Pandemic Diary: #NamingTheLost

Two days after my father, William Robert (Bob) Aldrich died of COVID-19 (May 10) in Hyannis, Massachusetts, I was a participant in an online video meeting. Just before it was my turn to speak, something caught my eye: a cardinal, small but rich red in color, alighted on the Rose of Sharon bush beside my window.

Not many birds choose to visit this bush; it is crowded with thin branches and it is smack against the side of the house here. Also, the flowers are not in bloom yet; when they are, the bees will comprise approximately ninety-eight percent of the bush’s visitors rather than birds: through the day, the sound of bumblebee collisions with the window next to the Rose of Sharon punctuates my day.

The red of the cardinal caught my eye, because red always does, and birds are somewhat rare on that exact spot and cardinals rarer still (this was the first time). I mentioned it as I spoke, mostly to make a joke about the fact that the previous speaker’s cat had leapt into her camera frame. (Her cat had chased this bird to me, was the quip. I’m a dad joke waiting to become a father.) Someone all but said that the cardinal was my dad; I do not remember if the thought was that a bird’s visit is spiritual or a cardinal’s visit is.

Red cardinals are the males of the northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis); my dad was male, of course, but his hair was red when his hair had color. Red so noteworthy that his nickname in his hometown was “Red.” My friend had no way to know this.

I do not believe in a spiritual world, but sometimes it can almost seem (even to me) that the spirit world wants my attention. I do believe in a spiritual life in that I believe the only point to life is love; perhaps that is not “spiritual,” perhaps it is.
Read More

Pandemic Diary: Just a Box of Rain

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry.
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.
—T. S. Eliot, “East Coker,”
Four Quartets

* * * *
One day, he decided to read the pages that I’d left next to my typewriter. I was a literature major in graduate school, and I had just pounded out some pages about “The Waste Land” for a summer T. S. Eliot seminar. “I don’t understand anything you wrote, but it sounds like you know what you’re taking about,” my dad said with a chuckle.

My dad had a pretty good chuckle, just so you know. Chuckles are difficult to rank because they receive little attention in the universe of laughs, but they are worth a note. My dad’s chuckle was never one that claimed he knew more than the person with whom he was speaking, or more than anyone else, for that matter. It was an honest assessment of how amused he was at the moment, which I realize now was one way that told us his full-bodied laughter was true and truly felt.

I did not appreciate my dad’s chuckle that summer day so long ago, though. “The poetry of T. S. Eliot is more important than a laugh,” I am certain I thought. (I was insufferable, I assure you. My insufferable self, so convinced of his own importance, still is around here somewhere, but does not show up often.) Well, Eliot’s poems have plenty of laughs and chuckles available, as I now know, and I also know now that my dad’s message to me was a sort of baffled pride in a son so different from and yet so similar to him.

As I have grown older, I have come to appreciate Eliot’s volume Four Quartets and its deeply considered meditations on time, man’s role in the cosmos, eternity, and the permanent immanence of eternity in any possible moment, never at any individual’s bidding. With my father’s death from COVID-19 on Sunday, May 10, those themes become that much more important to me, and since he chuckled at my Eliot paper (“your report” he called it), perhaps a start with Eliot (“East Coker” opens with “In my beginning is my end”) today would have earned a chuckle from him.
Read More

Pandemic Diary 16: A Bigger Picture

Rage is the most short-sighted emotion, but it is the one I have witnessed in my quarantined self more and more lately.

* * * *
Information provides something of a relief. Not the numbers, not the information about particulars—there are so many numbers right now, from the numbers of sick and the lists of the newly departed, both of which only do one thing: increase at a pace which itself shifts day-by-day, up and down, and that changing pace is its own number in which one can lose time in unproductive obsession—no, the one bit of information, the one number everyone wants to learn is: How many more tomorrows will resemble this collection of slow and anxious todays? We have had so many todays in a row, after all.

In much of the world, the long today of quarantine will last into May. Ireland’s government announced an extension of its nationwide coronavirus shutdown until May 5 last week. New York State announced its PAUSE extension until May 15 this morning.

There is some comfort in the thought that one knows how many more days this will continue.
Read More

Pandemic Diary 10: Poorly Orchestrated

Life in quarantine: The Golden Rule, but with more soap.

* * * *
At the grocery store today, the ratio of shoppers with face protection to naked faces was roughly fifty-fifty. No one in New York State government or Ulster County government has declared the coronavirus pandemic half-over, but half of the shoppers with whom I congregated acted like they think we are more than halfway through the disaster.

Even if we are in fact more than halfway through the disaster, which would equate to another three weeks of quarantine and face masks and the scrubbing of all surfaces, there are no exemptions from the rules. But because my fellow New Yorkers have ignored rules, which is something I usually celebrate about my fellow New Yorkers, our rejection of some of the more superfluous rules in life, well, today, April 10, New York State announced further restrictions on “social distancing”—that dumb phrase from which I wish I could be socially distant—no one can use golf courses from today until April 29.

Why is this? Because New York State did not declare golf courses “nonessential,” so too many individuals discovered the glories of golf in the last three weeks and started to congregate in large groups, crowd into the pro shops, and too many hands to count have touched flags, bunker rakes, and rental equipment.

The subject of the photo at top is my masked face while at the grocery store, and I apologize. My face was a cute one when I was a child, but whoa. The mask is an improvement.
Read More

Pandemic Diary 6: Don’t Bother Me

The absence of contact in Quarantine Land is its most devious challenge. I do not live alone, so I have more day-to-day contact with a fellow human being than many of us, but the isolation is felt even when one shares a house with a housemate/landlord, as I do.

The isolation from others and isolation with one individual can create an attitude of what can only be referred to as a pathological co-dependency (well, for me, anyway): at different moments, the housemate/landlord (who in my case happens to be a sincere, genial, perpetually direct and honest individual) can take the form of authority figure, warden, and then be returned to his normal, genial self, all in a flash. Perhaps I take on those forms within his mind, as well. At least I am aware of the effect of isolation on me, and I only respond to the genial housemate and not the figment in my isolation imagination.

When I described this phenomenon to a friend and started to complain about it, I forgot that the friend to whom I was complaining lives alone, is new in town, and is in the same sudden isolation but is isolated alone. My description of my complaint sounded to him like a restaurant-goer with a complaint about a free dessert: “I thought you said something about a free cheesecake and this is strawberry cheesecake! Why, this is an outrage!”
Read More

Pandemic Diary 3: With a Song in Our Heart

Perhaps in a world in which we need our neighbors more than usual, in which a global drama plays out in our local grocery stores and on the streets where we live, the music and creative expression we turn to for rest, relief, entertainment, and even solace—that deepest of words—ought to be local as well.

* * * *
When all this is over, some of the things we used to take for granted will appear to us a novelties or great new ideas. My gosh, even the thought of something ever ending feels something like a novelty at this moment.
Read More

Pandemic Diary 2: Use a Password!

Much of life in the coronavirus lockdown moved to online video conferences about three weeks ago, a fact which is reflected in the NASDAQ share price of one company, Zoom Video Communications, Inc: on March 13, it was $107.47 per share and on March 23 the price was $159.56 per share. (It has since dropped to $121.93 as of today, largely for reasons discussed below.)

There have been video conference web sites, platforms, and applications available for many years, but Zoom is free for a “Basic” plan, simple to navigate on a smartphone or laptop, handled the increase in traffic with ease (“a 535% rise in daily traffic to the Zoom.us download page, according to an analysis from web analytics firm SimilarWeb”), can handle groups in the dozens if not hundreds, and is quite easy to use. College classes have used Zoom as virtual classrooms for years, so when college campuses closed in the pandemic, all unfinished courses moved to finish the semester on the virtual platform.

Zoom allows yoga instructors to continue to conduct sessions, therapists to meet clients, recovery groups to hold as many meetings as they may want to, corporate boards to meet, the quarantined British prime minister to run cabinet meetings, journalists to conduct “in-person” interviews, quarantined families to continue to be families. And it is a free service for the “Basic” package, which allows for forty-minute meetings.

Zoom also promises end-to-end encryption for secure conferences. That last part is not a lie, but it uses the phrase end-to-end in a way that does not mean what the average user of the service might think it means.
Read More

Pandemic Diary 1: Of Jokes and Introverts

In this era of pandemic concerns, rumors and memes are more easily communicable and travel more quickly than that airborne virus which we must each dodge like Neo in the first Matrix film. Here in my hometown of New Paltz, NY, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases escalated from one to many long before (well, days before) one was confirmed.

(We now have several, and a town whose boundary is within walking distance from my house is my county’s current coronavirus hot spot. Well, yay! us.)

When New York State imposed a stay-at-home quarantine for anyone deemed “not essential” by employers on the night of March 22—two long weeks ago—a variation of a meme about introverts proliferated: “When you find out your normal daily lifestyle is called ‘quarantine'” read one popular meme over a children’s show character’s reaction to something. (Below.)
Read More