that germs don’t recognize man-made boundaries.

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In less than two weeks the fantasy of “national borders” was laid to waste by the creeping, then accelerating, coronavirus. We are the world, sneezing and coughing together, engaged in a collective fear that our inherent sociability is killing off our elders, one nursing home at a time. Our anti-science president thought he could employ his jingoism by placing his executive power in front of this “foreign virus” (his words). COVID-19 laughed at his hubris. It was already here, spreading like a kerosene fire.

So here we are, in lockdown, trying to “flatten the curve,” riding out the pandemic in our under-stocked bunkers, socially distancing ourselves from our neighbors. Thank the gods for Netflix and chilling. (We now know what will come after Gen Z, the Coronials. See ya in 9 months, babies!) What does this mean for our society, as food servers run out of grocery money and Trump thinks of another way to help his rich friends, again? (“Fed to pump in more than $1 trillion in dramatic ramping up of market intervention amid coronavirus meltdown”) It seems like once they closed down Disneyland, we were racing to a complete social collapse. At least my gym is still open, for now.

In times like this, people crave togetherness, something more than posting memes about empty toilet paper shelves at Costco. Older readers will remember how after 9/11 there was a strange sense of unity that fell over the country. We were all bonded by our grief and needed to be together, hugging strangers and lending handkerchiefs to wipe away others’ tears. Ah, those were the days. How can we accomplish this same cathartic social ritual with three feet between us at all times? I want to hug my elderly neighbors who are already “socially distanced,” but will that kill them?

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Our founding sociologist, Emile Durkheim, asked, over a hundred years ago, why we need religion. In a time of growing scientific explanation, it seemed like religion was less and less required to make sense of the world and yet people were still flocking to churches, synagogues, and mosques. What he found made a lot of sense. People’s need for religion didn’t have anything to do with needing “God,” but needing each other. We needed a sense of community, from the Amish to Zoroastrians. We needed to be in one place together, breaking bread and engaging in rituals that gave us a sense we were connecting the sacred mysteries and the profane reality.  Religion gave us the social cohesion needed grease the wheels of a functioning society. As a kid who grew up in the Bible Belt, you never asked where someone was on Sunday mornings. They were at church, with their friends.

In the twenty-first century, social media has given us much of that sense of community we used to find at our various worship services, but it’s still not the same. Even with online shopping, online dating, and online education, there is still an innate desire to be in a room together. Maybe it is tied to our tribal origins, the rule by consensus. Checking in with each other by taking stock of body languages. “Yeah, I get the feeling people don’t want to go the Chili’s after work.” We need to be reminded of the flesh and bones of us, that we are not a series of illuminated screens.

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So how will we get through this? My intellectual mind understands that limiting social contact will slow down the spread of the virus and put this thing in the dumpster with the swine flu, the bird flu, and various monkey-born illnesses. But my emotional mind wants to take my family out for dim sum to support our suffering Asian community and later grab a drink at my local bar in hopes a few shots of whiskey will immunize me. (Guilty of doing both this week.) Facebooking and ordering delivery just doesn’t cut it. Will my very human need to be in the world (and putting my money where my asymptomatic mouth is) extend this nightmare and maybe take out a few humans in the process? How can I be the needed citizen of the world and also stem the economic collapse in my little part of the world?

Durkheim believed that even horrible things can be functional for society. Maybe COVID-19 is functional as a great reset for the human race, to remind us that borders and nations are luxuries that quickly fade when we realize we’re all in this germ factory together. I’m wrapping my arms around the world. And then washing my hands.