Autumn in the Pacific Northwest is the time of year when you reckon with the garden and other outdoor tasks that you now won’t be able to get done until next spring or summer. In my case, this year, those include finishing painting the trim on the house (I painted most of the house in 2015), retiling the mosaic table (not only have we not used it at all this summer, we never even took the cover off), and spraying vinegar to kill the weeds growing between the bricks on the patio.
There’s frustration in the awareness of things left undone, but there’s also relief, a lightening of the load, a slackening of felt urgency. One can lay those things aside again for now, until at least April or May, because one has to.
But what will my world be like come April or May? I can’t assume, anymore, that any aspect of a possible answer to that question is stable or predictable. Nothing has become any more clear than it was in March, when the onset of the pandemic spurred me to begin writing this diary. Up too early this morning, I flipped through my notebooks and found notes from June 25: “‘soft genocide’ – or at least tacit but clear message to citizenry: ‘You’re on your own’ – start of a long, hot summer – fire season on the West Coast.” And from July 17: “Hope: write less often? make more sense over time? But now: back into a miasma of confusion – even as try to make plans and get work done.” And I did a word search to find something I wrote that made the transition from notes to prose, on June 18: “For my part, I’m making my peace with the conclusion that fully wrought, properly composed essays are not an appropriate literary form for this moment.”
Well said, I suppose. But rereading it now, I almost feel that the articulateness of that sentence, the grammatical and intellectual competence, is really glibness. Maybe this – still, three long months after I wrote it – is not a moment for fully wrought, properly composed sentences, much less essays. Plus, the glibness arises in part from a subtle measure of insincerity: If I’m honest, I can’t say I’ve made any peace.
There’s added poignancy this year to what feels like the sudden onset of autumn, because we lost the last week of summer – in terms of both the calendar and the weather – to the wildfire smoke that made it unhealthy, even officially Hazardous, to set foot outdoors. Jenny and I spent more than a week cooped up together in our 1000-square-foot house, with all doors and windows closed. I went out once each day, briefly and unwillingly, to do unavoidable chores. Most days Jenny didn’t set foot outside at all.
We were fortunate to have stocked up on groceries, coincidentally, just before the smoke hit. But now we’re out of produce (except for some garden tomatoes) and orange juice, running low on milk and eggs, and down to our last English muffin. Last night we had frozen pizza and caprese salad, but without basil because our last basil plant has been left shriveled and disfigured with brown spots by the smoke. It’s still early morning as I write this, and – now that the smoke has cleared from Seattle, if not from Eastern Washington or California – today is the day I had planned to make a run to Trader Joe’s or Fred Meyer or both. But we’ll have to see about that. I might just go back to bed, since there’s not much point in doing much of anything else, and we’ll eat something frozen again tonight. Maybe tomorrow I’ll be able to summon my capacity to care again.
Friday, two days ago, was the day the air quality in Seattle first improved to Moderate. Jenny and I jumped at the chance to take a short walk in our neighborhood. During our week of being sealed inside our house, one of the most disturbing things I noticed was how I would feel perversely encouraged whenever the official state website showed the air quality as merely Unhealthy, rather than Very Unhealthy or Hazardous. On Friday when it became Moderate, we scarcely knew how to feel.
Doubly so, because of the news that Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died. Jenny came off a three-hour Zoom call at five o’clock, cheerful and upbeat in anticipation of our walk, and I had to break the news to her. I had learned about it myself only about ten minutes earlier, after casually going online. I should know better than to go online. Our walk was now doubly welcome, and on it we made a point of discussing the nice houses and gardens along North 81st Street rather than the fate of the republic. But when we got home, of course we turned on the TV news.
I’m an admirer of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, with ample good reason, but not an uncritical one. Her reported dying words – “My most fervent wish is that I not by replaced until a new president is installed” – seem unhelpful and grimly ironic. It’s been scarcely 48 hours since her death, and already what’s ensuing feels like the looming denouement of a national blood feud.
The problem for all of us, including the over-confident right wing, even if they prevail in shoving Trump’s nominee down the nation’s throat, is that there are already two sitting Supreme Court justices who are – if we’re honest with ourselves and each other, which we rarely are – indisputably illegitimate, because of Mitch McConnell’s refusal to grant even a hearing to Merrick Garland in 2016. Confirmation of a third Trump nominee now would be further confirmation of the institution’s compromised legitimacy, regardless of what material effects – unwelcome to many Americans, welcome to others – its future rulings might have. Everybody knows this.
The larger problem, even – maybe especially – for the right wing if it wins this next battle is that it’s impossible either to legislate or to decree abortion and homosexuality, and whatever or whoever else the rightists disapprove of, out of existence. The even larger problem is that an irreducibly diverse, continent-sized country of more than 300 million people is simply not governable if one hardline faction insists on unanswerable brute victory on every single point. They cannot herd so many cats, even with force, even if they try. But what frightens me is that they seem to think that they can, and they seem to be itching to try.
I write this with caution, sadness, and some trepidation, because I have friends and family who incline conservative by temperament as well as principle, and they are people I admire and love. But I’m wary, even fearful, to know what they think about where we’re at, so I’m not asking them. In the case of one particular relative, Jenny and I have a very conscious household policy of not wanting to know.
On the afternoon, UK time, of September 11, 2001, I found myself on the phone with Syd Gillingham, my elderly neighbor across the small green in West Byfleet, Surrey. Syd and I were friendly partly because he was a retired newsman, and I was an active one.
“Isn’t it terrible?” said Syd to me. “This has got to be one of the biggest tragedies you or I will ever see. Who would ever have expected this?”
We talked for several minutes, sharing the moment. Through the phone I could hear that Syd was watching the same BBC coverage I was. “It’s terrible,” he said. “Dreadful.” Then he added: “But for any journalist – what an incredible story!”
In late August 2005 I sat in the crappy, pokey sitting room of a crappy flat in South London – long story how I ended up there from West Byfleet – watching with horror and dread, on a small TV, the apocalyptic coverage of the hurricane obliterating New Orleans.
Early this morning I texted my dad, because I knew he was up – he always is – and told him that the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, at this particular moment, feels like a similar shock to the system. He replied agreeing, and added: “But we pulled through 9/11, clumsily. And we’ll pull through this too, if clumsily as well. One thing for sure, though, is that the myth of a ‘united’ states of America has been exploded.”
A new young acquaintance in Minnesota recently said to me: “Normalcy is a privilege and an illusion.” Funny that she should have used that word, because I happen to be rereading Only Yesterday, Frederick Lewis Allen’s classic informal history of the 1920s, which documents how it was coined by Warren G. Harding:
At Boston, a few weeks before the [1920 Republican] Convention, he had correctly expressed the growing desire of the people of the country and at the same time had unwittingly added a new word to the language, when he said, “America’s present need is not heroics but healing; not nostrums but normalcy; not revolution but restoration; … not surgery but serenity.” …
The nation was spiritually tired. Wearied by the excitements of the war and the nervous tension of the Big Red Scare, they hoped for quiet and healing. Sick of Wilson and his talk of America’s duty to humanity, callous to political idealism, they hoped for a chance to pursue their private affairs without governmental interference and to forget about public affairs. There might be no such word in the dictionary as normalcy, but normalcy was what they wanted.
What could be more normal than baseball? From Seattle Times reporter Ryan Divish, September 19:
To be honest, this weird little sprint of games without fans that featured a slew of postponements, seven-inning doubleheaders, universal designated hitter, expanded rosters, the international tiebreaker rule and a race for expanded playoffs has been more fun than expected. It makes you wish the owners weren’t so set on playing as few games as possible and an agreement could’ve been reached for 80-90 games.
We’ll never truly know how much money was lost because the owners won’t release the information. And even if they did release some financial data, those numbers would be difficult to trust.
But you can expect full transparency from the Twitter mailbag about its revenue, which isn’t enough to buy a stadium adult beverage when they are available. …
[Previously studly slugger Mitch] Haniger [who has not played since suffering a freak testicle injury on June 6, 2019] has increased his workout intensity and is building strength and endurance in preparation for 2021 spring training. … The expectation from the Mariners is that he’ll be good to go when players report in early February. … If Haniger is healthy, he is going to be the starting right fielder next season.