I’ve taken the past two weeks off. The first was the result of the election, which predictably resulted in a lot of work for those of us in the newspaper game. Last week, I went to see my brother for the first time in over a year as I visited him in San Diego.
Traveling was an awkward moment. I loved it; I have always loved to travel. Not just the destination, but the journey itself. I love the moments of taking off and landing on airplanes. Relatedly, I love the window seat so I can watch both of events, and the intervening beauty, without giving row mates reason to think I’m staring.
It was a wonderful trip, as sunny Southern California provides a lot of options for wandering around aimlessly in beautiful weather. But on the Saturday I was there, COVID-19 restrictions began to tighten again.
And on the trip home, I caught myself looking around, and I felt a slight shame at my selfishness. I hadn’t seen my brother in a long time. He hadn’t seen any member of the family in a long time nor had he even taken leave since his return to San Diego. All of that is to say how much we enjoyed each other’s company and all of the good food and drink that went along with it.
No matter how good that felt, no matter how justified I wanted to paint the trip that was purposely ahead of the holiday rush, it still didn’t feel quite right. As now the recommendations from health officials roll in to avoid Thanksgiving gatherings, a video made the rounds on Twitter this weekend of jam-packed gates at airports, full of people who’d planned their vacations long before those recommendations were made and were traveling with all of the same justifications I described above. Maybe some of them even traveled with the same guilt that I felt.
I don’t have any grand, sweeping takeaway from the experience; I’m just observing and relaying my feelings from those moments. I won’t be traveling home for Thanksgiving. My brother won’t be leaving the West Coast for Thanksgiving either. Nor will my sister be returning from the East Coast to our family home in Tennessee. We’ve all discussed it, and it’s just chalked up as another casualty of this strange year. We express how we wish it weren’t so, but everyone has taken it in stride. A story from the Mississippi Free Press made waves on social media because of its powerful but blunt headline: “After Big Thanksgiving Dinners, Plan Small Christmas Funerals, Health Experts Warn.”
So I hope the same for you and yours. If your family is the type who ordinarily gathers from near and far to celebrate, I encourage you to think long and hard about whether it’s worth it. I wouldn’t endeavor to tell you whether it is or isn’t, and even if I thought I should, I’d surely lack credibility having been in airports, airplanes, and hotels as recently as a week ago.
But there are few things more sobering than a story of son reckoning with the death of his father from COVID-19 which we in our newsroom encountered during the two weeks since I’ve last written you.
His father was a state politician who’d won a tough primary election and was preparing to coast to victory on Election Day. Only he died the day before. He was a longtime politician, a staunch conservative and recognized as such by anyone who knew him. He was gruff when asked about COVID-19 during the primary, calling into question the severity and scope of the virus and denouncing any attempts by the government to address the pandemic. He was a spokesperson for many who held similar views in this part of Wyoming.
Then he ended up in the ER, then airlifted to Casper, and then he died. Rumors told us he’d died from COVID-19, but we struggled to confirm it. Finally, his son confirmed it, as part of his eulogy.
He said that his dad always said, “I’d rather die of COVID than live and die in fear.” Then he recounted the weeks leading up to his father’s sickness and death, which had been filled with numerous visits with family and trips and generally living as if the virus wasn’t a thing.
He said that in those visits it was the hugs and kisses and “I-love-yous” that he and his family would cherish. But then there was that painful moment where he had to say, “Maybe it was some of those same hugs and kisses that unknowingly got him sick…”
After I heard him say it, I wondered how much deeper the feelings ran for that family, those sons and daughters, in-laws and grandkids, and how much comfort a last hug or kiss really brought them in those moments when they were sitting around wondering if they’d been the ones who’d ushered in the end for their father/grandfather.
It’s a terrible weight, and one I suspect they wish they weren’t shouldering right now, no matter how proud they say they are of their father’s “rather die of COVID than live in fear” bravado. It’s not just tough talk anymore.
Ten Worth Your Time
Speaking of family, I watched the new HBO adaptation of Ta-Nehesi Coates’s incredible book, Between the World and Me, a short epistle to his then-15-year-old son. It’s a beautiful book, one that I remember reading in a cabin in the Great Smokey Mountains in almost a single sitting. And the HBO production is no less beautiful, since it’s basically just a dramatic reading of various parts of the book. It’s read by a stable of talented actors and creatives, and it is a reminder of two things. Firstly, it reminds us that actors don’t simply read; they perform. Every person knows this intuitively when they go to see many school plays or watch local commercials where lines are memorized but woodenly so, that getting the lines right is more important than breathing any semblance of life into them. But these readings are the opposite. They elevate the words and live in them to such a degree that you forget that they’re not telling you about experiences from their own lives but rather reading the story of one man’s. The great and terrible truth is that the subject matter, which is that of Black lives and love and parenthood, are perhaps universal to them, and when they read aloud certain terrible things one man has seen in his life, perhaps they do it so powerfully because of all the experiences they’d had just like them. The other thing it reminds us of is the power of the written word. Coates is a poet, and no matter how beautiful his words strike you in your mind’s auditory recitation, these actors make them flow with rhythm and rhyme and scope and detail and inflections and tone. The message is powerful and necessary, but the vehicle through which that message is delivered is a gift.
Beautiful writing needs recognition, and I was delighted to see The New Yorker recognizing the efforts of Chapter 16, a non-profit media organization in the mold of ProPublica but for the arts — criticism, reviews, essays, and such. But not just from anywhere; Chapter 16 celebrates writing and writers from Tennessee.
Around the time I moved out to Wyoming, I was impressed to see that my home county in Tennessee showed COVID-19 numbers eerily on par with those in my new county in Wyoming. I thought it represented something my home county was doing right, since Tennessee, as a whole, has a lot more people than Wyoming and the virus was a much bigger problem there. But then numbers picked up in Tennessee, and soon, my home county far outpaced my new home. Now, even Wyoming isn’t doing so good, as numbers skyrocket and positivity rates are stunningly high. But there is a county in Texas, the least-populated county in the Lower 48, that avoided COVID-19 longer than any other.When this Texas Monthly article was written, it was the last county in the country without reported COVID-19 cases. Mind you, that was due to some particularities of reporting and did not represent a place truly free of the virus, but still. In the time since its publication, there have been three cases reported in the county. It’s a fascinating look at a tiny Texas town in this terrible time.
The latest issue of Texas Monthly finally concluded the “Tom Brown’s Body” story I’ve mentioned before. Its podcast is receiving rave reviews, and you can follow the entire story now, as the serialization has now been completed. Without giving away spoilers, the story is really the story of how the writer, Skip Hollandsworth, reported and processed the story. Answers are not cut-and-dry; it’s not satisfying in that way. It unfolds before your eyes, as if you’re riding shotgun as Hollandsworth drives around this small Texas town trying to make sense of all the rumors and innuendo still swirling around there. In addition to recommending this entire series, I’m also recommending another story that’s about the reporter’s quest and less about concrete answers. It’s an old story from The Atlantic, and it was recommended by one of the magazine’s current editors for a distraction from election coverage. The story reads like The DaVinci Code because the subject matter is practically identical; it’s a story about a contested and controversial ancient manuscript that reveal that Jesus had a wife. The real-life story has just as many twists and turns and improbabilities as Dan Brown’s novel and film.
This New York magazine piece digs into the cultural divide within the New York Times, with the old-guard Institutionalists at odds with the younger generation of Insurrectionists for no less than the soul of the “paper of record.”
Not too long ago, I recommended a story from Gene Weingarten of The Washington Post. It was about a tomato plant, and its ending (or kicker, as we call it in the journalism world) was next-level and worth every second you’d spend reading the short piece. He’s done it again, this time with a more serious piece about the election and how we as a country cope with the fallout. It was written before the election, so it’s a bit old by now, but its message is no less relevant considering the current state of acceptance of the results. Stick around for the kicker; it’s really good.
Sticking with the Post for a minute, Eli Saslow, one of the best reporters/writers working today, has chronicled various voices from America during the pandemic, and his most recent is painfully familiar. It documents the stress and struggles of a county public health official in rural Missouri. It’s just her words, and they tell a tale that rings true here in Wyoming. I don’t know that all of our public health officials are acting quite as boldly and bravely as she was, but I can guarantee that they’re hearing the same resistance from the public. Mostly, I just share the woman’s confusion at it all.
This story from the most-recent issue of WIRED caught my attention because I read it shortly after I got back from San Diego. The story takes place in San Diego; a former Navy SEAL and his brother had started a business that produced AI drone quadcopters that would zoom into an unknown room and scan for enemies while mapping out the room. It was going to save a lot of lives, said the author, who’d been a Marine leader in Fallujah. Having just been in San Diego, to see my brother who’d first landed in San Diego to train for the Navy SEALs, made the story hit home in a way it might not have otherwise.
I got into a fierce argument recently with a friend about face masks. He had a number of reasons for not supporting them, none of which I found very convincing. But he did make a point that was worthwhile (I just think it highlighted my side of the argument, not his), and that was this: The pandemic is not happening inside a vacuum. Other really bad things are still going on, and it would be a shame to become so shortsighted in our response to the coronavirus that we neglect these other things. I was reminded of a story I’d just read in October’s issue of 5280, Denver’s award-winning city magazine, followed some of the city’s homeless population, and it was exactly that same mindset of my friend but more powerfully stated coming from those in most dire need of assistance. It’s deeply reported, beautifully written, and absolutely necessary in order to remind us of the grand scope of this pandemic.
I had multiple friends recommend Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit to me, and one particular friend so profoundly piqued my curiosity by her sales pitch of the show that I binged the entire thing (well, almost the entire thing: 6 out of 7 episodes) sitting in the airports in San Diego and Denver and on the flights in between). I loved it, and I probably haven’t been so engrossed in chess since the “Hartsfield Landing” episode of The West Wing (recently re-staged as a Get Out the Vote initiative on HBO) and before that, a TV movie called Searching for Bobby Fischer that I remember for the days before our family had cable. It reminded of an intelligence that I desperately wished I had. This /New York Times/ article details what it gets right and what it gets wrong, and thankfully, there’s more of the former than the latter. (Mind the spoilers warning.)
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