A Strictly Personal Looking Past The Pandemic
This morning there was a Red-Tailed Hawk perched low in the woods outside my window for a least forty minutes. It was a large very calm bird perched not too high up in the trees that were downhill from my window, so binocular viewing was good, but it was too difficult to take a picture today. It was perhaps a young bird since its colors were mainly mottled, grey-brown on top, white with grey-brown blotches below. It had no obvious strong red on its tail feathers, but the wing and tail feathers were very clearly banded, partly like a tartan, and very crisply.
I have a sense that wildlife in general is seeping back into the daytime outdoor spaces they shy away from when humans are active. My neighborhood, in a canyon, is extremely quiet: no buzz saws, no leaf blowers, no house construction noises, very very few cars going down the road, no trucks, Amazon Prime delivery vans are about but again quite rarely (though I notice more of them in general since the lockdown began), very few walkers (with or without dogs), no house party noises, no landscaping services nor tree cutting services around, no water nor phone nor cable utility trucks (Pacific Gas & Electric is supposed to be inspecting power lines for fire safety), and on the weekend no mail nor garbage nor recycling trucks.
I can hear deer clomp and turkeys forage through the leaf litter; but the usual small birds and songbirds of this area seem to be gone today, and have been less in number over the last five years; a climate change die-off? Except for the odd pulses of breeze — rain should be coming later today — it is still and quiet throughout the canyon and the hillsides forming it. The Earth seems to be awaiting humanity’s fate with fatally baited breath: COVID-19.
We humans — the lucky ones that is — are shuffling around in our rooms in our bathrobes and slippers, with coffee and tea mugs or cocktails in our hands, and burrowing our heads into our cross-connected electronic attention-deficit infotainment memory holes. For the luckiest of the hapless people, society as we used to know it is slowly collapsing in on itself; and for the largely unseen and more socially distanced than ever before extremely unlucky people that social collapse is miserable and catastrophic. “That’s the way it’s always been” reflected our Apex Narcissist philosophically, to his cognitive limit in this regard, about these pandemic days.
Richard Eskow wrote a touching and reflective ramble on life and death, from his personal perspective as an older American man during this indeterminate period of the COVID-19 pandemic (COVID in the Web Of Generations: A Faint Hello From the “Only” Ones, 20 March 2020, https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/03/20/covid-in-the-web-of-generations-a-faint-hello-from-the-only-ones/).
Some of Eskow’s thoughts are:
“I’ll tell you a secret now, one that older adults carry with them every day: We walk with the dead. Oh, a lot of us don’t admit it, not even to ourselves. But once you’ve reached a certain age, the dead are with you wherever you go. Your parents are dead. Mine both died in the last couple of years. Your aunts and uncles, the ones who nurtured you and reminded you what sanity was when your parents went off the rails? They’re dead, too… I’m 66. I know now that I walk with the dead, and with death. That awareness is part of the job description, at least if you’re wired a certain way. That said, though, I’m not in any fucking hurry to go. I’ve got 20 good years, if I’m lucky. Maybe 30… This system is dying, infected with a contagion as old as humanity: greed… The time will come, the bell will toll. It sounds obvious, and it is. Until it happens. Then it feels as new as birth, as new as waking up in an unfamiliar room… And so, in the meantime, all I can do is pass on what the survivors of past worlds told me while they lived. They said you can survive by remembering to love. They said you can learn to care, even if caring doesn’t always come easily in this life.”
The present personal isolation people have receded into to avoid contagion can be heaven for introverts who are in safe circumstances. In my own case, it has led me to think back over my life, since I am celebrating my 70th birthday this week.
Since 2009 I’ve played the game of remembering where I was and what I saw “fifty years ago.” For me, the years 1959-1962 had to do with Cuba (which I visited twice to see my grandparents), the Revolution (which I saw in its glory of triumph), the Bay of Pigs, and the Missile Crisis (which nearly killed us all). 1963 was about JFK, 1964-1967 about dreading the Vietnam War draft while in high school, and having so many dreams about my “future.” 1968-1969 was about my roller-coaster ride in college, the highs of really getting into the science and chasing girls (who were always way smarter and more mature than I was), and the lows all 1969 of fending off the draft board while I was 1A (my deferment had been revoked in error, and they refused to correct that error). 1970-1972 was a combination of being a psychological wreck after surviving the December ’69 draft lottery, and the super-high of imagining an abundant Green Energy future after that first Earth Day on 22 April 1970 (perhaps the greatest day of my life). 1973-1976 was getting past Nixon, and the graduate school grind. 1976-1978 was in my view the peak of collective life in the U.S., including the first two years of the Carter Administration, and I had the illusion that that Green Energy future was about to begin and I would become one of the first generation physicist-engineers running its new-style engines, like Montgomery Scott in the original Star Trek science fiction television series. I was wrong.
During 1979-1980, President Jimmy Carter was pulled to the right by Zbigniew Brzezinski, his National Security Advisor, who laid the trap of the Afghan War quagmire the Russians sank into (and then later and still now the U.S.!), and then that bastard Reagan gained power in November 1980, and John Lennon was assassinated a month later by a gunshot to the chest fired by a narcissistic asshole, and Lennon’s death seemed emblematic of the instant death of all my illusions and those of the youthful “Imagine” dreamers of my age. It has been neoliberally downhill since.
After 1980, I realized that the best I would probably ever be able to do was to support my family. There was little chance I would change any part of our society — let alone government policy — toward green energy, environmentalism, energy efficiency and all that (even though I’ve tried doing so to this day). The political power people just wanted bombs, and my science employers just wanted more government subsidies.
For the biotech and computer people it was all an obsession with patents and getting rich off the need, addictions and misery of the masses. It is so damnably telling about our mercenary times to remember that doctors Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, each a developer of a polio vaccine (by 1955 and by 1960), put their discoveries into the public domain, giving up many billion in royalties and saving billions of lives since. Frederick Banting, who with the help of a few others invented the process for synthesizing insulin, patented it in 1923 for a token payment of $1.00 so as to ward off all other patent attempts by drug companies, and put the use of the method into the public domain.
So, even with numerous bumps in the road, humped over with the help of a Faustian bargain for brainy employment, I’ve managed to support my family, get three kids decently — though not always perfectly — cared for and off and independent for the two oldest, and well on the way to that for the youngest. And, I’ve got my little beat-up house in a reasonably pleasant hilly spot, and still have a little bit saved up (of which college tuition and a major and unavoidably necessary house-property repair three years ago took half). I’m banking on my okay pension and social security allotment for the duration, so I’m at the mercy of the thugs in Washington as regards the future of my social security.
When it comes to dying I’m just hoping that I go out like my father, a massive hemorrhage suddenly wiping out the brain, and the body dying off in just a few days. That way I won’t have the indignity of a long lingering death as a cripple during which all my remaining money will be drained away to the point of bankruptcy. My quick death is the only way there will be anything left (in the way of financial assets) for me to pass on, at least hopefully this house if I get to pay it off. It’s all quite a poker game, isn’t it?
It’s not hard to look back on my parenting and see many things I could have done much better. Hindsight is 20-20. But I’m glad that many of the efforts I made were good ones, and that my kids are all good and strong people, in many ways all smarter than I am. In my own case the work I put into helping raise the kids, despite many errors with each of them, is pretty clearly the best work I’ve done at anything in my life. I can accept being a failure at all else, but would hate being a failed parent. So, their successes are my consolation for everything else. I’ve had my fun and some high points with technical stuff (physical science, energy advocacy) and writing (ranting and bad poetry), but nothing in the world has changed because of it, and that’s okay because I can feel good about the kids.
I only wish I had been more perceptive way back when, to better appreciate the people who were kind, accepting and tolerant of me, who gave me help that I did not always recognize, and who graced my fairly clueless young adulthood when I pursued my simplistic dreams of sports cars, girls in miniskirts, protection from the Vietnam War, achieving science learning highs (and being high while learning science), and visions of saving the world through science by finding sources of unlimited electrical energy.
For me, enlightenment came through caring for my family and helping to raise children, along with a little bit of reading about Zen Buddhism. But having children was the touchstone of my essential insights. A Skinnerian behaviorist might say this is all just a genetically programmed self-delusional sense of fulfillment in male human drones to ensure the propagation of the species. Maybe so, what’s it matter? The same would then be true of that Red-Tailed Hawk who winged through this patch of its forested domain, and perched in dappled shade to regard its territory with such majestic calm.
And the same would be true of our two young cats, who move between periods of lying about sprawled out resting before the heater or curled up in a cardboard box in absolute luxuriant comfort, or rolling over and wrapping their legs and paws about my forearm as I massage-pet them while they stretch and purr, as I draw my nails along their upturned throats and the lines of their their thin lips, which they sometimes open to knead my hand with their strong sharp fangs, with exquisite precision. Our cats will burst into activity out of their keen vigilance of human activity in the kitchen when food bowls are presented, and from there gleefully go frolicking out onto the wooded hillside, delighting in their primordial wildness.
I have had too much knowing eye-to-eye personal contact, and traded too much hand-and-body-to-body personal touch with other living creatures, each with their own warmth, elegance and intent, to ever believe any of us are mere generic behavioral biological machines, though I know that fundamentally we are each unique gene colony organisms whose evolutionary role is to transmit genetic programming for birthing and animating through a lifespan future and always subtly unique examples of our particular kind.
What is not biomechanical about the more brainy creatures, which can include humans, is that we can become aware of our role in the great chain of being, the propulsive urge of life to continue on Planet Earth, by both our conscious actions emanating out of our cerebral cortexes, and our embedded instincts and emotions emanating from our limbic systems, instincts and emotions we share with so many of our fellow heterotrophs.
So, like everyone else I want to continue healthily so I can keep enjoying the greatest show on Earth: life. While I have many many preferences on how other people should think and behave so that show will unfold as I believe best, I realize I have infinitesimal power to mold reality to my vision, and trying to force that conformity can only drive me mad and destroy me. Thus I have to tread that knife-edge between letting go and giving up, and my compass for determining that pathway is how fares the wellbeing of my family.
To frolic like the cats and soar like the hawks with calm and elegant self-assurance, while finally remembering with appreciation long-lost friends as I should, dumping all lingering superficial careerist ambitions of a clueless past, and being grateful for having been able to move the next generation of my family (and others) forward into their own fulfilling independence, is what I now take with me as I look past the pandemic into my own uncertain yet hopeful future.
ADDENDUM, 25 March 2020
Raymond McConnie Zapater
25 March 2020
FELIZ CUMPLEAÑOS MANGO GARCÍA
Dear Dr. García:
Some of us ageing fools can relate to your feelings and past experiences as humane baby-boomers. I also had to dodge the draft for three years while bumbling in North American and European Universities and not being able to shed a 1-A classification. I had to flush the god-dammed card down the toilet to wash out that stain without having to embarrass my Dad furthermore. After the Complutense in Madrid was shuttered and the youthful leaders and “foreign interlopers” of the revolt were chased down by Franco, without considerable funds, I wandered alone hitching rides across Southern Europe and the wondrous Islamic world of Southwest and Central Asia before settling in a secluded hamlet with the Pashtun, deep in the Hindu Kush, “somewhere ‘they’ can’t find me”, hearkening that old song by The Moody Blues. Who would have known then that those valiant, elegant, generous, hospitable successors of the lost tribes of Israel and the Scythian and the Parthian would become the more recent targets of the “bastards from Washington” in their ceaseless search for enemies. Actually, Pashto is a Semitic language with a Persian script.
And, so it went … This long story pertains to all of us rebels of good-will still trying to survive as fugitives in Junk Terror Acropolis even though the Vietnamese people did get rid of the North American hordes and established their own stupid criminal regimes. At least, it was their own bitter wine. I almost vomit when the other night I heard right off in the first episode of Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War” that the United States had gotten involved in that genocidal venture “with good intentions”. Even though the sixteen installments that followed belied that initial assertion absent any allusion to it, I couldn’t explain to my thirty-three year old PhD candidate living at home and his mother why the statement was yet another lie by the national security state. It’s unconscionable that Geoffrey C. Ward (the writer of the series) set it forth as a salvo revisionism, and that Burns would allow it if he were paying attention. I had escaped watching that series in honor of my Puerto Rican friends who were drafted and never returned and of one in particular, who, as a green beret, was dropped in a black parachute into the thickness of northern Laos on reconnaissance, but who found for himself a Buddhist monastery, took refuge there and remained to train monks in the arts of modern warfare, so they could defend their communities from the Americanos. Manny was MIA for years during the war until he surfaced in Saigon where he boarded one of the last helicopters out of that quagmire after treading the Ho Chi Minh Trail with other fellow monks and soldiers. Once in the “Land of Liberty”, Manny served five years in Attica (under the Rockefeller laws) for dealing an ounce of pot to a friend turned informant. Thereafter he became a candlemaker and sculptor in San Juan where he died.
After graduate school, my long-standing girlfriend cum wife and I left the perfumed colony of Puerto Rico to settle in Philadelphia where we raised four boys against all odds, and with a little help from our friends. The intention had been to spare our kids a colonial mind-set and still preserve the Spanish language as the Lingua Franca home and country. They are doing pretty good with that. It’s easier to live in the trigger of the Gatling gun than in the target. Puerto Ricans of the diaspora have learned that lesson.
I also walk among the dead especially when I endeavour to visit my one-hundred year + old aunt in Ponce. She is my link with the past generations. I go every three months to see her at a convent of Catholic nuns who look after the elderly. Everyone else is gone: those who haven’t yet among my family, relatives and friends are queuing up with me. The pecking order is up for grabs.
Our boys are strong decent upstanding citizens. They made it through college and graduate school facing their own provocations unlike those contended by their father. Three of them crossed the vastness of North America seeking the promised land in California while the more sensible one thought that the East Coast was a better option for him and his Puerto Rican live-in girlfriend who’s attending medical school. Like you, raising a family alongside their mother has been my saving grace. Who knows how and where I would have ended up? I also loved drugs, sex and cheap thrills not unlike Janis Joplin. Thankfully, my mistakes are solely mine to contend with going forward. I’m chastened by my karma and the teachings of the Buddhadharma, for sure.
Although I have a few solitary retreats under my belt, this quarantine is driving me overboard into the ocean of nirvana and samsara.
Beg your pardon for the long-winded screed!
Allow me to say the following without being trite – I love you!
May you have much health, happiness and a long life.
– Raymond McConnie Zapater
Manuel García, Jr.:
Dear Señor Zapater,
My favorite joke on the “Dr.” thing (from the New Yorker): Maître d’ of a fancy restaurant, on the phone: “Yes, doctor, a reservation at 7:30, and may I ask, sir, is that an actual medical degree or merely a Ph.D.?”
Yours is one of the best letters I’ve ever received in my life. I believe what you have recounted would be a wonderful contribution to human (and even Americano) consciousness.
First, your adventure through life has been much more dramatic, exciting and scary than mine. So, I salute you for surviving with such verve and elegance, and I commend you for la familia. You are clearly very well put together, as is shown by your excellent and vivid writing, and by your evident knowledge of cultures, philosophy and life.
My impression of the Ken Burns TV series on the Vietnam War (the “American War” for the Vietnamese) is that the reference in the first episode about ‘America getting into the war inadvertently and with good intensions’ (despite the rest of the series entirely belying that canard) was a sop to one of the Koch Boys, who was a generous financial contributor making possible the production of the series. You know, “and now a word from our sponsors.” I’m guessing that Koch Boy just wanted to plaster his name-tag on an artful electronic edifice he thought might last, and thus be a pedestal to his self-imagined glory. There are a lot of pedestal seekers and pedestal self-polishers in this world; the former throw their money at their vanity, and the latter usually try to write and publish themselves into popular acclaim.
During my time in college, in 1970, I met an absolutely beautiful woman in one of my basic science or mathematics classes. She was very friendly in a most upstanding way, and I was smitten and daydreaming of much closer contact. She asked me if I would help her understand some of the assigned work, which Mister Science Boy was delighted to do. She was a Puertorriqueña, and her English was good, but a second language. We arranged for her to visit my dorm-apartment room one day to get on with this work. Somewhere in the subsequent verbal exchanges over this it emerged that she was married! So she brought her husband with her to my apartment, and we ended up having a wonderful time learning about each others’ lives.
She was enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania (in Philadelphia, your home-away-from-home town!) on her husband’s GI veteran’s benefit, going for a degree in nursing (I think). She introduced her husband: Patrick Murphy. He was a recently discharged Vietnam War veteran, and had become a repair technician for the Sweda Cash Register Company. So, he worked at a wage-paying job during the day while his wife went to college. When I first spoke with Patrick Murphy he didn’t quickly understand me: he was pure Puertorriqueño and spoke minimal English! How the hell was that? It seems his grandfather or great-grandfather had been a US sailor in the Great White Fleet during the Spanish-American War, and had jumped ship in Puerto Rico in 1898, stayed there, married, and fathered children, who had their own children one of whom was this wonderful guy with his family-traditional name: Patrick Murphy.
He was a veteran of the US Marine Corps, into which he had been drafted in Puerto Rico (as you know, Puertorriqueños living on the island can’t vote for voting representatives in the US Congress, or for the US President, but they are more than welcome to fight and die in the front lines of America’s imperialist wars). I thought during the Vietnam War we boys could only get drafted into the US Army, but I was wrong (I’ve been wrong about a lot of things). He told his story. At the boot camp that the Boricua recruits had been taken (I’m guessing in North Carolina) they and the other mainland recruits were lined upon arrival. The Army drill sergeant facing them barked out “All of you who speak Spanish take one step forward! Left face! Forward march!” And there before the line of Spanish-speaking recruits was the Marine drill sergeant.
So most of those boys ended up in the forward deployed combat units of the always-first-to-attack Marine Corps in Vietnam during the height of the ground war (for the U.S.). Patrick Murphy, though deployed in Vietnam, was shunted into a mechanics role, probably because of some manual dexterity aptitude that emerged from his testing, and that exposed him less to the hazards of combat patrols, which along with surviving the various shellings of the bases he was stationed at, got him through the war alive. I would look at his lovely lively wife as we three enjoyed each others’ company, and think “he really deserves her.” Patrick Murphy told me of a common experience of US Latino Vietnam War soldiers on combat patrols during the war: their platoon commander (the usual white First Lieutenant West Pointer or maybe ROTCer) would call out one of his ‘spics’ (Spanish speakers, a.k.a. ‘no-speak-eh-de-inglesh’), like “Rodriguez, go out on point!”, to lead the file of soldiers into the jungle, and thus be the most likely first killed in the inevitable ambuscade by sniper or mine. Patrick Murphy and his lovely wife (Linda?) will always live in my memory of a sunny day in 1970 when we all felt a resplendent future lie just a few years ahead for all of us young Americanos.
My own hodge-podge memorial of the Vietnam War is posted here:
Haunted by the Vietnam War
22 February 2015
I understand exactly how you feel about your mother. Mine is 95, and living quietly, independently and happily in Santa Rosa. I was lucky in the parents I was given: papá Cubano-Español, y mamá puro Boricua.
And now, I must steal from you to complete my reply:
“Although I have a few solitary retreats under my belt, this quarantine is driving me overboard into the ocean of nirvana and samsara.
“Beg your pardon for the long-winded screed!
“Allow me to say the following without being trite – I love you!
“May you have much health, happiness and a long life.”
With deep appreciation y cariño,
Manuel García, Jr.