From the Seattle Times, September 14:
As recently as Sunday, officials thought the smoke would start clearing out on Monday. Now, it looks like it won’t be until the end of the workweek. The state Department of Ecology predicted unhealthy air on Tuesday for virtually all of Western Washington and very unhealthy air for most of Eastern Washington.
There are two reasons for the smoke’s obstinance: The meteorological forecasts predicted a weather system blowing in from the Pacific coast late Sunday and into Monday, bringing rain and wind, and dispatching the smoke. Instead, the system mostly petered out. And the atmospheric models that predict how the weather will affect the air mostly failed to account for the physical effects of the smoke itself. …
“If you don’t have a lot of wind causing the mixing and you don’t have a lot of sun,” [University of Washington professor of atmospheric sciences Gregory] Hakim said, “everything’s just kind of stagnant and trapped near the surface. … Get ready to live with it for a while.”
I used to be an avid collector of refrigerator magnets. I still have my extensive collection, mind you; I’m just no longer so avid about collecting them. Mind you again, it’s not like I get many magnet-collecting opportunities these days. I’m not traveling anywhere anytime soon, and neither are most of the people I know. And these days such a hobby seems frivolous, or at least inessential.
I’ve actually had it in mind to write about my magnet collection since the beginning of the pandemic. My initial notion was to do it as a kind of stay-at-home travel writing. Travel writing is, as Paul Theroux is fond of pointing out, a species of autobiography, and a tour of my fridge magnet collection would be, in a way, a tour of my life. I thought too that it might segue into a (hopefully charming) essay on domestic life, in the vein of Charles Lamb: reflections on the humble tchotchke. I also have quite a few t-shirts: “red dirt” shirts from Hawaii (as well as Hawaiian shirts picked up at Hilo Hattie’s or Costco on trips there); shirts sporting the logos of various universities I’ve visited as a speaker (my favorites for wearability are Lehigh and the University of Tulsa); shirts promoting the annual Seaprog festival put on by local musician friends and bands they’ve introduced me to, like Soft Machine. (My very favorite t-shirt, though, is from the book publisher Melville House: plain black, with the statement I WOULD PREFER NOT TO in white letters on the front.) Then there are the kitchen towels from Kauai, Colorado, and South Africa, and one with the iconic London Underground map, a gift from a young relative of Jenny’s who was stationed with the Air Force in the UK. But the danger in such writing is of descending into self-indulgent simpering: “Look at my middle-class lifestyle!”
I started my magnet collection in earnest right after I landed in Seattle, in March 2006 at age forty with little more than the clothes on my back (long story) and found myself in what was, for me, the novel circumstance of having a fridge of one’s own. Covering it with magnets was a personal declaration of independence from the bad relationship I was leaving behind, and of an intent to become sedentary on my own terms. Magnets now entirely cover our fridge-freezer, as well as four two-by-four-foot magnetic sheets that you can get at Ikea for $12 each and screw into the wall, and they’re colonizing the oven, the washer and dryer, and the standing freezer in the basement. They function as mementos, reminders of interesting and happy experiences, as well as of friends. Most are location-specific, because that’s a principle I established. I’m much more interested in people and places than in slogans. Many are from places I’ve been: Evergreen Plantation in Louisiana, Karachi, Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens and the District Six Museum in Cape Town, the Citadelle in northern Haiti, Alcatraz. Others I’ve cajoled friends and family into bringing back from their travels: the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, Cuba, Disney World, Newfoundland, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, the city of Tomsk in Russia, Acadia National Park in Maine. Some are very specific, like the Manchester branch of the Kitsap Regional Library in the town where my in-laws live.
I also have a few magnets of great Seattle Mariners: Ichiro, Ken Griffey Jr. and, passed out at the stadium courtesy of Pat’s Plumbing, Inc. on a day I just happened to go to the game, Raul Ibanez, who is not a Hall of Famer like those other two guys but sure was a heckuva ballplayer. I have a magnet of Bernie Brewer’s legendary chalet in the County Stadium outfield, and one from the Navin Field Grounds Crew in Detroit. And there’s a subset that I think of as the Presidential Collection, including a bust of Thomas Jefferson looking dignified, a photo of Nixon shaking hands with Elvis, and a very special magnet – given to us by our friends Bill and Thomas when they remodeled their kitchen and got a new stainless steel fridge – depicting Bill Clinton and Al Gore with their arms around each other, their heads PhotoShopped onto the bare torsos of two shirtless six-packed hunks.
I could go on and on, and I suppose I already have. But like so many things anymore, my magnets seem like relics or vestiges from a former time. And, not to put too fine a point on it, of a former middle-class lifestyle. It’s been eighteen months since I set foot on an airplane. And the other day it dawned on me that my passport expires in November. I’d better get it renewed, just in case.
My magnet collection does include two that are not to do with travel or lifestyle, but with life. One (given to me by my mom) has pride of place at eye level near the upper right corner of the kitchen freezer. It depicts a bust of Cicero, with the quote: “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” The other is a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is mystery, today is a gift.”
My family – Jenny and me in Seattle, my brother and sister-in-law in DC, and our octogenarian folks in Colorado Springs – have settled into a schedule of having a Zoom call every other Sunday. It’s not the same as being together in person, but I’ve come to cherish the family Zooms almost as a lifeline. This past Sunday my brother made a telling observation: that my relaunched diary is no longer the “coronavirus diary” that I first conceived it as, but a diary of multiple overlapping rolling crises.
The other thing Jenny and I did this Sunday was watch the table read of The Princess Bride, featuring most of the original cast (the film was released 33 years ago!), to benefit the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. It was a wonderful treat from start to finish, all three hours including Q and A. Asked to talk about Vizzini, the character he played, Wallace Shawn said:
He doesn’t actually practice his villainy for himself. As the movie develops, it turns out that he actually works for Prince Humperdink. So I think of him more as a guy who is riding very, very high because he thinks that his boss will be the boss forever. Very much like the people who work for President Trump now. They’re very cocky, and self-assured, and laughing, and cheerful, as if they think that it’s gonna go on forever and that they’ll always be powerful. When actually, they won’t be.
This is (I think) the fifth full day that Jenny and I have been stuck indoors, with all doors and windows closed. It’s hard to keep track. I’ve been outside at least once each day, mostly to do unavoidable chores. Today, for example, I have to take the garbage, recycling, and yard waste bins out to the street, because tomorrow is pickup day. (There’s very little yard waste this week, because we haven’t been able to work in the garden, even though there’s a lot of work to do.) I also need to pick basil for the caprese salad we’re going to have for dinner; I’ll make sure to rinse the basil this time.
We recently got a free couch off Craigslist – finally, a perfect one for our space – so our old couch has been out front for more than ten days with a FREE sign taped to it. We put up ads on Craigslist and Nextdoor and were optimistic when we first put it out, just before the Labor Day weekend, because it’s a nice couch and a stretch of good weather was expected. We got a few nibbles, not yet a taker … and then the smoke came. Sunday evening I went out to check on it and saw that a bird had pooped on it, so I cleaned that off and then drove to our friend Pete’s house, about two miles away, to borrow a blue tarp. Going that far afield felt strange and vaguely illicit.
In truth, just going as far as the mailbox across the street or the backyard shed feels like an excursion from an imperfectly sealed pod onto the surface of a planet with an atmosphere that’s breathable but hostile to human survival. Which invites a rueful reading of this news reported Monday in The Guardian:
Traces of a pungent gas that waft through the clouds of Venus may be emanations from aerial organisms – microbial life, but not as we know it.
Astronomers detected phosphine 30 miles up in the planet’s atmosphere and have failed to identify a process other than life that could account for its presence.
The discovery raises the possibility that life gained a foothold on Earth’s inner neighbour and remnants clung on – or floated on, at least – as Venus suffered runaway global warming that made the planet hellish.
I am being relatively quite productive on some work that I need to be doing, because there’s nothing else to do. So that’s good. I had a 90-minute phone call today with my TCU colleague April Brown, about some programs we’re planning together. I’m making plans to see my local friend Jeb Wyman, although for obvious reasons not until at least next week. I’m eager to hear what fishing off the Alaska coast was like for Jeb and his son this summer. And I’m trying to arrange a time to catch up via WhatsApp with Jennifer Gush, one of the co-owners of Amakhala Game Reserve near Grahamstown, South Africa. I still want to write the book on rhino conservation at Amakhala and environs on which I’ve already done most of the work.
Maintaining friendships and working relationships across such a distance, in such a time, feels like an act of faith, as does the intention to write a book. Today I was tidying up in my basement office and came across this note, on notepaper with the logo of the nonprofit Amakhala Foundation she runs (“Community and Conservation”), that Jennifer paper-clipped to the wildlife calendar she sent us as a gift at the beginning of this year: “Ethan & Jenny, Thank you for your friendship & love of the Eastern Cape! Hope to see you in 2020/21. Best wishes Jennifer.”
In this newly intensified state of lockdown, one thing I’ve been happy to do more of is read. I’ve decided to try to kick my Twitter addiction because that really doesn’t count either as reading or as following current events or, for that matter, as staying in touch with other people. It’s a superficial and toxic facsimile of all those things. So, partly by intention and partly by circumstance, I’m reverting to what I’ve always really wanted to do with most of my time, which is reading books.
And I’m reading the latest New York Review of Books, the first issue since the annual August hiatus. I’m really liking these new young post-Ian Buruma-scandal editors, Emily Greenhouse and Gabriel Winslow-Yost. This issue features Edwidge Danticat (who never wastes a word) on “Mourning in Place,” Hari Kunzru trenchantly dissecting the history of whiteness, and Jay Caspian Kang on the politics of basketball. And Peter Brown reviewing three books on late Rome and its aftermath, including The Tragedy of Empire: From Constantine to the Destruction of Roman Italy by Michael Kulikowski, who
rejects “the search for external bad guys” that was built into the rhetoric of contemporaries, who regularly contrasted “Romans” with “barbarians”: the Romans were responsible for their downfall, and they enlisted the barbarians, as they had long done, to do the dirty work for them. What is remarkable is the speed with which a highly centralized empire, fed by a sophisticated tax system, unraveled: “In less than a generation, provinces had become kingdoms.” This situation speaks to the localism of the Roman West beneath its imperial carapace.