I’m proud of my wife. As I start writing this, Jenny’s on Zoom teaching her 8:30 a.m. ENGL105 class to University of Washington graduate students who will have to demonstrate English proficiency in order to qualify for teaching assistantships. She’s in what she calls “teacher mode,” showing up and rising to the occasion as she always does, even now that she knows that her underpaid and underappreciated job will be going away in August, or maybe June, thanks to the cupidity and mendacity of the overpaid administrators who announced that decision last month, just as the coronavirus crisis was starting to bite.
Jenny has a heavy workload in trying circumstances, and she’s not getting enough sleep. Between and especially after her classes on any given day, her energy flags and so does her morale. The other day – it’s hard to keep track of the days; it was either yesterday or the day before – I told her I was feeling emotionally overwhelmed. “I don’t have the luxury of being emotionally overwhelmed,” she replied. “I’m practically overwhelmed.”
As a lifelong freelancer, I always have multiple gigs and projects on my plate, and right now I’m having to reprioritize them drastically on the fly. Some of that is being done for me by circumstances, by others’ decisions or omissions, or by the need to make money. So be it. I hope that some of the things I’d like to do that are falling by the wayside might become feasible again down the road, perhaps in altered form. That’s normal and familiar enough; every writing project is always in flux, and every published version is partly arbitrary and always inflected by the place and time of its composition.
Chronically, I crave the imagined moment when I’ll be free to pursue my writing life exactly as I see fit, without all those pesky considerations related to making a living. One of my early heroes was V.S. Naipaul, whose author bio included the magnificently arrogant sentence “He has followed no other profession.” Must be nice. Actually, I’ve largely managed to follow no other profession myself, though at a high cost in insecurity and instability. It’s a minor miracle that, at 54, I actually live in a house and pay a mortgage. Yet by the same token I’ve acquired survival skills like chutzpah, salesmanship, a thick skin (“Get the money. Don’t believe all the baloney people tell you when they’re describing everything they’re going to do for you someday soon” – Henny Youngman), and alertness to shifting circumstances. These are probably standing me in good stead now.
Anyway, there is one book that I do very much want to bring across the finish line, whenever I can manage that, though at the moment its fruition seems to be receding into the future. It’s an account of the life and work of a wildlife veterinarian, Dr. William Fowlds, and other remarkable people in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa who are living and working on the front lines of the fight against poaching of endangered southern white rhino. The easy way to write such a book would be to put the strapping white man front and center, to render Will as a veterinary Paul Farmer of South Africa. Almost immediately after first meeting him, at TCU in January 2016, I took the leap in deciding that I must write a book, and it became for me a passion project and an inoculation against the creeping jadedness of middle age. For his part, Will did not initially encourage me. A year later he said to me, “Have you got my blessing? I don’t know yet. I’m not comfortable with an American writer coming out and making a hero out of me, because that’s not what I am.”
I took that as a challenge, and still do. Just now I noticed, searching the Word document of my latest partial draft for that quote, that I dated the draft March 1, 2020 – a long month and a half ago. When I can manage it, I’m going to have to finish transcribing, editing, and arranging the rest of the audio interview material that I have, write the biographical and historical narratives that must constitute the book’s backstory and topical context, then … then what? Two months ago I was firmly planning, one way or another, to make a fifth trip to the Eastern Cape sometime in 2020, to close the loop and bring the story forward. Now the book is in flux, both topically and business-side-wise. I won’t say it’s in limbo or in suspension, because my authorial cussedness will see to it that it’s completed. But in what form? And how will the relevance of saving endangered rhino have changed, in perception and maybe in reality, in the wake of a pandemic?
And one more thing: Early in the current draft, I recount at some length the eerie sensation of displacement I experienced during and just after the thirty or so hours it took to fly, in June 2017, from Seattle over the pole and via Dubai and Johannesburg to Port Elizabeth. “There’s something wrong about traveling so far so fast; our species is not built for such velocity or to such a scale,” I wrote. “What is natural to us is to stand on the planet as other animals do and traverse it on foot, at three or four miles per hour.” I’m still pleased with those two sentences, but now I wonder whether they might be a bit pompous, as well as dated. I’ll have to revisit it when I get back to that project. The next sentence begins a new paragraph and says a lot about what used to drive me: “Earlier in my adult life, I had been desperately eager to get as far from home as possible as fast as possible, and of course the way to do that was by air.” Now, I wonder what right I have to hop on an airplane to a faraway destination whenever I feel like it. Actually, I don’t wonder; I have no such right.
So yeah, my writing life has been disrupted – and it’s been redirected, until further notice, by the writing of this diary. I also am obeying a strong felt obligation to read many news, opinion, and analysis articles daily, about the pandemic and the looming economic and political catastrophes, as the world keeps turning and churning around me. But to whom do I have any such obligation? Wouldn’t it be all right if I just quit trying to keep up on current events?
Meanwhile there remain the things that need to be done just to maintain a household. Jenny and I have it pretty easy on that front, since it’s only the two of us plus two very active young cats. But the deadlines and daily obligations of Jenny’s work are more urgent than mine, so it falls to me to do things like make dinner, clean the litter box (which reminds me that I’d better do that as soon as I finish writing this), and scrub the bathtub and bathroom sink. And at one o’clock today I have to go to Fred Meyer to pick up a load of groceries that we ordered online a week ago. I’m training myself to adjust to and even embrace these duties, to live less in my writerly head and more in my home.
Over the past 24 hours or so, let’s see: Trump has threatened to use a never-before-invoked obscure presidential power to adjourn Congress, withdrawn funding from the World Health Organization, and fueled the conspiracy theory that the coronavirus was created in a lab in China (contradicting preemptively cautious statements by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and his own secretary of defense). Ho hum, another day, another three or more unprecedented globally cataclysmic grenades tossed out the White House window.
Closer to home, yesterday’s big news locally was the announcement that the damaged West Seattle Bridge will remain closed at least through the end of 2021. If you read the actual Seattle Times article, as I did, the real news is that they’re taking very seriously the likelihood that the bridge can’t be saved at all. So when will a new one be built, how much will it cost, and where will the money come from? Who knows? This is a big deal to people who live on the West Seattle peninsula, like my friends Charley Rowan and Paul Loeb and their wives. “It’s a serious bummer,” was Paul’s understated comment. To point out that the bridge wasn’t the only way to get to and from West Seattle would be almost like saying that the Holland Tunnel isn’t the only way to get from New Jersey to lower Manhattan.
The West Seattle Bridge was closed on March 23, the same day Governor Inslee went on television to announce the initial statewide two-week stay-at-home order. The timing was entirely coincidental, but it feels like just another aspect of the pervasive nonstop mayhem.