The Sound is Forced, the Notes are Few

The Sacred Grove, Beloved of the Arts and Muses by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes

Me and the muses are having a toxic relationship meltdown during these weeks under quarantine/curfew. Amber A’Lee Frost gave voice to why this relationship has been so fraught in an essay she wrote for Damage

There has of course emerged a predictable cottage industry of self-help articles on how to “be” under quarantine, many of which paint it as an “opportunity.” And they’re not wrong; it is an opportunity—for them to write articles for a bunch of anxious and directionless people who really do want some instruction on how to become your optimal you (while also protecting yourself and others from a potentially deadly disease that is killing people all over the world).

Big tech cannot hide their delight; finally, a truly captive user base! Facebook insists that “We’re never lost if we can find each other,” which might feel grossly insensitive, but only until you see the glee in the Apple ad: “Now, more than ever, we’re inspired by people in every corner of the world finding new ways to share their creativity, ingenuity, humanity and hope.” Totally. We can all just use this time to learn watercolors (while also protecting yourself and others from a potentially deadly disease that is killing people all over the world).

As a urban homesteading/DIY blogger and author I’ve attempted a few of those how to “be” under quarantine hot takes and I’ve even spent part of my time making bad watercolors. I even wrote a post about that later effort (part of a longer post about learning old school architectural drawing) but never hit the publish button because it just didn’t feel right. A large part of that bad feeling comes from the realization that while I’m upping my drawing skills in quarantine, underpaid grocery clerks are risking the Covid to keep my pantry stocked with Cheeze-Its and La Croix.

Ironically, many of the skills I’ve written about and worked on over the years have proven useful in this crapular period. I’m happy to have the bread making, coffee roasting, carpentry and other skills to fall back on. I guess I’ll have to do some negotiations with the muses on how to write about those skills.

At the same time there’s an alternate history universe in which Kelly and I are more lacking in morals and better at the business side of things. In that universe we would have capitalized on the success of our first book to either peddle herbal supplements or start our own cult or some combination of the two. As Cornell West likes to say there’s a bit of a gangster in all of us. So if I start dispensing compost pile advice in white robes it’s probably time to hit the unsubscribe button. If I don’t go that route beware, other grifters are at the door . . .

The Known Unknown

I violated curfew to get this shot of a completely empty Sunset Blvd. last week.

For me, this period we’re in has the qualities of a kind of never ending lent, a period of solitary reflection, a time to face fears, anxieties and consider what’s really important in this life. Such periods are hard, painful and full of uncertainty. That said, I’m thankful that, for me, there isn’t the added physical danger of having to work as say a nurse or grocery store clerk.

Images on TV or the interwebs of the “before time” when we could all gather in groups safely seem surreal, like a long lost memory. Of course, people have been gathering in large groups in the past week for what I consider to be a worthwhile cause. But I live with someone who is likely vulnerable to Covid and who takes care of a relative who is definitely vulnerable and I can’t risk transmitting the virus.

While the protests have been going on politicians of both parties have been concocting opening plans or have long since decided to just sacrifice our elders. These plans have nothing to do with any scientific understanding of the virus. They feel like an attempt to feign certainty during what is a very uncertain situation. The fact is that we’re only five months into a virus whose transmission pathways are not known. It may be that large groups outdoors with partial mask use isn’t much of a risk. We’ll find out in two weeks. It may also be that Covid is seasonal and we’ll all have to go into another quarantine in the fall. Again, we just don’t know.

I have a feeling that many people are reluctant to leave quarantine despite the scenes of large gatherings we see in the media. I was on a few Zoom calls with people of different age groups this weekend. I asked if people were out and about. The answer was, universally, no.

As for life here at the urban homestead, we get avocados and eggs from our yard but we get most of our food from our local Vons via their pickup service. You do your order with an app and head to their parking lot when the order is filled and they load the groceries into your car. It’s not perfect but it works. I made one trip to a local lumber yard to get some wood for some bookshelves I’m making for Kelly’s office. I called in the order and they loaded the wood directly on top of my car with a forklift. I hope these pickup methods are better for employees since they don’t have to interact with customers as much and risk getting the virus. But, like everything else, I’m not sure.

One thing I do know is that I have many demons to banish this week–too much looking at the news and Twitter and too much laying about on the couch. Things are more uncertain than they’ve ever been in my lifetime and that’s just the way it’s going to be for a long time.

Götterdämmerung Under the Palms

While most of you, my dear readers, don’t live here in LA I think there’s a lot to learn from other town’s local news. I sometimes buy tools from a company located in a small town in Maine. They use the local newspaper to cushion their packages. I always carefully pull out the packaging and reassemble the newspaper. The controversies of a small town I’ll probably never visit speak to the universality of the challenges we all face. And I especially like one of the quirks of this paper: a weekly column that consists of the stream of consciousnesses ramblings of the resident of a nursing home. You can learn a lot from listening to the voices of people and places outside your own bubble.

So what’s can you learn from my Los Angeles bubble? Imagine twenty years worth of corruption, brutal austerity measures, woke posturing and mismanagement packed into one completely bonkers week. Some of the high(low?)lights:

  • The mayor opened up retail and restaurant service in the middle of a not-going-well pandemic with no notice.
  • Police fired rubber bullets and drove cars into crowds of peaceful protesters.
  • News that a city councilman paid off a mistress with money from a Chinese billionaire.
  • Conflicting and contradictory curfew notices at all hours of the day and night.
  • The suspension of all public transit with 40 minutes notice at the end of the day and the conversion of city buses into a network of improvised prisons.
  • The mayor pledged not to call in the national guard and then, three hours later, called in the national guard.

That’s not even of fraction of what happened. You can hear a day by day breakdown of the craziness on episode 122 “Seven Days in Mayday” of an excellent podcast called, appropriately, LA Podcast. Even if you’re not a local it’s worth listening to because the problems here are everywhere in this country.

The Frog Notices It Is Getting Boiled

Oops.

It’s been a week of conflicting curfew alerts. Each time my phone buzzes with these alerts my already simmering anger boils over, mainly because I think that this mess we’re in could have been easily avoided. Rather than simply stew in my own anger this morning, I thought I’d sit through the Los Angeles Police Commission’s emergency Zoom meeting held, ostensibly, to address the unrest that’s taken place over past few days.

The meeting reminded me of many in-person city meetings that I’ve attended in the past. As is typical of other commissions in Los Angeles the police commissioners are an assortment of the mayor’s cronies. The lone African-American is the chairman of a company that builds municipal infrastructure (no conflict of interest here!). There’s a developer and failed mayoral candidate. Another commissioner is a member of what a friend of mine calls the “non-profit industrial complex.” One commissioner didn’t bother to show up. The president of the commision is a former prosecutor and current law professor and a walking, blabbering, embodiment of the Professional Managerial Class. She kicked off the meeting with a canned statement of performative wokeness while underlings attempted to deal with technical problems that prevented anyone over the initial 500 people (including many members of the press) from joining the meeting. Over 6,700 people joined later via a hastily improvised YouTube live stream.

As is typical of Los Angeles City meetings they are held during the day when normal working people can’t attend them. We all had to sit through an hour of empty posturing before public comment was opened. Once public comment was opened speaker after speaker mentioned the years of requests for reform, for community oriented policing, for a police chief who will take community concerns seriously and for a diversity on the commission that would reflect the makeup of this city. One speaker called out the police chief for a behavior that’s all too common at city meetings: looking at your phone while the public is speaking.

We’ve had 26 years since the last unrest to reform the Los Angeles Police Department. We could have moved the LAPD towards a community oriented model and away from a failed para-military strategy. Instead, the awkwardly sculpted bust of Daryl Gates, one of the main architects of militarized policing in the U.S., still gazes towards the mediocre cafe at the police academy. Meanwhile politicians accept donations from the police union and seem unable or unwilling to ask for even modest reforms.

I had a brief job in the 1990s editing police training videos. It was at time when police, including most of the police I dealt with, were seriously thinking about things like improving community relations, understanding how to deal better with issues like domestic violence and non-violent ways to manage demonstrations. The majority of the officers I dealt with (who were in charge of training) supported these reforms. A minority, however, was intransigent and unwilling to acknowledge, even after the civil unrest in Los Angeles in 1994, that there was a problem. This minority won and we’ve seen even more militarization of police departments over the years. As an aside there was one other thing I learned when on this job. The police I worked with told me that the LAPD was especially troubled, insular and had a toxic culture (it’s no coincidence that the evil cop in Terminator is an LAPD officer).

Unfortunately I believe nothing will change as long as we have what Cornell West calls “milquetoast neo-liberal” politicians in charge. The challenge is clear, we need to vote out most of our local, state and federal leadership. That’s not going to be easy to do. It will take years. But we have to do something soon. As Tana Hargest put it in Twitter, “This live action production of Parable of the Sower sucks.”

I stole the title of this post from an editorial by Adam Weinstein, “This is Fascism”.

Our Covid House Rules and Strategies

I once had a wood shop teacher who was fond of saying, “always have a plan.” This sage advice lives in dialectical balance with Mike Tyson’s quote, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

Working class people, “essential workers,” small business owners, health workers and the elderly have taken a lot of punches in the face during the Covid crisis and will take some more in coming months. People in the “Zoom” class such as us, have fared better. I’ve been struggling for a metaphor for our times this week and settled on the idea that we’re in for a multi-year version of the Fyre Festival. While I was working on this metaphor over the weekend Kelly let me know that a not very good Washington Post editorialist beat me to it. While the Fyre Festival analogy doesn’t work all that well, there’s a sense in which we’re all stuck on the beach waiting for Blink 182 to show up but knowing that they never will. And isn’t it pathetic that we’re waiting for Blink 182? Why can’t we have better music?

While, for now, we have our styrofoam packed cheese sandwiches and bottled water we probably shouldn’t expect Ja Rule and that entrepreneur dude to keep us fed. We’re going to have to improvise. And the virus guarantees that our lives will be consumed by a tricky ethical calculus that changes on an almost hourly basis. I felt the need this week to write down some game rules for the next few months. We’ve figured that Kelly may be in a risk group for this disease. And relatives that she is responsible for are also at risk. So here’s what we came up with as of ten minutes ago.

Minimizing trips to the grocery store
Many restaurant distribution companies have pivoted into home delivery. Johnnie at Granola Shotgun blogged about a Bay Area service he tried. We tried it this week via  The Chef’s Warehouse. It worked great. The food was delivered in two days. Quality was decent. Some things are available only in huge quantities but you could easily split stuff with friends and neighbors. If you’re in Los Angeles here’s a list of restaurant wholesalers now selling to the public. We also tried Vons’ parking lot pickup service. It worked okay but they were out of some items. And our local farmers market has a new app for pre-ordering produce that we’re going to try. Yesterday we ordered some takeout from a local restaurant we like and picked it up instead of using those parasitic delivery apps.

Seeing other people
We’ve decided that, for now, we’re not going to hang out with other people even if we’re all outside and everyone is wearing a mask. This is not just for our sake but to help stop the spread of this disease. For many of us the impact of Covid is out of sight and out of mind and it’s easy to think that it would be okay to start to go back to normal social practices. We’re just not there yet and I’m expecting another wave of infections. Travel is out of the question right now, in my opinion, and I don’t think it’s cool for city people like us to go out to the country and put people in rural areas at risk.

Building maintenance and construction projects
I’m attempting to follow the advice of my wood shop teacher and plan before running to go get supplies. When it comes time to get stuff for a few of the projects around the house that need to be attended to I’m going to patronize the sort of lumber yard that caters to high end professionals rather than big box stores. Generally these places are not as busy and you always get better service. This would be a good practice even if we weren’t in a pandemic.

Mental health
I’m trying to slow down and focus on details. I feel there’s a need to pay attention to the news but not get immersed in it. I’m attempting, not always successfully, to limit exposure to social media and news sources. I’ve been doing a few solo bee removal jobs and this has really lifted my spirits to be able to get outdoors and do something useful.

Community resiliency
We have a weekly Zoom call with our neighbors to check in, chat and see if anyone needs anything. Our church has a program to call and check in with people. Several months ago, after my volunteer work with the Bernie campaign ended, I joined the Democratic Socialists of America and have participated in book clubs and online organizing.


Masks

It’s sad that this has become so divisive. Wearing a mask is a common sense way to respect other people. There are many other cultures in this world (such as the Tuareg tribe of the Sahara desert and folks in many parts of Asia) where facial covering is an old practice and no big deal. While I have no evidence for this, I suspect that mask wearing coincides with cultures that have greater respect for elders. Here in the U.S. and, I’m looking at you Sweden, old people are disposable.

Areas for improvement
I’ve been bad about exercising. I’ve got Zoom fatigue. I want to see other people but know that we’re not there yet. I need to construct storage for bulk goods. The crisis has caused me to have a short temper that I have to be vigilant about. I feel like I’m really out of touch with the people who are risking their lives in low-paid work.

Non-conclusion conclusion
We’re lucky. We’re thankful to have a roof over our heads, a garden to tend and a backyard to enjoy. But I’m also trying to be realistic. Our comfort could end. A lot of people are suffering. Far worse things than Blink 182 could be slouching towards Bethlehem. But if I’m wrong and Blink 182 does show up and is less pathetic than I remember at least we’ll have a better bulk goods game and a few less weeds in the garden.