Sunday, February 7, 2021

Life and Death During the Pandemic Era

The last several years I've written annual recap blog posts sharing things from the past year that inspired me (places I traveled, books I read, pieces I wrote, music I loved, etc), but up until now I couldn't bring myself to do so about this past year because, well, fuck 2020. 

If you're reading this I hope you and those you love are healthy and thriving and 2021 is off to a flying start for you. We all know 2020 sucked. It felt like a season of death. We were all forced to become very familiar with thoughts about death. Many hundreds of thousands of people in America died (more than the number of American deaths in World War II**) from a new strain of coronavirus that apparently originated as a nasty pneumonia transmitted from bats to pangolins to people by way of a "wet market" in Wuhan, China before spreading rapidly across the entire planet. No place hit harder than America, a country of populous big cities and the only civilized nation on earth without universal healthcare. The news in America, which had seemed to get increasingly worse as the T**** presidency creeped into its fourth year of corruption and destruction, became filled with spiking coronavirus cases and mass death statistics. Famous people died one after another (in a year that began with the gut-wrenching tragedy of Kobe Bryant and his young daughter perishing in a helicopter crash in late January). A litany of legendary Major League Baseball players died during the pandemic year including Tom Seaver, Phil Niekro, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Dick Allen, Whitey Ford, and Hank Aaron. Luminaries fell. Death numbers climbed. The morgues overflowed. Scenes out of movies, mass graves flanked by protective-suited medical workers, city parks become fresh burial grounds, this became normal.  On the final day of 2020 we learned we had lost one of the all-time great rap artists MF DOOM, he actually died two months before they announced the news. 

(**Since some dipshit trolls posted misinformation in comments on my blogs about this, I want to briefly share my views on the Covid-19 death numbers. In my day job I work at a medical software company that essentially provides hospitals and EMS agencies with record-keeping systems. From the start of the pandemic, as our office closed down and everyone shifted to working from home, our medical director provided regular updates and insights on what the hospital data and studies in various medical journals was revealing. As Covid-19 first began to spike, they noticed the mortality rates from most other illnesses also increased, surges in Covid-19 hospitalizations leading to lesser levels of care available for other patients. That set the tone for what we've seen with enormous death numbers and some questioning which of those are directly due to Covid-19. A way to look at is this: over time there's an average number of expected deaths each month based on recent years of data and during this pandemic the total death numbers have skyrocketed such that, compared to years past, there have been in aggregate more than 400,000 excess deaths. Parsing which of those people drew their last breath directly and specifically as a result of Covid-19 is difficult but, like I mentioned, those who didn't suffer from coronavirus were dying at unusually high rates because of an overwhelmed public health system.)

With all that stuff going on, I lost three friends in the pandemic year, three people I liked and connected with, funny people who made me laugh, three people who, going into 2020, I did not at all consider I might never see again or that they might not live to see 2021. From the shock of those deaths I spent much of the past year in a state of grieving. It's been difficult to process it all, felt like painful debts accumulated because how can we pay due respects to the dead when we can't gather to honor their memories in wakes or funerals?

First it was my friend Richard who died in early April last year. Richard was an incredibly cool person, a true Renaissance man, a poet, a philosopher, a novelist who worked in Austin as a professor and played in several bands as a musician, he was a wisecracking Jewish guy from the Bronx who loved to tell stories and talk about literature and philosophy. I loved him and he inspired me. I wrote a memorial about him at my other blog after he passed. I found it hard to accept I would never see him again. He had been fighting cancer for a couple years and we stayed in touch, but I wasn't allowing myself to consider that he might die and I took the news of his passing pretty hard. My memory drew up everything it could recall, a podcast episode we recorded together, him reciting poetry and songs at parties, our many inspiring discussions, him schooling some racist assholes in an argument one time. Then I realized I had a few old voicemails from him saved on my phone, he had called me to share a bunch of thoughts once after we'd had a deep conversation about something. Hearing those helped me remember and appreciate who he was, to find a little closure and say goodbye. I want to share something I found on YouTube here---it's a video of an early-1990s jam session with Richard and his band Orangutango from Austin (he published a novel about his experiences as a musician in the thriving Austin music scene). Richard is the guy on saxophone and he absolutely slays it. I love seeing him and his skills while in his prime. May he rest in peace.

In May my favorite Joyce scholar, John Bishop, whose work I'd written an in-depth four-part study about, died after contracting Covid-19. His Book of the Dark remains the best of the books on Finnegans Wake. Bishop's scholarship, his analytical approach to literature combined with a facility for expressing his ideas in a clear manner and with a sense of humor, this had an enormous impact on me and my approach to reading. (Listen to this interview of John Bishop with my friend Gerry Fialka.)

During the summer, in the span of two days, two friends of mine lost their parents. My friend Nikki from up the street, she moved her dad from southeast Texas up to Austin to be closer to him while he was suffering from a number of illnesses. He was staying in a house down the street from me and required regular care. I met him shortly before he died. He was bed-ridden, enjoying the final days of his life smoking cigarettes, drinking whiskey, and watching tv. I didn't know him, but Nikki would tell me stories about him. He had an extremely heavy Texas accent (same as Nikki, like a deep Cajun accent, with a great sense of humor), he was a pretty wild dude, she told me how once he drove his Harley inside a bar, revved it like crazy doing donuts, then sped away and temporarily evaded the pursuing police cars by turning his lights off on a country highway. 

Then the next day I learned that my longtime friend from childhood who I'll call Spit (short for his surname Spataro, his name is Anthony but everyone I grew up with had nicknames) suddenly lost his mother. Chiara Spataro was 63 years old, a matriarch in a big and tight-knit Italian family, a powerful force, nobody who knew her would forget her. I have so many memories of her I will cherish and keep. Growing up in NY, I spent a lot of time hanging out at the Spataro house. Chiara was a mother of three sons, all hockey players, and she cooked a big dinner every night. I'd be there hanging out and I'd eat dinner with the family and she'd mock me for the bizarre dietary quirks I had as a kid. The Spataro fam is a deep-rooted Italian family, Chiara was from Naples and spoke Italian, they had a family butcher shop in Brooklyn where we sometimes hung out as kids, and I remember the big family, Chiara and her siblings and cousins used to gather and hold these boisterous card games at their house, all speaking Italian and playing Texas hold'em. What I will always remember about Chiara (aka Claire) was that she was a tough lady and she always had my back. To give some context here---we all grew up playing ice hockey together in travel leagues around New York and New Jersey, and let's just say it could be a pugilistic environment, fights in hockey games, brawls in the stands, fights at the hotels or parking lots, this stuff was not unusual at the time. Our hockey team (the entire organization, actually) got banned from the state of New Jersey around this time because of so many fights. Well, after a game once at a hockey rink inside the Palisades mall, somehow I got into a fracas with some asshole in the food court. I was around 13 at the time and some older kid who was probably 16 didn't like the way I was looking at him so he got up and got loud and tried to beat me up. Seeing this, Claire got up and got right in the kid's face and shouted his punk ass down, then when the boy's parents tried to get involved she shouted them down too. She just ferociously cursed them out right there in the middle of the food court on a Sunday afternoon. These people did not want to catch a beatdown from the loud Italian lady cursing at them in the middle of that food court. I sat down to eat my Burger King breakfast now feeling extra safe next to Claire as we watched that kid and his parents scurry off. She was a warrior, she stood up for me and I'm eternally grateful for that. I want to express my condolences to the whole Spataro family, Chiara was truly one of a kind and I know she will be missed.

Later on in the pandemic year, a friend named Molly was in the hospital with a mysterious illness, her husband providing us and her other friends with regular updates via email. We were all pulling for her and hoping it would all be fine, she was 45 years old and hadn't been sick before that we knew of. The news seemed to be getting better and then it suddenly turned bad. I'll never forget that shock of hearing the news of her death on a Tuesday morning in October. I'd gotten to know her pretty well over several years in the same group of friends, she was an exceedingly kind and cool person, always someone I sought out at parties because she was easy to talk to, she had an interesting background (professional film editor who grew up in Hawaii), and she always seemed genuinely interested in hearing what I had to say. The news of her death seemed to stop me in my tracks. I felt like a zombie and had to work a regular workday. Prior to Molly's passing, my view on death had always been basically that death is not always a horrible thing for the deceased themselves as much as it is a horrible experience for the loved ones left behind mourning them and indeed her husband and teenage daughter are unimaginably devastated. I just remember that day I felt so sad for Molly, and it struck me in a deep way how tenuous this life is and I just kept thinking about how grateful I am to be alive, I felt so thankful for this life and this existence, life's thread felt perilously breakable. How terrible to have this end, my brain thought. I walked around outside and I was relishing the clearness of the blue sky and the feeling of a light wind. I wondered where Molly could have gone, I thought her soul could be off in other galaxies right now, soaring through other dimensions for all I know, but it felt tragic that she would never again get to experience the feeling of a light wind across her face on a nice sunny afternoon in Austin. I'd been in the habit of counting my blessings during the difficult year, but at that point I was counting my breaths, wondering how many more times my lungs might get to breathe before this existence ends.

Just ten days after Molly passed, I got the news that a friend of mine named Scott, who I had worked closely with for three-and-half years, was found dead. He was 36 years old. That news messed me up badly. It's hard to write about it. I think about him every day. He and I were teammates at work, we sat together and talked and joked and solved work problems together almost every day for more than three years. We went out for lunches often. We got beers after work. We had common interests, he was my age, he was a writer who published several novels, he loved to talk about books and authors. He was also a huge hip hop fan, especially east coast rap, and we talked about that often. Even though he had a gift of gab, he didn't waste too much time with small talk, he always wanted to discuss the profound mysteries of existence and reality, always. What's been so weird in the wake of his death is that he and I had so many conversations about death that I keep recalling. He wrote a trilogy of novels about a character who fakes his death, it was an idea of great interest to him. He used to explain his theories to me in detail. That also made it difficult to process the reality of his passing. We'd just had a long phone convo and regularly exchanged texts in the weeks before his death. Cause of death is still unknown, only that he was found in his apartment and it didn't appear to be suicide. I've never felt death so close to me. That his story concluded so abruptly, his life cut short so young, that really hurt. Still hard to process. I cried for days, there were nights where I woke up sobbing uncontrollably. He was going through a rough stretch in his life and he was angry at me for some reason and we didn't get to resolve it, and days later he was dead. Few people I've ever known cherished conversation as much as he did. He lived for intellectual debates, but he wasn't a jerk about it, he just loved to make logical arguments (he was a contract negotiator by profession) and he always wanted to hear what I thought about things. He was brilliant and sarcastic. He was always funny, that's what stays with me. He had a wickedly morbid and self-deprecating sense of humor, the humor never relented and his jokes rarely missed. Even on days when I was sick of hearing his voice, he made me laugh. His sense of humor is what I will always remember. His accent had a southern tinge, his voice had a unique vocal fry and he'd say my name a lot when he talked to me---"You see, Peter, here's why I think there's no such thing as free will," he'd say and then explain his theories about quantum physics, dispelling logical fallacies. A repeated joke, so dark yet so funny in the delivery, was he'd say, "Well, Peter, the thing is I don't have a soul." Ugh, I hate that he's gone. I will hopefully write about him more in the future because its too painful to go into more at this point, but here is his obituary page and I shared some memories of him on there. May he rest peacefully.

*   *   *

Helping me get through all of this has been my dog ROA. He's a large pitbull puppy, not yet 2 years old, a force of pure joy and exuberance and playfulness. It's hard to be down for long with him around and he never leaves my side. He is an absolute maniac and watching him run around and play fills me with joy. A couple days after my friend Scott died, I was pretty rattled, felt like I got hit by a bus, I was an emotional wreck, and one day we took ROA to the dog park on a sunny late afternoon. That day ROA got into playing with his buddy Luke, a big bulldog who's about the same age and also has a ton of energy. These two large puppies always have so much fun wrestling and chasing each other and pinning each other down and nibbling on each other's faces, it's honestly one of the most pure and beautiful things you could ever witness and that day watching them it just fed my soul and healed the pain I was feeling. I took a long video of it---the sun is low, the shadows are long, and these two maniac puppies are having the time of their lives, I go back and watch it whenever I need a boost.

This is what they look like when they're playing (ROA is the black pittie and Luke is the brown and white bulldog):

And here are some more pics of my dog because he's amazing:

Puppy King on his first birthday.

*   *   *

I have been doing a lot of reading during the quarantine. Last year I read 40 books. Here are my favorite reads from the past year:

1. Time of Useful Consciousness by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

2. Little Boy: A Novel by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

[I read several books by Ferlinghetti last year and these two were my favorite. The first one is an epic poem on the history of America, the title "Time of Useful Consciousness" is an aeronautical term "denoting the time between when one loses oxygen and when one passes out, the brief time in which some life-saving action is possible," an image highly relevant to the past year. Little Boy: A Novel is an incredible book that you should read. An endless run-on sentence poetry stream autobiography-slash-social commentary by a 100-year-old poet. More about it below.]

3. Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann

[An enormous and enticing cinderblock of a book. Garners comparisons to Joyce but reads more like Gaddis to me. Mostly made up of extremely long stretches of thought-stream prose reaching 1,000 pages within which Ellmann weaves an up-to-date to the very moment modern American tale. Published in 2019, it's full of Trump anxieties, gun nuts, American history, Native American history, and most presciently one of the opening pages mentions this: "the fact that Ben says everybody on earth will soon be starving or suffocating or dying of SARS or Ebola or H5N1, the fact that H5N1 only has to mutate a few more times and we're all goners." (p. 4)]

4. Ballpark: Baseball in the American City by Paul Goldberger

5. Baseball Prospectus 2020

[Golberger's study of the history of ballpark architecture is wonderful. And the Prospectus annual keeps improving, now on its 26th year and the 2021 edition is great too.]

6. Hamlet's Mill: An Essay Investigating the Origins of Human Knowledge and Its Transmission Through Myth by Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend

[I wish there were more books like this. A study of the precession of the equinoxes and astronomical observations embedded within mythologies across the world. I've written about it before and will have more to say about it soon.]

7. Reader's Block by David Markson

[I re-read this favorite because it's mainly a poetic meditation on death and a cataloguing of how famous people died.]

8. Don't Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems by Stephanie Burt

[The message of this book is that for the interested reader there is so much poetry out there, so many varieties of poets and poems, that you as a reader need only explore different poems and poets and you will eventually find what most satisfies your tastes. Learn what kind of poems you like and seek that out, a more rewarding approach than slogging through stuff that bores you just because it's famous or whatever.]

9. ARK by Ronald Johnson

10. Radi Os by Ronald Johnson

[From the aforementioned book by Stephanie Burt, I discovered the modern poet Ronald Johnson and he immediately became a favorite. These two brilliant works, essentially making up one epic poem that is his magnum opus, ARK and Radi Os (the latter an erasure poem of Paradise Lost) became part of my canon of essential books and I read each multiple times.]

11. Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet by James Atlas

12. Summer Knowledge: Selected Poems by Delmore Schwartz

[The Brooklyn poet Delmore Schwartz has become a subject of great interest to me, a rewarding escape when I was down in a pit of sorrow and mourning for a while. A series of posts on Schwartz will continue at this blog soon.]

I wrote a bunch of things during the past year, including publishing a few articles, here are the most noteworthy things I wrote:

1. Book Review: Little Boy: A Novel by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

[This was an article published in the James Joyce Quarterly. Full piece is behind a paywall but I wrote more about Ferlinghetti and why I loved his latest book here as well.]

2. Album Review: The Interstellar Corridors of Killah Priest's "Rocket to Nebula"

[Rocket to Nebula was my favorite album from last year, an experiential record that I got to soak in while driving through the mountain ranges of Colorado on the only trip out of Texas I've taken this past year, the powerful chords of this record humming and its message making me take flight in those vast altitudes. Don't miss this article, it's a special one.]

3. Who Got the Camera? by Kevlaar 7 & Bronze Nazareth: A Lyrical Breakdown

[This is actually the first installment from a book that's been in the works for a while. It's a breakdown of two verses from a 2011 rap song about police brutality and racist violence, examining the powerful and prescient messages shared by the late Kevlaar 7 and his brother Bronze Nazareth in their music and what I learned from it. This was published at the website Hip Hop Golden Age in the wake of the George Floyd protests.]

4. Notes on Delmore Schwartz

[Ongoing series across my two blogs looking into the life and writings of American poet Delmore Schwartz who died in 1966. He wrote great poems and was an insanely brilliant and inspiring human being, he was also obsessed with Finnegans Wake and baseball which is what I focus on in this series.]

5. "the mystery of himsel in furniture" and other stuff on Finnegans Wake

[During peak pandemic times I wrote a bunch of stuff about Finnegans Wake on my other blog including a piece about what the dead leave behind, a piece about the postal service, and a piece about police brutality and monuments to oppression. After the virus hit, our Austin Wake reading group took to regular Zoom meetings and grew to include people joining from LA, San Francisco, Toronto, Ohio, Atlanta, and Taiwan. These convos provided regular ideas for writing on the Wake.]

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