Grace and Flexibility: Essential Worker Profile #4

Tina was drum major of the Marching Thunderbirds during my tenure as Chief Thunder.  I was heartened as I hope you’ll be by the intrinsic normalcy of our talk during this time created by the fact that high school teachers deal with the wills of teenagers for a living regardless of a pandemic.  She’s worked as a math teacher for District #117 in our home state of Illinois since 2007.   

“…Is today Tuesday?  I don’t even know what day it is…. Well, we were on spring break when we got the shelter in place order and we are just now starting in on everything and Illinois weather isn’t the greatest, so…let me look at the calendar – losing track of days… The schools closed… not last week, but the week before… Originally, we got told we would have a week where we would come in early and have time to prepare for Distance Learning, but that didn’t happen. We had two days that were emergency days – that have been forgiven and not have to be made up – nothing has been graded, then spring break, and then we started yesterday.”

I inquire into what Distance Learning is…

“Distance learning, remote learning, e-learning– it’s all the same.  The hard part here is education is, how do I say this, it’s highly controlled state-wide.  I’m on, let’s see…three?  Three Facebook groups dedicated to this situation.  People all over.  And the range of experiences is so vast.  It’s hard to keep up on what we should be doing… Now I don’t like to talk politics too much, but Governor Pritzker and the Illinois Education Department came out with an overall mandate that basically stresses grace and flexibility.”

Grace and flexibility.

“Basically, that every community is different, and every community is going to have different obstacles and points of access, so I felt that was very good, because it is true.   Every kid and every situation is different.   Because of where you are and what you have access to.”

“I work for District 117 and by far – I’ve been there since 2007 – we’ve never had anything like this, but anytime we have had issue, the district has always supported me as a teacher, so I’ve felt very supported in this whole thing.  We have a great tech team,  instructions coaches, colleagues…”

“My motto as both a parent and a teacher— my kids are ten and fifteen, so I don’t have littles— is that … we have to keep this simple.   ‘Cause we don’t know what is going on at a student’s house.  The student could be watching kids during the day and working in food service at night, we don’t know what is going on.  We try to equip them.  Comcast is giving free internet access to learners who are on free or reduced lunch… but is it on the same level?  We don’t know.  And if you have a parent working and more than one student (in the house)… the bandwidth could be compromised, so I keep it simple.”

Grace and flexibility.

“I made some videos and some notes.  Things like Edpuzzle.  I add in notes and questions they could answer.  And, luckily, I have been using an online program since the beginning of the year.  And a virtual text book.  So my students have already been doing this program- they can do more of what they already have been doing.  They know how to log in and access it.”

We have been told by the state that we cannot put out grades that would negatively impact… they can either stay the same or go up –

I thought of  it as the educational equivalent of rent freeze or a moratorium on penalties and late fees.  Grace and flexibility.  

“We can give an incomplete,  but I am operating under guidance that we are going back to school a week from Wednesday even though I’m pretty sure we will not…

(NOTE: In the length of time between when we talked and I assembled this, that date has been officially further delayed till at least April 30th.  To give you a sense of how fluid the situation is evolving:)

I honestly think we won’t go back to school, and if we do it, will be for a week or so… We can give an incomplete, but I can’t lower their grade.  If that student is getting a C, the lowest they can get is a C. If they can somehow demonstrate to me in a Zoom meeting or get them to do extra work in a Chromebook, I can change those grades to reflect an increase.  I’m lucky, ’cause i only have a couple students who walked into this with failing grades.”

It made me think of what they talk about in war about never defending an undefendable position. I wondered if the lack of penalty would cause the whole situation to become like teaching Seniors in May after a while. 

“I teach sophomores and juniors.  When Common Core came out, Math 1,2,&3- which takes all those concepts of Algebra, trig, geometry, and spreads them out, so you get pieces freshman, sophomore, and junior year – the concepts we teach the students follow their maturity and brain development… I like it better.  Freshman year they talk about linear equations, that’s it. Sophomore – quadratic equations,  parabolas and so on – junior year is all the higher level concepts…”

I guess I was still stuck in Sophomore year maths after all for it all felt like higher concepts to me.   

“I have a couple seniors, maybe they came from a different school or didn’t pass a class, and two support classes– half a period a week made up of ten kids.  Those are for some students who need extra examples and can come from any other teacher in the building.  I like the integrated efforts.  Two of my classes are co-taught with a special ed teacher – there are electives I don’t teach but are there available-  like modeling and game theory, probability, stats,AP stats and AP calculus.  We have stuff for students who struggle and those who excel-  we even have AP computer science classes.”

“I’ve already had Zoom meetings for each of my classes.  I put out several to give options and asked students to log into at least one.  Just to make sure they are okay.  Because as a school, you know, we have resources that are there if they are struggling emotionally or having trouble getting food.  So far, I’ve had a quarter of my students log in.  I put some in the mornings, afternoons, and evenings.  I wanted to give them flexibility.  I put in an Ed-puzzle video,  Gave instructions, ‘watch the video and take notes.’  Again, this is what I have been doing from the start of the year in part- so, they know how to do that.  And in that Ed-puzzle there are open ended and multiple choice questions.  They have to do that once a day, or an online textbook called Big Ideas.  And I gave them enough to do that through next Tuesday and made a suggested schedule – do this once a day.”

Grace and flexibility.

“it should take our slowest student forty to fifty minutes to do this assignment.  I have some that will complete that in fifteen minutes, and average… is twenty to twenty five minutes each day.  But if they don’t do that, it can’t negatively impact, sure, but it gives me an  idea on who is doing what, so I can say,  ‘hey, I noticed you didn’t do anything.  Was it because you don’t know, don’t have access, or time…? Keep in touch – Keep it pretty simple.”

“I know other teachers are doing a lot more than that… I feel, for my group of students, I feel like this will give them the essentials in case we have to go back and take a final exam. ”

Those words still had an effect on me. Like seeing cop headlamps behind you on a dark night even when you know you aren’t doing anything wrong. It touched a deep seated guilty feeling in my monkey brain.

“I had a bunch of boys, they’re cute, who all sit on line and play video games together – I ask them how is it going?  They say, ‘it’s super easy,’ and I remind them if we were in school, we would go in depth.  That I am giving you the absolute essentials to go into next year’s math class, cutting out extra things that might deepen the knowledge.  Just what can I do to get you through, and that’s it…”

I asked about the lack of consequence.  Or oversight – if there is such a principle with teenagers learning algebra…  Do they know that it’s pretty much free-for-all? 

“Some of the kids know – are up enough and read and listen to the news to know that there is no consequence.  I think some kids realize they don’t have to do anything and can still pass,  But I’m getting fifty percent completion, even though most of them know there is no.. we’ll see.”

“I think because of Standards Based Grading  that things won’t… Standards Based  Grading says students should be graded on what they know, not in compliance to what they are doing.  For example, let’s say homework is half the grade and tests are half – a kid gets an A on test and never turns in any homework, they would get a C, traditionally.  But, is that worth a C’s grade?  So, right now our homework category is ten percent of the grade.  It never effects the grade, and the majority of kids still do their homework… because eventually they know they will be tested on it.  So that’s the mindset – another point (to S.B.G.) is that a student can look at their grade and see it, say I really did bad on Pythagorean theorem and I need to look at that.  It allows them to take responsibility for their education.   But … I don’t know going forward…are they going to – like, if it comes out we are not going back to school, and they know there isn’t going to be a final – will they keep doing homework…?”

I suddenly felt relieved.  Like I was back in school and the word test just got taken off the wipe board.

“I feel bad for the Seniors.  There’s this mean meme going around that says, you know, ‘Back In Vietnam Seniors were being asked to go to war, not miss their prom,’  and I understand that, I know this is not as bad as going to war, but it is bad.  I know some of my students- like one girl already bought her dress and won’t go to prom, and potentially not have a graduation.”

These are all rites of passage in our nation.  And sadly there are not many. 

“We have an international travel club where students go every year to different countries, and they were supposed to go Japan and that, of course, got canceled.”

“One of the things that bothers me as a H.S. teacher– we hear it all the time,  “such and such you know in my day, kids were better behaved and… The kids are the same!  And also, the kids today, BY FAR are much more cognizant of what is going on than we were!  I mean, I was a pretty good student and I think I did things right, but, the volunteerism my kids do…?!  When tragedy strikes… the sense of community, we had a student who was in a car accident and killed— the kids produced bracelets, sold them, and then donated the money to cover the family’s funeral costs.  Would I have done something like that back when I think back…?

“They have a sense of what is going on outside – my son’s Water Polo Team volunteered at a Food Bank… They may seem very selfish, but when it comes to a big need for someone else, they put things aside.  There is bullying, yes, but a lot more acceptance…. We had a Dance-Off in assembly, the whole school, and each class had to throw one kid onto the floor – elect them, and the kids picked one of the students who had visual special needs– and he danced… and the whole school voted for him to win.  I don’t think that acceptance would have been there when we were in high school.   People think they are more selfish. We only see the negative… I think kids are going to look at this – and it does suck  – but they are going to go out and say there are more important things.   And I also think —we don’t have to worry about our kids – they said the same thing about us and we are fine.”

“And I’m looking at this from the demographics of where I teach – it’s much like where we grew up…

Which I would classify as a mix of blue collar – middle class for those of you who don’t know what it was like to get a Whopper at the Illiana Oasis that crosses the I-294 just east of the quarry.  

“…there are districts that are much worse off – and others a half hour away that are much better off; we are one to one as far as Chromebooks go… That started two years ago.  And there are districts where student-to-Chromebooks is not one to one – and others its more than one to one…. we are in the middle.”

“And I think it’s the arts that will get us through – our color guard kids our theater kids, our band kids– I went and played with the prep band a couple years ago- kids love to perform and love to create, they’re doing it still!  I had one student tell me, and she struggles, she works hard but struggles, and she said,  ‘second period orchestra and playing violin is the highlight of her day.’ She didn’t know where she’d be without second period.  I’ve been trying to promote a couple of my local businesses, like a yoga school and a local teacher store for supplies, we try as much as possible because we have to keep these guys going – when we are back in normal life.  I support the arts cause I have been coaching color guard for six or seven years and I like it – I want my students to look at my Instagram and say, ‘you have a real life. You’re real.’  When they see my kids are doing taekwondo.

“My husband and I have been married for twenty one years. We met at U of I.  He works in pharm. – involved in testing all the vaccines and stuff now and went into lab the other day.  He has a PHD in molecular chemistry and I have no idea what … I can grasp little tiny bit.  He talks like I understand  and I pretend … now he works form home – and we have two kids, yo know, we are your pretty much family four.”

“And listen my husband was playing video games ever since I met him – I have a big flat screen TV with surround sound in my bed room – in my bedroom! And an X-Box. My husband is in his room – my son is in the other room, and they are playing each other.  My kids are far enough apart so- plus, one being a boy and a girl– they don’t really fight.  My sister?  She has two boys; five and eight … and they have been fighting.

I was at the caboose end of five brothers, so I could draw my own conclusions….

“There are many many people going through very severe consequences.  I am grateful I’m in education, ’cause education and health care survive any recession – and I am in education and my husband is in health care.  Maybe we won’t get a bonus – but there won’t be a Repo-Man knocking on my door.”

“But we shouldn’t worry about these kids.  At our school, they have a class called life resource management they have to pass before they graduate – they have to sew a button – learn about taxes, make a budget, they even have to do fake interviews, create a resume and even get reference- I had students put me down as their reference…”

So, basically… It’s the adults we have to worry about… I guess.

“I love Illinois – sure our taxes, property taxes may be higher — but if you look at test scores compared to Wisconsin and Indiana… I mean, I had a colleague go and teach in Indiana, and she has to teach one more class a day and took a fifteen thousand dollar pay cut.  So is there a direct correlation…? I don’t know – I love Illinois, I can go ski,  there’s the Chain of Lakes, Lake Michigan, I can go to Great America… wish winter can be a little shorter though.”

I somehow breathed like I haven’t since the eighty eighth day of March when all of this began.  Something about a teacher from Illinois to keep it all in perspective. 

Let’s keep it simple. 





A Day in the life at the tangled crossroads of our supply chain – ESSENTIAL WORKER PROFILE #3

We met years back when I was still in shock from the end of my marriage. After, we routinely dined on deli sandwiches till life got in the way and we fell out of each other’s orbits for a time.    He has a rabbinical quality that leaks out from the name tag on his shirt.  During our talk, I kept thinking that this wave we all hear about on the news routinely crashes at the counter of the store he works at in West Hollywood, California.  By the end of it… I wanted to sign up for a May Day parade somewhere. 

I’ll begin in the middle as is recommended in all tales told, whether they be of heroes or fools:

“…People are learning, or relearning, what it is like to have something, and then not have something, and then everything turns on a dime and we ask ourselves, ‘is this worthy of a paper towel?'”

“And maybe that says something about the privilege we have to even have this knowledge.  And now I see that I have these muscles that have never been fully atrophied.  I have always seen myself as someone, you know, who appears to be a white man in a white man’s world, but always… with an outsider’s perspective because my people have been driven out of countries, multiple times, and this genetic memory of  the veneer of civility is relatively thin, so…

…Only a few minutes into our chat and I knew this was going to be more about class than a single cell organism disrupting life on earth as we know it.

“But there’s a lot of push back (at large), which is understandable, because people don’t know how to process…”

“I want to say to the people who (are above) the yellow line (on the carpet of the store)… sadly, you are part of the herd, and you know… It is biological.”

“It seems to be knocking down a class line, but …”

This yellow line we now have delineated on the floor of our stores, marks more than the new normal; it can show us our own feelings about where we fit in society… my mind was already racing to keep up. 

“Am I an optimist or pessimist?  Who knows.  Maybe… the receptacle of the liquid in the glass is inappropriately sized.  I’m not a middle-ground-guy,  but the two offers are not accurate…”

I somehow felt I was sitting at the feet of a part Rabbi/part zen master at a packaging facility somewhere in the back of an Amazon distribution Center.

“Working in the service industry these last few years… you know, I have been lucky, never to have to do that, till recently; no fault or effort of my own, but in the last few years… I’ve had the situation where I tried to get a joby-job and sort of came up empty because my credentials were as a car washer and a hardware store I worked at  back in high school and for the last twenty five years I have been a creative person working in entertainment…”

I related.

“So I ended up having this good opportunity in a local business I had no background in, at a mail box store where we do a lot of shipping… a lot of Hollywood people, coming in and out, and, at first, I was afraid I would be recognized, you know by colleagues.   The person and idea of myself – what I thought as being myself – was shattered; in a way I didn’t think possible.  I lost a lot of weight – and I don’t have a lot of weight to lose,  then I thought that,  ‘being the guy with a shirt with my name on it’  was not the genuine me.  And then, over time, after a hard time really,  I came to the conclusion that I had nowhere else to turn; that I was still me and the only way to get through this was to continue to be me. It was corrosive to try and be something else.”

“Fortunately, I am in situation, you know, unlike some of my colleague who don’t have the cushion, that I can push back against the rules. It made me feel empowered, you know, so I can stand up for the little guy against the machine by calling up corporate and asking… if it is even legal that we can’t have hot water, and that rubbed off on some of my colleagues.  Sometimes in a good a way / sometimes bad…”

“If someone is being difficult and playing the class card, I can assist.  I feel like I’m doing my part, and though I do need the job, ( this perspective) sends the message that I somehow don’t. But when they (fellow employees) need that back up and they are being looked at in a certain way, I can naturally fill that role.  I have the privilege to risk my job to improve our conditions, which may look like a luxury, but it comes down to psychological protection for myself.”

“I see how people who work in the service industry– who were not essential, who before, were beneath talking to,  are now telling others to stand behind a yellow line… and that can challenge… I hate to say it, but mostly, predominately white men of a certain age bracket – a little older then Gen-X, not quite boomers- they  don’t seem to want to play.”

Meaning stand behind the yellow line.

“I mean, no women, really, a few here and there… everyone else plays along relatively nicely.  Being angry about being told to stand at or behind the yellow line, I mean…  ‘who are you to tell me what to do…?’

“And now we live in the era of one-bad-Yelp-review or one timely review to corporate – and you can end up with one person ruining your job, or reputation, because you said something they did not want to hear.”

Saying something they didn’t want to hear. 

“Or the tone was not, you know– just yesterday – a person came in who had goggles, gloves, and a mask and I asked her to step behind the line.  She said, ‘I have the gloves and the mask.’ I say, ‘I don’t.”

“I’ve provided some to our guys and gals, either from donations, or what I found– because the owners of the store are up in their multi-million dollar home and they only text that I’m on my own.  I’m glad to know I’m on my own, I can provide for myself and my colleagues, if I know I’m on my own.  So, this woman says, ‘why are you yelling at me?’ And I said, ‘I’m not yelling, I’m just speaking to you without warmth.’

“She didn’t want to pay for something that cost a dollar and change, and with the store’s sales contracting, every bit helps – she stormed out to her eighty grand car and got the money and came back – the next woman was playing by the rules and I extended the courtesy and didn’t charge her for the same, you know…”

So this is what happens when society breaks down.  It begins here. 

“I happen to be at a Whole Foods with my wife where I saw a customer, from the store.  It was kinda like seeing a teacher when you were a kid out and about, but no…  she looked at me with a look of ‘you shouldn’t be here because you can’t afford this’ and she said to me,  ‘it’s so strange seeing you here, like you are in the wrong place.’

“My instincts were unprepared, I said,  ‘well maybe you’re in the wrong place.’  And the next time I saw her, there was no warmth in our interactions- I can see she felt guilty.”

“But when this is all said and done, and the world is safe again, there will be many hard -working service people, who went above and beyond to protect their clients and colleagues, that’ll be fired.   The powers that be will be reminded of their lack of compassion, or service- and that’s okay, because you have to go above and beyond and do the right thing… I have had protective equipment gifted to me- by customers – the person who witnessed that act, not the one who gave it to us – can’t stand to look at me now- because it was something they were not doing, or didn’t do.”

“Those people who rose above and did the relative heroic thing will be let go.  Someone who said to me, ‘the fact that you are here so I can return my thing to Amazon and get my refund cause I’m out of work,’ they won’t be the ones to do it, but some people, others,  feel smaller in that presence of regular people doing extraordinary things.  And under normal circumstances, see that exchange as someone being taken advantage of by the system, and have to complain, or…”

Bring down the axe with a Yelp review.  “I’ll give you five stars” was what I remembered as a Lyft driver with upwards of seven or eight thousand rides.  When the tables turn and essential workers are differentiated from non-essential, the question of class and power comes into further focus. 

“We have an example of a guy in the presidency who has failed upwards – someone who is inherently so-called better and above reality, with the sort of hubris of being born on third base, who says home plate is only ninety feet away,  right?  And that’s combined with unexpressed guilt of having what they have, and wondering how they got it, and a fear of losing it  ’cause they don’t know how they acquired it, nor how they would reacquire it – there’s a deep-seated fear of people losing things they don’t know how they acquired…. in this top heavy moment of time.”

“The richer are more afraid of being poor, naturally. ’cause the rich don’t know how to be poor, and will do anything to protect what they have, because they don’t know the path of how they got there. I was at a friend’s pool who had worked hard and acquired it, and all this stuff, and said to myself when I looked around, ‘what would I do to keep this?’  Anything.  So I started to get it, but…”

“To get a society to pivot in this moment (almost, or especially against their will) is too much to ask…”

“Being able to change a mindset, or a country’s trajectory because of a tragedy, or… take World War Two; the last few years there have been a lot of these, uh… reality shows where, you know, they find old jalopies and cars and they turn out to be worth a fortune.”

“Now, at the time of the war, those people didn’t ration, or donate rubber or the steel  because they had a 1928 car made of iron that didn’t work and, you know,  it wasn’t turn into a bomber.  And now we have the show.  But were these people, were they savvy, or greedy, or rugged individualists?   My mother pulled a little red wagon to collect rubber and steel and turn into the local distribution center, and be a part of the community to fight a larger evil so we can live in peace.”

“And now we are being assaulted, by the outside, by misinformation, overly informed without… uh, filter… no one knows what to believe.  This is the logical end of a forty year assault on truth and anti-intellectualism, right?  But how do you focus a social upheaval, which is happening right now, in a positive way when the census community is less than it has even been?”

Behind a yellow line.  Becoming more and more visible each day…

“Listen, it’s been about seventy-plus-years, the span of one life time, since the death of empires and the beginning of  the break up of colonialism and a world that was remade by those sacrifices and — the length of a human life time– and now… now, we are facing the same kind of change!  Where  order is being dismantled or crumbling and a new order is … maybe if we can have this virus economy help us pivot…”

There was that word again.  Pivot.

“…Then it could be the moment where the change happens; and maybe we won’t need  a hot war.  I’m far from a religious person, but there’s a biblical thing, called the Jubilee. Where the crosses are laid to rest, and debts are laid to rest, and pruning happens so spring can occur.   And this could be that moment.  I’ve seen the direction of this, in a person to person level.”

At the counter of the local mail box store, mind you.  Heaven truly does spread upon earth and man does not see it.

“We as humans, we have more than enough to do.  Okay, robots or AI are taking your job, you say?  No, it is relieving you of the job.  So you can do another thing.  The tractor didn’t kill the horse, it made the horse an animal again, and not a machine.  We didn’t cull all the horses when the tractor was invented – so workers still are people and we need them, more then ever, to be people.”

People being people. 

“I see people coming to the store – about a thousand fresh faces a week – most of them are sending something to a loved one, or returning something to Amazon they don’t want. And I’m seeing a trend of what I’m calling… sports shopping; where you buy something with no intention of keeping it.”

“It’s a cycle – it seems like people, who do or do not have the money, see a thing on Amazon, they say, tell me,  ‘I was drinking,’ you know a lot of self-effacing transparency, they admit to me.. it makes me think – this is sports shopping.

I ask him to define it as he sees it.

“The joy of the hunt, the act of paying it, the anticipation of the thing being delivered– by someone you think is less than, being willing to reject it,  give it someone else who is also beneath you, demand a receipt, implying we think you are going to steal it – and the need to tell a story about why you bought it in the first place and so on, repeat.”

“Consumers who are not actually consuming!  They know they can return it, with no cost to them, this hunt acquisition rejection – again and again.  The dopamine must be flowing.  In a cycle.  But at some point, it is going to reach an apex. The other day someone came in with all the hazmat gear, who is returning what could not have been more than a .99 cent lama plastic key chain, probably made by a child in a fourth world country, and demanded a receipt.”

“It doesn’t even go back to Amazon, mind you, but to a wholesale reseller who buys it in order to repackage it and… ’cause it is not worth it for a big company to process it… but this someone, who claims to be for the environment, I’m sure, shows up in a Tesla to return a ninety–nine cent plastic lama that will end up being broken down by a child who is taking apart a TV looking for lead to recycle.  That is a sickness… that little plastic lama will not fill the need you are trying to fill.”

“And not being able to tell them,  ‘I see what you are doing,’  I mean, most people, my colleagues, aren’t even seeing this ’cause they are just trying to get home that night; asking themselves,  ‘will I get the bus, will I miss it, can I afford an Uber home, and meanwhile the Uber driver is same situation as they are… they don’t even get the privilege to think like this … ”

“There is evidence of delivery drivers spitting on packages – and I’m not surprised, but I’d be surprised if there wasn’t somewhere someone who treated them… if you are treated poorly by customers, there will come a time when (those same people) are given more power, or more free reign, and there’s a little pay back. That is inevitable.”

“I don’t know how bad it is, the spitting on packages,  and look, truckers, grocers, and hospital workers have always been heroes- I see people who acted like bigger winners who’s cars were all leased and their persona is all built on a thing that was not real… and now they are asking if we are hiring.  Our persona is being challenged.  And the higher up you go…

The bigger they come, the harder they fall…

“There will be no sympathy, soon… when someone sees themselves as less of themselves when they lose those zeroes in that account, it will be hardest on them.”

“The fear of the virus is almost a luxury.   ‘Lets binge watch every TV show.  And the regular people will slough it out for us and we can come out from our bunker and then everyone will recognize our privilege again …  but the truth is there is no life line, for any of us.  And the guy who wants to return the snorkel the other day comes in and I say, ‘we are here to return essential things and that isn’t essential,’ but he doesn’t see that way. ”

“I see that being the big hindrance to progress. That it all comes down to… we are not all in it together. That there are winners and losers, and the losers are not to be respected. Not really.   And we are all supposed to pull ourselves up by our boot straps and all boats rise– but what if you don’t have a boat?  Then if you don’t have a boat, you drown…?”

“If you turn on the news it just echoes this… sadly, among people who have very little-  is that… they feel that  people who have more know better. It’s like Tevye in Fiddler who says,  ‘If I were a rich man…’  One of the best parts is that all the learned men would come, like Solomon the Wise, and it would not matter if I was right or wrong, because when you are rich, they think you really know.”

These are all lessons to be had by obeying the yellow lines.

“But we need to be more savvy, I remember my dad, who was a smart guy, saying to me when I was a kid – I used to love that commercial for Ginsu Knives, you know, where you’d see this guy cut through everything, anything, even a can, and my dad would say, look at the arm, son, the arm, not the knife.  And if you looked at the arm, you’d see the guy was circus big, he was huge and he was pressing down, he could cut through that can with anything- we need to look where they don’t want us to look.  And I get it, there was escapism during the Great depression, then Vietnam happened and we all wanted realism ’cause we knew it was the arm not the knife that cut through the can , and now, what are we aspiring to … the world needs more plumbers than ever because people are flushing shit down that isn’t toilet paper – and maybe maybe maybe what we are witnessing (in this age of COVID 19) is the death rattle of whatever we have had the last forty or fifty years, and something is right around the corner, something real good, and in seventy or eighty years we will have to do it all over again…”

I felt like I had just attended Finnegan’s Wake where the corpse shot up and recited Homer.  And in the end I just wanted to laugh and take a nap.


Two Weeks’ Time: essential worker part two

Today’s essential worker works in administration at a storied LA based hospital recently acquired by a medical group and experiencing the strain of transition.  Their back ground is as a charge nurse in the ER till their back gave out lifting a dead guy out of a two-door car a few years ago.    I first met him up in the mountains above Big Bear a few years back when he showed me how to cook bacon in the oven.  We bonded over our affinity for logistics.

I asked him to walk me back to the day it all began for him and didn’t say another word for about an hour:

“Where to start is sort of an enigma of itself…”

“I decided to lower my life stress level and get off Twitter with all the political, you know…  and that was also when we were getting reports of how virulent this was and how quick it was spreading.  Now, I don’t know a lot about geography, so we were wondering how they are sealing borders and I realized there were positive reports in different countries, something is being passed around – and my awareness started to grow – everyone’s communally engaging in discussions on a group chat I am a part of with fellow clinicians, we start hearing about a couple cases, issues of screening and how they are evolving, now we get cases in California, my fellow employees start paying attention, there are hints, rumors, things like a possible Korean Airlines stewardess, things not too far away from us, indication that this is close, closer than we think…

“I start paying attention to the day-to-day, elderly, the data, it’s a severe flu they say- so I’m like okay, this is still manageable, and as the days go by– normally, I’d be on Twitter all the time; I would be following all kinds of data and —  but, I’m trying to keep my stress low – directed to keep it low, because I get migraines,  sometimes four to five days a week, on top of that, I got sick with a regular flu – I’ve been fighting this flu for two months, always have this cough, so, at this point my stress level is starting to build, ’cause I start thinking about how this is going to impact us at our hospital, and in our city, and it was when that nursing home in Washington has the large outbreak in just a couple days–  I can’t remember the exact number – there’s a lock-down and a cluster and only in a couple days and I’m like… that’s not normal  —

“Now, this could be a personal bias and I’m not versed on influenza data regionally – but influenza data – that is based off one patient, not a cluster, then California gets it, and then the state gets involved, directing people and doing basic governance, and it wasn’t till about two weeks ago when Gavin Newson puts non-essential businesses on close down and I was– back when I was deep in Twitter – constantly feeding information, data, from sources I was following – and I’m not following anymore, ’cause I’m trying to cut Trump out of my psyche, ’cause it’s like a parasite in my brain– and, of course, there’s no overall response from the federal government – and as of… the week before last – when Stay At Home was issued- we start building our own directives at work… two weeks ago.”

Two weeks ago.  Time takes on a whole new measure in war.

“We were just talking about what our directives are when patients arrive and at the nursing level, they’re starting to anticipate problems – and we are already starting to get reports that people are starting to take masks home, gloves home from work–

“I used to be at the bed side– so, you assume the worst – if someone comes in with a fever and is coughing, you don your PPE ’cause you don’t know – until proven otherwise – but still you protect yourself.”

“I come in and… why are people stealing things?  You shouldn’t be stealing boxes on boxes of masks and boxes and boxes of gloves… Administration gets involved and says, ‘please, don’t.’  It creates an uneasiness and anxiety… translating  hospital-wide now.  I mean, reports that physicians, not x-ray techs or cleaning people or… physicians are breaking into surgical suites to steal supplies to protect themselves: N95 masks-”

“I don’t know the quantities, but at this point, our directives are to screen for patients who might trickle in… are: fever, shortness of breath, coughs, and travel to and from China.

“Obviously, we don’t really worry about that, because during Ebola, for example, there were two or three, so there shouldn’t be a … but there is…”

“That’s a typical thing with outbreaks to screen for travel – but as we were shifting our directives when we see how this thing travels – the travel screening is still in place.  But in my head the travel thing is already a non-starter, as someone who has an education in the medical field – I don’t have the data, but once you have people getting infected in our county – it’s now a communal thing, automatically, but we keep hearing screening still involves travel and I’m like, ‘this is dumb, counter-intuitive to proper screening…” Multiple cases in Orange county, San Diego, San Francisco… and I’m talking to my own team– can we drop the travel as a screening tool?  Even though it was a directive – Doctors think it’s ridiculous and they are kind of ignoring it, too… we get the worry that it won’t be a trickle, but an influx, we will see cases, it will happen… maybe not one or two, but who knows how many…”

In two weeks. 

“Today, we are not thinking how many are we going to get, but, how much space are we going to have for regular patients – in two weeks’ time – that’s exceptionally intense to have all of that feeling, that pressure in two week’s time.  The stress I have been feeling and trying to manage…

“I have family members in the medical field, my own daughter and partner to care about… Ten days ago, I sent them to my folks house in Moreno Valley – ’cause we had our first case.  That patient was within my census– I was talking to nurses who were working with that patient, so… I have to take some caution, so I’m texting them,  ‘you should go now… should we wait for you…?’  I’m like,  ‘no.’

“At the time, I didn’t get to say a formal goodbye…”

“It was the right decision to do, and the right call to make, ’cause you don’t know – people can be carriers for five days, at least  and now show- at this time, and we hear reports the data is mostly, majority – mild to moderate symptoms.  Multiple countries are inundated; Italy, Iran, Spain… I lost track.   So many grossly impacted… Germany is closing its borders.   All these countries are feeling an impact, and we talk about mortality rates – we fear this… okay which rates are the true reflection of their health care system or the virus itself…

“I think ’bout how is everyone’s system going to respond to this – because it’s literally random, till we have more information.  But there must be some logic, but we don’t know yet – we don’t have the science yet, how it has been functioning.  But I don’t have the energy, the commitment to read up about it after work ’cause I need to rest in between…”

“I don’t have any faith that my daughter and myself and my wife will respond mild to moderately, so I make that call before.  Rather than…”

“I am on a chat group with other clinicians, and we commiserate, crack jokes on each other, now since this has been hitting, we communicate changes  on each other’s health systems – interpreting ongoing data from WHO, CDC and news and experiences from different hospitals and they are telling me – ’cause again, I’m not getting my news … I hear about the gentlemen at Huntington who died, almost a week ago.

“So far, the reports say he is a 34 year guy with a history of smoking and testicular cancer – no COPD, diabetes, nothing. Hashimoto’s,  or Parkinson’s light, no IV drug use, or chronic drug use… just a regular guy.”

“And we are like… why?”

“Everyone’s is dumb founded, social workers, respiratory workers, clinicians on the chat and we are all,  why…?  Why this guy? And at the same time, all the potentially misinformation,  and this hits – and we are all like, what the hell happened?”

“We hear other smaller cases, about the seventeen year old – asked the CDC to investigate this one – but now one of my social workers on Wednesday texted me he heard about a seven month old baby who had to be isolated from their parents – maybe the parents chose to be next to them – the numbers in LA start growing – and the Governor puts us on a safe home order – true lockdown – and now everyone in our group is feeling this stress.”

“One of my doctors shared with me – he’s a little quirky – he told his two kids, ‘I want you to know that if I don’t make it you are going to be okay.’  Looked them in the eye and said,  ‘I want you to know this is serious, that If I’m not here, mom will take care of you.”

“And they are between six and ten… But to have to say that…”

“And I get where he is coming from.  I know their kids are old enough to have some awareness of this – but with me,  and my daughter… I know I have asthma – I’m at supposed higher risk, but would it be better if my thirteen month old daughter who has no consciousness – would it be better or worse if they not even know what loss means is if ….

“The characteristics of dealing with the experience of that is on my mind, but at the end of the day, I’m dealing with what we can do, right now job-wise.  It is stressful to hear we are short on PPEs.  My frustration is with my administration – our own hospital does not know what our essential supply counts are – because of becoming a part of a larger group of hospitals we don’t…  we don’t know what’s our bleach stock.  We know those are low, but they won’t tell us how much, how low are our N95?  Hairnets, gowns… How low are our counts, for our bed side nurses to do their jobs safely …

He goes quiet.

“We have a… what feels like an increase of people who have come in and coded and died.  We are a hospital, people die all the time – we filter out faster now – our census has dropped from about 315 patients to 165 patients to keep it at a bare minimum, so we have room for this influx.   The amount of people are less, but (it feels like) many people are coding and going into cardiac arrest.  It is increasing and these are people who are not confirmed, but ruled out.”

I interject to ask them to clarify what ruled-out means in this case.

“A rule out says a test was done, but we don’t have the results.”

“We grade patients on symptomology, but it is alarming…”

Because the directives are changing, the symptoms are changing, broadening.

“And the… (nature) of this test – the competency, describing how confident we are that this test is positive… is sixty percent accurate.”

Sixty percent.  I ask him to help me better understand, or try to:

“…the other forty percent of the time that means a test is a true negative or a false negative.   The competence of the test itself, the sixty percent competence, means that two out of five patients will have the infection, but the test will rule negative.”

“Which is not great competence.  Usually, you want eighty percent. So we are basing a lot of our procedures on sixty percent… the growing stress, we are basing a lot of our plan for isolation and whether someone goes home, long term acute, or health units…”

On a test that is accurate sixty percent of the time.

“We can’t do that without guidance from department of public health…  and if about a quarter of our census (which means hospital population) are ‘rule outs’ or ‘positive,’ that means we can’t do CT Scans.  Without a pure negative test – we can’t put them in an MRI.  Without a negative test- we can’t do the things…”

I put it together in my mind.  And that slows the discharge down.  And keeps beds occupied in a holding pattern where staff burns resources, I was starting to get it.

“To clean that MRI machine every singular time in between, I mean…  Regulations say with bleach, let it sit for five minutes.  Then after (letting it sit) you continuously wipe it for another three to five minutes… every time.”

“We can’t do that, unless we can ‘rule out’ – but how can we rule out if our directives keep…”

Again, a little silence. 

“If they come in for… altered state of consciousness, you know, have a fever and general malaise, but we can’t do that MRI till we get a test result; and that may be a false positive… They sit, for four to five days, and the whole time are transmissible.  Everyone has to gown up.  It consumes supplies.”

“With all the growing patients we have… I mean,  till we get a negative test… The confidence of which  is not great so… we could still be… you know?”

“But we are just going to go on.”

“A compounding issue for our hospital, as you start to see the exponential usage of supplies, is delay.  And because of these delays…”

He goes quiet again. 

“There are about 26,000 hospital beds in the entire county of Los Angeles, and that’s for ten million people.  Ten million people.  And 26,000 beds.  That’s crazy.  The available beds we have, according to what the Mayor said, the ones we have left are 1500.  Today.  1500 beds.  For all the other stuff.  Anything that can come in.”

“And now our cases have grown.  To several thousand, and the ongoing “Safer at Home” order is there…

He laughs.

“But as far as I have seen…  There are still plenty of people on the road.  Plenty of people going shopping.   Doing their exercises to distract themselves, stay normal, feel human…”

“We have our first confirmed homeless patient that is positive, which is a whole new bit of chaos. There is not enough reduction of movement to flatten the curve as it has been broadcasted.  Not enough.  Not to where we can’t anticipate a moderate spread of this disease pattern, and we are still going to be impacted.”

“I don’t know if opening up that USS Mercy – don’t even know what it is going to be used for – don’t know exactly what the plan is – that will be developed over the next week – we are shifting our own room assignments.  Designated units for isolation at first are now…

“We have entire floors.  The fourth floor is an isolation ward.  I mean, every day this week I have gotten different instructions on how to discharge patients – new directives, new information, from our new ownership, updates multiple times a day, trying to keep up with information.  Home isolation guidelines. How to interview people, how they can isolate – – there’s one guy who is not at all susceptible – he’s got some severe unrelated issues, but his wife has been exposed.”

“How do we get him home and discharged, if his wife has been infected and no one’s taking anyone?”

“That will compound when this wave actually hits.   In getting patients out.  I had a grueling discharge – trying to get family members calm  for an hour as I’m also divulging my own personal information, saying that,  ‘listen  the hospital is going to be an inferno of infection at any moment.’ That they need to have them home now…”

“Trying to keep my head on, my stress low, so I don’t get migraines – not to think about my own family and my own exposure, and all the bed side nurses are asking me questions- and my own administration  restricting information so not to create a panic and let everyone remain professional… as we all move through this, this, this in a rapidly changing fashion… and not trying to lose my job cause I’m fortunate to have it, is a….”

“This type of thing was theoretical.  But never realized.  And I still have to show up and be diligent for these patients.  And part of it is frustrating on the human level.  It is easy to see people, you know?? At Target.  The parking full, or as full as before this broke out… and people on the trails… It’s hard.  When you know what you know and hope and scream at everybody, ‘I don’t want to take care of your ass when you come into my hospital, but I will!”

“Metaphorically, you want to slap them in the face and wake them up.  They are upset that they’re displaced cause they can’t go to a watering hole, go to a movie.  It’s frustrating to see this and know what  I know.”

“All the financial fall out, economic activity, shifting resources for a while, people are going to default, lose homes, businesses.  We will shift our framework to online services  – we may become less personable, because we are going to be afraid.  This is going to shape our society for a while.”

“But at the same time, I have to focus on the now, and the now means you need to stay at home unless you are really sick.  At some point, we are going to hit a peak here.  I don’t even know yet. We haven’t even hit a moderate level  at my hospital.  But we are not prepared.  The C.O.O. is trying to buy hospital supplies at a premium rate,  so they have something.  But they’re buying for the whole system,  all the hospitals, and we are not sure if it is coming to us.  That is info I need to know.  So we can know our limitations and stretch them out further.  We have to be part of the conversation, ’cause it’s our lives at risk.”

“We all know our lives are being risked, we knew that when we signed up, but we need to know what we have in order to…”

“Other systems are more inclusive, and I get it, HEPA laws are what they are, but we need to know infection rates, real infection rates…”

I never thought about patient privacy rights would factor into the new normal.

“It’s just stressful to think about what is coming … we have a wave that is just hitting us now… this two trillion dollar package seems semi bogus, until we feel it on the local level. Thank you for publicizing it.  It is good PR for you.  Now I can see my 401 k is being devalued a little less then it was, great, thank you, but that doesn’t mean anything to me now cause I’m not retired tomorrow, I’m retiring in thirty years.  I want to live to see that retirement.”

“So how about you fork over some money… to get masks over… gowns over; and get them over to major cities.  Cause it is in all fifty states.  Every one of our United States of America.  Every state is feeling some type of pinch right now.  Every continent is feeling it.  India.   South Korea is top of the food chain in terms of how they are demonstrating  we should be treating  citizens.  Fifteen thousand people a day.  Granted, they are not the U.S.,  but we had these numbers months ago and nobody acted on them .. no shift in production, directives, from public health, C.D.C.”

“Just insider trading.”

“It’s really disheartening. There could have been action taken way before it hit our shores.”

“The hospital is going to become one big isolation (unit) once this… … And compound that with dwindling PPE supplies… I mean, we are just a walking-stationary-high-risk-for-transmission-locale.”

“That’s being dramatic, but where are they going to come from…? (Resources) A hundred thousand masks?  It is drop in the bucket of what is needed in California.  A hospital can go through seven hundred a day.  Just our hospital.  One of my colleagues said she had  to wear the same mask for a week.  The same one.  It’s hard to get one in general. We sequestered masks in each unit, with the department supervising nurses in charge, and you have to have a need to get a mask…”

“We had a patient in an acute rehab unit.  We discharge to another unit, six days later he is positive.  After his initial admission– no signs of anything,  and then six days later…”

“All the people he has been around during his admission, nobody knew.  Just hand washing, you know basic bed-side… He was working with dieticians, physical therapy, attending physicians, x-rays, CT scans…how many different areas of the hospital he was going into, none of us knowing he was positive… so, it created a mini-panic cause word travels fast.”

“Right now, we got a directive, if you have symptoms, you have to self-isolate; no mention of being tested – whether the test is necessary or even competent…”

There’s that word again.

“I’ve had two colleagues in my chat group who are positive.  Now they can’t come to work; that’s two less people who can come to work and help others, now we are facing a human resource shortage.   We don’t have people to treat the people, so if we don’t have people to treat the people, we can’t take the people…”

In the silence, my mind fills in the blanks.  I resist the urge to time travel and listen.

“We have to stick to ratios, nurse to patient ratios.  Now, we’ve done away with some restrictions; you used to have to use one mask-per one room-per one patient– Now… you can keep that mask, as long as it is not compromised or soiled, and continue to wear it.  People are wearing them for hours, I mean…”

“When we start losing health care providers, x-ray, ultra sound, when do we crack that bedrock of that ratio…? Because community demands are compromised… and I don’t know, it’s all theoretical.  Are we dispensing with that?  (He speaks of the golden ratio of nurse-to-patient standards).  If all the patients are mild to moderate, and they don’t need a vent, or to be intubated, what we call telemetry monitoring… well, you could theoretically have one nurse… one nurse could moderate ten patients.   If we are stretched so thin because a lot of our clinicians are self-quarantining… it could… we don’t know.”

“Our capacity is  220 beds.  Do we get agency nurses and pay through the nose – with the premiums, and our capacity is compromised beyond- do we flex this ratio – one to seven, one to eight – no one knows.”

No one knows.  I think that’s the big take-away from my conversation.  What is going on now from someone who is there to witness it.  As it evolves.  No one knows.  My own doctor said the same thing when I went in for my yearly physical.  No one knows.

“Will it be seasonal, or…a really long year.?”

“Will it crash in the water, or when the curve flattens, and people go out and we hit another wave… and it’s another spike and flux again – no one knows.”

“This is all so random and out of control, we don’t know. ”

“We haven’t hit any staffing crisis yet, but we are in the first wave – New York is being hit super hard, symptomology is changing, and… how do we screen if symptoms change…

“Like my directive does not involve abdominal pain and diarrhea – nowhere does it say abdominal pain and diarrhea – but those are the new … so many inconsistencies and changes all the time I don’t know how we can keep up.  Every day is just a day.  I get home, clean my belt, glasses, shoes, phone… dump everything into a separate container,  jump in the shower and hope I didn’t expose myself.  That I did well enough.”


An essential worker

His grocery store sits outside a rural suburb at the intersection of condos and soybeans; part of a small chain of such family owned stores.  Not huge – but not exactly a bodega either.    As I waited for him to finish chewing, I imagined he was going to say “call me Ishmael,” but instead he began with:

“People are stupid.  I got x’s in the aisle where they can stand.  But they don’t.  I got people wanting me to enforce when other people don’t give them their six feet. You can’t win either way ’cause people are stupid.  Every day they stand in line at seven am for toilet paper.  Every day.  And every day it’s gone. I have a limit on eggs, paper, milk, bread, wipes, soap.  It’s insanity…”

It’s nice not to talk to someone sequestered in their bubble out here but from a part of the country where the Trumpites routinely collide with pinko-lefty-snowflakes in line for generic toilet paper.  I won’t identify the state, but let’s say there’s an open carry law.

“I work and I sleep.  That’s it.  … I made the decision to let ___ have the kids because I’m around so many people, y’know.  I Facetime every night.  It’s hard… I don’t know if it’s the right thing but  … so yeah it’s me and the dog now, for as long as this goes…”

I ask him a little more about how are things at the store.

“Well, I mean let’s just say I have a police presence.  We’re probably a week behind what it’s like out where you are but… I get bitched out all the time, by people.  ‘You’re out of this.’  Yeah I am outta of it.  ‘When are you gonna get it?’  I don’t know.”

He ate and coughed once.  I didn’t say anything, even when he coughed a second time.  I thought of how hyper-aware it all makes us…

“I don’t have the thing.  Check my temp like six times a day.  Just so you know.  This is gonna change everything.  I mean everything, people don’t even know what it’s gonna change, but it’s gonna change everything… I don’t know.  Good thing is now a lot of people have a lot more respect for what we do…  when the flood gates opened up Friday – two weeks ago tomorrow, I was at a register from eight in the morning till nine at night.  We didn’t have limits then. I had one line wrapped all around the building almost.  Just trying to get in.  You couldn’t keep up.  You couldn’t keep up. We anticipated it, but you just can’t-  For more then twelve hours, I didn’t stop, I didn’t eat, I just checked people out.  At the end of it, we have a little office upstairs – you know where the managers can go – with the mirrors and they were up there with a case of Michelob Ultra and I grabbed a beer right off my boss’ desk. I had three of them and was… I mean – I couldn’t drive home, on three beers… cause I was so… It’s insanity.”


“I had a guy try and sell me hand sanitizer.  Made locally.  He said it was organic.  12.99. Plus twenty percent mark-up.  It smelled like – let’s say it was organic, for sure.  Definitely organic.  He gave me samples and I took them home because I was running low but I couldn’t sell it…not yet… y’know?”

I inquired a little more about the girls.

“I want my kids to talk about this time of the virus like an adventure – with good memories of all the fun stuff they did at home, but it’s hard …  ___ asks me how long it is gonna be like this as if I have any – a fuckin — cause she is worried about her work schedule.  I’m like, you work from home and for your fiance, I don’t know…  I can’t pay attention to all the news – not when you are where we are – I mean, I go to work, I have gloves on, my hands are bone dry – but I don’t have a mask.  None of us have masks.  But I show up.  That’s what I can do.  I’m losing workers left and right.  I get their concern, but there’s nothing I can do.  Technically, we are not a small business, but we’re not a corporation, one of these huge – we’re this middle – we can’t afford to pay four hundred people two week vacation, so we’re hiring temporary employees.  I say, when can you start? To this girl who came in to ask for a job the other day.  I say can you start right now.  I’ll pay you.  I even had ____ working for me.  He’s out of work with local 1065 (Ironworkers) and I can pay you cash, ten bucks an hour …. it’s crazy.”

Another cough and a laugh–

“I swear I don’t have the thing.  I had a guy come in who said, ‘my chest is hurting,’ I told him go home.  Till he gets a doctor’s note. I don’t want the whole place shutting down – but we can’t — how many small business are going to go under, I mean we can’t keep up…”

His voice trails off.  I think of asking something, but wait instead.

“Twelve hours a day, I’m fucking exhausted.  And I know I shouldn’t be the one bitching, I have a job, but it’s tough, tough for everybody.”

After a cough:

“I had a guy rip me up today, call me a racist, he wants me to put everything he bought and return it onto his food stamps, I said I can’t do that… I mean, Matt, I’m mobbed – right in the middle of being mobbed – I say I cant do it, sir, it will take an hour – I mean the amount of shit – he was so gaming the system and…  I can’t accommodate that at this point.  He starts swearing at me!  Calls me a racist.  And that’s when I switch off. I said I won’t take it back from anyone, sir – to refund – he had meat in there  and he wanted me to put it back on his food stamps- I had to call the cops.  They asked what our policy was and I said we had the right of refusal.  He walked out to his eighty thousand dollar car – yelling at me..  people are stupid.”

We talk about the stimulus package as I scurry to make sure my notes are caught up when he goes on:

“Do I want my twelve hundred dollars?  Yeah. Of course.  But I’m working, it should go to someone else, you know?   I can’t take that, but they’re gonna give it to me?  Makes no sense… I would just rather it go to bartenders, waiters, but who am I… I don’t know shit.”

I wait.

“I think the people who are suffering the most – not the most – I don’t even want to say suffering ’cause we know people who are – but people who this effects the most – not effect- that’s not the right word, but us who are essential workers, us, nurses, cops – I mean, I know I’m not a nurse or in a hospital,  but I’m out here –  my buddy across the street is a fireman, and he…. essential workers.”

Essential workers.

“I don’t know… I just make sure I got some Lysol and disinfect that shit – like I do every day – I get home, I take everything off, I got a can of disinfectant – then I put all my clothes in the washer.”

“Y’know, my sister says that thing Mister Rodgers says, that quote about people in crisis, ‘look for the helpers’ when things are tough… look for the helpers… yeah, so.”

We talk about the probability of him being able to still get the kids out to Disneyland in July.  It doesn’t look promising.  We were going to try and get to a Dodger game together.

“That’s the thing – it’s the unknown… you know?  That’s what’s got everybody all …”

I finish his thought: lined up at seven am everyday for toilet paper.

“___ got pissed at me,  ’cause I called up my ex and asked if her parents want some things dropped off- you know they both had surgeries, so I did that, twice.  I don’t care.  Just cause they don’t want to – you know, they think I’m some kind of … I’m not going to let that change who I am. After I dropped it off they asked if I could grab a few more things.”

A knock on my security door outside my apartment announces the arrival of a package of hand cream for A. and I to help combat all the sanitizing.

“I mean I don’t want to talk politics and anyway I don’t think anyone knows what’s the right or wrong thing right now… but  when numbnuts goes on the TV and talks, there’s no sense of relief – I mean, when Obama talked – you felt a sense of relief –  I did at least.  But I don’t feel that.  But yeah, ___ got mad I was being so nice to ___ after everything, and she’s on me about how long she has to keep the kids and I don’t know… I did what I thought was the right thing, dropping the girls off and keeping them from seeing me… I don’t know.”

No.  None of us do, friend.  None of us do.

A soul sickness

Anyone who works in treatment knows that nothing can be done to aid people who suffer from substance abuse besides patching them up temporarily till the sufferer is willing enough to change just about everything.

I think of that basic fact that repeats itself, over and over again, as we move through the rise of cocaine, to the invention of crack, to the meth boom, and the opioid crisis of today; as the drug-du-jour changes with the times- this basic fact remains constant.  But now the paradigm of the alcoholic dilemma has never held more truth then when it is compared to that of COVID 19 and how it has revealed the fundamental unsoundness of our nation.   Nothing can be done to help the alcoholic till that said alcoholic has hit bottom, buries the shovel and stops digging.

There’s an old story  about how the vet with PTSD cried out that he was stuck in the hole and can’t get out and is barked at by his NCO to suck it up, but that doesn’t help, the priest says he’ll say a prayer and nothing happens, the therapist writes a script for a drug, the family pleads, etc, but nothing helps till another vet hears him cry out for help and hops in the hole with him.  The vet with the shovel says, “what are you doing, now we are both stuck down here?” And the second vet says, “don’t worry, buddy, I’ve been down here before and know the way out.”

I think of the language of recovery in these most uncertain times and the nature of powerlessness that rests as the bedrock.  We are powerless over so much in our little foxholes as we wait and busy ourselves with videos of astronauts and how they flourished for years in isolation as they whipped around the world at 36,000 miles an hour.  But what I am realizing I am as much powerless over besides the virus itself is the greater sickness this virus attacks.

Virus attacks us where we are weakest.  That’s the nature of virus. Whether it attacks your I-phone or your lungs.  And in our country- the spiritual crisis in our measurable lack of humanity and empathy – basic dignity and equality – true equality for us as a people in terms of how our system of governance is structured is where we are weakest.  It attacks the disconnect and the chronic war on truth and all the things that have decayed with entropy by lack of use.  It reveals what truly is.  We are a nation that does not really care for its own. And those of us who study history know that perhaps we never did.  Not truly.  We are not the shining beacon on the hill that we claim to be, and as long as we hold that to be so is how long we will endanger everything that is.  Our nation has been propped up by corporate greed. The individual no longer exists.  And watching that insanity play out is just like watching a person detox from heroin for the thirtieth time and forget, blame and invent and justify and not even be aware that they are doing it as they are driven by a sickness that only a spiritual solution can solve.

Nothing can be done till that person realizes he is indeed in the grips of an insane illness and has lost all sense of what he thinks is true and has to accept help with the willingness of a small child.  Then and only then can he / she recover.  Maybe the hope for our sickness – the one this virus attacks is as simple as that.  It’s in our national heart.  Till we straighten out there and revolutionize our priorities- it will be an endless cycle and a downward spiral with momentary periods of abstinence – whenever there is crisis like a flood or a tornado or an avoidable war “followed always be still worse relapse,” as the big book of Alcoholics Anonymous states.

As most drug addicts know, change doesn’t come till the cost of changing is less than the cost of maintaining the status quo.  I think of that as the fate of our nation and the world hangs in the balance and we watch the insanity of a cult of personality reach the very real inevitability of a reality show based world and its grip on our consciousness.



Force Majeure

His suspenders squeezed his gut together the way kids do half deflated balloons. He wore his retirement gift on his head. Truckers and their duck billed caps are common, but one that announces its owner is a member of a four million mile club is rare indeed. As rare as a coal mine pigeon.
He spent thirty years doing long haul runs between the west coast and St. Louis, bringing produce east and taking med supplies west much the way I did in fifth grade computer lab playing Oregon Trail, except he had the bladder problems that go with spending days sequestered in the cab of an eighteen wheeler.
We talked of many things, but what sticks, as time passes, is the thing he said about how things will turn when truckers start getting sick.
Never mind Senators and the sons of Senators who become senators in a world that pretends to be an even playing field and their health care and benefits package – I can care less about those fools and their pins on their lapels – all of them sold us up the river long ago – I’m talking about truck drivers here: who keep America a’movin’. At thirty five to forty five cents a mile. The ones who know how long winter is on the I-40 and the I-70 and read the sky the way some read a crystal ball– and the distribution centers, and warehouses they drop at— that there’s the metabolic measure of the health of our consumer economy- what gets tied to palettes and wrapped in shrink wrap in the back of their rigs whose sheer weight endangers their lives when they venture out on black ice and downward inclines of eight percent or more.
They can’t get sick. But odds are many of them will.  And then, like the man divined, we will  start to feel it.
He dropped me off at terminal five and said good luck in the way only a trucker can.  Good luck.  It was what Edward R Murrow would add at the end of his broadcast during another dark time in our nation’s past.  Good night and good luck.  There are times when any kind of anything falls short and only the words good luck suffice.
It feels like months ago even though it was only a few weeks ago when I boarded that plane or a weekend trip back to the Midwest where I am from. That was before the travel ban and when you could still get sanitizer and face masks and we were all ordered to shelter in place.
I think of those truck drivers now and wonder how empty the roads are for them now that we are being asked to do nothing.  It takes a lot to be still.  Or otherwise it wouldn’t be the gateway to enlightenment according to many traditions. So I don’t underestimate the gravity of the order.
There was a time when being a trucker was something to be revered.  So much so that Elvis modeled his whole hair and wardrobe off their look.  They were the epitome of cool. I think of them and their cool status as we try to keep up with demand and move equipment where it is needed on the interstate system Eisenhower designed for just this purpose in civil defense.  The highways were not made for us to and our summer vacations but for mechanized infantry to go from coast to coast in case Russia invaded.  But the war Ike imagined that would necessitate such a highway system looks very different than the big bad Soviets and their nuclear first strike capability.
As I scroll through the day’s headlines on a break from rewriting my new play, I think of that truck driver and his common sense as I try to honor what is asked of me and stay home, be still.
The image of his ancient mariner status haunts me.  How he was, “hanging on with all us freaks out here in Holly-weird long enough for his wife to make retirement and they can get back to Eastern Washington.”  I suspected he was the kind of man that Trump betrayed. I wondered if he knew it.  But the simple faith of many of our true blood patriots doesn’t question those things and therefore had their pure faith taken advantage like all cons do.  It’s part of their dignity and identity- this silent majority we pretend still doesn’t exist in our bubbles.  Which is why we got in this whole mess to begin with.
As I see how different cultures battle their own systemic bias amid crisis and catastrophe the same way Malcom Gladwell so eloquently breaks down in Outliers, I can’t help but marvel at how Koreans adapt versus the French and us.  We falter in our belief in our magnificence and watch powerless as those Senators bicker over what a stimulus package will look for us, and by the time we get the things we need to the people who need them it will be too late.   You can not resuscitate a dead man.  Not even with a super majority and bipartisanship. And that is our cultural value system at work as we battle our own inertia. The Italians sing from their balconies and we make pork fat in bills in Congress and pass the buck between governors and the federal government blaming each other and tweeting about it like bird in a coal mine.
I heard from a friend that there are over four hundred federal agencies.  (443 to be exact if that number can be exact).  So when the Orangeman on his golden throne tweets “drain the swamp” he touches upon a simple truth in the fundamental nature of American identity-  this bureaucratic cesspool that is a fact of our culture these days and therefore our value system.   The cultural bias of our value system is not set up for quick decisive concerted action.  But it excels at infighting.  There has been a split in our personality.  And the left hand no longer knows what the right does and vice versa. Yet, we still rally behind our magnificence:  Our #GOAT status.  Well, we will see.  We will see what comes in the wake of hubris.  In the meantime, the truckers keep hauling the truth of our existence to and from Amazon distribution centers as we all stay at home and wait for this nightmare to pass.  Doing our best to be still.

In the fog of war

Truth is the first thing to go in war.  Or so they say.  The only ones I’ve ever waged have been against myself.    But I was reminded of that old axiom as I got an unsolicited group text last night that read:

“tonight from 11.40 pm nobody should be on street.  Doors and windows should remain closed as 5 helicopters spray disinfectants into the air to eradicate the coranavirus.  Please process this information to all your contacts.”  Couldn’t tell if it was some bored teenager in need of spell check and a lesson in junior year grammar or just another Russian spambot trying to stir chaos in the world.

But I will admit… there was a small part of me that wanted to close the windows.  And eventually did.  After doing some digging on the web search navigation bar of my choice –– I found that a similar text had circulated around rural Maryland and some local newspaper in Iowa had covered it.  They all agreed it was bullshit  The times these helicopters were releasing their voodoo in the air had changed, but the spelling was the same.  As we all play a universal game of telephone – it’s amazing to watch the birth of hyperbole.

Shakespeare once said that “present fears are less than wild imaginings…” Now granted the quote comes from Macbeth and we know how that ended  – it does hold true to these times.  The early days of anything often live with pomp and misinformation.  We have to brace ourselves against the coming storm, for sure; but also the lag.  As we adjust individually and redirect collectively. In the early days of world war two, untested soldiers sang songs and wrote poetry assured they would be home by Christmas.  And we all know how that turned out.

I have always been a Civil War amateur history guy and I take comfort in the stories of how U.S. Grant knew his troops at siege needed tasks that built and maintained morale if they were going to endure the hardships of siege warfare.  To that end, I try to do small tasks that add up every day as we take to our castle keep and wait and brace ourselves against a soon to be surge. When so much is out of our hands, I find comfort in organizing the junk drawer and watering the plants.  Doing laundry takes on a whole new meaning in the era where any given surface could be contaminated.  It sure is fun.  Especially in a building that sounds of coughing at night.  So much coughing.  Nothing but coughing.   It’s a comedic opera of absurd proportions for sure.

Every day is filled with experiences that I never even fathomed before. This really is another end of innocence moment for us that always seems to repeat itself every few generations.  We remember, till we forget, then something happens unforseen and we remember again.  And anyone who knows history tells the rest of us we were stupid to think we were different.  And so on it goes.

I don’t know about you, but there’s a mindfulness that develops when I fold things or clean the counter as the modern hustle quiets.  I heard it said one time that the point of any kind of mindfullness is to feel every heart beat and be grateful for it.  I’m not a master by any means, but I can taste the fruit of the practice from time to time.   And I like the taste.   It sustains me in those moments when panic wins.  So does laughter. Lately I laugh at the way we will all be experts in rationing soon.  And urban foraging.

Speaking of which:

We picked some rosemary on our walk the other day.  It came from a neighbor’s border shrub.  With a smile over a cinder block wall, strangers became neighbors.  Later we used their gift of rosemary to raise the social class of some Irish stew A. was pressure cooking in the Instapot.  As we blew on our spoons and enjoyed the inheritance of cultural identity on a made up holiday about a made up saint to keep Irish Catholics putting their quarter in the dish, we remarked how odd it was that people I lived adjacent to for years, many of whom I never met before, now feel closer than ever – even though we must keep at a social distance.  Common peril does that.   As we doggie-paddle our way to some kind of something to hold onto in the fallout of our innocence- the base hierarchy of needs about shelter, food, etc become more real to us who have benefited long from a priviledge we may not even have recognized we had.  Things like clean water, indoor plumbing,  gas for the stove and air we can breathe.  They mean more.

But I must say to take a lesson from teh trends of history – wars tend to go off the rails as they begin to erode at social custom and pray on our baser instincts like what we see now in some of our leaders who need an enemy in all of this to vindicate themselves.

In the early days of the Civil War, people road out to picnic and watch the  war show in their Sunday best with parasols.  Eventually, that horror became what it was.  And history reminds us always that the time optimism of conflict “experts” make in the beginning never ended up quite being what it was.

I think of how our country had to suffer through Hoover before FDR and hope 45 will be one day like a Hoover.  I also remember that era of trouble which touched the whole world birthed some of our great social works.  But it took a dozen years.  It’s a long road.  And it must be taken one step at a time.

History is full of how enduring hardship became the tipping point in enterprises of great conflict.  The birth of this nation came not on the battlefield at all, but in the dead of winter.  Wintering an army in Valley Forge through influenza may have sent the message to the crown that we were serious and not going away which would prove too costly to the King to go on.   And thus America was born simply by having another wood chopped for a hard winter.

Truth is – Things take time.  But first we have to detox from our instant gratification that I know I have grown dependent on, and then something will settle on us.  I hope.  Maybe a peace like none we’ve ever known before. An unshakeable faith.

Lastly, I think of Edward R Murrow’s radio broadcasts from London during the Blitz.  And I wonder what will be our light.  What unifying thing in the human spirit, what sobering voice of truth will cut through the static.  For now, it’s the sound of children playing on the street again.  Which I hadn’t heard for a while.  And the rain in the window.    That’s good enough to get through till tomorrow.

A sense of God

I’ve been thinking a lot of spiritual make-believe and entitlement lately.  Privilege.  And of course American isolation that doesn’t ever seem to die; even in the global era.  It builds such a barrier in our cultural identity that when single cell organisms (less then single cell) threaten the world order – it still permeates.  Aresolized.  To rob us of the truth.  And it is at the core of why and how we were caught flat-footed again.  Our exceptionalism disgusts me. Even more than the racism.  They are linked in fear.

Now none of this is meant to be doom and gloom – simply one man’s point of view who by pure curiosity has made a life long study of history and other things that create patterns in human behavior.

But how dare we.  Millions of Syrians flee, people lose their crops in Sub-Saharan Africa, water gets scarce, or rises, and we glide on.  Comfortable behind our two oceans and our rapidly building border wall.  And our personal hand-held screens.  But this will level it all – this myth of separation – these invisible barriers, and leave us – hopefully — with some kind of oneness.  Because we will have shared in the same noble truth together – suffering.

I belong to an internationally recognized support group comprised of people  who are bonded in their common suffering rather then by any form of window dressing.    It is when that breaking point has been found for each of us that we became part of a greater chain.   That is when our story of our past begins to change.  But trains don’t stop on a dime.  And this train has been a long time coming. I can’t help but marvel at how we will all be right sized by less than a single cell organism.   We will learn about systems we took for granted, and how fundamentally flawed they are, we will learn things people in combat have long known.    I fear many people will have their sense of God shaken by this.  Which can be really unmooring.  I can ask for serenity from some source I don’t quite understand and if I can’t find any, I ask for courage and strength.  Goodness and kindness.  Tolerance.  Power to do what is in front of me and be where I am.  Maybe that is what is meant by thy will be done after all.

I recall the meaning of the word amen is – and so it is .

So to quote Kurt V. So it goes.

And so it  is.

The Violent End of Entitlement

I had a mentor once tell me about the moment  Why Me changed to Why not me?  I’ll keep the details of what caused the shift but will say it had to do with loss.  Unexpected loss.    Reality is easy to accept when I find it acceptable.  It’s when it makes little sense, involves the seemingly bad, that I find it hard to accept.  And without acceptance, I cannot find the clarity to respond.  All I know is when I fight reality, I lose.   It’s when why me becomes why not me that certain unknowns about life become lived in experience and not abstract concepts.

Maybe that is what is meant by the age old question… are you experienced? 

I am grateful that I have made a living in an unpredictable volatile career for decades that has prepared me for the simple fact that sometimes there are times we are never quite prepared for.  That our lives are filled with dark matter.  And now so is our world; That will be forever changed by this thing we do not yet understand – that had already brought out the worst and best in us.

The Latin root of the words for humor, humanity, human, humility is humus– which not only means of the earth – it also means (according to one of my favorite books Spirituality of Imperfection)  gray decaying plant and animal matter, specifically.  So, let’s laugh at our  humanity – that in the end – what makes us human is what makes us worm food.

Uncertainty is what drives all of us in these times– with that dull flutter.  The future hangs.  And the past feels distant. Even a day or two ago feels on the wrong side of some shroud.  But this present is where we are.  And I find great opportunity in all of this for each of us to grow.  For, collectively, humanity to grow.  A Renaissance always follows the dark ages.  It always has and it always will.

But the first casualty of this dark era – will be western entitlement.  And in the fallout of our exceptionalism will grow a deeper compassion – i hope. I pray.  I trust.  Not only that, I put my faith in that simple fact.  And once that compassionate heart takes root and flowers more in each of us as I have seen it – our actions will take on a different tenor and the world will change.  It is spring after all.  And spring only knows to grow.  From that soil.  That dark earthly matter of compound plant and animal waste.  Uncertainty is the natural state of things.  And the constructs of our world have blinded us to that – now we get to experience it and by experiencing it nudge ourselves and those around us toward a better future.

I was reminded the other day back when I was just realizing how many times I touch my face  about a conversation I had with my father.  He was telling me about a memory he had abut being five years old and the war was on and there was a shortage on soap.  And that it had just hit the shelves and Grandma Agnes shooed him off to the local corner market to buy some after he saw the truck pull up on a recon run up the alley.   I take comfort in those stories and the testimonials we celebrate in Studs Terkel’s Hard Times or on STORYCORPS about other insurmountable things people have overcome by relying on each other and some kind of faith in goodness.  We need our stories to remind us that although this new virus is novel, we have endured through loss, uncertainty, sacrifice, and fear many times before.  And it was silly of us to believe these times would not recycle.  So… why not us?

But – our world views may get smashed.  Our sense of God may change – but in changing it will deepen.  Faith tested and tempered by action only improves.  Because our understanding is finite to begin with – that’s what makes us human, of the earth etc.. we expand and cut the distance between heaven and earth – just like that painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel that is now shuttered for the foreseeable future.  But –  the death of entitlement, as brutal as it is, for many of us who have experienced the good fortune of not even knowing how fortunate we have been – will bring with it greater humanity.  And— that very thing may save us; against the sins of our past visited upon each other, the world, and future generations.  One thing is certain in this great uncertainty that touches six out of seven continents –the choices we make will be altered forever by this.  Even if that asshole still sits on his golden throne and tries to steal credit for this.  He can fuck off because humanity is on the rise.

Why I Write

Don’t bury the lead.

Unless you can hide it in a wondrous pot of image and absurdity that leaks out into everyday life from the secret places of our being. It is in that golden bucket all narrative forms into a something.  To me, plotting comes as a dividend from the search for pearls in among the filth that we must subsequently shuck in a utility sink to learn their value.

It is dirty business that is for sure.

But it is in the reassembly of what the haul came from that I find the most joy.  There’s a Mister Potato-head-like freedom in putting back together what was broken with gold paint that makes a singular umami which sometimes…. can outweigh the drab of the world and maybe hold an audience in stillness for a moment or two.  Truth must get snuck up on; like a deer in the woods and doesn’t like the sound of power tools and foreman crying out above the fray where a plot turn should be.  The scenic route has always been my way.

Maybe this elliptical nature of mine comes from my experiences sanding houses and stripping lead based paints to see what lay beneath years of poor paint choices in my apprentice years while the oldies played from work place stereos plugged into power strips in empty garages.

And maybe…

It comes from pretending to be sick to skip out on the family pilgrimage to Shakey’s in order to dig through a scarf cabinet and hall closet in the foyer in search of the great mystery of all that came before me.

Or maybe…

It comes from masterminding the Great Public Golf Course Raid of 1989 when my two best friends and I mounted our Huffy dirty bikes, slipped past rent-a-cops, braved the toxic cocktail of the Little Calumet river, low crawled across the fairway of the fourteenth hole, and waded into the water hazard that straddled the back nine of River Oaks Golf Course to reclaim all that we had lost in our shortcomings as golfers.

After telling ourselves all about the bodies that Al Capone must have dumped there, and radioactive fish angry with being bombed on by retired foursomes in plaid daily for twenty years, we were spurred on by the indignity of losing ball after ball to this moat of shame.  We wanted to restore justice and were willing to wade into the unknown to find it.  Our faces painted black, we borrowed from cat fishers and practiced the art of noodling for golf balls by first wading into that dead sea of iniquity and then plunging our arms full into the muck and filth — and deep into the darkness we pulled out none other than … Pinnacles. Neon Pinnacles.  The gold standard of them all.  And buckets of them.  More than we could carry.

We felt like Viking kings the whole ride home and when we split up our bounty and went our separate ways, we were comforted by the fact that we would never pay for a golf ball ever again.  Ryan claims, to this day, that is indeed… true.  And he is a once a month duffer and has been for nearly thirty years.

I think any structural composition that lasts cannot be pre-fabricated without being turned inside out and pissed all over first.   Things that surround these dreams of passion are merely meant to be scaffold, till the passion and dream itself can hold its own weight and withstand the elements of time.  When the keystone of the cathedral is carefully set in the final arch, magic begins and it takes on that life of its own.   Maybe that was what I was looking for underneath all those layers of paint for fifteen bucks an hour, in that treasure chest that sat beside the door of my home as a child where winter lived during summer, or at the bottom of that bottomless lake… my key stone to lock it all into place.

I have always been a retro-fitter.  My plots feel more like sausage casing than linear directions.  This kinda direct experience of story takes away the varnish and lends an import of authenticity in a way nothing else can.  I get bored otherwise.  How many times did you find something of value you forgot you had when you lost something else you didn’t really need and drove yourself nutso looking for it…?  That is the shape of comedy and drama to me.  Everything else can be run through a copy machine.   I have tried to be something else, but I cannot.  My fingerprint is what it is.  I kinda like to spin myself around in a daze and them fumble around in the dark for the light switch.  In the end, what I’ve learned about studying my stroke the way golfers or baseball players do, is this; I like to think of  narrative as a treasure map that leads to things we have had in our possession all along and didn’t know it, till we dug into the muck.   The map can’t be written till after we got lost in the woods and somehow found our way out by luck, having the proper gear, and the mercy of favorable weather.