RIP Michael Brooks

I can’t think of a time in my life when I’ve been so wracked with grief for someone I never met. My favorite podcaster, Michael Brooks, died unexpectedly on Monday of a blood clot at the young age of 36. I’m heartbroken.

There’s an intimacy to podcasting and radio, to the regular sound of someone’s voice in your life even if that voice is thousands of miles away. Micheal kept me company for years during my chores. He was a rare talent, a democratic socialist with a sense of humor and an internationalist with a deep empathy for working class people all over the world. That empathy was born of experience. Michael grew up knowing what it’s like to not know where your next meal is coming from and to get evicted from your house as a child. He was also the only person I know who could talk Gramsci and basketball.

I have no idea how I found his podcast but I remember the moment that kept me listening. He and a guest were discussing spirituality. Rather than the dismissiveness that you might expect from the old school left, Michael thought that we needed to integrate spirituality and politics. In a memorial show on the Majority Report, his sister Lisha Brooks recounted their last conversation. Michael was, as he often did, talking about spirituality. As he asked in that last conversation, “Why allow Steve Bannon to have a monopoly on the Bhagavad Gita?” Amen.

I have to be honest that I’ve been very gloomy of late and often find myself doomscrolling the covid news and the latest twitter outrage. I took great comfort every week in Michael’s honesty and insight about the trouble we’re in combined with his humor. Michael was only getting started. I hoped that, as I grew old, I would see him become a major media personality and politician and a voice for working people. His passing is a tremendous loss.

I have a lot to learn from his example. My discussion of politics on this blog has fallen into two categories. Early on I was snarky, arrogant and mean. Then I just clammed up while, all around me, an ideology of toxic individualism has created the terrible crisis we are now in. My writing beat, what has, for lack of a better term, been called “urban homesteading” is poisoned by that individualism which manifests in a concept of self sufficiency whose ultimate destination is a lonely existence in a doomstead bunker. I’ve always tried to point out that we’re all in this together, that we need to build up our households and our communities. It’s not one or the other.

Michael was just beginning to formulate a strategy that would normalize ideas like medicare for all and the plain, decent notion that we should respect and take care of working people in this country. He said to his sister in that last conversation that he felt that we needed to, “build a world where all can listen to each other without turning to violence. This doesn’t mean that we give up the fight for justice. We need to fight that fight more skillfully.”

You’re Wearing a Mask

San Francisco big shots in their masks.

This story from the San Francisco Examiner from November of 1918 will sound familiar. By late 1918 the first wave of flu cases had passed and the city decided, with much fanfare, to lift the requirement to wear a mask:


Signal Sounds Promptly at the Stroke of 12 and Those Who Do Not Doff Gauze Are Ridiculed

Much Material Accumulates in Drug Stores, but Most of Discards Are Deposited in Gutters

All San Francisco was ready to discard the influenza masks right on the dot of 12 o’clock yesterday, an the crowds that stood in front of street and tower clocks watchfully waited doffed the enforced camouflage without a second’s delay. But those who attuned their ears for the welcome shrieks of factory sirens were just a trifle nervous two or three minutes after the hour, for the din was slow in gaining volume.

Five minutes after the hour 95 percent had doffed their masks and were laughing back at the sunlight and into one another’s faces as if they had just made a great and delightful discovery. A few minutes later few masks were to be seen save those which littered the sidewalks or had been hung up in conspicuous places.

The driver of an ice truck attached his masks to the hood of the machine and spectators, taking the hint, decorated the hood with scores of them.

Fifteen minutes after the hour the newsboys began to take noisy note of those who still wore masks. A masked workingman in a corduroy coat and trousers was followed at Market and Powell streets by a dozen boys who shouted in chorus “take off your mask.” Made stubborn by the baiting, or for some other reason, the man continued to wear his mask while they heckled him.

Not a few remembered Dr. Hassler’s request to deposit the masks at convenient drug stores because of the scarcity of surgical gauze. These will be delivered to the Red Cross, sterilized and used to make surgical dressings.

As will also seem familiar, the decision was premature. By January of 1919 the flu raged back and Mayor James Rolph ordered the masks back on.

A second wave, masks in the gutter and mask Kevins and Karens–what can I add to this? In lieu of a conclusion, I’ll just point out that Iggy Pop may have composed the anthem of our times back in 2001.

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.