On Sunday, July 5, I went for a long walk with my friend Paul Loeb. Paul is the author of the bestselling books Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times and The Impossible Will Take a Little While: Perseverance and Hope in Troubled Times. They’re both fine books of durable relevance, but I’m partial to The Impossible, partly because of its terrific title (a quote from Billie Holiday), but mostly because it’s a very thoughtfully selected anthology of writings by people admirably and effectively involved in public life worldwide.
Soul was updated in 2010, and The Impossible in 2014. The subject matter and themes are such that both could be revised every five years, with all new material. But it’s also true that, as they are, the two books speak eloquently to us in any time. The impossible will take a little while.
Paul lives in West Seattle, the peninsula that’s officially part of the city of Seattle but that, even before the discovery of fast-growing cracks forced the abrupt decision to close the West Seattle bridge on March 23 (the same day Governor Inslee imposed a statewide lockdown), felt like a world apart.
I was last there in January. Jenny and I used to drive often through West Seattle to Fauntleroy to catch the ferry across Puget Sound to Southworth, to visit her parents on the Kitsap peninsula. A few weeks ago we saw her folks for the first time since the pandemic began, for a socially distanced lunch visit, but we “drove around,” meaning around the south end of the Sound through Tacoma and across the Tacoma Narrows Bridge (the westbound span built in 1950 to replace the one whose infamous 1940 collapse is studied as one of the great engineering snafus of all time). Traffic was light for once because of the lockdown, so getting through the Tacoma bottleneck was not terrible, and having to find our way into West Seattle without use of the bridge would have made taking the ferry nearly as long a trip as driving around. So we drove around.
It’s still possible to get to West Seattle, but it takes longer and is a little complicated. Paul emailed me his advice:
Basically you need to use your phone, but the phones and Google maps all have the new route – you go south to the Corson/Michigan I-5 exit, then cut over (or possibly get off at 4th Ave South), then take First Ave bridge to West Marginal Way, and then go up and under the [West Seattle] bridge. Only tricky point is when you go past the Chelan Café under the bridge, you have to switch to the left lane to get on Admiral Way for our house. But the phones are smarter than we are and they’ll direct you.
It took me about 35 minutes to get to Paul’s house, not bad considering. I called his cell phone from the front yard, and he answered and then came to the door. His wife, Rebecca Hughes, greeted me through the screen door and thoughtfully inquired after Jenny’s job situation and how my writing and editing have been affected by all that’s been going on. I told Rebecca about my cancelled trip to Texas in March and how my planned book on the veterinarian Dr. Will Fowlds and other remarkable people fighting the poaching of endangered rhino in the Eastern Cape of South Africa has been delayed and drastically recontextualized. That book is my passion project. I made four trips to the Eastern Cape between 2016 and 2018 and have reams of notes and hours of audio, and I might have been devastated, but I’m being philosophical about it, plus there’s just too much else going on at the moment. And I’m taking heart from something Will told me in an email of May 8:
In terms of your book. Things change so quickly all I can advise is you make notes and ride this period of flux out until we have direction and our vision (which we are busy working on) is clearer and the extent of the fall-out is better known. Something will rise from the ashes which will be better and stronger and maybe the wounds of what the rest of 2020 will deliver, can be the scars that remind us of the error of our previous ways … lest we forget!
Paul and I had planned to buy sandwiches out somewhere, but before I left my house he had texted me: “If I wash my hands and prepare it with a mask what about having chicken and rice and vegetables on our porch because we have all three in the fridge and Rebecca made some really nice vegetables.” I texted back that that seemed fine to me, so he and I sat six feet apart on their porch and ate while catching up.
Paul founded and heads the Campus Election Engagement Project, a nonpartisan nonprofit whose mission is to encourage college students to vote. It’s interesting to look back at my notes from March 22, the last time we saw each other.
“We’re trying to find ways to get students engaged,” he told me that day. “They’re at home, and they’re tech savvy. … I think we burned a week or two on angst. But also, the goalposts are moving. I want the students to lean into it. I want everyone to be thinking about what they can do. We don’t even know what questions to include on coronavirus in our nonpartisan guides, because everything’s moving so quickly. But at the same time, the guides [to Senate, House, and gubernatorial elections in various states] are less disrupted than anything else, and they’re going to be more important than ever.”
CEEP works closely with administrators, faculty, and student groups on university campuses coast to coast. “I don’t know if schools are going to reopen,” Paul told me in March. “Nobody knows. And if they are open, will students enroll?”
I told him that my Twitter friend Michael Socolow, who teaches at the University of Maine, had tweeted something to the effect that if enough faculty figured out how to teach effectively online, American universities would never be the same.
“And that’s not good,” said Paul.
“But the flip side is that the whole system of higher ed was ripe for a collapse, just as the country’s political life was,” I suggested.
“But whatever replaces it will be less human,” he said.
That day in March we had spent four or five hours together, walking around Seattle’s north end. This Sunday was a similarly long trek, on another day of perfect weather. Paul led me through the old growth of Schmitz Preserve Park, then we came out of the woods at 53rd Ave SW where we marveled at a homeowner’s chainsaw sculpture garden: a bear, an eagle, a Sasquatch. Then we walked south on 55th to SW Genesee Street and further south.
We walked through salubrious neighborhoods with spectacular water views, and more modest ones that I found charming. A dog we encountered in a fenced corner lot, on seeing us, eagerly grabbed his or her frisbee and brought it to me, and we played fetch for a while. Paul enjoyed that, because he’s a dog guy. The dog enjoyed it too. Paul is a gregarious fellow, and he introduced me to random strangers we ran into with a boast: “My friend came all the way from the wilds of Greenwood!” They all seemed genuinely impressed by my intrepidity in accomplishing such a feat. One well-off older lady we found pruning a shrub confessed that she had not been out of West Seattle since the pandemic began, and that it was probably about time she saw a little of the outside world. West Seattle’s isolation is underscored not only by its geography, but by the fact that it really is pretty much a vast sea of single-family residential blocks, broken only by a few parks and a golf course and the commercial strip along California Avenue SW, and bounded on the north by Alki Beach.
Driving home in the evening, my iPhone map app kept trying to redirect me onto Highway 99, which I didn’t want to do, and I got detoured a few times before I found my way onto the Interstate. Once there I knew my way home, but as I approached downtown from the south I saw an electronic sign above the roadway:
IN DOWNTOWN SEATTLE
POSSIBLE I-5 CLOSURES
There was a brief slowdown, but fortunately I got through without incident. On my mind was Summer Taylor, the 24-year-old protester killed early Saturday morning by a driver entering I-5 the wrong direction on the Stewart Street offramp.
Monday’s news included Harvard University’s tectonic announcement that all its instruction this fall will be online, even for students residing on campus; Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s “guidance” that all international students in the U.S. must take their classes in person or leave the country; and that the state of Florida is requiring all K-12 schools to open in person starting in August.
And the Washington Nationals, Houston Astros, St. Louis Cardinals, and Oakland A’s all canceled “Summer Camp” workouts because coronavirus test results for players were taking too long to return from the lab in Utah. Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle told the Washington Post: “Because of the way the conversation [between players and owners] shifted to be about the economics, the health and safety protocols kind of took a back seat. And then all of a sudden they were like, ‘All right, July 1, go!’… I really wish the focus was more on the health and safety protocols, and maybe we could have avoided a lot of that mess.”
From Seattle Times sports reporter Matt Calkins, July 6:
You don’t have to preach to Mariners center fielder Braden Bishop about the contagious nature of the novel coronavirus. His younger brother Hunter contracting it was all the confirmation he needed.
About a week back, Hunter woke up in his Arizona residence and noticed he couldn’t taste his coffee. …
“It’s a good example that the virus doesn’t take time off,” Braden said. “He doesn’t have extreme symptoms, but we don’t know what the adverse effects may be down the line, and we’re both worried about it.”
Bishop admits he has had his doubts on whether he should try to play this season, but what is someone in his situation to do? The former Husky is an unproven player with just 27 MLB games to his name and knows this could be his chance to break through.