Thursday, April 30, 2020

The American Empire's Point of No Return

COVID is the British gunboat blasting America's junk fleet to pieces

For about twenty years now I have been saying that America has entered its Brezhnev period. The thing is, Brezhnev was in power for eighteen years. We are well past the Brezhnev years now.

Back in 2016 I felt that the election of Trump represented something far worse than the stasis and rot I had witnessed for so long. As I said at the time, we were all headed into the fire. Some of us would get burned, some would be consumed, none would be the same. And so, almost four years later, a pandemic is raging through the country enabled by incompetence and malice. I live near the epicenter, but because I live in a "Democrat state" the lives of my family and neighbors are not worth saving. There are armed mobs descending on state capitols, as in Michigan today. In states where the infection rate is going UP they are sending people back to work.

My day to day existence has become so completely frantic that I haven't had as much time to contemplate what it all means. However, right now I see clearly that the American empire is in its death spiral. Perhaps a Diocletian is on the way to pump in some blood to reanimate the corpse, but maybe that was who Obama was. I used to think that America was headed the way of the UK. In the early 2000s I figured the over-extension of the empire in the GWOT would soon be manifest, and the US would quietly move to the second rank, consoling itself with memories of past glories.

Now it is obvious that the United States has gone for the hard crash. Our gerontocracy resembles that of the Soviet Union. The president is in his 70s, Joe Biden is even older, and Bernie Sanders, the supposed breath of fresh air, is even older than him! The opposition party is paralyzed and stuck in the past, its leadership aged and incapable of adjusting. The "left" that fancies itself to be the future is also stuck in the past, wedded to the dead ideologies of the 20th century's failed revolutions. All the while the Republican Party is waging an all-out assault on the public sphere. There is no political force capable of stopping them. Even if Biden gets elected, they will not go away. As under Obama, they will use their state governments and the power of the filibuster to prevent any forward progress.

Of course, there's a good chance Trump still gets reelected, considering the fact that Biden is MIA and hasn't addressed the Tara Reade accusations, and that so many on the left want to throw a temper tantrum and undercut him because it's the only political power their failed movement has. If he is elected I do not see any kind of program capable of meeting the challenges of the current crisis or the tactical ruthlessness needed to combat conservatives.

I had once thought there would a slow decline and muddling through, but the coronavirus has been like an out of control ship slamming into a rotting dock. The rate of collapse has been drastically accelerated. We see that this nation's failure to provide health care, its failure to treat its workers with dignity, and its failure to be able to come together in times of crisis is completely toxic.

At this point I just pray for a managed decline, not an outright collapse. It might be fun for some folks to root for the end of the American Empire, but knowing what Russia was like in the 1990s, I take no pleasure in such a possibility. I also wish more people were willing to face up to this reality. Before the first Opium War, China saw itself on the pinnacle of the world. The same goes for the Soviet Union before Chernobyl, Britain before the Suez Crisis, and Napoleon before he invaded Russia.

In the meantime I will just try to put my shoulder to the wheel and to salvage what can be salvaged. That's really the best we can hope for.

Monday, April 27, 2020

COVID Journal For a Cold Spring Day

I haven't done a virus journal in awhile, and that's partly due to this experience having become normalized, and partly because my job is keeping me so busy that I am too mentally exhausted to write about what's happening in my life.

Today is the first day of a new term at school, which has me in a reflective mood. This new term means that I don't have a course overload, so I also have some more time to reflect. The weather today is helping, too. It's one of those damp, unseasonably cold late April-early May days. I have a history of choosing to go to baseball games on days like this, when it's so chilly that I don't really want to have a beer. The air feels heavy and full of spring life despite the cold and damp. It brings with it a feeling of rebirth.

Tonight when I put my kids to bed one of my daughters told me this was all "a present, but also a bad present." My daughters both told me that they are enjoying having more time with their mother and I. My wife and I were talking today about how making meals is not the stress-filled ordeal we have accustomed ourselves to. Some parts of this have not been so bad for me. To be honest, I am not enthusiastic about going back to my old routine.

Obviously I want the disease to end, but in my personal life and in the nation's life I do not want to back to the way things used to be. Normal sucked, I am not interested in resurrecting it. At this stage it seems like I am in the minority here. Some of this is just the plain-old ingrained human impulse to fear the new and treasure the secure. I am sure this is some kind of evolutionary survival mechanism. However, a lot of this can be chalked up to a lack of imagination brought on by living a society where we have grown used to hearing "there is no alternative."

While I wish this crisis would make it clear that we need things like universal health care and public utility internet, I know it likely won't change anyone's minds on these issues. However, I can control what goes on in my personal life. I have a better understanding of what matters, and what doesn't. It has been refreshing not only to have more time with my family, but also to avoid unnecessary bullshit. Going forward I have resolved to waste less of my time and effort on things that don't merit them. I'm also going to finally get that tattoo and go to more rock shows. Life is short. At this point I have more yesterdays than tomorrows. Time to start living like I actually know that.

Friday, April 24, 2020

My iPod of Hope and Dreams

Today's one of those quarantine days when I came a little untethered. I didn't have a regular school day, this was a day for writing reports for my classes. This meant it was easier to get distracted by the news during the course of my day. These days looking at the news just makes me anxious, angry, and depressed. I've come to realize that there's just no plan here, even by the best informed, most well-meaning leaders. I wonder if I will even be starting classes in person come fall.

So when I was in the kitchen making dinner, I decided to bust my iPod and its now anquated player out of mothballs and play music from it while I cooked. I just hit play, and the playlist was one I made at a time when I was teaching myself guitar and thinking about the kind of music I would make if I could. Oh was I naive. My guitar now has as much dust on it as my iPod did.

Both were products of my two year stint in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a very meaningful time in my life. I had moved there after grad school to take a "visiting" professor job. It's when my now wife and I started dating, and she bought me the iPod as a gift. On the back she had it personalized with my name and my newly minted "Dr." title.

It was 30GB, top of the line for 2007. I filled it up with my CDs, as well as CDs I borrowed from the amazing collection at the Grand Rapids public library. My obsessions at the time with cool jazz, alternative hip-hop, and folk music are well-represented on the iPod. Even though I added a lot to it later, it's still an artifact from that transitional time in my life. It's reminder of the hopes and dreams I had as I was hitting my early 30s. Some, like my academic career, ended up in dead ends. Others, like my new relationship with my wife, flowered into something more beautiful than I could have dreamed.

As I have been listening to my iPod tonight I have been hearing some good stuff that takes me back. Here are some of the more notable songs that popped up.

The Jam, "That's Entertainment"

This song captures the ennui of day to day city living like no other. A friend who grew up in the UK when this song came out said it was the perfect summation of Thatcher-era England. In these quarantine days it feels spiritually appropriate.

Glen Hansard, "Trying to Pull Myself Away"

I was really into the Once soundtrack at that time. This song is edgier and angstier than a lot of the other stuff on that album. This breakup song stands in for a lot of other stuff, like when Hansard yells that "I'm caught in a pattern and I can't escape." I played this one a lot when I was having job market angst and despairing of finding a permanent position.

Mark Lanegan and Isobel Campbell, "The Circus Is Leaving Town"

Lanegan and Campbell's Ballad of the Broken Seas was one of my favorite albums of the time and for my money one of the best forgotten records of the 2000s. The moody folk and Lanegan's husky voice were made for having along in cold Michigan winters. Give it a listen.

Son Volt, "Windfall"

When Uncle Tupelo broke up I was firmly in team Son Volt, rather than Wilco. Jay Farrar seemed like the bigger talent, and his band made the better first record. Trace is one I still listen to, even if I have subsequently become a Wilco superfan. This song has so much country soul in it, and it's strange that Farrar never seemed to find it again. May the wind take your troubles away.

Rod Stewart, "Gasoline Alley" 

Those Michigan days coincided with the high point of my obsession with early Rod Stewart and the Faces. I was like a demented preacher, telling everyone that before he sold out that Stewart made several albums of amazing music. I still believe that. This song is about leaving where you're from, growing old, and wishing you could go back there. Let's just say that I am feeling that sentiment pretty hard right now.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Iggy and the Stooges, "Death Trip"

The last couple of days have been some of the heaviest on my soul, since I have the inescapable feeling that the future is about to get a whole lot worse than the present. We are in the midst of a deadly pandemic of the likes I have never seen in my lifetime while the grifter reality TV star president rants and raves about people injecting themselves with Clorox to ward off disease. 

Even as thousands die there are governors declaring their states open for business. They simply do not give a fuck if their constituents live or die as long their rich donors get to keep their third homes. It is so hard for my mind to really assimilate what the hell is going on here. All of the worst tendencies of the this country's recent history have combined into one horrific singularity. The same nation that has ignored the spike in suicides, alcohol-related deaths, and drug overdoses and treats the carnage of gun and highway deaths with indifference was well-prepared to treat the deaths of tens of thousands of people as "no big deal."

At some point I might just embrace the insanity. No music makes me lose myself quite like that of the The Stooges. When I give myself over to their raw, primal noise I feel almost transported out of my body. While Fun House was their best album, some of the tracks on Raw Power are truly brain scrambling. 1973's Raw Power, a pure aural assault, ends with the harrowing "Death Trip." It starts with a brutal guitar riff that can only be described as stabbing.

The song goes on for six minutes of punishing noise, a final primal scream. It's a fitting song for the current moment, where many Americans welcome the death trip. They would rather sacrifice lives to the virus than change their way of living, consequences be damned. If I am going to have to try to live through this I might as well do so with punishing guitar riffs and animalistic Iggy screaming. These days it seems like only the most manic and abrasive music truly makes any sense. 

Saturday, April 18, 2020

How the Conservative Idea of Freedom Explains the "Re-Open America" Protests

Over the last two days there has been a lot of news about right wing protestors trying to pressure state governments to lift quarantine measures. As with the Tea Party, this appears to be stoked by conservative media and various organizations. The numbers of people in the street aren't really that impressive, but that hasn't stopped the media from giving them wall to wall coverage.

It certainly seems surreal for people to be demanding they risk disease and death so they can go to Applebee's again. However, it makes total sense if you understand the conservative idea of freedom in America.

The name of the concept is a reference on my part to The German Idea of Freedom, a venerable intellectual history by Leonard Krieger. The book posits that in the years before Germany became a nation-state in 1871 that "freedom" was defined in ways inconsistent with liberal values of individual rights and democracy. The book suffers from the same problems of a lot of other histories of its time in terms of treating Germany as "other" in European history to explain the rise of Nazism. That said, it does offer a valuable service in showing that there is more than one definition of "freedom" in the modern world and that conceptions of freedom can be quite consistent with authoritarianism.

The culture of American conservatism illustrates this as well. The people descending on state capitols with signs like "Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death"  and "Socialism Distancing" seem to think that the current quarantine measures are a huge violation of their freedoms. It is an important illustration of what these people think freedom is and what it isn't.

This is not freedom in any democratic sense. The same people protesting have no problem with Republicans limiting voting rights They support mass incarceration and limiting reproductive rights. They are fine with immigrant families being separated and children being jailed.

Instead, freedom for them means the freedom to do as they please and not being told what to do, especially by some egghead liberal. It is the freedom to pay your workers peanuts, to pollute as much as you want, to say whatever you want no matter how offensive, and most importantly to buy whatever you want.

This is the low-brow and more widespread version of conservativism stripped of the fripperies and trappings of Austrian School economics. The Tea Party foot soldiers see economic freedom is far less high-flown terms. America's lowest common denominator consumer culture to them represents the end all be all, and having their access denied by rules laid down by public health experts infuriates them. It is a kind of dime store Ayn Randianism, Being forced to make a sacrifice for the good of the collective is completely anathema to them. Sure, you can make a sacrifice if you want, but NEVER against your will. Being free means going to Home Depot whenever the hell you feel like it, pandemic or not.

This has been conservatism's promise to its adherents for four decades now. When Ronald Reagan ran in 1980 he emphasized that Americans did not need to sacrifice anything to defeat the energy crisis. This was a crucial moment, since conservatives had long called for sacrifice in times of crisis. (Just think to the Great Depression and Andrew Mellon and Herbert Hoover.) After 9/11 Dubya told everyone to go shopping, and he never raised taxes to pay for his wars. Buying McDonald's hamburgers in those old styrofoam containers and tossing them out of your car window is FREEDOM baby! The quarantines have taken that freedom away, and that is unacceptable to conservatives.

As poor a thing as this freedom sounds, it cannot be countered without an alternative version. The left needs to make freedom part of its discourse. The freedom of never having to worry about health insurance. The freedom of having low cost child care. The freedom of your boss not having life or death power over your life. The need for this kind of freedom is something most people in this country understand. Now is the time for our society to have, in Abraham Lincoln's words, "a new birth of freedom." Let's make it happen.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

New Piece on Radiohead at Tropics of Meta

I've got a new piece up at Tropics of Meta about Radiohead as prophets of the 21st century. Please check it out and share it. Here's a taste:

"It’s fashionable to think of the period from 11/9/1989 (the fall of the Berlin Wall) to 9/11/2001 as a period of peace and relative tranquility. One history of the period is called A Bubble in Time. After all, there was a growing economy, increased global connection, and the end of the Cold War — aka “The End of History.” Radiohead managed to see in this the vast emptiness and spiritual barrenness of the victory of global capitalism. The promise of the end of the Cold War feels like it was a million years ago now, but Radiohead knew the score already."

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Virus Journal, Holy Week Edition

This week was far less stressful than last week. I have today and tomorrow off from work due to Passover and Good Friday. My wife had the entire week off, which meant during the day I could devote my energy to teaching remotely, instead trying to balance that with child care. I began to feel like I had managed to get on top of my new teaching regimen.

It's still been a lot of work, and that's been good. Today when I didn't have to work and it was too rainy to do yardwork I just started cycling through the news and Twitter and was overcome with an intense sense of dread and fear. It's not just the deaths from the virus, which is killing hundreds here in Jersey every day. I think about the economic collapse, the people losing jobs, and how this will be used to push another horrific austerity regime. I think too of the election in Wisconisn this week, which is a harbinger for future stolen elections this year. And I notice how little to nothing is being done to stop it, as if the rest of us have just accepted the imposition of a conservative authoritarian state with a veneer of democratic participation.

So I had to mostly get away from the news. I donated money to a local food bank, ate some of the amazing sausage we got from the local Polish butcher, read some PG Wodehouse, helped my daughters with their distance learning, and baked a delicious apple pie with them.

I also tried to put myself into the mindframe of Holy Week. Growing up I was an intensely devout Catholic, and this week going to mass several times and having my soul shaken while following the stations of the cross. Even though I have mostly drifted from the Church, I have still kept this week in my heart. (I also still keep Lenten promises.) That's been hard while homebound, but I found the right means through recordings of a convent of nuns in France, who have allowed their daily chants to be streamed. I am listening to them now, and finding them absolutely sublime and calming. As my wife joked, "you can take the boy out of the church, but you can't take the church out of the boy."

When I first read about medieval history at about the age of 9 or 10 I thought being a monk would be really cool. There actually was a monastery in my town that invited in local Catholics for mass once a month, and we often went. Afterward there would be coffee and donuts with the brothers. They were so much more interesting than the parish priests, often more approachable, and seemed almost freed by their rejection of society. As a very devout child who was ostracized at school the idea of living in a place where no one could bother me while I prayed and read all day long sounded pretty great.

Hearing these chants reminds me of who I once was. I have also started to think of my home under quarantine as a strange kind of cloister, a mirror version of the one I sought in my youth. Spending all of this time with my wife and children, despite the tragic context, has been fantastic. I really don't have to talk to anyone I don't want to talk to. I can be with my family, talk to my friends over Zoom, and still "see" my students without having to interact with garden variety jerkoffs. There's a lot of them out there, especially in this part of the country.

This time in the quarantine cloister has been enormously revealing, I think. Each year I do an inventory of my soul during Holy Week, and this year the worry and anxiety over the state of the world is leavened by an overwhelming feeling of peacefulness. I have come to realize that my daily schedule during the school year, with its long an unpredictable commute along with other things that wear down my psyche, is bad for me, and maybe not sustainable. I come home too often in a bad mood, and too exhausted to spend quality time with my daughters. As for all teachers, summer helps me have that time with my family and calm my soul, with each year it seems like I earn less and less of it back.

I get the feeling that a lot of other people during quarantine have been discovering what matters in life, and what doesn't. Fortunately for the bosses, the labor market will be too restricted for their underlings to jump ship and try something else or demand a humane workplace.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Hotel Floors, Truck Stop Parking Lots, Train Stations at 2AM, and Other Mundane Adventures

Most travel is pretty uneventful. Adventure is expensive, and better left to people on reality television anyway. How else to explain the popularity of hyper-managed, pre-programmed bus tours and cruises? Even the task of walking foreign city’s streets is too much to handle for many Americans.

While I am a bit snobbish about such packaged tours, I must admit I am a regular Bilbo Baggins when it comes to adventure. As a child when I first read The Hobbit I felt a visceral empathy with homebound Bilbo’s discomfort with having been dragged from The Shire by a bunch of dwarves on a strange and threatening quest.

Like Bilbo, however, I have managed to have some travel adventures against my will. For me like most travelers, my biggest adventures are the unintended ones. They happened in mundane places, like airports, train stations, and truck stops (more on the latter in a short bit.) The adventures have made those drab places more eventful than most of the places I visited intentionally on those trips. With the episodic nature of travel in mind, here are some postcards of accidental adventures.

A Truck Stop East of Toledo Ohio
I grew up in a rural Nebraska middle class family that loved traveling and pinching pennies in equal measure. That meant I saw a lot of the country but also never stepped foot on an airplane until I was an adult.

My parents’ cheapskate ways meant maximum discomfort for me on family vacations. I had two sisters, so to save on hotel costs my parents would book one room for the whole family, with my parents in one bed, my sisters in the other, and me sleeping on the floor. Evidently the extra ten bucks for the rollaway bed was an unnecessary expense.

Because we invariably stayed in the cheapest lodgings possible on our 80s vacations (think one rung above a heroin shooting gallery), I spent a lot of my nights with my face next to old shag carpets from the 70s that seemed to carry a mountain of dirt in every follicle. I have one powerful memory of a roadside motel in Sterling, Colorado, woken up by a massive blast of sunshine coming through the ridiculously large gap between the door’s bottom and the floor, a freight train blaring its horn nearby.

One rule of our hotel stays was to never make reservations for hotels for stops along the road. Instead, as we grew tired after a long day of driving my parents would decide to stop somewhere, then stop into multiple hotels at that interstate exit or town, inquiring about their rates until my father found one to his satisfaction. It was a risky strategy, and ridiculously time consuming when we kids were tired and irritable after a long day. One fateful night in July of 1987 in Toledo, Ohio, our luck ran out.

We were making our big trip to Washington, DC. In typical Tebbe family fashion, we decided to get a head start by leaving after my dad got off work on Friday and making our first drive in the evening, thereby minimizing the number of vacation days he had to take. We drove about four hours to somewhere in western Iowa. The next morning the only plan was to get as far as we could, with the goal of arriving in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the day after that. It was a beautiful summer day, but started inauspiciously, as my dad left his credit card at the station where he gassed up our 1984 Chevy conversion van, and we had to turn around and get it. We drove across the Iowa and Illinois prairies, a wall of tall green corn the only thing outside of the van’s windows until we hit Chicago. Driving on I-80 meant mostly bypassing the city, and we hit Indiana in the late afternoon.

At that point my parents decided on a spur of the moment side trip to South Bend to see the Notre Dame campus. They both went to a regional state college, and have a thing for going to elite college campuses, which are as exotic to them as a Burmese marketplace. We even went inside the university library. I get a little embarrassed today thinking about the sight we made as a bunch of rural tourists gawking around the stacks.

Being devout Catholics, we popped into the campus church as well. Mass was about halfway through, but my parents decided to stay for communion, thus fulfilling our obligation for the week, since it was late afternoon on a Saturday. (My parents are the kinds of Catholics who go to mass on vacation. When I took them to Boston last summer we went to an early morning mass in the basement of the Catholic student center on Harvard’s campus.)

We left South Bend afterwards, still trying to get through Indiana before stopping. At some point the decision was made to stay the night in Toledo, just across the border. We rolled into the Glass City later than normal, the sun already down. My dad went into a Ramada, and learned the awful truth: the American Legion was having their national convention in town, and there were no hotel rooms to be had in the entire area. Back in those days every one horse town in America (including mine) had a Legion chapter. According to the clerk, hotels were booked “from here to Youngstown.”

We went to get dinner after that at an Arby’s. This was an extravagance to please the kids because we normally ate picnic out of our ice chest on the road to save money. My father queried the kid behind the counter about other nearby cities that might have hotels, and he mentioned Sandusky. (This, children, was a common practice in those dark ages before the internet.) We trudged from the Arby’s, exhausted and demoralized. I believe at this point my mother began wondering why, with increasing volume and intensity, my dad refused to reserve hotels in advance.

So we drove on, ostensibly for Sandusky, which was over an hour away. At this point it was after nine o’clock at night. We had been on the road for over twelve hours, and it was getting to be too much. We didn’t make it into Sandusky.

Instead, we pulled into a truck stop in an extremely dark and isolated spot far from any town. My father went inside, and secured the best hotel bargain we ever got: eight bucks to park in the semi-truck parking area so we could sleep in our car. Since my father’s brother was a trucker, he must have known that truck stops offered this convenient service. I also think he was secretly pleased at having managed to save so much money.

At least our conversion van was bigger than the typical automobile. I leaned back the ridiculously appointed captain’s chair and got maybe two hours of sleep, much of it interrupted by the bright lights of the truck stop and the sound of barking dogs.

That experience on a July night at an Ohio truck stop taught me some things, like the need to reserve hotels in advance. It also made me much more capable of weathering and even savoring the future inadvertent adventures travel has to offer. Most of these have involved sleeping in suboptimal locations and leaning into the surreal weirdness of being in a place I am not supposed to be.

Manchester Airport, 3 AM
There was the time I went to Ireland for a debate tournament in college managed by the world’s least competent travel agent. On the way home we flew from Cork to Manchester in the evening, but our flight back to the states wasn’t until the next morning. Instead of getting a hotel, we stayed the entire night in the Manchester airport, pretty much the only people there. I can still recite the automated message that played throughout the night over the PA exactly every fifteen minutes in a clipped, passive-aggressive British voice: “Attention. Please do not leave any baggage unattended. Any baggage left unattended will be confiscated, and possibly destroyed.”

I didn’t sleep much. Instead I brown-bagged a small bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream (I was twenty and wanting to savor one last hit of store-bought liquor) while reading a bunch of British film and music magazines I couldn’t buy back in the States. My truck stop experience eight years made it easier to just sit back and enjoy an accidental adventure.

Overnight Stay in Zoo Station
The same goes for 2002, when I was in Germany on a three week research trip scouting archives for my doctoral dissertation. This was perhaps even nerdier than traveling to Europe for a debate trip. My advisor had a cheapskate streak to rival my father’s, evidenced by him still driving his tiny Honda Civic hatchback from his grad school days, complete with sagging rear bumper. He had advised me to take an overnight train on my way back to Berlin before flying out to save money instead of staying another night at a hotel or pension. Who was I to doubt his sage wisdom?

I soon realized that things had changed from his grad school days beyond the rust on his hatchback. There were no overnight trains from where I was traveling, so instead I took the latest train possible, and got into Berlin’s Zoo Station at night, with a plan to take the early train to the airport the next day. I had to spend about four hours in the train station in the dead of night, where I noticed a bunch of other people camped out with their luggage who had the same idea. We were this weird fraternity of young broke travellers and seeing my compatriots there put me at ease. We didn’t say a word to each other, nobody needed to.

Sitting there also gave me a chance to observe those strange hours when even in the busiest of cities, life shuts down. I saw the cleaning crew that’s invisible to those who don’t spend the night in a train station. There is also a certain kind of mystical calm when you are in a place that’s normally bursting with noise and excitement when it’s empty. The residue of years of souls passing through and the emotions that have been spent there seem to hang in the air, tangible now with all the people and clatter removed. That dirty, empty train station with its high glass roof became a kind of monastery cathedral in that moment.

Tenting in a Hail Storm
A lot of aging involves doing the stuff you swore you were never going to do when you were younger, like wearing khakis, having kids, and living in the suburbs (at least as far as I am concerned.) In terms of travel, it meant revisiting the places in Nebraska I had been to a thousand times and long claimed I had tired of.

One year before my twin daughters were born, my wife and I flew out to Nebraska to see my family, then to drive up to the Black Hills, Badlands, and Niobrara River while hitting some familiar stops along the way. We decided to go camping for most of it, except for a brief stay in Deadwood.

The first night we stopped at the Nebraska National Forest, near the town of Halsey. On my family trips to the Niobrara River for canoeing and tubing growing up we always stopped there for a snack and bathroom break, I was always put off by it. The forest is not natural, planted there in the early twentieth century and at one point the biggest man-made forest in the world. It sits in the middle of the wide open expanse of the Sandhills, one of the most subtly beautiful landscapes in America. The trees there look out of place, imposters where they don’t belong. Nostalgia is such a powerful disease that I wanted my Jersey girl wife to experience the uncanny weirdness of the place.

We pitched our tent under some scrubby pine trees but before we went inside to sleep the temperature dropped ominously, a Nebraska summer sign of danger. A great big thunder cracker of a storm was headed our way. Cell reception was pretty spotty, so I could only intermittently see the radar map on my weather app all lit up Halloween orange and fire engine red.

Once we got into our tent I realized that I had left the rain cover for it at home, not realizing the center of the top was only mesh. I scrambled and used the plastic wrapping our tarp came in to imperfectly cover the hole. Soon a blacker than black darkness fell, the storm clouds blotting out all the star and moonlight. The rain pounded angry and soon we heard the telltale ping-ponging of hailstones, a sound that brings both a thrill and a fear to a native Nebraskan’s heart. Being an emigre, I miss the feeling that the sky is trying to kill me, a common sensation that livens up the staid daily life of the rural Great Plains.

Truth be told I was scared, but put on a brave face for my wife. We got pretty wet, but the flimsy plastic kept us from being totally soaked. Once a boring pit stop on family vacations, the Nebraska National Forest has gone down as an adventurous place in the lore of my new family.

We have traveled plenty with our kids, but no real adventures. It’s not responsible, and unlike my father, I make sure to get hotel reservations ahead of time. But maybe, just maybe, we will get to have an accidental adventure in an unexpected place together, and have a new story to pass down together.

[Editor's Note: I submitted this for publication. It was (inevitably) rejected. I wanted it to live on, so I hope you enjoyed]

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Virus Journal 4-4-2020 (Back in the Trenches)

I was back at work full time on Monday after my "spring break." This week was the hardest I have worked at teaching since I was a beginner. Back in my younger days it was easier to spend every hour of the day working. With two kids constantly around me it was a little more difficult.

It has been really good for my soul to be interacting with my students again, no matter how hard I have been working to keep my head above water. All the work with my classes and watching my kids has also been a welcome distraction. I just don't have the time to check the news during the day or cry tears of rage like I was doing the prior two weeks. During that time I was also consumed by the anxiety of whether I would be able to be an effective teacher online or just fuck it up. I seem to be doing alright based on the feedback I am getting.

The main thing I have been doing is to be on guard against my biggest weaknesses. One of them is that I am not a fan of calendars, organizers, or and rigid systems of life planning. I keep it all up in the old noodle, so to speak, and tend to find the work of writing down everything I am planning to do to be a huge waste of my time. If I know what I am about to do, why should I have to fill out the adult equivalent of a worksheet?

As you can guess, this system of mine fails from time to time. Another weakness I have is not responding to emails until I know EXACTLY what I want to say. Now I am just firing off responses the second I get emails because if I don't I know I will start screwing up again. This does lead to some real fatigue at the end of the day but so far I think I have managed to keep myself on a good path.

I have also been spending a lot of time talking with friends and loved ones. My wife and I have been talking more than usual to our parents. I called up an old friend and talked for an hour on Thursday, and both of us participated in a Zoom happy hour with our fellow grad school friends that went on for hours. Today I did yard work and shot the shit with my friends next door as they did the same. It felt good.

In a weird way the quarantine has allowed me to only really socialize with the people I actually want to talk to, namely my friends, family, and students. This is pretty much what teenage me would have died for. As much as I want the quarantine to end I do not know how I will adjust to having to be out in public and being forced to interact with garden variety assholes.

That thought reminds me that I have consciously decided not to be such a nice person. It is obvious that people in this part of the country are dying because the government refuses to provide proper support. I have tried hard to be the bigger person when conservative friends and family antagonize me over politics, but those days are over. If they can't understand that the well-being of my family and I is at stake I am more than happy to tell them to fuck off. I already had to do this on Facebook with a high school friend who has spent years trolling me without offering any other kinds of interaction. Why should I keep someone like that in my life?

So if I make it out of this I am pledging to stop tolerating other people's bullshit. I am also thinking of getting a tattoo for the same reason. Life is short and I have really stopped giving a damn about what people think of me. That admirable habit from my youth, which I sloughed off in the adult quest for a path in life, is back and I am glad for it.