A pandemic diary: Take me to your leader (if you can find one)

June 30, 2020

I hope everyone who reads this wears a mask, but if you don’t mind looking a bit like a ’50s sci-fi spaceman, there’s another option: a face shield. I’ve been giving one a shakedown cruise for the last few weeks and plan to stick with it.

Dave wearing plastic face shield.
Nanu nanu!

I decided to try it because whenever I use a mask, my hearing aids get all tangled up in the cords and sometimes fall right out. The shield eliminates that problem, covers my eyes as well as my mouth and nose, and is easier to clean. You can sanitize and re-use one of these in a few minutes, unlike a mask that has to be washed and dried. The downside: They sometimes steam up, and if you’re outside in hot weather, they get uncomfortable after a while, although masks do too.

The experts are divided about whether shields are more or less effective than masks. However, I figure I’ll be all right because even with the shield, I won’t go anywhere near a badly ventilated bar that’s packed to the gills with sloppy drunks. The mostly Republican governors who enabled this horrifying rebound in cases are backpedaling and shutting the saloon doors again. Trust me, we’ll soon have Prohibition-style speakeasies offering freedom from masks, zero distancing, and cut-rate Covid tests for good customers. Nothing like a swab up the nose to sober up after last call!

The pols aren’t the only clueless ones. Today I got an email from a grand old hotel chain, gushing about “getaways” in Orlando, Las Vegas, and Myrtle Beach, which the last time I checked are three of the bigger hotspots. Get away from what?

It’s especially depressing around the Fourth of July, a holiday I’ve always enjoyed and used to celebrate at the beach. But even if my wife and I hadn’t already sold our place in Florida, this would be a down year, probably even worse than the time it rained bullfrogs the whole week. There’ll be other chances. Take care and be safe.

Two American flags flying over beach.

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A pandemic diary: I didn’t say I told you so, but…

June 17, 2020

Because my wife and I used to own a beach home in Florida, I’m keeping a close and worried watch on the pandemic there, especially the deluge that started when the state reopened. Doctors, scientists, everyone with a few active brain cells warned it was too soon. Now they’re setting records for new cases every day. Bars that just got back in business are shutting down again for deep cleaning.

I hate to see this in a place where I spent so many happy times. But the things that make it special — the beautiful beaches, the sun, and the loose, easy atmosphere — often lead people to shed both their inhibitions and their common sense. The ones who packed the bars and restaurants are like the unfortunate soul who drowned last week, a few miles from my old house.

SANTA ROSA BEACH — A 47-year-old Texas man died Tuesday after he was pulled from the Gulf of Mexico in South Walton County, officials say. Michael Willard Bratcher was in the water just west of the Walton Dunes Beach Access when several bystanders noticed he was in distress, Beach Safety Director David Vaughan said. Double red flags were flying at the time. That means the water was officially closed because conditions were too dangerous, and he went in anyway. This happens all the time during tourist season.

I’d like nothing better than to be back there now, swimming, walking along the shore, sitting under the stars at night, and having a great old time. That is, nothing except living a while longer, not putting anyone else at risk, and enjoying the things I still have, including my writing.

As much as I love a plate of Gulf shrimp and a cold beer, you couldn’t drag me into a saloon in Florida. How’d you like to be one of the sixteen friends who all tested positive, and maybe infected others, after a big night out? The beaches will still be there after we have a vaccine, folks. Take care and be safe.

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A pandemic diary: The view from the cheap seats

June 7, 2020

Back in 1974, during the first impeachment crisis of the modern era, I rode a bus all night from Ann Arbor, Michigan to Washington. We arrived just as the sun rose over the National Mall, where many thousands of us gathered to demand that President Nixon be thrown out of office. Several years later I joined an even bigger rally in Central Park, part of a worldwide call for a freeze in production of nuclear weapons. These days, though I absolutely support the protests, I’m staying home, because I have to be safe.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about how this hellion attacks us. Last week, it came out that people with Type A blood may be more likely to need oxygen and ventilators. It is well-established that people in my age range are among the most susceptible. I can’t afford the risk of standing in a crowd for hours, with everybody chanting and shouting and many of them not wearing masks. My first responsibility is to my wife: to keep myself healthy and above all, do nothing that might make her sick. And I’m not the only one who’s worried about a post-protest surge in cases.

What I did instead of hitting the streets was vote in the Georgia primary, for people who will end the lunacy and put us on the road to real change. I cast my ballot by mail, like plenty of others did, but I also saw a block-and-a-half-long line stretching around a polling place. Even with six feet between voters, that’s a hell of a turnout for a primary. These are probably not the folks who are happy with the status quo.

Absentee ballot sleeve.
Enclosed and delivered

I don’t mean voting should supplant protest. Both are vital. I’d love to be back on the Mall in January when President Biden takes office and hopefully, we have a vaccine or at least an effective treatment for the virus.

For now, words and a little music will have to do. This is “Black & White Wall,” written decades ago by the great Chicago bluesman Jimmy Johnson, and still ringing true. Take care.

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A pandemic diary: Back pages

May 27, 2020

No matter how hard I try to stay positive, the world keeps finding ways to dampen my spirits. The other day, I realized I was driving myself crazier by reading too much and too often about the state of things.

So I picked up what I thought was a covid-free alternative: the spring issue of Oxford American, the scrappy, literate “Magazine of the South.” Then, in the midst of an interesting article, I ran into this.

Magazine ad for Merlefest music festival featuring John Prine.
So long ago.

The sheer ordinariness of it is what hurts so much. When the magazine went to press — believe it or not, just a few months ago — it was natural to plan music festivals for the spring, and definitely to book John Prine. Needless to say, Merlefest, one of the best roots / traditional festivals around, got scrubbed.

I was lucky enough to see John twice in Atlanta in the last decade. And yes, I know we’ll have music again, hopefully including Merlefest 2021. I just wish like hell I could’ve gone to this one. Take care and be safe.

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A pandemic diary: Tell me something

May 20, 2020

It’s confounding how the most ordinary things have become complicated. A misplaced box of screws for a home improvement project means a trip to the store and that means masks, worries about surfaces, and general stress. On top of all that, the elastic on the mask tugs on my hearing aids and I have to rig them just right or they’ll fall out. Nothing that happens beyond the front door is casual.

But I’m not complaining, because just having a home to improve is a blessed condition right now. There’s food in the fridge and those pesky aids allow me to hear clearly, which was a struggle for several months. My wife and I can sit on our porch as the evenings grow longer, watching the moon come up behind the trees. We’re lucky and we know it. That’s more than I can say for plenty of people, and they’re going to hear about it (and RIP Jerry Stiller).

I’m not talking about anybody who’s been sick; who has lost or agonized over a partner, relative, or friend; or whose job, business, or way of life is gone. I mean the privileged cretins who think the Bill of Rights extends to shopping at Crate & Barrel. In the midst of a worldwide catastrophe, they act like it’s all a personal affront to their entitled, curated lifestyle.

Bob Seger, who’s never gotten the recognition he deserves for being a great songwriter, skewered these types way back in 1974 in “U.M.C. (Upper Middle Class).” I want a paid vacation / Don’t want to have to ration / A thing with anyone but me / And if there’s war or famine / Promise I’ll examine / The details if they’re on TV. Yes, eating out again is fantastic unless your best friend or your waitress catches the virus at your table. Yes, I know the pandemic upset your big plans. There’s another word for that problem: Life.

My mother had finished three years of college when the Great Depression brought hardship to the family. Instead of her senior year and a degree, she got a job in a laundry, working six days and 48 hours a week for $7.00 per week. That’s not a typo. “We had to have it,” was all she said.

I made it through the University of Michigan but a week before graduation, the class of ’76 was greeted by this. The gist of it was that we’d been wasting our time and tuition preparing for careers that wouldn’t exist. I majored in broadcast journalism, a fiercely competitive field, and I scuffled around for awhile. This wasn’t the world I’d expected but I kept pushing until I landed my first job, then another, and then a few more, each better than the last. I didn’t waste anything. I sure didn’t expect the universe to grovel at my feet.

Living isn’t stasis. Even when this is over, you’ll still wake up some morning and find that everything you know is wrong. We adapt or we end up like the dodo. Don’t take it personally.

You say there’s some mistake
You didn’t get your break
You don’t see the magic in the moonglow
You’re on a one way street
Your life is incomplete
Well, tell me something that I don’t know

Mose Allison, “Tell Me Something.”

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A pandemic diary: Being here

May 17, 2020

Saturday I attended an online meeting of the Atlanta Writers Club, an organization that predates the last pandemic and is rolling with the punches during this one. Sadly, another much-loved Atlanta event has gone dark: a monthly jam session for singers, including my wife. A bandstand plus a roomful of vocalists and fans is beyond social distancing, and Zoom can’t fill the void. My wife misses working with fine local musicians; I miss hearing her sing the jazz standards we both love. No one else ever dedicated “My Funny Valentine” to me.

Even without the jam, we had a perfect spring day, the kind that’s becoming rare as climate change pushes winter closer to summer. The mercury topped out at around 80 degrees with no humidity and scarcely a cloud in sight. The breeze filled the living room with the sweet, lush fragrance of honeysuckles, which Fats Waller immortalized in “Honeysuckle Rose,” and are like nothing else, anywhere.

It was a day to sit back, savor what we still have, and rest our souls for tomorrow. I’m not the spiritual type but I gotta tell ya, boychik, Ram Dass was onto something when he said, “Be here now.” Where else can I go? Take care, be here, and be safe.

A pandemic diary: Two months in

May 13, 2020

Not much new to report. I’m still healthy, indoors, grateful, and paranoid. I’m not spending quite as much time lying awake, worrying about exactly what I touched and when I washed my hands. However, an approaching human without a mask gets my pulse and my dander up something fierce.

I deeply miss non-virtual contact, concerts, theaters, salad bars, dive bars, parks, haircuts, handshakes, barbecue, beach sunsets, and much more. I realize this doesn’t mean a damned thing when millions of us are missing food on the table and an untold number are missing the loved ones they’ve lost. The problems of a person like me don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

Frankly, though, I wish the cheermongers — the influencer types who keep babbling “Stay strong! Think positive!” — would shut the hell up. I don’t need to be told how to feel by some clown who’s probably half my age. I know what I need to do to be safe and responsible, starting by covering myself. Anyone who truly believes this tramples on their rights isn’t worth the air they consume. I’ll try to be less grumpy next time. Y’all be safe too.

Dave in mask.
Think I should apply to the Over the Hill Gang?

When the ordinary is plenty

Long before the pandemic, those of us who live with chronic conditions knew that normalcy is precious. It’s easy to take for granted, yet fragile – and once lost, it can be very, very hard to get back. I’ve had to learn that lesson all over again, but also rediscovered another truth: There’s always hope.

My problems are hearing loss and tinnitus: ringing and other sounds in the ears. This means I have to be careful around loud noise, like the racing movie “Ford v Ferrari,” which I was eager to see last fall. In the theater, I turned my hearing aids down as far as possible, counting on their built-in limiters to protect my ears.

The movie sounded fine, if muffled. But for no apparent reason, the TV seemed harsh and distorted later that afternoon. My worry turned to panic when I turned on my favorite jazz station. Bird’s horn, Ella Fitzgerald’s voice, Pat Metheny’s guitar, all the music I treasure, had suddenly become so shrill that I couldn’t bear to listen.

My audiologist told me the limiters would’ve worked for most people. But since I already had nerve damage, the roar of engines blasting through the sound system aggravated my tinnitus and triggered this new effect. It was like living inside a blown speaker. It changed almost every sound in my universe: my wife’s voice, her piano, the air-conditioner, water running in the sink, even the birds. Huey Lewis is going through something similar, which has gotten so bad that he can’t sing any more.

I was depressed because I’d brought this on myself and terrified it would last forever. Of course, the stress compounded the problem, which caused more stress, followed by more distortion. I knew it would happen. I just had a hard time keeping my fears in check, especially when the pandemic touched off its own anxiety.

All I could do was keep living my life and have faith that I’d get better, as I did the last time my tinnitus flared up, and eventually did this time. As I write, I’m listening to WWOZ in New Orleans, one of the best radio stations on Earth, and am savoring every note. I wear earplugs around power tools and machinery and generally avoid loud noise like the coronavirus (i.e., like the plague). I’ll definitely be wearing my plugs when we have concerts again. (I’ll probably have to sit in the back too, but I’m a little old for the mosh pit anyway.)

If you have hearing issues, please be smarter than I was. Whoever you are, take care and be safe. Normal is just fine. Be cool. Dig it.

How many more?

Fifty years ago (May 4, 1970) I was a sophomore in high school. Everyone was stunned, the atmosphere in the building hushed, uncomprehending. That day or the next, we had an assembly, about which I remember nothing except a girl singing, “Blowin’ In the Wind.” The song below still sends chills up my spine.

Too many had already died before Kent State, especially people of color, and more would die at Jackson State soon after. How many have died in the time it took me to write this? How many more? How can you run when you know? How many more, goddamn it, how many more?

Allison Krause
Jeffrey Miller
Sandra Scheuer
William Schroeder

A pandemic diary: Notes from the bullseye

April 30, 2020

Another grocery pickup today. We found toilet paper with no trouble but didn’t get all the meat we ordered, which is ominous in light of all the recent warnings about shortages. We at least came away with two big fresh whole chickens. Even they might be in short supply in Georgia soon.

Our sanitation protocol goes like this: Gloves on to go through the bags and verify the order. Gloves off before I touch the wheel and the dash. Gloves back on to carry everything to the porch. Gloves off and wash the hands CDC-thoroughly to put the goods away after they’ve been wiped down. Wash hands again. Repeat as necessary and sometimes when it isn’t. This routine drives me nuts, or as Damon Runyon might have said, more than somewhat cuckoo, but of course the alternative is much worse.

There seem to be a few more people wearing masks at the store. Traffic on the roads has clearly surged since the governor started reopening the state against the advice of damned near everybody, even Trump. Sometimes when both sides are on your case, it means you’re doing something right. Not now. All the scientists say there’ll be a second round of infections, and unless we keep our distance it’ll be faster and deadlier.

Think of the plague like a hurricane. One of the eyewalls has just passed over and we’re sitting in the eye where the winds are calm, but the other eyewall is just waiting to blow in. Hurricane Michael (below) devastated the Florida Panhandle and came frighteningly close to my beach house. I’m staying in my shelter.