It seems to me there are two pressing questions facing us now. One is sociopolitical: How will society respond? The answer surely will be – already is – mixed and messy, because many people are responding well but in America you can’t herd cats the way they apparently can in China. And the all too familiar cracks in the American edifice are widening. As Danny Westneat put it long ago (Seattle Times, March 4), the coronavirus “has highlighted how America is suffering already from another crippling disease: the total politicization of everything.”
On that note, Trump pissed me off yesterday: “I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter. … Easter is a very special day for me. … Easter Sunday, and you’ll have packed churches all over the country.” Note: “Easter is a very special day for me” – because, to him, everything is always all about him. Fuck you, Trump, for befouling Easter in the middle of a global public health emergency, the same way you desecrated the World Series back in October. And then the lieutenant governor of Texas said what he said about how elderly Americans should be willing to sacrifice their lives to keep the economy going for the sake of their grandkids. (Somewhat weirdly to his credit, he did include himself, age 69, in that.) And Jerry Falwell Jr. is insisting on reopening Liberty University.
And now this morning my brother has sent me an item from Out There Colorado: “Don’t expect ‘stay-at-home’ order in Colorado Springs, says mayor.” The actual article featured more detail and nuance about social distancing being encouraged in city parks and free parking in Old Colorado City and downtown to help support restaurants offering takeout, but of course Denver would officially shut down and Colorado Springs wouldn’t.
The Springs has been a prototype for hard-right municipal governance in America since at least the 1980s, when my parents moved there (and so did Focus on the Family, lured to town from California to enhance the tax base). Over decades now, I’ve watched my parents both honorably work hard in leadership roles in community and civic life, often thanklessly and always against the current. My mom was a public elementary school principal and (for example) president of the Pikes Peak Library District board, and her whole thing in life is going to meetings and luncheons in support of civic causes. My dad says there’s one board in Colorado that she’s not on, and he’s not going to tell her which one that is. Right now, both my parents are doing their part as good citizens by staying home.
I try as a writer never to be merely political, because I consider it beneath me to do political writing that will quickly and inevitably become dated, although I do take Orwell’s point that all art is propaganda. But this is personal, because I’ve watched my folks, all my life, do their earnest hardworking middle-class American best to be part of the solution. The story of Colorado Springs and what it says about America writ large is a whole long unedifying story unto itself. Maybe I’ll write that book someday. For now, suffice it to say that I’m very unimpressed with whatever it is the mayor of Colorado Springs has in mind. Anyway, all of the above reminds me that I need to call my parents today.
The other pressing question is: What attitude will each of us take, as an individual, toward things that are happening beyond our control? One of my local friends pointedly said to me about another: “He wants to see his dystopian fantasies fulfilled, and seemingly spends every waking minute poring over doomsday statistics.” I empathize with both my one friend’s gloomy pessimism and my other friend’s exasperation, because on any given day my own mood veers wildly. Yesterday I was lethargic and depressed all morning and didn’t shower until after 2 p.m., but then Jenny and I went for a walk and I felt better. Yesterday was another beautiful day, and we saw a pretty darn glorious rainbow over Lake Washington and met a very friendly little cat named Zoe.
Our walks are becoming Jenny’s and my most important daily event. And we have agreed that they need to be daily, without fail. In his speech Monday announcing the statewide stay-at-home order, Governor Inslee stressed that walks are still permitted, and we’re taking him up on that. “This does not mean you can’t go outside,” he said. “If you feel like going for a walk, or gardening, or going for a bike ride, these are also considered essential activities.”
Jay Inslee is a reassuring presence kind of guy, and his Monday speech showed him at his best. “This is a very difficult choice,” he said.
And I make this choice knowing the economic and family hardship many are facing. The fastest way to get back to normal is to hit this hard. … While we minimize our physical connections, it is essential that we maximize our emotional connections. And you’ll be able to toast the end of this at your favorite hangout as soon as possible, because we are hitting this hard.
He even ended his speech with a literary flourish, quoting his “favorite poet,” Walt Whitman, on “the courage of present times at all times.” “We need this now in our state,” Inslee said. “We need this now in our nation. Be of good cheer. Stay home. Stay healthy.”
One of a number of likable things about Inslee is that he was a member of the Ingraham High School basketball team that had an undefeated season and won the state championship in 1969. On March 18 the Seattle Times ran an article by assistant sports editor Sean Quinton about Inslee’s lifelong friendship with his coach, Walt Milroy, who just turned 100:
“A couple hours ago, I called my old basketball coach Walt Milroy,” Inslee said in his update on the state’s updated coronavirus restrictions and actions Wednesday. “He’s 100 years of age, and he’s in great health, totally with it, as knowledgeable about what’s going on in the world as he was when he was our coach. It was just really fun talking to him, and I want to keep that for years. If we can all protect him and his generation – and frankly my generation – by reducing social exposure, that’s going to be a really good thing.”
Inslee related to Quinton the gist of his conversation with Milroy: “His perspective is that he would rather not be isolated in his home right now, but he wants to keep living, so he’s gonna do that. I wanna keep my old coach going.” The article took note of a framed photograph in Milroy’s home of the two shaking hands, with the inscription: “Coach, thanks for getting me in the game.”
As I’ve been writing this, I can hear from the other room Jenny’s end of a conversation she’s having with colleagues about issues they’re all facing as they adjust to teaching their University of Washington intensive English classes online. She raised a point about students being “at home and maybe being isolated.”
“That’s something that’s on all of their minds, and it’s the reason we’re doing things this way,” she said. “I was thinking of having that be part of the first class.” She also suggested – “obviously completely optional” – that teachers “check in” with each other weekly on Zoom to trade notes on “what’s working and what’s not, especially since we’re not going to the Tower and not together in person.”
Today the world learned that 71-year-old Prince Charles has tested positive for the coronavirus (but Camilla tested negative). The day’s big news is that the Senate has passed a $2 trillion stimulus bill. The devil will be in the details. It seems to me that, one way or another, this bill will go a long way toward demonstrating whether the American political class is capable of rising to the unprecedented challenges of this unprecedented moment. Willie Stark’s line from All the King’s Men comes to mind: “What folks claim is right is always a couple of jumps short of what they need to do business.”
Of interest to me personally is that apparently “up to” 2400 of those dollars might come to me and Jenny. We’ll take all the dollars we can get. But that $2 trillion figure raises a string of mind-twisting questions: Are there even that many dollars in existence? Do dollars, per se, actually exist? And what exactly is a dollar, anyway?
Another thing that happened this morning is that I read a “Short Cuts” essay in the latest London Review of Books by Rupert Beale, described in his LRB bio as “a Clinician Scientist Group Leader at the Francis Crick Institute.”
My print issue arrived in my mailbox this Monday, March 23. Reading topical articles in fortnightly intellectual periodicals always entails a bit of temporal displacement, and never more so than now. But at least one question that Beale raised as he wrote, “in haste,” on March 6 remains relevant as I write this on March 25:
Part of the public health response will have to be self-isolation of possible mild cases. You must not go to work. Will it be possible to convince the U.S. public that they will have to endure some economic hardship to protect their vulnerable compatriots?