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Looking Past the Pandemic

Redtail Hawk, Ankeny National Wildlife Refuge, Willamette Valley, Oregon. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

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 quite: 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).

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 a 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.

More articles by:

Manuel Garcia, Jr, once a physicist, is now a lazy househusband who writes out his analyses of physical or societal problems or interactions. He can be reached at mangogarcia@att.net

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