A Day in My Life in the Time of Covid

Smoke and Covid, 2020. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

I’m writing this late on Thursday night, after another long day. By my count, it’s the 228th day of our Covid isolation. By that I mean the last time I saw, with the exception of Nathaniel, my CounterPunch colleagues  back in March in a little rental house near Joshua Tree National Park. We had come together for a few days to hike the desert, plot our editorial strategy for the next few months and inspect the sagging fortunes of our bank account.

We talked about the future of the print magazine, how to cover the elections, making significant upgrades to the look and functionality of the website. We discussed book projects and the need to attract more women writers and more people writing about Palestine from Palestine. We drank wine and made a few of Cockburn’s favorite dishes. We walked the desert at night, under a giant moon and the plaintive songs of coyotes. I recall an ineffable sense of urgency that week, as if we were in the path of some convulsive force. We knew Covid was looming, but none of us really knew what Covid was and the kind of changes it would exact on lives, on our work, on our psyches, on our relationships with each other and our writers and readers, several of whom have died over the intervening months.

I had been in southern California  for a couple of months before our Joshua Tree retreat, bouncing from LA to the Owens Valley. I’d been into the bowels of LAX twice and witnessed both times slurs being hurled at Asian travelers, who at that point were the only people smart enough to be wearing masks. Those masks protected them in a virus rich environment, but also made them targets. I spent a day outside Delano with farmworkers, nearly all of them already wearing bandanas on their faces, more terrified of ICE raids than the coming pandemic, but prepared for both.  I spent another day touring the small tribal reservations in the Owens Valley with my friend Paul Sampson, a Paiute, who explained how successive waves of European diseases, mainly influenzas, wiped out more than 90 percent of the Owens Valley Paiute, making it that much easier for ranchers, miners and the City of Los Angeles to steal their land and water. “Capitalism spreads and feeds off of disease,”  he told me. That succinct phrase, uttered as we walked the haunted corridors of Manzanar, continues to resonate.

After we embraced and said our farewells in Joshua Tree,  fully expecting to see each other again over the summer either on the Lost Coast or in Portland, I sped back to Oregon, driving the 1,100 miles from the Mojave Desert to the Cascade foothills in a day and a half. Through California, up the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys, to Shasta I listened mostly to a blues compilation I’d put together for Cockburn many years ago, featuring everything from Skip James, Blind Willie McTell and Sippie Wallace to Big Mama Thornton, Luther Allison and Magic Sam, then as I crested the Siskiyou Summit into Oregon, flipped on the radio landing on a televangelist, who was celebrating the arrival of Covid as a sign of the incipient arrival or the End Times, the beginning of the great reaping. This edifying sermon was followed by two hours of Rush Limbaugh, braying about the coronavirus as a Democratic hoax concocted to undermine Trump. Rush was succeeded by local reactionary Erik Ericson postulating that Covid was bioengineered by the Chinese to destroy the US economy. There was nothing from the Democrats, still licking their wounds from their bungled impeachment charade. It was as if in crossing into Oregon, I had entered an alternate reality. If so, it’s one that still seems to have no exit.

By the time I pulled into the driveway in Oregon City, Oregon itself was beginning to shut down, schools, universities, the public library, dentists, bars, restaurants. There was panic buying in Safeway and Walgreens, cleansing the shelves of paper products (in a state that used to make more paper than any other), rubbing alcohol, Lysol, rubber gloves, condoms, wine. We were fortunate. We had a stash of what most people, even doctors and nurses, didn’t: N95 respirator masks, I’d bought the previous summer when the Willamette Valley was enshrouded with wildfire smoke for a month. The dilemma: use them or donate them? In the end, we kept a handful and gave the rest to a friend who is an emergency room doctor at an understaffed and overwhelmed local hospital.

It turns out I didn’t really need the masks, because I didn’t go anywhere. Not for several weeks. I made one foray to Safeway and another to our local salmon smokehouse. Both excursions fairly unsettling.  One of the cashiers who I’d known for probably 10 years, kept removing her mask to ask me how I was doing. Instead, I became more and more captive to the object that I’ve begun to hate the most: my MacBook, whose hard drive was ravaged by a virus of its own in early April, killing the machine and obliterating several months of work and 100s of photographs that I carelessly hadn’t backed up. A half a year later and the new machine and I still have a fraught relationship. It starts slow and runs slower. It stalls and freezes and puts itself to sleep as I’m trying to finish typing a sentence. I know my prose can be tedious, at times, but putting laptop to sleep?

The first few weeks of Covidtime seemed pretty unremarkable. Time seemed to move at the same pace it had for the past three years, that is: raggedly. But it soon became clear that all of my minor diversions, those life-affirming events that got me through the dispiriting run of weeks, were being shuttered: live music, cinemas, the Sinaloan restaurant with the killer menudo, the used vinyl shop, the kayak launch, the trail network in the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness. Life under Covid began to resemble the flipside of Sartre’s play, where Hell became the lack of other people, interacting only with their avatars, and being confronted day after day only by a mangier yourself, like Edmund Dantès in his cell in the Chateau d’If.

Until we were chased out of our house by the Riverside Fire, galloping toward from the Cascades us at pace of 25 miles a day, my life had settled into a desultory rhythm. Up at 5:30. Feed the cat. Check the phone for texts and voicemails. Put the kettle on. Find the MacBook and crank it up and listen to it whine as the avalanche of emails poured down. Walk to the garden and water the tomato plants, knowing the odds were against any of them fully ripening. Scrub the dishes from the night before. Toss the empty wine bottles into the recycling bin. Pull two filets of Chinook salmon out of the freezer to thaw. Find the remote and flip on CNN to check the headlines, before immediately clicking it off, recalling my vow, made at least once a week, to never watch cable news again. I’ve taken similar vows about reading the New York Times, the Guardian and the Washington Post. But you can’t avoid them. They seek you out, relentlessly track you down, enter your mind, like it or not, like some cyber-Nosferatu, sucking your soul out before you’ve had the chance to fuel yourself with the day’s first bitter cup of Arabica. I think of Eliot’s line about J. Alfred measuring his days with “coffee spoons.” Mine, I fear, will be measured in email downloads. Ain’t it funny how time slips away during Covid and then slips back again, pretty much the same, only darker.

This morning, for example, I got to work editing pieces around six. But the sun won’t be up for another hour. If there is sun. It’s foggy this morning. Fog blended with smoke, from the dwindling fires to the east. The air still pungent with the scent of burning trees.

I hope a storm is brewing. We need the rain, a year’s worth. But instead we’re meant to get an “Arctic Blast.” What that means with an Arctic without an icesheet is hard to know. I hope it brings some rain. We need about a year’s worth. The once feral gray cat, who entered our house as a refugee a few years ago and went missing for a few days during the fires, is now curled up at my feet. There will be no breakfast. There hasn’t been any breakfast in three years. I’ve been bamboozled into following an “intermittent fast,” which prohibits any food from 7 PM to 11 AM. I don’t recommend it.

I check the CounterPunch page to make sure all of the morning’s stories have posted, since they were edited and loaded into WordPress last night. Occasionally there are screw-ups, usually mine.  I’m not proficient in the quirks of the newly designed site, which Andrew Nofsinger and Josh Frank have been working on for the past few months. I wasn’t proficient in the quirks of the old site, frankly. All looks good so far. There are 13 new pieces today. A wide-ranging mix of stories ranging from Nancy Kurshan’s demolition Aaron Sorkin’s film, The Trial of the Chicago 7, to Roger Harris on how the presidential election has distracted us from the real perils of the imperial project, from Henry Giroux on the rise of fascist culture in our education system to Sam Bahour on the nature of Jewish philanthropy in the US.

Then I grit my teeth and examine my inbox. There are 375 new messages since I last checked eight hours ago. The count always swells a little higher than normal because of the annual fund drive. Every morning starts with a purge, wiping out the spam and the advertisements, the duplications, the bounces, the latest alerts on crisis actors in Vegas,  thermite at Ground Zero, the Covid hoax. That leaves still leaves more than 250 messages that need my attention. First, I scan for advisories from the CounterPunch team: Joshua, Becky, Nathaniel, Deva and Nichole. Becky sent a note about yesterday’s totals from the fund drive. We’re down from last year by about 20 percent, even though the number of contributors has actually risen. The economy is more brutal and unforgiving than anyone admits. The rising stock market only reflects how much wealth the one-percent has amassed at the expense of the rest of us. Many of our readers live from paycheck to payday loan, waiting for the second stimulus check that remains mired in the impenetrable politics of the Beltway.

There’s a note from Nichole about books for potential review that have landed in Petrolia. I was hoping we’d gotten a copy of Susan Smarsh’s new biography of Dolly Parton. No luck. So I pick out four or five other titles to be shipped north. Nathaniel writes to update us on the evidence coming out about Facebook’s suppression of progressive new sites. Deva says that a troublesome bug in the site’s shopping cart has been resolved. Josh sends a mournful email about the Dodgers’ blowing game two of World Series and another about the dozen stories he’s editing for Weekend Edition, before he assembles the email Blaster, which will be sent off to nearly 70,000 CounterPunchers in a few hours. There are several group emails about CounterPunch business. We are all brainstorming about ways that we can make the fundraiser more effective, less annoying and brought to an end as soon as possible. None of us are professional fundraisers. None of us like asking for money or sacrificing staff hours and space on the website for this annual ordeal. But we don’t have any other options. We won’t sell ads and we don’t get big grants from liberal foundations.

Not many outlets that take our line on the Middle East or the vacuity of the Democratic Party get grants from the Pew Charitable Trusts or the Rockefeller Foundation. That’s one big reason there aren’t that many sites like CounterPunch, frankly. Another, of course, is that they don’t have our writers. We’re funded by our readers and only our readers. Live by the word, perish by the word.

Thankfully one of our longtime supporters has stepped up this week and promised to match every $100 or more donation up to $20,000 total. The matching grant is landing right on time, but will only make a dent in our modest goal if our readers pitch in.

We seem to scrape by every year, though some years are leaner than others. The last  of years have been pretty lean, partly because we’ve lost one of our largest donors, who had graciously supported CounterPunch for 15 years. He said that it’s time to see if we can swim against the current on our own. I told him we’re all taking swimming lessons and are intent on drowning as slowly as possible. But he was quite right. We now have more than two million unique visitors to the site every month. If each of them gave merely five dollars a year we wouldn’t have to run another fundraiser until 2030. But this year is different. This is the year that Covid struck. Struck and stayed. And the government, at nearly every level, failed. Failed to tell the truth. Failed to slow the spread of the virus. Failed to help treat the sick. Failed to help ameliorate the economic damage they themselves inflicted.

Unfortunately, that’s not the way it works. Three weeks into this annual fund drive we’ve received contributions from more than 2100 CounterPunchers. That’s a nice round number, but it represents only a tiny fraction of our readers. Even so, CounterPunch’s online edition remains a commons; it’s free to all who come and we intend to keep it that way as long as we can. If people like it, if they feel they need it, they’ll pony up the money to keep us afloat. We are compelled to survive amid the grinding swirl of the very market forces that we abhor and are seeking to undermine.

Next, I scan in the inbox for any threatening legal letters. We’ve been sued in the past by a former CIA officer, a Saudi sheikh, two US senators and the nation of Qatar. To name a few. We’ve never lost, knock on wood. Still, the last time we were sued, the legal fees cost us $30,000 and the case didn’t even reach the deposition phase. Since the Gawker ruling, the situation for the independent press has become ever more perilous. Any aggrieved billionaire who sues over the slightest critique and litigates against cash-strapped media sites can force these outlets into bankruptcy. Trump, of course, is eager to lend presidential authority to this assault on the first amendment.

Fortunately, there are no demand letters this morning. But there was a torrent of hate mail, which is always more instructive to read than the rare herogram. “Why are you so soft on Putin?” “Why are you in Putin’s pocket?” “Your blind support of Assad is outrageous.” “Why did CounterPunch turn its back on the Syrian regime?” “ANTIFA are fascist scum.” “ANTIFA is the last line of defense against fascists.” “You guys are climate deniers.” “Why did CounterPunch abandon Cockburn’s critique of global warming science?” “You Bernie Bros are responsible for Trump!” “I’ve donated for many years, but not after St. Clair’s vile attacks on Bernie.” “What do you have against Tulsi?”

I sympathize with the confusion. Unlike many political sites, CounterPunch doesn’t a have company line. The online edition of CounterPunch has always been a venue where different voices, on what can loosely be described as the “left,” can freely engage in fierce debates about politics, economics, war, movies, racism, music and political movements. We’ve tried to make CounterPunch free from dogma and cant, but to keep it open for writers with fresh points of view and vivid writing styles. The experience can perplex readers who are used to grazing in the usual media feedlots of processed prose and artificially-colored opinions.

The view from my desk.

The phone rings at 7:30 AM. It’s the first call of the day. There will be dozens more before it finally goes silent. As usual, those early morning calls remind me of Cockburn. We talked every day at 7 AM for nearly 20 years. I miss his friendship, his jokes, his recipes and his political voice. Alex would have had rich sport carving up Trump and Biden. This call, however, is for a radio interview about the presidential debate scheduled for tonight.

Today’s Thursday, one of the busiest days of the week for Josh and me. This is the day we put together Friday’s Weekend Edition, which generally runs a slate of 45 stories. We’ve been collecting potential pieces over the week. Now the essays must be edited, the links inserted, photos selected, captions, headlines and sub-headlines written. We have to order the stories, write blurbs and load them all into WordPress. I usually edit stories on Wednesday, more on Thursday, and then a few on Friday morning, waiting on some of our late-arriving regular contributors. Each story takes about 20 minutes to edit and load. That’s nine hours of steady work at the Mac. If nothing goes awry and something usually does.

Brian Cloughley has written from France on Trump’s nuclear shenanigans. The historian Tim Coles has sent a chilling piece on blunders during the early months of Covid that led to thousands of unnecessary deaths.  Veteran journalist Eve Ottenberg dismantles the herd immunity scam. Nader, whose writing is getting more venomous every week, sent a column excoriating Trump’s pathological lies and the Democrats’ inability to counter them.  Ramzy Baroud dissects the hypocrisy of the European nations in its dealings with Palestine and Israel. The great Ariel Dorfman imagines Dante placing Trump in Hell. Kathy Deacon, one of Cockburn’s colleagues at the Voice, surveys Leon Trotsky’s still pertinent reflections on the nature of fascism. And Paul Street, whose terrific book The Hollow Resistance we just published, has written an essay on the ironies of Barack Obama.

At noon, I take a break for lunch. The first protein of the day is the last bowl of a pot of pork verde that I’d slow cooked on Sunday, hoping (and failing) to get it to resemble  a dish we’d been served at La Choza in Santa Fe many (too many) years ago. Normally, I’d wash it down with a can of Tecate. But the cerveza stock has been low since April. Safeway doesn’t deliver alcohol. I depend on the comfort of visitors, usually Nat, when he drops off June, the French (or possibly Corsican) bulldog. I take a walk in the fog, listening to an audio version of War and Peace, trying to keep the patronymics straight. Only 55 hours to go, according to the Audible app. The air is sharp and crisp. Is winter really coming?

I write a few emails to writers reminding them of the deadline for the next edition of the new CP+ digital magazine and write some thank you notes for contributors to the fund-drive.

At 1:30 PM, I dive back into the editing and work steady until my interview at 3. To unwind before the radio gig, I shut down the Mac and pick up my black Epiphone SG, plug it into the old Fender amp, turn the volume up and rip through the first few baselines of “Come As You Are.” The cat we call Greymalkin unwinds from her perch on my desk. She normally likes Nirvana, except when I slaughter their work. She shoots me a menacing look and makes a dignified exit from the room. I play the crunching opening riff from Black Sabbath’s “Into the Void” a few times (better than yoga or meditation for wiping away tension and stress) before the phone rings for the interview.

After the radio show, I work on a few more stories and review Becky’s update on the daily totals from the fund drive. Not awful, but not great, either. We’ve got to pick up the pace or confront a crisis. I quickly check the website traffic. It looks pretty robust.

I put the salmon in the broiler, fire up the rice cooker and, lacking lettuce, try to concoct a salad out of radicchio and cabbage.

Around 6 PM I finish editing the last of the pieces for Weekend Edition and turn on CSPAN for the debate. After about 10 minutes, I turn the sound off and try to follow through along through the closed captions, which is struggling to translate the slurred diction and garbled grammar of both politicians. Another sign that our political culture appears to have hit maximum informational entropy.

Surviving Covid, one book and power chord at a time.

After dinner, I retreat to my office with my MacBook and a pre-rolled from Gnome Grown (the local pot shop) and try to finish this column. I put on Roseann Cash’s “Seven Year Ache,” which isn’t a breakup album, though you can hear the fissures beginning to form with Rodney. It seems suited to our current political and epidemiological condition.

Not wanting this to be an entirely fact-free column, I do a little research. In the last year, CounterPunch has published 5273 articles by more than 2000 different writers. On average, we add 12 new writers to the site every week. This year we published writers on every continent, including Antarctica, and from every state, including Mississippi and South Dakota. The articles were read, posted, tweeted, re-tweeted millions of times by nearly 16 million individual readers. Those numbers are impressive, considering CounterPunch’s origins 27 years ago as a six-page newsletter published fortnightly for a few thousand subscribers. Many of those original subscribers stay with us to this day.

Over 27 years, I think we’ve proved our worth. We’ve built CounterPunch into an intelligent, combative and radical presence around the world. But we can only move forward with your financial support. There’s no safety net for us. CounterPunch is run by a dedicated skeleton crew. After all these years, against all odds we’re still here. We’re still a lean operation with no waste to prune. Every dollar you can manage is crucial to our survival.

It’s 10 PM when I finish this column-cum-plea for money. I download my email for the last time and shutter the MacBook. It’s been an exhausting day. A steady rain begins to beat at the window. The grey cat looks up at me. She’s an odd cat and often follows me on my late night walks to clear my head, but she’s showing no inclination toward venturing outside into the Oregon fog and drizzle tonight. Sometimes you’ve got to walk alone, even with a virus on your trail…

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3