June 29, 2020
All the kids called last Sunday for Father’s Day. We talked, as we always do, about visiting, which is being pushed farther into the indistinct future. “On the road” has pretty much become “up the street to the hardware store.” We tried to fake a reason to get out of town. Maybe it will work out next month. Meanwhile, I have chores to finish.
Pausing for that moment, Father’s Day is one of those Hallmark holidays, like Valentine’s Day—nice, but not really commemorating anything. This year it was swallowed up in the hoopla over the Trump Tulsa rally, which came along with the new pandemic surge. It’s spreading where a month ago people were saying they’d never wear a mask or stay home. The turmoil that followed Floyd’s death didn’t abate for that special Sunday, either. People were in the streets in D.C., in Tulsa, in Seattle. One month and everything seems worse.
Seems worse, is worse. Getting to 123,000 covid deaths will do that. We are traumatized by the collective grief, and by the invisible threat. I think of Londoners in the 1940 summer of the Blitz, German bombs nearly every night. The true-believer Trump cadre still insists it’s a hoax and that masks are for Democrats. On Friday Dr. Anthony Fauci, the infectious disease expert, used the word “protean” to describe the dynamics of covid infection. I wondered: do those guys in cammies and carrying guns get that?
We know one thing. A working baseline for thinking about the pandemic is that the Trump administration attitude reaffirms Stalin’s cynical insight: one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.
Beyond the pandemic, the wrenching polarization of the culture has had another, little-noticed effect: Americans, with their political opinions, have become obnoxious at worst, insufferably boring at best. Either you’re certain Trump and his family are ripping off America for every nickel they can squeeze, or you’re convinced that Joe Biden and the Dems will tear down every statue in the country, not stopping with Confederate generals.
So we recognize all that. Then we can move on, back to our own lives. Two members of our running group are doing that: they’ve bought homes in southern states, after decades in northern Virginia. They’re heading for the beach, warmer weather, lower taxes, less congestion. It may seem like an immutable law of nature: get close to retirement, think about the next step, typically cast as upgrading “quality of life” by changing the scenery.
We’re not standing still. I’m touching up the banged-up wall of the downstairs bedroom, replacing moulding in a couple of places, repairing ceiling tiles I installed years ago, and excavating and repairing the sump pump drain line. Never thought I’d be stuck with that one. If the mildew keeps attacking I’ll be powerwashing again, reliving the experience of last September (this blog, Sept. 30, 2019). And so on.
Truth is, I still would be blowing those things off if we weren’t thinking about moving ourselves. The moulding has been broken for years, same with the ceiling tiles. The gash in the bedroom wall is only eight months old, made by a plumber on an emergency call. Other than the minimum, like cutting grass and some painting, I quit on handyman stuff years ago. I have power tools stashed in the basement I haven’t touched in decades.
Rousing myself to take care of these things has not been easy, and I needed a serious push. The real point, the point beyond the point of thinking about the repairs is setting out to do them, just as our friends set out to find new homes. These are positives that force us to act, to focus on the real world, the nuts-and-bolts, executing complicated, usually annoying tasks that have a metaphysical dimension. They require serious attention to concrete, existential things: the tools, the materials, the measurements. To fix the ceiling I have to pay attention to all that, plus the equally difficult act of balancing on the ladder.
If you tackle these things, the reward is a contribution to your own life and the family’s well-being. That applies even if the result is less than professional, if the moulding you installed is a little crooked, if there’s cement smeared where it shouldn’t be smeared. You could have hired a pro, but you didn’t. You might need to hire one for something else.
“Quality of life” requires small, deliberate steps. You don’t get past those steps listening to talk-show hot air that reinforces your opinions and prejudices. Those hours you spend with Fox or MSNBC and on the internet are gone forever. Those repair jobs still will be there, haunting you.
The home-repair thing is just an example, probably an obscure one, of what I’m thinking. Our friends will be setting out on great adventures in new communities, where they’ll reappraise their lives. The goal is joy and enthusiasm for whatever lies ahead. More than three decades ago we uprooted our family from a comfortable life in Tennessee and moved to New Jersey on a bet we ended up losing. After a year we did it again and landed in Virginia. Changing communities, changing states, is transformative—no other word works. The point, for the umpteenth time, is move forward, always forward.
There are other ways. We have friends who are awaiting the birth of a grandchild. They’re preparing to celebrate the coming of a new life to their family. They’re anticipating the joy of it. We’ve been through that, we know. Right now we’re stuck with the chores. I’m working on my attitude. Hope there’s some joy ahead.