I would prefer not to quit you.
Encantadas and Bartleby, 088 and 089
“Herd immunity…” said Nick, the owner of my mother’s small care home, “…it will go away naturally—” His strident voice became inaudible as I moved the phone away from my ear, holding it at arm’s length.
I had déjà vu. It was early January, 2021, during an intense covid surge. Just a few weeks earlier, I’d been on the phone with a client, Tammy, a smart woman in her sixties who owns a mid-sized company. We were discussing a large project I was managing for her. I was very worried about the outcome, because if it didn’t go well, it would negatively impact her business. A lot was at stake. Finishing up the business at hand, Tammy had started telling me how difficult it was to take care of her grandchildren, three girls under the age of six.
I had heard it before; Tammy tended to overshare. This time was different, though. I found myself in uncharted territory when I heard her say, “They’re shutting down the schools again. It’s so stupid. Herd immunity will take care of it. It will go away naturally—”
That’s when I held the phone at arm’s length, immediately transforming Tammy’s outraged rant into a gentle murmur. I stared at the phone in shock, not sure of my next move. At some point she would stop talking and then expect a response. I didn’t trust that I would have enough self-control to remain professional. As soon I heard a pause, I quickly brought the phone back to my ear. “So sorry,” I said, “something has come up. I have to run.”
She ignored me and kept talking. I stared at a painting on my wall of a melancholy woman.
Blue filmy strands invaded her left ear, like poisonous airwaves. She didn’t want to hear it either.
I got up from my desk to close the blinds against the afternoon sun. My home office plunged into gloom. I tried a second time to stop the flow of words I didn’t want to hear, interjecting again, “I have to go.”
I grieved Tammy’s status change. She was now Tammy, my formerly smart client, instead of Tammy, my smart client.
Nick’s herd immunity rant felt similarly jarring. I had called him not because I wanted to argue about immunization, but to find out if rides were still being provided for his residents’ doctor appointments. I usually handled this for my mother, but now, given the unprecedented pandemic surge after the holidays, I found the idea of sitting in a crowded doctor’s office for over an hour terrifying. Every six weeks, my mother visits her retinologist to be treated for macular degeneration. In past visits, our waiting room companions included nose-out mask wearers and talkers seemingly unaware of the danger their chit-chat posed to others. The rooms in the doctor’s suite were tiny, without access to fresh air. My mother’s next appointment was scheduled for the following week. If my mother missed it, she might lose her sight.
Nick said, “I’m going out of town, but Gina can do it.” Gina is the head caregiver of Nick’s care home.
I hesitated, then said, “OK, I guess.”
It felt wrong to ask Gina to take risks that I wouldn’t take. I felt confused. It occurred to me that my mother’s appointment could wait until after staff and residents had been vaccinated, if vaccination was imminent.
I asked Nick, “What’s the status with the vaccine roll out?”
“What vaccine?” he said.
“The…uh…the new vaccine…?”
“I’m not getting that,” he said.
“You’re not getting…?”
“I asked all the residents if they wanted the vaccine and only one said yes.”
Over 95% of Nick’s residents have Alzheimer’s.
Nick began to rant. My arm took his voice away from my ear, serving me well. My arm and ear had already been through this. Ear and arm worked together to keep me from saying things I was afraid of saying.
Neil deGrasse Tyson teaches a master class on how to think scientifically and how to communicate objective truths. I am skeptical, but if he could guarantee that I could communicate objective truths to Nick and Tammy after taking this class, I would sign up immediately.
When Nick paused for breath, I interjected: “Something has come up, I have to go.” Like Tammy before him, he kept talking. When he ignored my second attempt as well, I hung up on him.
I texted him later, after I had recovered: So sorry, a lot was going on here and I didn’t catch what you were saying. What exactly is going on with rolling out the vaccine to residents and staff? I wanted written evidence, though I wasn’t sure what I planned to do with it.
He texted back, “It’s kinda like a flu shot, some people get it, some don't, so it's up to you since you're the decision maker. Also, you can email her doctor for further info on the availability of the vaccine.”
There were 22,000 flu deaths in 2019-2020 in the U.S. There were 22,000 covid-19 deaths the week after Nick texted me this message.
I called Gina to try to arrange a ride for my mother’s doctor’s appointment. Gina said, “I am not driving anyone to doctor appointments. It’s not safe.”
“I understand. Do you know when you will get the vaccine?”
“Nick won’t arrange it for us. I have asked him several times,” she said matter-of-factly. “We want very much to be vaccinated but we don't know what to do.”
Gina is small in stature but very strong. She works out daily. She handles pretty much everything at my mother’s care home, except for billing. Nick breezes through occasionally to cheer residents up. He always makes sure the living room TV is set to Fox News. Gina changes it back to CNN as soon as he’s out of earshot. Resignation was not something I expected from her.
I said, “I don’t know anything about it either, but I will try to find out what I can.”
My mother moved into Nick’s care home two years ago. It’s comprised of two Victorians connected by a ramp in the back. For the last ten months, due to state covid-19 restrictions, my mother had not been allowed to go for a walk around the block with a caregiver. Instead, she had been walking the ramp. Back and forth she walked, back and forth, like a hamster in a cage.
“I’m getting out of here,” says my mother, every time I talk to her. She repeats her monologue several times in the same conversation. “The food is good and they keep things clean. They’re very nice. But I have to go.”
It’s her one idea. All other ideas have faded. “I want to live closer to my sister,” she explains. She had nothing but disdain for her sister most of her life. But when the disdain fell out of her brain, she realized how much she loved her sister.
When my mother moved in to Nick’s care home, she was prone to loving pretty much anyone who crossed her path and stuck around for more than five minutes. She’d often say, “Nick just got married.” Nick is a tall good-looking man, a bit like Sam Shepard in his prime. Nick always had a smile on his face and he liked to chat. My mother was easily slain.
“I think he’s been married for a while,” I’d say. “Like twenty-five years at least.” Back then, I thought a reality check was the most appropriate response.
She’d throw me a dubious look, as if trying to figure out why I was telling her lies. She’d say, “This new wife of his. I don't like her.”
Two years later, my mother has stopped entertaining ideas about potential boyfriends or wife-interlopers. Now, she is totally focused on her one idea.
“I have to find my…the thing I need,” she says. “The place where there’s money. I don't know where it is but I think I have it. Then I have to hit the road.” She doesn’t remember that she has Alzheimer’s and she doesn’t understand that she can’t live on her own.
After my mother is done airing her idea, I ask her questions. Listening to her on repeat means I can practice different responses, to see which worked best. I’ve learned to stop fact-checking and just listen.
(This, by the way, is also advisable when speaking with people who want to believe in lies.)
“Where does your sister live?” I ask my mother.
“I don't remember. I won’t live with her, you know, because that would be too much for her. I’d live close by though.”
“Would you get a house or an apartment?”
She looks at me, slightly squinting through her good eye, her right eye. “Oh, I don’t know. A unit is fine.”
cross my heart
hope to die
stick a needle in my eye
The song went through my head after my phone call with Gina. She had given me the name of a driver who had the right PPE for braving the doctor’s office, where the doctor would stick a needle in my mother’s eye to treat her condition. The song originated in past eras of plague. Back then, when people died en masse, they were buried quickly—sometimes too quickly. Sometimes a few were still alive. In order to avoid this unhappy fate, a caregiver would first stick a needle in the eye of an unresponsive patient. If the patient flinched or screamed in agony, burial was postponed.
The doctor numbed my mother’s eye before he stuck the needle in. Unfortunately, the anesthetic was always ineffective. She could feel the needle going in every time, and it was extremely painful. She flinched and screamed in agony. But it prevented blindness, so it had to be done.
It’s not total blindness. Macular degeneration causes vision loss such that the center of vision is blacked out, leaving only peripheral vision intact. As I struggled to understand why people would reject vaccination, science, the FDA, the CDC, and facts, I realized that Nick and Tammy’s worldview was similar to my mother’s partial blindness: they didn’t want to look at anything straight-on, with science, but instead embraced fringe thinking.
After I arranged for the driver to help my mother go to her appointment, I researched the vaccine rollout pertaining to care homes. I learned that by November 18, 2020, over 25,000 assisted living facilities across the country had signed up with CVS, one of two major providers doing on-site vaccinations. I learned that all care home administrators in my state had received a registration link they could use to sign up staff and residents for the vaccine, and larger facilities were already administering it.
I checked on Nick’s assertion that I could “just call the doctor” for a vaccine. With irritation, the doctor’s staff confirmed over the phone that they had no vaccines. I then called the county and rolled around the health department until I got ahold of an ombudsman who, after hearing that Nick was ignoring the county’s recommendations for vaccinated care home residents, assured me that the agency would follow up on it, adding, “We’ve heard of several cases like this, unfortunately.”
Doing this work for the care home took me away from my job, away from the difficult project I was working on for Tammy—the project I had been so worried about. The care home problem had, in the interim, provided some perspective.
I was no longer worried about Tammy’s project. I would do my best. If my work was not satisfactory, Tammy was certainly free to find someone else to do it. I rather wished she would, and I planned to suggest it at the next opportunity. It’s a free country. For the time being.
Tammy and Nick were free to tell me about their belief in a lie that comforted them. And I was free to hang up on them.
Hannah Arendt thought big lies work only in lonely minds; their coherence substitutes for experience and companionship. We are all pretty lonely these days; I am, too. But I prefer connection with a mind grounded in reality.
I’m embarrassed to admit it, but this preference means I also prefer not to talk to my mother. The repetition, the raw need of the one idea—it’s all rather hard to take. The thing is, none of this was my mother’s choice. It’s not her fault she has Alzheimer’s. So, I talk to her. I listen. I connect as best I can.
Nick and Tammy deliberately chose limited understanding. Their attitudes lead to actions that endanger everyone. Are we supposed to treat these people like they, too, have Alzheimer’s?
I left a message for Gina to let her know what I had learned about the vaccine rollout. When she called back, she said simply, “I signed up.”
“You…registered the care home for the vaccine?” I asked.
“Yes. I called around. I know some people at other facilities and I asked them if they knew how to do it. They gave me the link. I put my name and email on the registration, so I’ll get notified, not Nick. He’s out of town for a few weeks anyway. Maybe it will all be done by the time he comes back.”
To be human is to engage in relationships with others and with the world. In order for the oppressed to be able to wage a struggle for their liberation, they must perceive the reality of oppression not as a closed world from which there is no exit, but as a limiting situation which they can transform. —Paulo Freire
Video description: A healthcare worker gets vaccinated at a drive-up clinic.
is not no
all so goddamn effortless
no matter, what
the amateurs say, vows
ain’t bragging rights
if I had a thousand arms
if I had a thousand eyes
action would still ask single-
minded focus, I am no less
a goddess, with this one
pair of hands, these waning
eyes, looking inwards as I realize
how to bend w/out breaking
My Pedestal to You
The Monday after the Wednesday the White Nationalist Mob Took over the Capitol
So, white nationalists overtook the Capitol and no one has given a press conference, but the press were there, so details trickle through. Reporters who, having been led by strange officers out of the House of Representatives toward what they hoped was safety, were denied entrance to secure rooms. Lawmakers who called old friends in law enforcement in desperate pleas for backup. Republicans in one safe room who mocked Democrats for offering them masks.
Video description: A Democratic lawmaker offers Republican colleagues masks while they wait, in a crowded safe-room, for insurrectionists to be removed from the U.S. Capitol building during the covid-19 pandemic. Republicans chuckle while declining the Democrat’s offer.
The Congressional doctor, who, a few days later, sent word that all who were in that particular room were exposed to covid-19.
A police officer committed suicide. Wait. A white police officer committed suicide. Video shows another police officer (race unknown) being hurled down steps and beaten with an American flag on a massive pole. A black police officer was revealed to have used his individual body to save lives. Officer Goodman (!) led a mob away from lawmakers, in part by taunting the rioters. The leadership of Capitol security was either profoundly inept or deeply corrupt. The picture is fuzzy, its details, from this distance, hard to see.
It is distracting to watch racist misogynists overtake my country. It has been hard to get work done.
I’ve written to my state and federal representatives. I have to write to my city lawmakers because at least two local police officers were there, and our police Office of Professional Accountability isn’t famous for its effectiveness. According to police on the scene who were attempting to do their jobs, rioters with law enforcement jobs flashed their badges as they pummeled their ways in.
Republican state attorneys general helped organize the mob.
People in the melee said they felt palpable evil, a physical presence. A guy from Idaho who was photographed hanging from the Senate wall like a cat burglar has expressed contrition—he says he was just “caught up in the moment.” A white woman doctor from around here wrapped herself in red fake fur to make a video declaring her pride. Another rich white woman took her private jet to the riot. An impressive number of wealthy people have arisen from these particular masses.
There has been no press conference.
No one is leading the Executive branch, if leadership means anything real anymore. Democratic legislators are arguing about details, methods. Republicans are asking for everyone to just move on (oh, and to look into left-wing activists, who were probably the real problem anyway).
But #ZipTieGuy and one of the others who was fully decked out for violence, the retired Air Force Guy, have been arrested. The rioter who was shot was also Air Force—seems like someone should look into whatever’s happening with the Air Force. Didn’t Tom Cruise play an Air Force Guy? Figures. Arnold Schwartzenegger, on the other hand, made a(n actually) patriotic video. Among other things, he explains that fascist regimes lead to ruined people, like his father and neighbors, who screamed in their sleep after drinking their days away because of what was done to them, and what they did, during World War II.
Video description: Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger sits in front of flags of the United States and California and gives a patriotic speech.
I wrote first thing this morning, before coffee, because I wanted to remember my dream. I was in a massive crowd. I was scared, not because the crowd was evil but because I’m short, and I was being pressed from all sides, and I wanted to get out. A line of old, tall, white men was snaking its way through the melee and I thought: Great. I’ll follow them. I got in line behind a white-haired guy. For a minute, it worked. Tacked on to the back of the line, I was able to feel movement, for just a moment.
And then the line of white guys slithered along a wall, behind a heavy press of more white guys, who filled in around me. Here, now, I was more stuck than when I started. I was more frightened, more claustrophobic.
Maybe the line of men had been trying to shake me, but when I woke, it seemed more likely they had hardly noticed me at all. The most important thing was to write it all down, and to remember never to follow the white men.
Video description: Bokeh lights and fence on a dark, rainy night. -C. Hudak
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