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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 covers 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 his due as a songwriter, skewered these types 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. And I know the pandemic has 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.”

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.

Remembering the good earth

We’ve spent a lot of time in 2018 revisiting 1968, which one of the newsmagazines at the time called “The Incredible Year.” I turned fourteen that October, a little young to fully grasp everything I saw, but half a century later, certain moments are as clear as day. One is the bulletin that interrupted the TV show I was watching one night in April with the news that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot. Another is the Christmas Eve reading from Genesis by the astronauts aboard Apollo 8 on their mission to orbit the moon.

Like a lot of kids, I was a space nerd, following each flight closely on TV and in the newspapers. In those days, the real astronauts were the heroes and cultural figures, not fictional ones like James T. Kirk, whose mission on the Enterprise was aborted by low ratings, or Luke Skywalker, whose debut was still far, far away. Every launch brought excitement, but also anxiety that, sadly, was justified. In 1967, Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee burned to death when Apollo 1 caught fire on the pad during a preflight test. A few months later, Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov was killed after a parachute failed to open and Soyuz 1 crashed in Russia.

Apollo 8 marked the first time our explorers traveled to another celestial body, and was a crucial step toward President Kennedy’s goal of a moon landing.  As such, it was by far the most dangerous flight either country had attempted. I remember watching the liftoff and seeing a newspaper photo of the spacecraft starting its escape from Earth orbit. I heard the reading on the TV, or maybe the radio on the kitchen table, not knowing it was the most-watched broadcast of all time, just listening, taking it in. It wasn’t a religious experience, it was a human experience. Three men, a quarter-million miles away, wishing Merry Christmas to all of us on “the good earth.”

I wish I recalled Christmas Day of 1968 that well, because it turned out to be the last one I’d have with my dad. He went to the hospital for minor surgery in January, then suffered a series of strokes and never came out.

Today, “orbiting” means an obnoxious trend in online dating. Few noticed when a current Soyuz carried US astronaut Anne McClain, Russian Oleg Kononenko, and Canadian David Saint-Jacques to the International Space Station. Of course, legions of people can name every Star Wars movie, plot twist, and character. But fifty years from now, will they get choked up remembering the first time they saw Revenge of the Sith?

Right now, this minute, you can listen to the winds of Mars, recorded by NASA’s InSight lander. The next time it comes your way and it’s a clear night, step outside and watch the space station pass overhead, carrying our brothers and sisters and hopefully leading us all to a better world. Peace.

The ATL for Yankees and Gator fans

Greetings to all Michigan Wolverines, Florida Gators,* folks who got on the wrong plane, and everybody else who’s bound for Atlanta and the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl! This is part of that delightful American holiday tradition in which we celebrate with family, give to the needy, humbly honor the rituals of our faith, and resolve to be better people in the New Year, then scream ourselves into an aneurysm and throw bowls of clam dip at our brand-new mega-screen TVs when a “ref” decides a young man from Our School “didn’t get his foot down in bounds.”

I’m talking about college football bowl games, approximately 8,395 of which are played every year, including the aforesaid Peach Bowl, which pits the Universities of Michigan and Florida against each other (again!). As an Atlanta resident, a U-M grad, AND an official Florida Man with a home on the Panhandle, I am uniquely qualified to answer all the Important Questions for visiting fans! Like these here:

Q: Is the traffic in Atlanta as bad as everybody says?
A: That’s just fake news. It’s worse. Think Midtown Manhattan and I-94 in Detroit are hellish caverns of misery? Down here we have the Perimeter, which winds around the city like chicken wire, is under construction 24-7 / 365, and moves at the speed of a dying garden slug. If Sherman had taken the Perimeter during his march, he never would’ve made it to the sea; the South would have won the war while he was stuck at the exit to I-20 East. By all means avoid the conflation of interstates we call Spaghetti Junction, which also resembles a nest of rattlesnakes but isn’t as friendly.

Q: What is the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl?
A: First and foremost, it’s not to be confused with any of our myriad** “Peach” and “Peachtree” names and places. Buckle up and listen, ‘cause we got us a Peachtree Street, West Peachtree Street, Peachtree Industrial Boulevard, Peachtree Battle Avenue, Peachtree Corners, Peachtree Circle, Peachtree Plaza, Old Peachtree Road, Peachtree Millennial, Peachtree Pothole, and PTSD, Peachtree Stress Disorder. This game is also not to be confused with a playoff game but we already knew that!

Q: Where will the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl be played?
A: At Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Q: Why would anyone who drives a Mercedes-Benz eat at Chick-fil-A?
A: They got lost over on Peachtree and couldn’t find a Waffle House, though there’s one on every corner. Lest y’all think we get by on grits and hog parts, we also have restaurants where delectables like sustainable catfish, hakurei turnips, and evoo are on the menu.

Q: Huh?
A: “Evoo” stands for Extra Virgin Olive Oil. However, if I were a server and a customer told me to “hold the evoo,” I’d call the vice squad. And how is the catfish sustainable if you’re going to devour it?

Q: Are grits groceries?
A: Boy Howdy! If you don’t believe it, just ask Little Milton or maybe Wet Willie, who were from Macon, GA, not to be confused with Makin’ Whoopee down on Peachtree, or more likely on Piedmont Road. (Note: the patrons of this fine establishment aren’t actually “Gentlemen.”)


*Over the years there’s been a lot of chatter on sports-talk radio about how “Gator fans never call.” Since I never listen, I have no idea if this vague rumor is true. But using my regular standards of accuracy and integrity, I’m going to assume it is! So Gator guys and gals, please continue this practice and DON’T CALL ME to complain about this article, ask for directions etc.
**Greek, Middle French, and Late Latin for “godamighty, that’s a big ol’ mess of ‘em.”

Hello, it’s me. Seriously.

Hi, this is Dave. It’s really me.

No kidding. Honestly, I’m Dave. I’m the real deal, the true article, born smack in the middle of the Boom and raised in Kalamazoo, Michigan (where the city motto is, “Nobody Knows What the Heck It Means Anymore, But Yeah, There’s Still a Kalamazoo”).

I’m Dave, the guy with the deflating bed, aka Uncle Grumpy the grammar grouch, chronicler of old-age indignities, frog attacks, and sex advice for other geezers. Yes, that Dave! Check my photos and fingerprints if you’re not convinced.

Why am I trying to convince you that I’m myself? The other day, I got an emailed receipt and survey from a hotel where I never stayed. A few frantic phone calls revealed that somebody checked in using my name and my old Atlanta address, which were exposed in the big hack of federal employee data a couple of years ago. In other words, my identity has been stolen.

We’re not on the hook for any money, and so far haven’t uncovered any other scams. But it’s disturbing to know there’s a fake me out there. I also have to wonder what kind of putz would heist a normal, boring identity like mine. Why couldn’t he steal from somebody interesting, like Ted Cruz?

Until now, I hadn’t been affected by the breach and was hoping, apparently naively, to remain unscathed. But I can’t sit around worrying either.

If you’re a victim of identity theft or are afraid you might be, the federal government’s resource page is a good place to start. Meanwhile, if you run into somebody claiming to be David Swan, here’s how to tell the Dave from the doppelganger.

  1. If he has hair, it ain’t me, babe.
  2. He should know all kinds of obscure 60s and 70s music references (like the one in item #1). Ask him to name the duo that inflicted “In The Year 2525” on us, or the title of Norman Greenbaum’s follow-up to “Spirit In The Sky.” (Hint: It involves food.*)
  3. Sing the praises of Ohio State and/or Michigan State football. If you don’t hear “Go Blue!” within about 15 seconds, call the gendarmes!
  4. If he uses “barbecue” as a verb, he’s counterfeit. This is something I learned from my Southern transplantation. You might also ask him about his favorite meat and three.
  5. Get him to reminisce about being a cabdriver or an all-night DJ on an elevator-music radio station.
  6. If you’re riding in his car and he has no sense of direction, is the total antithesis of GPS and generally couldn’t find a giraffe in a broom closet, that’s me!

*The tune was “Canned Ham.” This has nothing to do with Canned Heat, a great blues band of the same era. See what I mean about those music references?

Justice, humanity, and language

If you’re a writer, jealousy and envy can be hard to keep in check. But while I might envy John le Carré every time I open one of his books, I don’t usually feel that way about Supreme Court justices. However, as you’ve probably heard, Justice Anthony Kennedy’s closing paragraph in his decision on same-sex marriage has been widely praised and repeated, not just for its content but for the beauty of the language. Since I taught writing as part of the job I recently retired from, I thought it would be worthwhile to look at why.

To start with, decisions by the Supremes and our other courts are not typically great writing. Brown vs. Board of Education, for example, includes the historic, “We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place,” but the rest of the ruling is relatively workmanlike and restrained. Justice Kennedy’s paragraph is very different:

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”

Now let’s break it down. No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. This sets the stage: a brief declarative sentence packed with simple, powerful words. It doesn’t weaken itself or burden the reader by using legalisms. It does remind us what we’re talking about: not just sexuality, but something larger and universal.

In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. Again, without throwing big words around, he delivers fundamental truths, which anyone who’s ever been married or deeply loved another person will understand. And he’s still using short sentences, with each one conveying its own idea. He’s not cramming several points into run-on sentences the way many legal documents do.

It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Bulls-eye. In all the years and all the ways we’ve fought over this issue, no one has ever recognized and stated this basic fact so clearly. The words make us realize it should’ve been self-evident all along, that no one should be blinded by their hatred of the difference of others.

Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. Who among us hasn’t feared loneliness? And finally: They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

Not equal “treatment,” “accommodation,” “standing,” or “status,” but equal dignity, a human condition and emotion. Those two words and the rest of this brilliant passage make the reader understand that the law is not a bloodless entity, that it reaches into the core of our lives, and that in this case, the existing law was indefensible. Transforming the abstract into the real in this way is what every writer strives for. I’m definitely envious, but when I read it I couldn’t be happier.

Their past, our present

When a movie star lies about his past to protect his image, it’s usually a non-story. In fact, in Hollywood, it’s probably considered PR 101. But Ben Affleck went way over the line when he persuaded the PBS genealogy program “Finding Your Roots” not to mention an ancestor who owned slaves. As a result, PBS has suspended the next season of the show.

Affleck says he was looking for “the roots of his family’s interest in social justice.” As anyone who’s ever spent five minutes on Ancestry.com could have told him, digging into your past can bring both pleasant and unpleasant surprises, especially on this issue.

I learned a lot about my own roots from my wonderful aunt Rowena Swan, who spent years researching and writing a family history book. (She did it the old-fashioned, pre-Internet way too, walking around cemeteries and poring over files in courthouses.) As far as I know, none of the Swans in my line were slaveholders. Those who were alive during the Civil War were Union, including my great-great uncle, who died in Grant’s army.

However, another branch of the family, my great-grandmother’s forebears in Worcester, Massachusetts, had slaves in the late 1700s and early 1800s, including an elderly woman named Silvia. Yet another limb of the tree produced Julia Gardiner Tyler, who married President John Tyler in 1844 and joined him in fervently supporting the South after he left office.  According to Wikipedia, she got accustomed to owning slaves and enraged Union war veterans by flying a Confederate flag at her home on Staten Island.

I can’t run from, disown, or deny any of this. These are hard facts, just as it’s a fact that Washington and Jefferson had slaves. That doesn’t change their standing as founders of our country — but neither do their achievements make their slaveholding any less reprehensible.

Even in Silvia’s time, there were people who were affluent and powerful like her owners, but made different moral choices. My mother’s father, Thomas Walter Simpson, made that kind of choice when he hid his black workers from the mobs in the terrible Springfield, Illinois race riot in 1908. Ben Affleck had some noble ancestors too. But how many white families that came here before the Emancipation are completely pure?

We’re not our ancestors. But trying to hide their actions and our common history will only make things worse.