I’m feeling a bit unmoored tonight, adrift among the uncertainties of modern life. Hopefully, some egotistical rich person with no cares for the little people will not come roaring by and swamp my small craft in his wake. If the events of this past weekend with the Lake Travis flotilla were not the perfect metaphor for our current sociopolitical ‘greed is good’ vulture capitalism, I don’t know what else could be. I should be careful about such idle wishes; these days anything outlandish is usually topped within the week. It’s one of the reasons why I am finding it so much more difficult to write political satire than I have in the past. How can I possibly top reality?
As I dig into this entry in the Accidental Plague Diaries, of which there have been somewhere between fifty and sixty entries since I started writing them six months ago, we’re about to hit another milestone: 200,000 US deaths. The toll around here is lighter. About 2,500 deaths in Alabama, 17,000 cases in the county, and 125,000 cases in the state but we’re a small, mostly small town/rural state. Pretty much everyday I hear about a case affecting someone of my acquaintance. They are sick, a family member is sick, a good friend is deathly ill. I’ve lost a few friends, others are recovering. My experience is probably pretty typical.
I was as naive as most of the rest of us back in February and early March, trusting that the structures of the federal government and the world renowned institutions such as the CDC would swing into action. That we would get regular informed updates backed up by data synthesized by brilliant minds and that government agencies at all levels would start working together to make sure the pandemic would be contained before it could become a serious problem. As the spring advanced and it became abundantly clear that our significantly dysfunctional government either would not or could not do anything of the kind, I retreated into a shell made up partly of disbelief, partly of morbid humor, and partly of focus on the very real problems that had to be solved quickly to make the health systems to which I owe responsibility responsive to the needs of patients in an unusual time.
The news that’s been breaking over the last day or so of the absolute proof of incompetence and malignancy at the highest levels of governance in response to the emerging pandemic, which has more or less been sat upon and kept under wraps for the purposes of journalistic profit through book contracts and media appearances, is making me by turns furiously angry and incredibly sad. Angry at the fact that people with the means to get information out that could potentially sway public opinion and action, chose their personal profit over public good and sad that the system we live under has become so corrupt that hundreds of thousands of people will end up giving their lives so that a very few can continue to pretend that the world isn’t changing around them.
I’ve always been more of an incrementalist by nature when it comes to change. When I started reading philosophy and sociology in high school, I was most attracted to the Fabian socialists of the late 19th and early 20th century who believed in a slow, natural evolution to a more just society. I’m starting to think I’ve been wrong for most of the last few decades and that maybe it is time to pull a whole lot of rotted structures down completely and begin again. It’s become a lot easier for me to see how the Jacobins and Trotskyites of the world were able to move forward as quickly and decisively as they did at their particular historical moments. I think we’re racing towards a similar inflection point and it’s going to be here faster than any of us can believe. Steve, who was very much a child of the 60s and described himself as a communist when he was asked what his political philosophy was, would have been very much in his element if he were here today. I think Tommy was seeing where we were headed fairly clearly before his death and was planning on coping with it by ignoring it and throwing himself into his work.
And that’s what I am likely to be doing as well – there are patients to care for, systems of health care that remain imperfect to which I can contribute a few innovative ideas. I have people to mentor, theater groups to support through a very tough time, friends to counsel. I’m not able to fix the problems of the country, much less the world, I can only, like Voltaire writes, cultivate my garden without regret for yesterday or hope for tomorrow. I don’t like that sentiment. I’m a big believer in hope. The idea that things will get better is what motivates me to get up in the morning and throw myself back into the fray.
A relatively morbid story from my past has been running through my head the last few days. I have no idea why it’s popped up but it’s not going away and that usually means something. It took place in the fall of 1988, about six months after I had moved from Seattle to Sacramento for my residency. I was at a bit of a low point. Internship is hard. I was trying to deal with my sexuality and had not yet come out. I was in the midst of a disastrous off again on again relationship that was deteriorating. (I met Steve about three months after this and started to put my life back together then.) I was driving home to my apartment in midtown Sacramento after a long on call shift at the Kaiser hospital in the North part of town. As I turned up F street from 12th, I ran into a huge phalanx of police cars, lights flashing blocking the traffic. I detoured around wondering what in the heck was going on but was too tired to do anything but go home and drop into bed. In the next morning’s paper, the headline read multiple bodies found buried in the backyard of a boarding house at 15th and F streets. (I lived at 16th and H so it was only a couple of blocks away). Eventually it all came out that Dorothea Puente, who operated a boarding house at the address, had been murdering her tenants, burying them in the back yard and cashing their social security checks for years. It’s not often that you live a few blocks away from a little old lady serial killer and she was the talk of the town for the next few months. Steve bought a T-shirt with a cartoon of her in her trademark red coat holding a shovel standing in front of the house with the legend ‘Sacramento: I Dig It’ on it. He had it for years and loved wearing it on out of town vacations. I may still have it buried in a box somewhere.
Why is that one floating to the surface? Is the connection death? Is it the duplicity of the monster hidden behind a benign surface? Is it fear of aging into being a vulnerable elder? Am I getting some sort of weird vibe from one of my new neighbors? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll figure it out, maybe I won’t. In the meantime, it’s time for a nightcap, Netflix and bed.