There was frost on the ground in our back garden this morning, but it melted as the sun rose and the shadow of the fence along our eastern property line receded. The day is shaping up as sunny and very pleasant, with just a nip in the air, and the cherry trees are starting to blossom in earnest. Here comes the sun, after a long, cold and lonely Seattle winter. The weather was the same yesterday for our Bainbridge Island adventure. We all agreed that hiking 17 miles in the great outdoors was just what the doctor ordered. Much of our mileage traversed classic Northwestern woods dripping with moss, and we even saw a large coyote and a disused wooden outhouse whose entire roof was covered with ferns. And we saw a great many dogs, including a Newfoundland and a Corgi, and petted a few of them. My friend Eveline told the Corgi’s owner about the time she saw a Corgi romp through a snow field that was blocking its path on Mount Baker. The seven of us hiking together shared some gallows humor, but the best thing about a wonderful day out was how remote we all felt from the coronavirus and how little we discussed it.
Then soon after I arrived home, just before 9 p.m., Dennis sent me an item reporting Kitsap County’s first “presumptive positive” case: “The person who tested positive for COVID-19 is a resident of Bainbridge Island in their 60s.” I’m 54 and had major surgery six months ago; Dennis is 62. My elderly in-laws live in Kitsap County, although not on Bainbridge Island.
As I write this, Jenny is starting an online training session to learn how to use a videoconferencing program that’s part of the University of Washington’s system of digital teaching tools. Her job of 15-plus years is teaching English to foreign students. In mid-January, before any of us outside China knew to fear the coronavirus, Jenny was given notice that the university’s powers that be were considering axing her department at the end of this summer. Now, on top of that, on Friday morning she received an email announcing that, until further notice, all University of Washington classes would be conducted online because of the coronavirus. Other institutions have since followed suit, starting with Stanford and now including (just according to what I’ve heard anecdotally) Rice University in Houston and Seattle Central College, where my friend Jeb Wyman teaches writing.
The news about UW going all-online has been a disconcerting instance of the kind of media reverb that can happen when an event that turns out to be globally momentous takes place close to home. Jenny and I learned the news Friday morning, via that email sent by the president of the university. A couple of hours later I saw it as BREAKING NEWS on the Seattle Times website. Then my friend and colleague John Singleton, who works at Texas Christian University, said to me on the phone that afternoon: “I assume you’ve heard about the University of Washington?” Indeed I had. And then I saw it reported again, prominently in the Guardian’s ongoing global coronavirus coverage.
I was supposed to make a week-long campus visit to TCU, as part of my work, March 16-20, flying from Sea-Tac to DFW on the 15th. I had several important meetings set up that week to do with multiple ongoing and prospective projects, to keep my freelance career ticking over so that, among other things, I can continue to pay the mortgage. The week after TCU, I would have been speaking at the wonderful Princeton Public Library and visiting Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. For good measure I was going to fit in personal visits with a cousin and his family in East Texas and with friends in Philadelphia.
I haven’t yet definitively cancelled that trip, but I almost certainly am going to. What helped concentrate my mind on Friday was learning that the South by Southwest festival was being cancelled. The nature of this diary is that its composition is, and surely will remain, perpetually and unavoidably behind the relentless cascade of new developments. Since Friday many other scheduled events have been cancelled worldwide, including (just one that caught my eye) the Indian Wells tennis tournament in Southern California, often informally thought of as the “fifth Grand Slam,” with obvious implications for the likely cancellation of the Miami Open and possibly even the French Open and Wimbledon.
So naturally, Jenny and I wondered whether the concert we’d bought tickets to months ago, featuring singer-songwriter Colin Hay at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, would go ahead on Saturday evening, March 7. We kept checking relevant web pages, fully expecting to see an announcement that began, “Regrettably, due to the coronavirus …”
But there never was such an announcement, and the concert went ahead, and it was terrific. We had seen Colin Hay once before and had been charmed by his quaint accent, his jokes and stories, and his songs. And this show was extra-special because of the circumstances. I just hope no one in the crowded cathedral caught or passed on the coronavirus. Colin Hay is 66 years old. When he walked offstage at the end, I saw him elbow-bump a stagehand.
“This reminds me of when I was in church,” he said to start the evening, then paused a beat and added: “– that one time.” Then he said: “We won’t bother addressing what’s going on out there. We’ll just have our own little cocoon here, for a couple of hours.”
And we did. Near the end he told some of his personal backstory of overcoming alcoholism and career doldrums. “People ask me, ‘Why do you keep going on the road, going on tour?’” he said. “And the simple answer is, it makes me feel useful.” And, introducing one of the last songs of the evening, he said, “There’s so many horrendous things going on. It’s nice to remember now and again that it’s a beautiful world.”
Earlier today I shared with three local friends the news I read that the entire country of Italy has been locked down, and that Israel is to begin mandatory two-week quarantines of anyone entering the country. My friend Eric replied: “So, like, when do I get to see my child again?” Eric’s daughter is studying at a university in northern England.
My father and I traded notes on the Episcopal priest in DC who tested positive after giving communion to and shaking hands with 500 churchgoers yesterday. My father is an Episcopal priest. “I feel very lucky to be retired,” he told me. Next Sunday my 82-year-old dad, hopefully accompanied by his friend Jerry, is planning to drive an hour from Colorado Springs to Pueblo to officiate at a dwindling parish there. The Pueblo congregation is usually about a dozen people, all over 60.
Also today, a friend in Milwaukee told me:
I was entertaining a friend from out of town this weekend. He lives in Hong Kong and engaged in a self-enacted quarantine in Delhi for 10 days before flying to Milwaukee for a series of meetings; ironically, the folks he was supposed to meet with (C-level executives at [a corporation headquartered in Wisconsin]) refused to meet with him in person, so he had to sit in his hotel room and Skype into the meetings. Total paranoia. My friend pointed out to me that all of the coronavirus outbreaks are happening where Chinese tourists typically travel. I didn’t see that pattern beforehand.
Here is the lead paragraph of an article by aerospace reporter Dominic Gates in today’s Seattle Times:
The extended grounding of Boeing’s 737 MAX, which this week passes the one-year mark, has made the jetmaker’s future tough and uncertain. Now the global spread of the coronavirus – which has rapidly slashed demand for air travel and for jets – will complicate its efforts to recover.
March 9, 2020
Blue Ear Books founder Ethan Casey, who lives in Seattle, is maintaining a diary of events and developments surrounding the coronavirus outbreak and its effects on life. To read the first four installments, dated March 3, 5, 7, and 9, 2020, in PDF format, visit this page.