Friday was my 55th birthday. I’m not one to make a thing out of my birthday, although I’ve always been pleased to know that I share it with Mahatma Gandhi and with Graham Greene, one of my earliest and most important literary heroes. This one mattered to me, emotionally, more than most because I spent my last two birthdays in the hospital, and for that reason I was looking forward to this one. If there hadn’t been a pandemic, I think Jenny and I might have planned a weekend away.
Or we might well not have been able to, come to think of it, because it would have been the end of Week One of the University of Washington’s fall quarter, and that was always an intense and frantic time in Jenny’s previous work life as an instructor in the Intensive English Programs, until she and her colleagues were peremptorily laid off (basically for the sin of being unionized, not because of the pandemic, though the higher-ups used the pandemic as cover). There’s poignancy, but also liberation, in that job and that university no longer being in our lives. In recent days Jenny has been clearing out boxes of papers that she had to bring home on June 7, when she was told to clean out her cubicle in the UW Tower. On Friday she ruefully showed me an attractively designed promotional brochure for the UW extension entity that employed her, from just last year, sporting this description:
Continuum College offers one of the oldest and most prestigious international and English language programs in the United States. It features a wide variety of different programs to help students come to Seattle from all over the world to improve their English skills and prepare for further study or career pursuits.
Anyway, having made it through this particular September, including a full week literally shut indoors because of dangerous air quality caused by wildfire smoke, suddenly my birthday was upon us. We stayed in, and it turned out one of the best birthdays I can remember. I actually spent the first part of the morning feeling crummy, but Jenny made a nice breakfast of scrambled eggs and English muffins and we ate it at noon while watching an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In the afternoon I napped and read – books, not news – on the couch while Jenny sorted through those boxes of office papers in the side room.
In the evening we took a walk, then ordered a large pizza from Pagliacci (half Agog Primo – our go-to pie – and half seasonal Wild Mushroom Primo), which was delivered to our porch contact-free just after 8:30. Jeopardy was preempted by the NBA finals, which don’t interest us, but we ate, and Jenny worked on a Lego-style 3-D puzzle in the shape of the Space Needle, while happily watching Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
Outside our cozy home, I suppose October 2, 2020 will be better remembered as the day America woke up to the news that Trump had tested positive for the coronavirus. Jenny actually saw the news as it was breaking around 10 p.m. Seattle time the night before, and I bantered a bit about it via text message before bed with a couple friends. But throughout my birthday itself we were pretty successful in our resolve to avoid reading or talking about it, and we certainly didn’t watch any TV news.
At one point in the afternoon Jenny said: “There’s just so much uncertainty now. I hate uncertainty. I guess I’m getting more used to it, but …”
Over the couple days since then, like everyone else in America, we’ve been following the drip-drip of Kremlinological speculation, misinformation, and stunts (the drive-by in the presidential SUV). Waiting for the other shoe to drop, I find memories surfacing of the period in the first half of the 1980s, when I was a teenager, when Brezhnev died and then two other old Commies kept his seat warm until they died, and then Gorbachev arrived to, as it turned out, preside over the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Ethan Casey’s Seattle coronavirus crisis diary covering the dates between March 3 and August 1, 2020 is being prepared for publication in book form in spring 2021. You can support the work of Blue Ear Books by pre-purchasing it for $17.95 plus $3.95 US shipping: