Pandemic chronicles: Seizing the opportunity buried in the madness

During this pandemic I have amused myself coloring in black-and-white outlines, like the completed Moroccan design on the clipboard of my cluttered coffee table. Coloring is not a hobby to impress others, but it beats cutting out paper dolls.

ALBUQUERQUE, NM–At times during this pandemic I feel like I am on silent retreat, given a chance to live more deeply with fewer distractions. Other times it feels like I’m serving a sentence for a crime I can’t recall.

I find it impossible to go more than a few minutes without thinking about the pandemic, especially the criminal absence of national leadership, which has compromised many sound, rational state and local efforts to contain Covid-19 and has allowed the virus to flourish, ensuring that our quarantines will continue. Of course, this experience cannot be understood apart from the rash of street protests against racist police violence triggered by killing of George Floyd, the battered economy, and the determination of Pres. Trump to create an authoritarian state unlike anything envisioned by the U.S. Constitution.

I used to do both silent and guided retreats, often at monasteries, before I left Catholicism for the second and last time. Once I got beyond my habituated thoughts, stripped of everyday conventions and the machinations of ego—a process that generally took about 48 hours—I was able to reach an awareness that allowed me focus on the essentials. It wasn’t always comfortable, but it was invariably time well spent. The pandemic allowed with that opportunity.  I had already decided to take the summer off from teaching, but the social restrictions created by the virus killed my travels plans. Perhaps I could make the best of this time at home, I thought.

I figured that conforming to the stay-at-home order would be relatively easy. I told myself I could adjust to being unable to travel, see a movie in a theater, visit a museum, hear live music, eat out, or gather with friends. After all, I was lucky to be among those who didn’t have to return to a potentially dangerous job. Early in the pandemic, I had hoped I might be able visit my family in central New York and venture into the Adirondacks by the end of the summer, but that became unwise and damn near impossible because the number of coronavirus cases and public restrictions failed to taper off. (Lest we forget, no one deserves more credit for this failure than the president.)

My social life has been limited to a few hikes with a small group of friends spaced well apart on the trails and a few mask-to-mask visits with one friend at a time. I spend a great deal of time puttering in my yard, reading, getting in a bike ride most mornings, and watching the occasional online video. I rediscovered an adult coloring book I bought a couple of years ago, ordered another and a fresh supply of colored pencils and pens, and can easily amuse myself coloring in black-and-white outlines. And I spend more time than ever talking with friends over the telephone.

One of my recent “therapeutic calls” was with Gary, who now lives with his wife and their two pugs in Florida. We went to college together, were active in anti-Vietnam War movement, and recently reconnected after more than four decades without contact. Gary and I remain political junkies and we share some health vulnerabilities. Catching up for us involves sharing the challenges of social isolation at a time when the nation’s political economy is convulsing. We are only beginning to gain an appreciation for the damages done to the economy, but got a sobering indicator on July 30 when a federal analysis indicated the national economy contracted at a 32.9% annual rate from April through June, its worst drop on record. The poorest Americans have suffered the most over the last few months, while the richest few have already captured an even greater share of the national wealth. City streets are teeming with people fed up the racist police violence, corporate and non-profit America are scrambling to make amends and get on the right side of history, and the president’s response is to gloss over the systemic injustices,  criminalize instead the people protesting against the injustices, while trying to build a national police force that answers only to him.

No authoritarian regime exists without its own police force. Trump wants his. He wants to direct the response to urban protests without consultation or coordination with local police authorities. He wants to dictate local school policy without mitigating the health hurdles created by the pandemic. He is openly undecided about whether he would accept a re-election defeat in November and has suggested  the suspension of the election on the grounds that mail-in voting could lead to fraudulent and inaccurate results, a claim utterly without foundation.

Trump could lose the election in spite of the Democratic Party and its presumptive candidate, the aging Congressional warhorse and former vice-president. The most spirited and hard-hitting media campaign in support of Joe Biden is not coming from his party, but from dissident Republicans, conservatives and veterans organized in groups like The Lincoln Project and VoteVets. Trump’s sudden vulnerabilities are entirely self-inflicted, like his stunning mishandling of the pandemic. He is stupid, mean-spirited, and self-centered beyond belief. Now he is desperate too.

So, what do we do? Voting alone is insufficient, especially knowing the GOP has successfully worked for decades to restrict voting access, though we agree we will hold our noses and vote for Biden in November. We have both been active in organized labor and social movements and understand their power to create social change. We financially support progressive and radical organizations, and while our participation in public demonstrations has been curtailed by pandemic-related health concerns, we have seen how street protests in recent months have galvanized a sea change in public attitudes about racial justice and police conduct. We are also well aware that many militant right-wingers are armed to the teeth, eager for a fight, and regularly encouraged by Trump, who uses them for his personal gain, just as he has everyone else who has served in his administration. And yet we both feel impotent in the face of growing authoritarianism.

From past retreats, I know part of the descent into one’s interior requires a sober recognition of personal strengths and weaknesses. It also acknowledges the material context in which we live, which includes aspects we had no hand in creating, like these wearisome social restrictions. Down there I also come face to face with the responsibilities of my own agency. In other words, my task is to suck it up and do what I can, even something small, whenever I can.

‘Burque rally demands justice for victims of police violence

June 27, 2020 1 comment

ALBUQUERQUE, NM–One speaker after another attacked the national epidemic of police brutality, including the recent killings of Orlando Abeyta and Valente Acosta-Bustillos by Albuquerque Police Department officers, at a rally organized by the Party for Socialism & Liberation in front of the APD headquarters Thursday evening.

The initial news about a crime is usually based on the reports filed by responding officers, a vital but limited account, which focuses largely on what happened after police arrived on the scene.  A longer-lasting incident might allow a reporter the chance to reach the scene to interview witnesses or relatives to supplement the officer’s account. If the incident warrants follow-up coverage, more relevant information, like personal histories, gets incorporated in the news story.

Many crimes go unreported, many other crimes become a news headline once and receive no follow-up attention, and only a few get continued coverage. In most cases, what gets widely remembered is typically what was first reported, the bare-bones police account.

The incident that led to death of Acosta-Bustillos, 52, on March 30 began as a request for a “welfare check” from his daughter because he hadn’t shown up to work for a few days, reported the Albuquerque Journal. The APD officers who responded discovered that Acosta-Bustillos had an outstanding felony warrant and the encounter escalated into confrontation in which he was shot and killed by the police. Acosta-Bustillos had a history of mental health problems.

Orlando Abeyta 28, was spotted by APD gang unit officers on Jan. 6 threatening people at bus stop on East Central Avenue with what appeared to be a handgun, according to the Journal. Abeyta was shot and killed by APD officers, who discovered his weapon to be a BB gun.

The rally Thursday on the shadeless street in from the APD building involved more than a hundred persons, mostly young people from diverse backgrounds. Virtually everyone wore protective face masks. Many were members or allies of PSL, a national Marxist-Leninist party, which is well organized, eager to lead, and shows up to demonstrations on time with signs and literature, often to the irritation of other activist groups in the community.

After the rally, demonstrators marched through downtown and by the home of Acosta-Bustillos, where they met with members of his family.

Malignant Trumpism, not social isolation stokes my pandemic anxiety

June 23, 2020 1 comment
View though door portal on abandoned building on island off the coast of Dubrovnik, Croatia, in 2011

Being a homebody by temperament, I figured I could weather the social isolation of the pandemic pretty easily, but when weeks rolled into months, I became aware that a persistent anxiety was gnawing on me. I don’t require much social interaction, that’s no secret, but I need some and I wasn’t getting it, and dread was the result. That seemed reasonable, logical.

It is not true, though. I recently realized my unease is not because of the social isolation, but rather a response to the pandemic’s socioeconomic impacts, particularly for the people who were already struggling, the ways in which Pres. Trump bungled  and then effectively abandoned a clear national response, the political course Trump is charting that could effectively end the battered U.S. constitutional democracy, the escalation of right-wing violence opposed to the widespread demonstrations for racial justice ignited by the horrific killing of George Floyd. Anxiety, anger, and depression, any or all of them, are completely understandable personal responses to the last three to four months.

I work part-time, consider myself semi-retired, and expect to return to the online classroom in the fall, but many people have no job to return to now or in the near future. Thousands of employed essential workers put themselves at risk every day they show up at their workplace. A full economic recovery which means returning to an economy marked by a level of economic inequality not seen in this nation for a hundred years. A full recovery is hard to imagine.

Trump conducted near-daily briefings on the national strategy to combat the pandemic as long they produced favorable viewer ratings. (Who will ever forget his jaw-dropping performance on April 23 when he suggested the injection of disinfectants and bringing “ultraviolet or just very powerful light…inside the body” as possible treatments for the virus?) When ratings fell and he could no longer tolerate the press corps’ questions, he abandoned the briefings and ramped up the call to roll back the social restrictions and reopen the nation’s workplaces.

The purported strength of the economy before the pandemic was to be record of success that Trump would campaign on for a second term in office.  That was being lost.  The second blow to his re-election bid was his response to wave after wave of demonstrations for racial justice after Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police in broad daylight while being recorded by stunned onlookers. A week later, Trump appeared, waving a bible, in front of a church in downtown Washington, D.C, to reiterate his claim that the demonstrations, not the epidemic of police violence against racial minorities, was the real problem. Days later, when a government report suggested that the national unemployment rate had fallen from 14.7 percent to 13.3 percent, Trump crowed, “Hopefully, George (Floyd) is looking down right now and saying this is a great thing that’s happening for our country. This is a great day for him… This is a great, great day in terms of equality.”

Meanwhile, after four years of openly encouraging police and his supporters to get tougher on protesters, he got what he asked for: an explosion of police violence against protesters, sometimes in violation of local departmental policy, and the appearance of armed right-wing militia and unaffiliated vigilantes at the demonstrations. The vigilantes say they show up to protect private property from destruction. Demonstrators say the vigilantes are there to intimidate and harass them and often appear to operate in cahoots with local police.

If Trump, the archetypical narcissist, accepts that he can’t win re-election, I believe he will employ extra-constitutional means—a coup by any other name–to remain in office. Last Saturday, at his first mass campaign rally since the pandemic, Trump drew only 6,200 people to a venue in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with a capacity of 19,000, according to local fire marshals. The president was reportedly furious and the disappointing turnout could easily add fuel to an attempted coup.

Why wouldn’t these frightening developments produce anxiety for anyone paying attention?

There is also much reason for optimism for anyone paying attention. The size, scale, diversity, and duration of these demonstrations are unprecedented and they are working, writes sociologist Douglas McAdam. Many governments at every level claim to a willingness to substantively reform their police departments. In Albuquerque, for instance, a hotbed of police violence for decades, Mayor Tim Keller has proposed a new city program in which social workers or behavioral health specialists, instead of cops, would respond to certain 911 calls involving people with known mental health problems, incidents of domestic violence, and other situations that beg for skillful, coercion-free intervention. Corporations, professional sports leagues, and other organizations large and small have promised to review and change policies that discriminate against minorities.

However, what is pledged and what is ultimately delivered are often vastly different, so the future is uncertain. The recent momentum for racial justice could lead to lasting systemic changes, or it could be met by an even greater backlash with even more pervasive civil violence. And looming in the background is our megalomaniac president, who appears determined to remain in office by any means necessary.  

Quarantine sharpens observations of neighborhood

Downtown Albuquerque before the pandemic.

Following New Mexico’s social distancing guidelines and spending so much time at alone home has meant I am paying more attention to my immediate environment, which is centered around my home at the end of a short cul de sac in Albuquerque’s near North Valley.

The greater neighborhood is largely working class, 60 percent Hispanic, about 36 percent non-Hispanic white,  and less than 2 percent of both Black and Asian.1 There is a core of long-time residents, but there are typically several homes for sale or rent nearby, so it’s also a place to find a “starter home” for people expecting to re-sell them in a few years en route to a bigger house in a more affluent neighborhood.

I mostly drive or bicycle through the neighborhood; less often I walk. The governor’s stay-at-home directive has enhanced the importance of a bike ride done five or six days of every week. Each of my route alternatives involves cutting through the neighborhood to reach a dirt trail or a paved pedestrian trail that takes me through undeveloped land along the Rio Grande. Cycling to the river corridor recently I encountered the man who created my first ethnographic snapshot of the neighborhood.

Snapshot 1: Go home, gringo  

I’ve seen this guy before selling paintings, his own I think, mostly local and regional landscapes, off his front porch, which is only a few dangerous feet from the road where traffic is brisk in early mornings like this one. We had exchanged some silent gestures a time or two before when I bicycled by him.

There were no paintings on the table this morning, just him, with an electronic device in front of his face. His eyes were big circles, his gaze jumped from the device to my eyes and back while he shouted “Fuck you! Go home gringo! Fuck you, go home gringo!”

What was that about? I couldn’t recall a similar encounter in more than 25 years of living here, so I mulled it over for the next five or 10 minutes of my ride before I filed it under “significance undetermined.”

The next morning, I again saw him: “Fuck you, gringo, home!”

“Go fuck yourself,” I answered. My first reaction when anger is directed at me, for better or worse, is to respond in kind. But what was he reacting to? My skin color? My face mask? Both and a lot more?  Maybe the social pressures associated with the pandemic are fueling pre-existing racial and ethnic tensions. Or maybe he is just an asshole and I am his target of the moment.

On the third morning, I took another route to avoid passing by him. A good idea, a mature choice I told myself, though I couldn’t resist swinging by his house on my return. Maybe by coming from the opposite direction, I could sneak up on him with a loud “Good morning, asshole! ”

Before I could do that, I noticed a police vehicle in from of his home with its warning lights flashing. I cycled by.

Several days after last encountering Ol’ Crabby, as I had dubbed him, I stopped on my ride to briefly visit with Sonny D., a retired Marine vet, who casts a vigilant eye on the drug addicts sustained by theft and other scofflaws in the neighborhood. During Lent, he was going to a nearby Catholic Church the other side of Crabby’s house each morning to say the Stations of the Cross. I told hm about my experience and location of the house.

“Oh yeah, he talks to himself, at least he does the times I walked by while he was sitting outside,” Sonny said.

His explanation provided some consolation that the vitriol hurled at me probably wasn’t personal, but more likely borne of some anguish that I am unlikely to ever understand.

Snapshot 2: Mutual aid

The older Chicano with long white hair and a beard rides his bicycle, an old fat-tired cruiser, while towing a small wire-frame trailer with either groceries or what appears to be hand tools. His pedal rotation and forward movement are so slow that I expect him to topple to the asphalt at any moment, but he somehow maintains his sense of balance, a skill that I imagine was honed by decades in the bike saddle. Like now, I often see him navigating the vehicular traffic near the busy corner of Griegos and Fourth, where a grocery and pharmacy are located, or a few blocks to the east near the railroad tracks.

I think he lives somewhere close to the tracks and I also believe he was one of a group of other older men who built a stucco wall in front of a house in that same area just before the pandemic ended my face-to-face classes and the quarantine started. It’s an attractive wall, I think when I drive by it, not straight but built with a graceful curve, tall, and set back several feet on the lot, creating an attractive visual and sound barrier between the older stucco home and the well-trafficked east-west road.

A commercial outfit probably would have taken a few days to build the wall from scratch, but it took this crew, sometime as many as five or six at a time, more than a month to dig and build the footer, lay the concrete blocks, chicken wire the wall’s surface, and then stucco it and apply the earthy finish coat. Their infrequent work days also appeared also to be social gatherings of longtime friends that were casually paced, lubricated by beer and conversation. Having some idea how the wall was built makes it even better looking, I thought, as I drove across the railroad tracks.

  1. Statistical Atlas, “Race and Ethnicity in Tract 003201, Bernalillo County, New Mexico” https://statisticalatlas.com/tract/New-Mexico/Bernalillo-County/003201/Race-and-Ethnicity. Accessed 16 June 2020

Trump’s bungling and cold indifference reveal his fascist vision

June 13, 2020 1 comment
Trump-shaped balloon stamped with the sentiments of some attending an immigrant rights rally in Albuquerque’s Tiguex Park in September 2019.

The march from battered constitutional democracy to fascist authoritarianism in the United States is under way. Historians in the future will argue when the tipping point was reached, but the outline of a calculated takeover became apparent for me the evening of June 1 when local and federal law enforcement officers used tear gas, flash grenades and rubber bullets against peaceful protesters to clear a path from the White House through downtown Washington, D.C. so Trump could pose with a Bible in front of a historic St. John’s Episcopal Church. There the president reiterated the declaration he made minutes earlier that he would direct federal troops to neutralize the protests against police killings of Black and minority Americans that were occurring in cities across the nation. The crisis, as Trump saw it, was the protests, not the long history of racist police violence that generated the demonstrations. His solution was militarized order, not justice.

Trump would be happy to gain a second term through the ballot box, a process greased by decades of legal maneuvering by the GOP to effectively restrict voting to white Americans, but his boorish mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic and cold indifference to an epidemic of racist police violence has opened the door to the chance he could be defeated, even in a rigged system and by an opponent who inspires almost no one.

The pursuit of his personal interests, financial and psychological, are Trump’s only motivations. He is not concerned with the Constitution, fair play, or the American people. If he can gain a second term through a heavily engineered vote, that’s fine. If Trump thinks he cannot win a re-election, he will attempt to stay in power by unconstitutional means, e.g., canceling the elections, declaring martial law, or in other words, a coup.

If that occurs, the government he has molded will be transformed into a bona fide fascist state. Because fascism is a term often used too loosely by actors from both the political left and the right, I defer to the definition provided by Andrew Heywood, the British author of several political science textbooks, including Political Ideologies (2017), to describe how Trump’s first term has changed U.S. government and to imagine the near future if Trump attempts to stay in power through unconstitutional means. At the core of fascist ideology, say to Heywood, are five themes: anti-rationalism, struggle, leadership and elitism, collectivism and ultranationalism.

Anti-rationalism: Human reason is limited, so emphasis under fascism is instead placed on emotions, powerful beliefs, and human will. Trump’s anti-rationalism is evident in his disdain for science, whether it concerns the pandemic or climate change. His appeal to many followers is generated by his manipulation of fear and the emotional content of his utterances, many of which have no logical coherency.

Under the sway of anti-rationalism, a powerful nation requires moral and cultural unity. Individual freedom in fascist state is achieved only by blind submission to national goals, which Trump alone would determine.

Struggle: Fascists hold that Individual and social struggle, including war, is natural and inevitable. “War is to men what maternity is to women” as the late Italian dictator Benito Mussolini once said. Despite his pampered background and multiple medical deferments, which allowed him to avoid being drafted during the Vietnam War, Trump fancies himself as a political strongman. He fawns before other strongmen, like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, and even North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un. Weakness is despicable and “weak” is a term Trump has often used to denigrate his opponents.

Leadership and elitism: In practice, Trump has contempt for democracy. He is deeply elitist, proudly patriarchal and believes that he should possess unrivaled authority as the supreme leader of the country and is due unquestioned obedience. Despite his love for large rallies, which feeds his monumental narcissism, he believes, like other fascist leaders, that the masses are largely inconsequential and are destined to follow him. Trump believes that he alone can (and should) determine destiny of the nation.

Collectivism: This theme is somewhat complicated under the Trump presidency. He openly pushes a collective identity (and the allegiance it demands) that is tied to nation, i.e., “economic nationalism” or capitalist economics subordinated to national interests as he defines them. His appeal to a white racial identity is less openly stated, though it is nakedly apparent in his contempt for non-white immigrants and asylum-seekers, Muslims, or people from “shithole countries.” He shamelessly panders to conservative Christians, even though his personal and public behavior is antithetical to any notion of Christian humility and restraint. Despite his populist rhetoric, he opposes a collective identity based on social class with one exception: the wealthy elite, to which he belongs, and its agenda for less taxes and more public benefits.

Ultranationalism: Fascists do not believe the “races” and nations of the world are equal. National greatness is achieved by geopolitical domination and justified by appeals to national exceptionalism (i.e., we are not like them) that invoke a mythic and vaguely defined past, like that embodied in his 2016 campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.” In the worldview of fascist leaders, loyalty to the nation is measured by solely by personal loyalty to the leader.

The future is up for grabs, but the pandemic and the protests have revealed Trump’s hand and there can be no illusion about the threat his rule poses to the country. On the other hand, the scale and sweep of national and global protests against racist police violence ignited by George Floyd’s killing and the speed with which government and corporate policy is responding is without precedent in recent U.S. history. Robin D.G. Kelley, in a recent interview, says much of the credit for the progressive response to the crises is the result of decades of grassroots organizing for racial justice. Activism can’t always determine the future, but organizing prepares activists and the communities they represent to seize and effectively respond to unforeseen moments of historic magnitude. The battles lines are drawn and the stakes are high. Preparation, organization and solidarity are essential.

Tensions roil beneath the relative quiet of the pandemic

ALBUQUERQUE, NM–The traffic in my area the city has been reduced by at least 50 percent and the road noise that drifts to my house has diminished and changed significantly since the pandemic arrived in New Mexico some two months ago. The volume of noise has fallen and there’s less of an undifferentiated drone, making It easier to pick up an individual vehicle, a whining motorcycle, a rapidly accelerating diesel truck, an exchange of honking horns, or police and emergency sirens, sometimes in long waves that reveal direction and speed.

Early in the pandemic, there seemed to be more helicopters in the air, perhaps because law enforcement and the local news media wanted a traffic assessment of the effectiveness of the new stay-at-home directive. Commercial air traffic in and out of Albuquerque has taken a beating as it has in most U.S cities and military air traffic from Kirtland Air Force Base, which shares a border with the city, also appears to have fallen.

Unchanged, however, is the near constant barking in which my neighborhood is immersed. Dogs are as likely to be a home security measure as a companion in my neighborhood, and a household with a single dog is rare, which means multiple dogs are howling at almost any time of day or night, now especially because warmer weather means some dogs are outside all the time. My last dog died more than a decade ago and I consider myself a friend and ally of the dogs of the world. Nonetheless, it has taken me the better part of 25 years to reach a largely peaceful co-existence with this shifting cast of nameless but vocal dogs and their “owners.” I no longer plot traceless poisonings, or picking them off, one yip at a time, with a pair of pearl-handled six-guns fired from the hip. Ah, but I digress.

Earlier this week I stopped to pick up a few groceries on the way home from a periodontal appointment. It was a questionable act because nothing I purchased was vital. I waited in a line for about seven or eight minutes before being admitted. At any given time, the number of customers can’t exceed 20 percent of the grocery store’s maximum capacity for fire safety reasons. In back of me in line was a young mother with a young boy, maybe a first-grader, and a baby in a basket. None of them had protective facial covering and boy was finding social distancing hard. The mother didn’t seem surprised by the wait to get into the store and quietly admonished her son to keep his distance from others in line, so she seemed aware of the new realities of life under the threat of a pandemic.

Effective today, all New Mexico residents will be required to wear face masks in public and many businesses and churches will be able to reopen though with some significant restrictions by the order of Gov. Lujan Grisham. I have no quarrel with the changes, though I am confident the mask requirement will produce a shit storm of vocal opposition in some quarters.

The face mask has quickly become a potent and partisan cultural symbol. Politico recently published an article with the headline “Wearing a mask is for smug liberals. Refusing to is for reckless Republicans.” You get the drift. Face mask use is ostensibly a means to reduce the spread of this virus, but the decision whether to wear one or not has also been manipulated by partisan groups to represent a choice between two oppositional sets of political values.

A security guard and father of nine was shot and killed May 1 after he told a female shopper at a Family Dollar store in Flint Michigan, that she was required to wear a mask. The women’s husband and son returned some 20 minutes later, according to published reports, complaining that the guard had been “disrespecting” the woman and the son allegedly shot the guard in the head.

A few days later, a woman who was denied sit-down service at a McDonald’s in Oklahoma City because the dining room was closed as a precautionary measure to prevent the spread of coronavirus returned to restaurant with a handgun after an altercation with employees and fired three rounds at employees, injuring three of them, according to a local TV news report.

Persons opposed to the extension of the shut down in Michigan imposed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gathered outside the Capitol building Thursday in Lansing, Michigan. Some were heavily armed just as they were in earlier protests of Michigan’s stay-at-home order, which gained the protesters the public support of Pres. Trump. The day before the latest demonstration local and national news media reported  that some of the would-be protesters had used social media outlets, like Facebook, to post threats against lives of the governor and other lawmakers for extending the restrictions. Despite documented threats to kill public officials, no one was arrested or charged.

Yet they could have been. “The Albuquerque man who threatened to kill Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on her Facebook page pleaded guilty in federal court Wednesday to two counts of making threatening communications in interstate commerce,” reported the Albuquerque Journal the same day as the latest protest in Michigan. In one post, Daniel Logan Mock, 34, admitted to writing, “Time to pick up your rifles and kill this governor so we can reestablish the constitution as law of New Mexico.” Mock now faces a maximum prison sentence of five years for each offense, according to the newspaper.

I suspect if the threats in Michigan were coming from the armed groups on the left, not armed stooges of the president, the perpetrators would have been charged, if not behind bars. [Note: Late last week, after this was published, Robert Tesh, 32, was charged on “a terrorism count” after making “credible threats” against Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel, according a western Michigan TV station.]

Aging in absurdity: the pandemic chronicles

Careful observation can reveal some of the recesses in the mind of the observer, methinks. Here, waiting for the start of the march for justice at the Cesar Chavez Day celebration in 2016 in Albuquerque, N.M.

ALBUQUERQUE, NM–I’ve grappled with own aging, I’ve scrutinized a couple of my buddies who are about five years older than me as possible models of my own future–where I might be or could me in another five years. A third friend is the same age as me—we both turned a 69 a few months ago—so he is more a model for me in the present.

The comparisons are useful but have become especially meaningful, sometimes sad and more often funny, especially in hindsight, under the new social pressures and limitations imposed by the covid-19 pandemic..

Dr. Kevin, which was the name he used for himself when we were introduced more than 20 years ago, is largely house-bound because of his physical limitations, notably back problems that prevent him from being on his feet for more than 10 or 15 minutes at a stretch. He is otherwise a very social animal who loves to talk and craves an audience. He channels his social energy into his use of Facebook, where has more than 2,600 “friends” and another 800 followers. By his own admission he spends about eight hours day on Facebook—my guess is that’s a minimum—and comments endlessly and often with great vitriol on the news of the day. He also maintains about three or four other Facebook pages, including one called Alex DeTokeville, which comes in handy when he ends up in Facebook “jail” for a few days, once for a week, for violating the civility standards created by the social media colossus.

On social media, Kevin writes in a pidgin dialect I find annoying and difficult to understand. For example, “I’m going to do something about that” becomes “Imma gonna do sumpin bout dat.” I’ve asked before why he writes this way, and only on social media, and he said it was because it unsettles conventional expectations. That may be true, I thought, though that still doesn’t explain why someone with a Ph.D. would want to write like the village idiot speaks.

Though I am one of his Facebook friends, I block his posts because I can’t tolerate the frequency and harshness of his comments. Ironically, he is otherwise a kind soul, generous perhaps to a fault, and a lover of animals, which is always a plus in my book.

Both he and Derek, my other older buddy, have bloated opinions of their own intellects. Each sees himself as the smartest guy in the room, almost any room anywhere. To my knowledge, they have never been in same room together, but if it happens, I want to be there to see the fireworks. Like Kevin, Derek is greater than his public persona: more kind, more sensitive and more thoughtful.

Dr. Kevin likes to advise me on the books I “should read.” With his memory fading, I have heard the same handful of recommendations, usually in social theory, so many times that I am often able to complete his sentence, “You know what you should read is…” before he does. I thought that might be a deterrent. Silly me.

His endorsements are typically written decades ago and were part of the alternative canon when he was in the netherworld of graduate student, part-time teaching faculty, and a spousal faculty tied to his wife’s rise in academic administration.  He regularly reads news and news analysis online, but he tells me he can longer muster the concentration for anything longer. So, ironically, he who longer reads books is recommending books to someone who is regularly reads them.

Derek is the most sarcastic person I know, though he says I simply misunderstand his sharp sense of irony.  Like Kevin, Derek is retired. Derek reads voraciously, has reviewed film and music, was a jazz DJ, produced jazz events, taught a course on Westerns as a film genre at the University of New Mexico, and is a rapid fan of the NFL and NBA. He is irascible and is usually railing against something or someone at any given moment. He told me once that he had been fired from every job he ever had. I asked if the firings were the consequence of a pattern of his behavior. The pattern, he informed me, was that he was smarter than every boss he ever had and once the boss figured that out, they cut him loose.

Derek’s isolation is increasingly a function of his health, which only recently started to decline, but is more so a consequence of choice and poverty.  His sole source of income is a paltry Social Security pension; he has few other visible assets. His cramped, gloomy apartment living room has a single window that is just a few feet from outdoor stairwell and would give anyone headed upstairs a great view of his digs, except that his blinds are always drawn. I can tolerate the darkness for more than 45 minutes, less on a sunny day.

File under, No good deed goes unpunished. One day in late March, I drove to Derek’s to give him a ride to his bank, the post office and the grocery store. He doesn’t have a car, so he is otherwise limited to what groceries he can carry in a bag or two. By this time, bank and credit union lobbies were all closed as a result of the governor’s stay-at-home order. Derek doesn’t have an ATM card because he doesn’t have a checking account (and never has) so we had to use the drive-through. The only reason he created a savings account a few years ago, he informed me, was to collect his Social Security retirement payments.

All four drive-through lanes had at least two vehicles apiece, and everyone was served by two tellers behind a plate of glass, so we moved slow. I had Derek in the back seat to create some distance between us.

The teller, a 20-something, asked Derek a few questions to verify his identity–his address and then his phone number. But he didn’t want divulge that information, and told her so, making no secret of his irritation. OK, said the teller, who is probably underpaid and clearly overworked at that moment, can you give me the last four digits of your Social Security number?

That’s none of the bank’s business, he growled into the speaker.

Mind you, he has never been through a drive-through before, so he has no idea what the protocols are. And it doesn’t matter what they are, because, as he sees it, they are simply separating him from “his money.”

The teller then politely asked him to sign a request, which came through the pneumatic tube connecting us, so she could compare his signature with one they have on file. Of course, he made another loud stink. Then she asked him to remove his sunglasses and look toward her so she could see his face, and Derek was off to the races.

Derek is a good guy, but my patience for his pissing and moaning on my time was long gone. “If you want your money,” I told him, “answer her fuckin’ questions and do what she says or I’m driving out of here now.” He complied, while grousing about big Government, the surveillance state, yadda, yadda, like the teller or I gave a rat’s ass at that moment.

As we exited the credit union, I leaned over my seat, “OK where to next, boss?”

Daily patterns are hardened under quarantine: I have my most productive hours early in the morning, followed by my favorite activity, a bike ride, after which a familiar anxiety over what I am “going to do” that day builds until early afternoon. That mercifully collapses by mid-afternoon when I accept that whatever I do will be done at home, and the rest of the day and evening unfolds on its own momentum.

One afternoon in mid-April, Dr. Kevin called by phone and eagerly informed me about the new bidet he bought and just attached to his toilet. I assumed it was in a response to the toilet-paper shortage, but he said no. I could tell he was pretty impressed with the new device because could barely utter a coherent description.

“I mean it’s just amazing, Seamus, you wouldn’t believe it. Wow, I’m telling you…”

“Isn’t a bidet supposed to clean your bum as an alternative to toilet paper?” I asked.

“Well, yes,” he stammered, “but it’s also…”

“A, shall we say, sensual experience?”

He gathered himself and quickly moved to the specs. It was made by Joy, a Joy Bidet C2, with the self-cleaning option, he explained.

What the hell does self-cleaning mean, I thought, struggling to change the patter. “How many horsepower does it have?”

A few days later, before heading out for a bike ride, I hung a plastic sack with two large yellow onions on my handlebars. Kevin is reluctant to shop and I said I would get them for him. My intention was to hang the bag on the front door knob of his house to avoid a discussion, only so I could be back in about an hour to resume my end-of-the-semester grading binge.

He apparently saw me before I reached his door.

“I fell and dislocated my shoulder and need you to bring me to the ER,” he said, disembodied by the screen door.  “I know I broke something.”

“Which ER,” I asked.

“I don’t know.  I need to find that out. My (insurance) plan’s urgent care sites are all shut down because of the pandemic and people are being directed to ERs.”

“OK, you figure out the ER and I’ll be back in an hour and I’ll bring you there.”

Kevin insisted on driving his SUV. My sedan was too low to the ground for him to get in and out easily. In between grunts, and explaining to me that he could not get his seat belt on, he asked me the location of the ER.

“I thought you were going to do that?”

“I forgot.”

After dropping him off at the hospital, I drove his SUV to my home. A couple of hours later, I was back at the ER to pick him up. He insisted on driving, even though he had trouble walking the 20 feet from ER to his vehicle and had to stop a couple of times to rest. When he leaned against to vehicle to rest. I stood in front of him in case he toppled. He looked like shit. His flannel pajama bottoms had a half dozen burn holes around his crotch, no doubt created by embers falling from the joints he smokes regularly while opining on Facebook.

“I’ll be OK to drive once I get seated. I broke my humerus, and God it fucking hurts. Where do we go?”

Kevin has lived in Albuquerque for more than 30 years and we were in an old part of town.

“Two lefts, then straight until you reach a T, where you will turn left again.”

X-rays revealed multiple breaks, but nothing was dislocated, he said, so he was sent home with a prescription for some pain medication and instructions to set an appointment the next day with a specialist. I later found out that this was his third fall that resulted in an injury since last October. His latest injury required the insertion of a metal plate to to connect the shattered pieces of his left humerus, the long bone that connects that shoulder to the elbow. Not good.

At the moment, Kevin had other priorities: “I called ________, the guy I buy my weed from, and asked him to roll me 10 joints. I can’t roll with this arm. Ah, Christ, it fucking hurts. Hey, did I tell you about my bidet, the Joy bidet? That thing is amazing.”

“Yeah you did”

“Goddam, this arm hurts. I got to see an orthopedic specialist tomorrow.”

The next morning about 7:30 he called me by phone. “If I can get an appointment for this morning, can you take me?”

“Not this morning. I have a dental appointment at 9:30, but if…”

“Do you know when you’ll be back? You probably won’t be back before noon, so I can ask Pat from across the street. He’ll take me. OK, bye.”

I wondered how many cups of coffee he had before calling me.

Frank, wearing a mask and rubber gloves, brought some weed to me a few weeks ago. He has a medical marijuana card and I don’t. So, as a favor, he will buy a few grams on my behalf when he goes shopping.

He wasn’t sure I was home, so he placed the contraband between the two doors cradled by a paper note that read “I created a tab for you.” I heard him arrive, opened the door, greeted him but didn’t welcome him in because we knew that wasn’t going to happen. He is immune-suppressed as a result of a liver transplant and early in the pandemic his family decided that he especially but also his wife, son and daughter-in-law, and three sons were to observes a strict stay-at-home quarantine. His one exception was to fill his medical marijuana prescription. The dispensaries, which are considered essential service, accepts his order by phone and gives him a pick-up time. He drives there and waits in the parking lot until a dispensary worker in protective gear brings his order to him. As safe as a Walgreen’s drive-through.

The last time I saw him before this visit , the stay-at-home order was already in place, but he came in for chat. We sat well apart, without masks, though I used a disinfectant wipe to treat the door handle and the cash I gave him. I thought we did well, but Frankl was grilled by the missus and chastened for his violation when he got home.

Later in evening after his second visit, drop-off only, Frank sent me an email in which he described our brief exchange as “weird” and “awkward.” Seems like a fair assessment, I responded.

My near-daily exercise routine has become increasingly important under quarantine. I initially dispensed with wearing a mask while cycling, reasoning it was unnecessary because I rode alone, until I read a magazine report on research that suggested that the wind created by passing or drafting other cyclists could carry respiratory droplets for as far as 30 feet. So, I have been wearing a mask while cycling for about the last two weeks. It also protects against the inhalation of midges, tiny flies, which travel in dense swarms along the Rio Grande corridor this time of year.  A few days while cycling I came upon on runner who had stopped along the paved trail we shared. I said good morning as I passed. Her response was, “Your body still needs fresh air breathed into your lungs.” Was there something in my body language that suggested I wanted her opinion? Was the air I was inhaling through my fabric mask any less “fresh” than hers? What, I thought, motivates someone to offer unsolicited advice to a stranger?

My experience is that the public has been largely well behaved during the pandemic and that essential workers are willing to go out of their way to be helpful. Not everyone can say the same. A recent TV news report told about a man, who was shopping without a mask, and was approached by a woman wearing one.  She pulled her mask down and coughed into his face, he said, while muttering, “I’m sick and tired of people not wearing masks in the store.”

The stresses of a quarantine ratchet up pre-existing anxieties, I suppose, but I’d welcome a face-off between the spitting vigilante and my self-appointed health advisor.

To be continued….