When Essays Become a Book

For some time now, I have not written many essays on this site . Now you get to know why. I have been using the COVID-19 quarantine to write a new book composed of 24 essays. It was the years of writing here that gave me the confidence to move forward with the book. In a handful of cases, the book includes essays that began as thoughts right here on No Clock. Now I have given them them time to grow and evolve. For the readers here, I think it only fair that you have a sample from the new book. I hope you will take a chance on the new collection. I believe it is my full expression of what is possible with the essay form. Every essay has a single word title. I call this one Waiting.

Find the book at http://www.jimblackwoodjr.com

Everything looks the same. The trees. The sky. The streets. The houses. The stores. Color hasn’t changed. The greens are still green. The grey skies still feel dreary. The sun is still warm. People move the same. Dogs still bark. Now, if in those first few moments of the day, stirring from my pillow, I could only remember what day it was.

I have read about times past when events had conspired to turn the world on its head. Wars, earthquakes, plagues, tsunamis. Twirling a pencil in my fingers, I wondered how I would behave in such disasters. Would I rise to the occasion, be brave for myself and others? Would events conspire to overwhelm me? How would I prepare for the unknowable? Would I survive? Every world changing crisis I studied required greatness in leadership and steadfastness in the people who endured the disruption to daily life for weeks, months, and years. What I had not anticipated was that my test, a test for the entire world, would mostly be about waiting.

My fascination with the coronavirus began with the earliest reports out of China. I poked around the internet for reports. Central China seemed very far away and what was happening there seemed unique. Millions of people isolated in Wuhan by a military cordon. Hospitals appearing almost overnight. Stories of confusion and courage. And … the masks. In every report, every picture people were in masks, from a simple face covering to elaborate virus blocking rigs. Where did they get all of those masks so fast?

It is easy to watch a disaster at a distance. Truth be told, at a distance is almost always how most of us experience a disaster. We are all crisis voyeurs. Oh, we text the right numbers to send money, are sad at the stories of individual loss, happy at the stories of courage and persistence, but mostly, if we pay attention at all, another person’s crisis is simply how we fill a few minutes a day. I am more than guilty. I love to watch hurricanes come onshore on cable news to see those little funnel maps of where the hurricane may land. I stay up late to heckle the silly reporters who stand in the wind and the rain when they could have just as easily stepped behind the protection of a wall. I watch the aftermath, all that water, boats, and people in hip waders. For a couple of days, I am a hurricane response expert.

Something about watching Wuhan lock down and all those people in masks struck me as different. In early February, well before most people were paying attention, I ordered face masks. I felt a little silly and when they arrived slid them into a drawer thinking they would be a curious artifact. My wife, always the ‘big one’ earthquake prepper, said that unknown to me, she had put a few masks in our earthquake kit years ago. At least with her, I felt less like an alarmist goofball. We made one last unmasked trip to the grocery store to buy things we never buy: powdered milk, a stack of chicken soup cans, powdered Gatorade, saltine crackers for when the bread disappeared off shelves, and toilet paper. We didn’t need the toilet paper but the crowd on that aisle inspired a little panic. Already, for a few in the checkout line, there was a palpable sense of caution. When people are not sure what to do, they still do something. Then the virus did what millions of people do every day; it flew around the world.

I started waiting. I knew it was coming. There was no way to know what that would mean, but I was so convinced this event would be important that on Leap Day, February 29, I started an pandemic blog. (Of course, I did.) That rhyme in old The Knack song, “My Sharona,” was stuck in my head so I called it My Corona Log: People Pandemics Politics. Even then, with a sense of irony, I grabbed a dust mask from my toolbox, pulled a black hoodie over my head, cinched the mask to my face, and had my wife take a picture of me in front of my computer. (I couldn’t wait to get the mask off as it was so uncomfortable. Ignorance was still bliss.) Now I had a banner page for the new website. I was in a mask. Another silly artifact, I thought, as I made the site live. I would wait with everyone else … on the internet.

Most sane people limit their doses of bad news. It’s too upsetting. I become a sponge, taking in all the information I can find in a futile attempt to manage my anxiety with knowledge. People tell me, “Oh, that would depress me.” It doesn’t bring me down. The more I know the easier it is to become an observer, create a space between me and what is going on around me. The observer then becomes the communicator, as I write my way through things. While most people were still unaware, I was searching the internet for epidemiologists and clinicians. I read papers where I was lucky to understand every fourth sentence. I looked at models. Now everyone looks at models. Like my hurricane expertise, I became the worst sort of dilettante, an internet virus expert. You know those people, right? Yeah, I was that insufferable guy. Still, the actual virus was beyond arm’s length. It was somewhere else. But I knew it was coming.

When the quarantine finally came, I was relieved. This was the only way we were going to keep our hospitals from being overrun. For days I had been yelling at my television screen for governors to act fast. When our governor did finally lock us down, I felt like a winner for about five minutes before I thought, “what now?” I had been waiting for the virus to get here, waiting for the government to act, waiting for the states to all lock down. I realized that what I had actually been wishing for was more waiting.

Once I walk out the door of my home, everything I do requires waiting. I wait until I think the lines at the grocery store will be social distanced and shorter. Before I get out of my car, I wait to put on my mask. I reach into my pocket and press the button to open the truck lock, so I don’t have touch my keys when I get back to the car. Once in the store, I look down aisles and wait patiently for the other shoppers to clear the space in front of what I need. Every step I take is a calculation of how to maintain my safe distance. The simplest acts now require a slow-motion ballet. Once home, the refrigerated goods have to be cleaned on the back porch. Dry goods wait for a day in the garage. The Cheerios detox cheerlessly.

A walk to the park is almost exactly the same as it ever was, which makes it all the stranger when I see someone in the distance about to meet me at the same street corner. When our individual radars ping each other a new waiting negotiation begins. Who will take the intersection first? Who will pause or slow down or speed up? Maybe a quick nod. And then, negotiation complete, space defined. As our safety bubbles touch, if we are maskless, we offer flat-mouthed smiles under quick eye connections. When we have masks, then every bit of humanity has to be communicated with the eyes alone. But that’s fine. Humans adapt surprisingly fast from reading an entire face to reading the eyes alone. The flat smile muscles move the eyes enough so that we both know what we just did.

Underlying the newly elaborate ballet of the now mind-numbingly repeated cycle of daily life is the big wait. Consciously and unconsciously, we are waiting to get sick. Spring pollen, the scratchy cough of allergies take on a new meaning. Cough. Is this it? What is the quality of that cough? Dry cough? Did I cough like this last allergy season? Hand to face. Am I warm? What was the last time I came into contact with someone or something that may have had the virus? How many days? Four or five? As a nervous person, a practicing hypochondriac, I have always been a highly tuned body monitor. But now, with each possible COVID-19 symptom, I run an overused check list. I am waiting to get sick.

When the waves of illness hit hardest in Italy, I read how people there lived with COVID-19. I wondered how they knew when to go to the hospital. Hospitals now seemed like dangerous places to be avoided until the last, maybe the actual last, minute. Everywhere I looked people talked about oxygen in the blood. Don’t let it get below 95 percent. Not completely sure what that meant, I joined millions of people looking on the internet for a pulse oximeter. Herd fear. I finally found one at an inflated price and ordered it. It, too, waits in a drawer. Chicken soup and a pulse oximeter. What a strange crisis.

If I am not waiting to get sick, then I am waiting for those I love to succumb to the illness. Greetings, almost always electronic these days, have subtly moved from to “hello” to “feeling okay?” There is an old Chinese greeting of “have you eaten today?” I wonder if this will go on long enough to change how we greet one another. I actually like the idea of saying hello by asking about someone’s health. It seems both more intimate and, well, too intimate.

Our home has become Upstairs/Downstairs. Eight years younger, my wife is not retired. A couple of years into my retirement I had built a happy collection of patterns around my passions. Write, think, play with the dogs, baseball in the summer, live music in small clubs, and film study (well … beer, pizza, and a movie) at my favorite non-profit theater. Very rapidly, we had to convert our upstairs space into a home office for my wife. We retire to our levels during the day, meeting in the kitchen for coffee or lunch. The two dogs divide their loyalties up and down the stairs based on mysterious factors that only clarify with the crinkle of a potato chip bag. Of all my happiest out-of-home diversions, only gardening still exists.

My wife’s work hours have been reduced and we both wait to see if her job survives. This means that, like millions of Americans, we are waiting to see what our financial future becomes. We have worked hard and have some means. Many in the grip of the COVID-19 economic meltdown are far worse off. I think about my barber and my favorite bartender. We used to give money to a collection of good causes. Now Sally and I divert our gifts to food banks and small businesses we love. There is some satisfaction in that effort. However, while we wait for financial clarity, too many people are waiting to see when they will once again have a job, a business, a place to live, a bag of groceries to survive another week. We will have to figure out the virus before we restore the economy. I wonder, are we now waiting for another Great Depression?

In my international disaster playbook was the emergence of a great, unifying national leader. As if there was a cosmic waiting room filled with the right people, I was thinking that folks like Churchill or Roosevelt or Lincoln were always going to show up right when we needed them. Those are leaders who faced years long crises and found a way to motivate their populations by neatly layering hope and fear in a way that engendered a spirit of ‘we are all in this together.’ If any situation was ready-made for such a leader, it is COVID-19. The pandemic knows no ethnicity or philosophical boundaries. In its relentless spread, this is the great egalitarian crisis. Boy, was I wrong. This one was a gimme and yet here we are still waiting for a national plan and … what’s that called … a president.

I suppose in a world where everything is outsourced from dinner to your Uber ride to see Aunt Jean, I should have known that this president would outsource responding to a pandemic to fifty governors with disparate understandings of their role and completely different constituencies. Of course, that makes perfect sense. I remember a time when in order to go in and out of California every car was stopped at the border for the ominous question, “Are you carrying fruits or vegetables?” Stutter when saying “no” and you got the finger, the point to the canopy where the car was dismantled looking for a scary contraband orange or apple. The border agents were looking for bugs. Now at national borders and state lines we recreate the border bug hunts. To move about the country and the world, now we wait.

On a daily basis, unless you are Woody Allen, it is possible to not think about death. If you are more religious, you get to visit death more regularly as one of the big reasons to have religion at all. Of course, everyone gets to know the death of others and grieve. But think about it; beyond those times, we get off pretty easy. We get large blocks of time where we don’t even think about our demise. It’s kind of nice. Well … not anymore. There on the right of almost every cable channel screen are two counters. At the top we have the ‘Damn, that’s a huge number of sick people’ tally and below we see dead people. Most alarming is that between the morning shows and the nightly news both counters are spinning up. So now, turn on the news and you get a relentless reminder that the most fundamental human problem underlies the pandemic. We are waiting to die. And, to double down on the terror, we now all know that once sick, we die alone. No family. No friends. Overworked strangers, each one living in peril, in masks, who hope you are not their future, too. Oh, and those funeral plans, all neatly written down or told with solemnity to family; forget about it. Body out the door to the freezer trailer and maybe a Zoom grief session. But those, too, will have to wait until everyone can get connected to the internet.

Some of us are going to be waiting for a long time. I am a guy in his 60s with a family history of heart disease. In fact, about seventy million people in America are over 60, in the cohort of folks for whom COVID-19 is exceedingly dangerous. Those immortal young people are learning lessons, too. Anxious to party as things reopened, they went too far and now line up for ICU beds. The virus doesn’t count birthdays. It doesn’t care if you are bored. But for us older folks to return to slices of normal we wait for a vaccine. Old enough to recall how a sugar cube once cured polio, we are relegated to the role of observers. Every day we will look at what used to be the mindless actions of life and ask ourselves, “Is it safe?” And, as a guy whose greatest joys were settling into a seat with popcorn at a movie and pressing up front to get a closer look at the band at a club show, I can’t begin to think when I will be at either of those places once more. I have no choice but to wait.

All this waiting is not the crisis I had planned on. It feels like a growing series of incomplete acts. Spring without a beer at a game. Friday at the movies without the actual movie theater. A cocktail and dinner with friends without the friends. If we do nothing as well as we possibly can, the reward is that nothing happens. Oh, like many, I try to take solace that it’s the waiting that saves other people’s lives. I am willing to outwait many people. Most of the things I miss the most are things I can actually live without. Too many people have had their waiting ended with a zipped-up body bag. There are doctors and nurses who wait for a moment away from the beeping life support machines. For a guy notorious for his impatience, learning to wait isn’t such an awful thing. But truth be told, I can’t wait for this to be over.

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