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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 #20

Worldwide cases stand at 1,289,000. As I write this, US deaths passed 10,000. In New York City, 653 people died on Saturday. In the next town over from me, 23 veterans died at the Holyoke Soldiers Home.

Since widespread testing is still out of reach, some of these numbers should be treated with suspicion.

The CDC, after fighting Trump’s team for days (weeks?), recommended that US citizens wear homemade masks (since even nurses can’t get surgical masks now) when going outside. On TV, he said, “You can wear them if you want. I’m not going to do it.” Later that night, someone in my Facebook feed posted a link to this quote with the caption, “Fingers crossed.”

Yesterday, he again touted an experimental drug that no doctor on the planet will publicly endorse. A few weeks ago, a Phoenix couple found a version of the chemical in a bottle of fish medicine they had at home and did a little self-treatment. The man died, the wife ended up in the hospital. “I saw it sitting on the back shelf and thought, ‘Hey, isn’t that the stuff they’re talking about on TV?'” she said.

I’m not saying the full load of idiocy here rests on one man’s shoulders.

At the end of ten hours churning copy on my couch, my mind grows sluggish, good soil for bad thoughts. When the weather’s fine, I hike in the patch of woods near my place, where I can avoid the locals. Sitting beside the pond, listening to the spring frogs and watching the herons fish—it all pulls my sanity back from the swirling drain, but I still feel vaguely ashamed. Adhering to the strictest social distancing requirements (such as “never go outside”), posting about it on social media, and shaming others for breaking these shifting rules is the new “woke.” For the first time since moving here, I’m grateful that I’m not in a bigger city. I’ll suck in the woods’ serenity as long as I can.

This week should be awful for the nation, death-wise. “This will be our Pearl Harbor,” some health official said. Others quickly trounced that analogy. The country has yet to cohere around reality. The last five states without a stay-in-place restriction are all run by Republican governors.

Someone sent me a link to a YouTube compilation of a bunch of “citizen journalists” descending upon their local emergency rooms with video cameras to show their compatriots that there’s no COVID-19 crisis in their podunk towns. The level of…oh, never mind, I won’t waste your time. I wasted plenty, fuming.

Yesterday I turned 49. Hopefully, if I survive all this (of course I’ll survive this, don’t be melodramatic, right?) I can look back with bittersweet nostalgia: my quarantine birthday. What’s weird and sometimes hard about this pandemic lock-down is that it mirrors the dark, solitary, locked-down place I endured for several years. I feel like I only just now clawed my way free. Home, alone, nearly 22 hours a day, with no gym, meetings, or in-person human contact. The future dim at best.

Back then, trying to describe what it felt like to be battling old demons who wore new skins, roiled by constant, generalized, free-floating terror, hiding from the world in my back bunker of a spare bedroom, I’d resort to the metaphor of an astronaut on a cut tether, spinning away through the yawning vacuum of deep, black space. The utter lonesomeness killed me. How easily I spun out of the reach of others, and for how long I hung out there, my tank depleting, blind to all horizons.

This is different. For the first time in my life, the whole world is sharing one experience, hunkered down at home (though stay-at-home is a privilege unavailable to many). Instead of spinning off alone, out of reach of a bustling, functioning earth full of human connection, I’m now just one of millions of folks enduring life in a bunker. I think of how gay men must have felt in the AIDS epidemic, drifting through their own collective dark space—and lovers dropping one by one—while surrounded by a silent, aloof, unaffected world.

But anyone can get this thing. And while HIV is mostly passed through fucks or needles, COVID-19 can pass through the most fleeting of human encounters. “Is this fuck worth death?” I wrote in my last post. A friend told me he had the same thought once, pausing outside a bathhouse in the late 80s. Now, it’s more like, is this carton of milk, this delivery pizza, this brisk walk through a park worth it?

Disconnection is the modern condition. Digital isolation. An epidemic of loneliness. All of this diagnosed long before COVID-19 came and chased us away from what few connections we sustained.

I made a calculated risk and invited one man into my bunker. We grabbed each other and held on like we hadn’t been touched in years. In our hours together, naked and unclothed, I thought, “This is worth it.”

I’m a year shy of 50. My life doesn’t look like I thought it would, back when I was 25, 35, even 45. I have different friends, no partner. I haven’t gathered the external markers of success I thought I should have by now. I’m trying to shake my head, clear my mind of the veils of lives I should have lived. I want to see the life I have. The real one. Willing to fight for a bit of joy, if that’s what I’m meant to have.

Maybe I’m a late bloomer, some geezer slowly coming into his own. Uncertain about a future that’s never looked less sure. Seeing beauty around me, still. Every night, New Yorkers stand at their windows and cheer the first responders, health care workers, delivery drivers and grocery clerks going to work while the rest of us are locked at home. An ovation audible in the streets, a thin path forward through the fog.

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.