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Quarantine Day #53

Just over four million cases globally, with 276,000 deaths. In the U.S., 1,327,000 cases and 79,000 deaths. With our national need to be number one, we win the Biggest Number of Deaths Contest, hands down. We got this.

It’s been a couple of weeks since I last posted. Listen, shit is fucked. Every time I went to draft a post (after ten hours working on my laptop) I felt suffocated by isolation and bad news. Hacking my way through a mile of thorns with a butter knife. Easier to lie on the couch and trade nudes with dudes in Chicago, London, and Melbourne.

20.5 million Americans lost their jobs in the month of April. The most since the Great Depression. The unemployment rate shot up to 14.7%, with no quick fix in sight. Decades, the experts say. It’ll take decades to pull ourselves out of this hole.

The federal $349 billion small business loan program emptied in two weeks. Most of it dispersed to suspect “small” outfits (publicly-held hotel chains, etc.) who refused to give it back. A Louisiana evangelical pastor who’d defied state social distancing guidelines to hold massive, in-person services, later kicked off a campaign to get his followers to donate their personal $1,200 stimulus checks to his church—the checks had been delayed in the mail just a moment while Trump had his name stamped across each one.

The pages of the Boston Globe’s obituaries have more than doubled, which reminds me of reading the local gay rags my dads had around the house in the late 80s, and scanning page after page of handsome, mustachioed men who’d died at ages younger than I am now. What a world I came out in. What a world now.

Blame China is the new plan to lead our country out of this mess. In other news, 59% of the nation’s Chinese restaurants have stopped taking debit and credit transactions, a sign they’ve ceased all operations.

One-third of all U.S. deaths are nursing home workers or residents. 50 residents and staff of a facility in the next town over caught the virus. 60 dead bodies were found in trucks outside a Brooklyn funeral home after neighbors complained about the smell. Cruise ships across the globe warped into floating, doctor-less hospital wards, stranded off the coasts of cities that wanted nothing to do with them.

For every 100,000 Americans, 40.9 blacks have died, along with about 17.9 Asians, 17.9 Latinos and 15.8 whites. These numbers make me sad and cynical about the push to reopen, and about whose deaths get to matter. This virus is bent on making life meaner for those with mean-enough lives. 

A writer disguised as a daytime clock-punching marketer, I’m officially sick of the advertising phrase, “In these unprecedented times…”

If I could sum up the current state, I’d put it this way:

Scientist A: We could have a vaccine soon.

Scientist B: The U.S. could be socially distancing into 2022.

Trump: Just sip some bleach.

He’s blocked the CDC from dispensing guidelines that counter his delusional optimism, muted doctors whose level-headed advice ran smack up against his constant, snake-oil quackery, even as two people in the White House tested positive this week. If they can’t avoid it, how can we?

Under the cover of the pandemic, he’s cut environmental protections, kicked 100s of immigrant kids from our border, and dropped charges against a crony who pled guilty in a court of law. He’s such an unrelentingly corrupt, moronic trash-monster that it’s like anyone left with a shred of heart is living this shared, hallucinatory nightmare. We’re crammed into a school bus with no driver at the wheel, barreling towards the edge of a cliff. We’re a rudderless, festering cruise ship in the Bermuda Triangle.

The pandemic reaction has splintered, like everything in this country, along a deep gap between us and them. Us are listening to public health officials, wary of returning to work, and wearing face masks in public.

Them are screaming for life to get back to normal, strapping guns to their belts and protesting, mask-less, at state capitols for their right to believe that the pandemic is a deep state hoax. They think we’re scared pussies. We think they’re fucking nuts and doomed for bleak ends in red-state hospital wards.

We each have our own sources and separate facts to bolster our bulwarks. We share the same contaminated air, sucking down the same COVID, hunkered down in alternate realities.

It’s a struggle to maintain a sunny outlook, is what I’m saying. When you’re stuck at home, alone, 24 hours a day (22 on a good day) and every view onto the outer world is a window onto some separate, profound, unending pain, well, you go put on a smile. I’m saving my energy for the fight to come.

And then I got sick.

Every interaction with the outside world is a calculated risk. Do I go to the grocery store or opt for delivery? Do I hike when I’m mostly sure I can stay 20 feet away from the small town locals? Do I use my building’s laundry room? Do I break down from a shuddering need for physical connection and invite a dude over who’s also been quarantining and bears no symptoms? Somewhere in there, someone got me sick. Let’s be honest—it was the dude.

A sore throat that turned painful to swallow. Chills, then heat, then chills again. Body aches. Pounding head. A fever inching past 100. No respiratory problems, so I was on the fence about its critical, COVID-likely weight.

But it’s impossible to look at symptoms now through any other lens than COVID, so I emailed my GP, who called in a referral to the local testing site. I drove, fuzz-brained, into the next town, pulled my sensible Civic up to a tent in a hospital parking lot and a nurse in full protective gear had me inch down my window, lower my face mask to cover only my mouth, and then stuck a long-ass swab about a foot up my nose, where for ten long seconds she held the burning tip in my sinuses, rubbed it around, then sent me on my way.

Drove home in a fever, passed out on the couch with Agnes. The next day I felt a bit better, so I wasn’t shocked when my test came back that afternoon, marked “negative.” It had felt like the usual flu.

I had this weird, unpleasant experience in the following days as a couple of friends and several coworkers asked, over text, pointed questions about how I’d managed to contract the flu during quarantine. People holed up with partners and families implied that my inability to be completely alone for eight weeks was a moral failure.

(Half of this might be all in my own head. But half of everything we see at any moment of the day is in our own heads.)

What I’m trying to get at is that it reminded me of the moral quandary of safe sex, and the shame we were meant to feel every time we failed at its perfect practice. My default headspace is that everyone secretly hates me and thinks I’m a bad person, so the safe sex game, transplanted to the COVID era, is another thick, fertile patch of thorns for me to play in. The cuts comfort because I’ve long known their depth.

The sweet side effect of my sick-scare is that two friends, a couple in the next town over, took good care of me. One’s a doctor and between the two of them, I had constant texts, phone appointments for my current list of symptoms, and even a delivery from the supermarket. After my test results, I Venmo’d them the total with the memo line, “non-COVID groceries.”

My Big Brothers. Two years ago I’d been perched alone at the edge of an abyss in this town, so this was…something I can’t yet articulate, because saying it aloud will make it disappear. It’s an unfamiliar resource. Because I was raised by wolves, by a man who used me for his own needs, and by a woman who believed that movement, ambition, work for its own sake, performance for approval, were the true indicators of worth. Inaction, reflection, rest—all sins. Sickness—when you’re shut down, confined, and weakened—was a moral failure, worthy of contempt.

I think about the word mother, when we use it in the context of sickness. We want, when weakened, to be mothered. We want—in the middle of a flu, in the eye of a pandemic—to know we’ll be okay. “You are not alone,” my Big Brother texted me the night before my test results. His own life had taught him that at moments of weakness and fear, we need to hear that won’t be abandoned.

I texted the Big Bros to tell them that I loved them. I wasn’t even feverish at the time. During my mom’s death, I learned that saying such words is an act you never regret.

I don’t know how the fuck you’re enduring, but this is what’s getting me through the thorns. These little gleams of light and connection. As the whole world burns down, how else are you going to skate by?

Quarantine Day #29

Snapped this pic outside my apartment building after 12 hours inside, writing blogs for a client about proper hand hygiene. I almost missed the buds, coming back from a hike with my dog. The world contains everything. It’s hard to remember sometimes, in lockdown, but there’s beauty along with the pain. You have to look for it.

Worldwide cases closing in on two million, with 121,000 deaths. 547,000 cases in the US, with 26,000 deaths. New York City today revised its estimated death count to over 10,000. They’ve been burying bodies unclaimed by family on Hart Island in Long Island Sound, home to about a million other bodies. For 150 years, folks have ended up in the ground there after dying from TB, yellow fever, AIDS. I just caught myself scanning the news of these burials for actual numbers – that’s how we measure anything anymore. The number of dead.

I’ve still got my health, though COVID-19 is nibbling at the edges of my circles. A few dudes in my Facebook feed listing symptoms, one’s husband on a respirator in Vancouver. A coworker’s husband is an EMT and his partner tested positive. Another coworker’s grandparents both caught it, and one passed away.

16 million Americans tried to file for unemployment through systems ill-equipped for the surge. Disney furloughed 43,000 employees this week. Goofy and Mickey, shit out of luck. One-third of Americans didn’t pay April rent. International Money Fund projects the worst slump since the Great Depression. $1200 stimulus checks hitting bank accounts, but a whole slew of folks deemed “ineligible.” Trump demanded that the Treasury stamp each check with his own name.

I may have saved my butt this week. A client we landed even in quarantine picked my slogan for a big billboard and media campaign. A sign that, at least here in this valley, someone thinks the future will still come. That billboard bought me time, maybe.

The partisan divide on the virus keeps cracking wider: the new battlefront is the economy vs health – when to quit lockdown, with Trump, Fox News and conspiracy sites downplaying the odds of a second surge in deaths. Everyone else going, “Duh, science.” It’s coming down to governors, forming factions of fellow regional states, versus Trump, who pulls fantasy laws out of his ass: “I have the ultimate call.” A mutiny, he called the state pacts.

Gov. Cuomo shot back: “We don’t have a King Trump.” More like an emperor, and fuck – talk about new clothes. He’s resplendent.

Haven’t filled my gas tank in four weeks. Factories shuttered. Air pollution is down. Bears now roam the empty roads of Yellowstone. I wash fewer clothes but more dishes. Retailers have entered the stage of hair dye shortages. Clumsy home beauty. A million dudes Netflix-and-napping, the backs of our heads unevenly buzzed.

I can do 30 push-ups in a set, but I’m shrinking. Literally, less of a man, by some measures. I fucking miss the gym but I’m still healthy, employed, and complaining about closed gyms is the ultimate vapid gay male privilege.

A completely unscientific survey reveals that everyone I know is slowly losing their minds. Texts and FaceTimes turn moody, as I have no words to fix the lives of my friends. Not that they expect it. Not that I could. One is stuck in a city far from home. Another can’t take that job in Paris. Lives interrupted, like we’ve all missed the last flight in some empty connecting airport. Everyone stir-crazy, horny and lonesome, most of us stuck in an experience that the entire world is sharing, but enduring alone.

But others lead lives made suddenly more essential. I read a journal entry online by a New York City doctor, who can’t stop seeing the bodies piled in the refrigerated trucks idling at his hospital’s curb. The nice trucks, he wrote, have shelves. In those trucks, the bodies don’t need to be stacked.

As a longtime social lockdown professional, some quarantine measures comes easy to me. But other habits I’d thought I’d outgrown. I once shied from strangers, the fog of depression sapping the strength it took to endure small talk (all small talk demands of introverts Herculean courage).

But now, are you like me? When a stranger crosses your path, do you before conscious thought, recoil? I once saw strangers as taxing, but now they’re maybe fatal. How long till that fades? What if it doesn’t?

Still, we smile and wave from a distance, keeping our dogs pulled back on their leashes, crossing to the other side of the street. Agnes doesn’t understand social distancing.

When the weather’s good we still hike in the woods. I unleash her at the edge of the path that skirts the pond. Frogs sing in the reeds. I shake off my brain’s thickening sludge under the white pine and hemlocks. Agnes tears across the beds of needles, a burst of explosive joy. She’s my soul, scruffy, briefly set free, feeling pure thrill in our flight.

Quarantine Day #8

Worldwide cases top 415,000. U.S. cases at 50,000, with 685 deaths, climbing fast, especially in NYC, where Governor Cuomo (who’s emerged as the nation’s new “Daddy’s Home,” in the vacuum left by our trainwreck leadership) now pleading for respirators from the federal government, along with enough hospital beds for the estimated 140,000 cases expected to hit the city at the rapidly-approaching apex.

Trump still hasn’t enacted the Defense Production Act. States and cities are now begging him on live television for help. He’s now, in defiance of all health experts, talking about “opening the economy” again before Easter. I don’t know if it’s possible for me to hate someone more than I hate him. It’s made worse by being a helpless hate.

The fact that we live in a country divided has always worried me, but it’s begun to feel personally dangerous. If, for example, hypothetically speaking, your boss was a vocal Trump supporter, and Trump gave the all clear to reopen for business, would that boss, in defiance of every public health official on the planet, require you to come back to the office? Would you go? At what point do you go to war?

I’ll try to take comfort in the state of Massachusetts, and a governor who more or less has the smarts to prevent that boss from doing so.

Without gym, fresh air, AA meetings or sex, my moods shift wildly throughout the days. With the future looking like the edge of a cliff, where do set your faith? Smooth Operator got me crying last night as I again inched down the thorny imagined path of lost job and homelessness. “I have your back,” he told me. I don’t actually believe that I’ll lose my home (job loss may be likely), but the fact that I cried at his reassurance tells me that under my usually calm veneer is a roiling pot of panic.

Every day I shove that pot onto the back burner to clear my head and get shit done. But it boils up sometimes, like when my bonehead GP wanted me to come in for a consultation and labwork for a routine prescription he could phone in. Requiring me to come into a healthcare setting for a non-urgent task right now just seems pointlessly cruel, especially for a doctor. I went around him and got what I needed from some random online clinic, fuming as I clicked away on the trackpad.

Drove to the drugstore through traffic that was light for rush hour but not apocalyptically empty. The pharmacy had set a card table in front of the counter to give the techs extra distance. I swiped and pressed the keys of a credit card machine like it was a nuclear device. They had tape marks on the floor throughout the store, which looked to be about six feet apart, probably a guide for keeping distance from fellow shoppers. I thought about confirming this hypothesis with the store manager on the way out, but we’re at a point now where you have to factor in the risk of a mundane human interaction (do you have the virus? do I?), so instead I slipped out in silence and sanitized my hands before they touched the steering wheel. Hit the grocery store on the way home, with its Soviet-level shelves, another radioactive credit card machine and the bag boys asking me to stuff my own bags. The woman behind me in line crowded me, and I tried to inch away, keeping mental track of every surface I touched, willing my hands away from my face. I moved like a new, clumsy character. Navigating it all felt like playing the tutorial level of some role playing game on PS4, learning the alien ropes of a treacherous new world.

Came home to news that playwright Terrence McNally, who wrote Love! Valour! Compassion! had died from COVID-19 complications. He’d survived the AIDS epidemic, COPD and lung disease, but passed away at a hospital in Sarasota, where I’d gone to college. He left behind a husband.

As my bud Tiny Dancer put it, “Why couldn’t it have been Ivanka instead?”

Quarantine Day #5

Today’s headlines: 75 Million Americans Told to Stay Home; U.S. Cases Top 18K; NYC becomes nation’s epicenter in one week; Coronavirus recession looms, its course “unrecognizable.”

Trump’s embrace of unproven drugs defies science; U.S. intelligence warned Trump in January and February as he dismissed coronavirus threat.

Smooth Operator tells me over FaceTime that Trump is really through this time. “I feel like we’ve had this discussion every other month over the past three and a half years,” I replied. “There are never any consequences.”

I mean, in a rational world, yes, he’d be done. And there will come a day when even his supporters will realize that he is the shittiest shit stain to have ever “run” a country, and he’ll have to hope that he’s got a well-fortified bunker on some island he bought with his father’s money. But this week? A poll finds that the majority of Americans approve of his handling of the crisis.

Sometimes it’s too painful to hope.

In the meantime, people I know are already losing their jobs, and news reports come from all over the country about severe medical supply shortages weeks before the infections are predicted to peak.

Got pretty grumpy the other night, picturing losing my job and then my home. Feels like I only just pulled myself back from the brink of total poverty and desperation. My head goes to the worst places because in the past five years I’ve seen some of the worst places that a single white dude with one marketable skill can see. I throw that in there to acknowledge my privilege. I know many, many folks have it worse. Funny how that doesn’t always relieve one’s panic.

Later: U.S. surges cases surge past 21,000. NYC and LA docs told not to test patients unless doing so would alter their treatment (to save the insufficient supply of tests)….”Containment battle is lost, prepare now for onslaught…”

A smart, local bud calmed me down a bit over the phone, reminding me that, if one were to suffer through a worldwide pandemic in the U.S., Massachusetts is one of the best states for social safety nets, and I’d be ok with unemployment and wouldn’t get kicked out of my apartment.

Day #6

Global cases doubled in the last week to over 310,000, death total now stands at 13,000. Hawaii will quarantine any new arrivals for 14 days. It Italy, 793 people died in a single day.

After five days inside, I steeled myself for a grocery run Friday. I brought hand sanitizer (the two-thirds bottle I’d “borrowed” from work, as there is none to be found elsewhere) and leather driving gloves—less for virus protection than as a reminder to NOT TOUCH MY FUCKING FACE. The strangest part of the trip was how busy my town looked. The only sign of crisis: half-stripped shelves at the store.

Shelves once full of frozen vegetables, cheese, pasta, rice, soup, meat, cereal, coffee (luckily my neighbors haven’t discovered the best coffee the store carries, so that was left for me, while they stocked up on shitty Starbucks), bananas, toilet paper, dishwasher pods, and so on. Somehow I got what I wanted, navigated the checkout line with debit card, gloves, a chip/swiper that took five minutes to process my transaction, and a gloveless cashier who looked to be about 16 years old. I stopped at the second, smaller store on the way home. Better stocked, with smartly set limits like two boxes of pasta each visit, to curtail panicked greed.

Drove home, put my groceries away with my gloves, then peeled them off, shed my clothes, and took a shower. I used to be cavalier when it came to hand hygiene during flu season, never really adjusting my behavior. Now it’s different. I keep picturing myself, alone and sick on my couch, fighting for breath, every respirator in the valley taken.

Expecting new restrictions soon, I took Agnes for a hike yesterday to the top of Mount Tom (a short peak only five minutes from my place). There’s a very narrow crevice near the top that required me to carry the chihuahua in one hand and use various rock and tree handholds to scale to the top. Every time I touched something, I thought about its risk for transmission. Stupid? Panicky? I dunno—the basic science isn’t yet understood. It was good to get out, up to a sweet view of the valley, and sit in the sun with my dog while we still can, before stay-in-place orders come down from the governor.

But dozens of others—no doubt equally full of cabin fever—had the same idea, and as morning shifted into afternoon, I began to pass them all on the trail. Sometimes groups of six or ten or more. Each time you pass someone, you think, do they have it?

There’s something here, some obvious parallels and stark contrasts, with the AIDS epidemic, which I mostly experienced second-hand in my early twenties, sheltered at a Sarasota college campus of 600 students, reading about ACT-Up in the library. Difference being, gay men were dying by the thousands in the middle of an unaffected general population, who never gave a shit until a famous basketball star caught it. It’s too soon, I don’t have any perspective, to make any connections. Just to note that this time, it’s coming for straight folks, too.

On the mountain I passed families, college buddies talking about the apartments they’d rent on the Upper West Side, fellow dog walkers, trail runners, bickering couples, and a young man, drenched in cologne, delirious with excitement over glimpsing an eagle, coasting on the wind currents along the edge of the cliff. “Yeah, bro!” He yelled at me, “that’s one from the pocket list!”

Me, holding my breath just a second or two as I passed each of them, wishing I’d picked an even more distant hike, socially-speaking.