Quarantine Diaries: Volume 2, Chapter 1; Clouds in My Coffee

[Donald,] you’re so vain
You probably think this [post] is about you…

(with apologies to Carly Simon)

It’s been a long time since the last episode in this diary of the Plague Years: not that I haven’t been writing, but the tumultuous events of the past 100+ days have been impossible to coherently catalog, beginning with the failed Insurrection, the subsequent elevation of Joseph the Pretender to the throne, and the retreat of Emperor Donald I to his castle by the sea, in exile, following the failure of the Republican Party to properly steal the November election, despite widespread voter suppression, and the nearly total dismantling the postal service in an attempt to stop mail-in voting.

Or perhaps, a Deep State Cabal engineered the defeat with massive voter fraud, miscounts, ballot-box stuffing, the dead brought out to vote, and other unspeakable (and possibly non-existent) nefarious tactics.  Why the Republicans assume that all dead people and illegal immigrants vote Democratic, I can never understand.  The death of truth means we will never know for sure, but the Republic is surely mortally wounded, though continuing to stumble forward with the same zero-sum all-or-nothing winner-take-all accept-no-compromises division that has characterized partisan politics for the past forty years since King Ronald I ascended to the Oval Office and started systematically dismantling Government By, For, and With the People, declaring it the source of all problems.  The Party of Trump is a distorted and warped version of the Party of Reagan and is a very long way from the Party of Lincoln.

100 days ago, I took the following notes, but the waves of change were overwhelming, so I didn’t publish then–it’s best to look back from the safety of a more bucolic (by comparison only) future:

We’ve come to the end of a seemingly endless display of vanity masquerading as a presidency.  That’s good news, but there’s bad news.  Trump is going away, but Trumpism isn’t.  Trump has refused to concede, and is ceremoniously inaugurating a shadow government in parallel with the new administration that, at his urging, is being rejected by half of the voting population: the capital of Trumpistan (my terminology) is being relocated to Palm Beach, Florida.  Nearly 48% of the population of the territory formerly occupied by the United States of America (now decidedly Disunited)  is ready, willing, and able to exercise their Second Amendment Rights against the other 52% of us who remain relatively sane and hopeful, though deluded in thinking that the United States still exists as a viable entity and that installing a new administration will fix what’s wrong.

And, there we are.  Pundits have repeatedly decried the insurrection and failed coup of January 6, 2021, stating “This is not who we are.”  They’re wrong.  This is exactly who we are, and therein lies the problem.  The country has become increasingly divided because every one of us has a broad definition of policies and procedures “up with which we will not put,” to channel the phrase attributed to Winston Churchill.

For nearly two and a half centuries, with exception of a half-decade in the middle of the 19th century, the country has generally been willing to suffer through at least four years of the opposite point of view every once in a while, tempered by shifts in the legislative branch every two years that tends to temper the imposition of that point of view, thus keeping the lid on and the pot from boiling over.  That worked fairly well, though the machineries of government were, in accordance with expectations in such an atmosphere, ponderous at best and ineffective at worst.  Laws got made and programs got funded that few people liked but most people tolerated, which kept the ship of state on a more or less even keel–until the latter half of the 20th century, when one of the two official political parties decided to up the ante.

While the Democratic Party focused on issues of civil rights for all segments of society, environmental health and safety issues, and national infrastructure, the Republican Party focused on deregulating industry, reducing taxes on corporations and the rich, and consolidating power.  While the main efforts of the Republicans should have been unpopular with a large segment of the public, especially those whose environments were affected by industrial practice and whose communities lacked in adequate infrastructure due to reduced tax revenues, the Republican Party appealed to the religious beliefs of that very segment of society, promising to enact or preserve laws that reflected the restrictions of those religions, imposing them on everyone.  This created a large class of single-issue voters, who would vote to impose their convictions on all, regardless of issues that had wider affect on the population as a whole.

The central issue that dominated politics for the next half-century would be a battle over the newly-won civil right of women to seek abortion to terminate an unwanted or dangerous pregnancy.  Meanwhile, general health-care costs skyrocketed, wages for working-class stagnated, and infrastructure, built up in the boom after WWII, deteriorated.  Fiscal conservatism, the core political tenet of the Republican Party, gave way to authoritarianism in the quest to hold on to the voting base.   To further cement their electability among the rest of the largely rural base that resented regulation and saw little benefit from city-focused infrastructure, the Republicans vilified the progressive stance of the Democratic Party by calling it Socialist, inferring it would lead to the communist form of socialism, with government control and ownership, as practiced in the failing Soviet Union and in the rising economic power of Communist China, even though democratic socialism in other Western countries meant government regulations and taxpayer-funded projects that brought inexpensive healthcare, generous pay and good working conditions to all.  Taking advantage of the voting power of the smaller and less densely populated large states, Republican legislators used redistricting to dilute the concentration of Democratic-leaning voters in cities across the nation.  The effect is striking in the fact that Republicans have lost the popular vote for President in seven of the last eight elections, but still won the Presidency in four of those elections because of the distribution of electoral college votes.

The other basic tenet of the Republican platform was firm insistence that the Second Amendment of the Constitution meant unrestricted ownership of guns, despite the wording that implied that citizens were entitled to bear arms as participants in a “well-regulated militia.”  The wording was clearly a reaction to the conditions of the colonial period, where the British overseers kept the peace with the aid of Prussian mercenaries rather than volunteers from the colonists.  The phrase“A well regulated militia, being necessary for the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed” has been interpreted as all but a mandate for patriotic Americans to own as many guns as they can afford.  The obsession with guns in the hands of the public resulted in the United States having the highest rate of death and injury by firearms of any nation on the planet, with mass shootings and street warfare.  And, instead of protecting the republic, the proliferation of military-grade weaponry in private hands has created an underground army ready to overthrow the government if it displeases them.  As we witnessed on Insurrection Day, 1/6/2021, when factions unhappy with the result of an election, and, at the urging of the outgoing President, mounted an insurrection in an attack on the Capitol to prevent the largely ceremonial congressional certification of an election previously certified by the state legislatures.  The inauguration of the 46th President in the history of the Republic found the Capital on a war footing, with more troops from the “well-regulated militias” of the states in place at the Capital than in foreign combat theaters, and many more in state capitals around the country.

Not surprisingly, at the core of the current internal conflict is the fact that the War of 1860-1865 never really ended.  Chattel slavery turned into institutional racism, with laws and practices to prevent the descendants of former slaves from attaining full rights and privileges of citizenship.  Police brutality in dealing with citizens with African ancestry and recent immigrants from other than European countries is pervasive and rampant.  In a country where religious freedom is baked into the Constitution, there are cries to make Evangelical Christianity the official religion, with grudging toleration for Roman Catholicism and the traditional Protestant sects.  White supremacy is rampant, with hostility toward Jews as well as African Americans, Muslims, Sikhs, and other religious, ethnic, and racial groups.

Mr. Trump is not the cause of the growing schism between progressive and conservative factions of our society, but his open approval and encouragement of racism and xenophobia has fanned the smoldering embers of the Civil War of 1860-65 into imminent collapse of the Republic in 2021.  There is no longer a North and South: the racial/ethnic bias and smear propaganda against progressivism labeling it as socialism or worse divides neighbor against neighbor.  The Great Melting Pot of America that celebrated diversity and welcomed ambitious newcomers eager to build a great society of all of humanity is shown as a thin facade, with the fear and resentment and prejudice bursting forth into clear light.  The end isn’t pretty: once the pot boils, you can’t put the spaghetti back in the box.  We, as a society, have to agree to be civil and tolerant or die.

Already, the politicization of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the divide between taking precautions and rejecting all precautions has spread disease and death like wildfire.  Rejection of science to justify unregulated production of greenhouse gases has brought actual devastating wildfire, season after season, and ever more destructive weather events. In the past, climate change has been triggered by transient events: sunspots, volcanism, etc., which is largely self-correcting in a few years or decades.  The current situation, with fossil fuel usage pumping the equivalent of multiple volcanic eruptions into the atmosphere per day, coupled with the emergence of runaway feedback releasing millions of years of stored carbon from the Arctic tundra and ocean bottom and loss of albedo from the melting of the northern ice cap, is shifting the planet toward a climate that may persist for hundreds of thousands of years, with a corresponding mass extinction of life evolved to exist in the relatively stable norm of the past million years, unable to adapt to the rapid change.  The refusal of the pro-industrial political factions to acknowledge the problem, let alone do anything to mitigate it, is suicidal.  Unfortunately, the natural feedback loop has been set in motion during the past three decades since the denial has dominated, so that any aggressive measures instituted in the near future will only serve to slightly, if at all, slow the catastrophic speed of the collapse.

North America is not a safe place to be right now, and won’t be for years or decades to come.  Trumpism is here to stay.  The divisions of the mid-19th century that tore the country apart once have persisted through seven generations: the current rent in the fabric of society won’t heal, either, if we keep picking at it, as we did with the resistance to the civil rights acts and other social reforms in the last 60 years.  During closing arguments in #45‘s second impeachment, it was almost assured that the Republican contingent in the Senate will refuse to convict him of inciting insurrection, despite overwhelming evidence of his long-standing intent to refuse to concede, his blatant stoking of the radical right nationalists, and his refusal to call in the Guard to quell the insurrection once underway.  When it became obvious that the initial surge had failed to decapitate the legislative branch, he called retreat to protect the insurrectionists, as the city appealed to nearby states for assistance.  The Republic is shattered, as certainly as it was in 1861, but more dangerously, as there is no Mason-Dixon Line to bifurcate the factions into geographic divisions.

Meanwhile, 100 days later, the Red States are frantically legislating to make it impossible for non-Republicans to vote in the next election, with much less subtle variations on poll taxes and phony literacy tests: eliminating absentee mail-in voting, closing polling places, prohibiting food and drink in hours-long lines, voting on work days only, etc., essentially declaring the definition of fraud to be when the people chose their leaders instead of the leaders choosing their voters.  Who knows, with climate change, we may be able to soon grow our own bananas and become a true Banana Republic, complete with Dictator For Life and quasi-military coups that actually work.

Of course, this is much more likely while everyone is preoccupied with either a pandemic that is actually killing people or pandemic propaganda from a Deep State to distract and confuse the population in order to mislead them.  The truth is out there, but no one can agree on which version is the *real* truth and which is fake. ‘Nuf said about that, but meanwhile the death rate is up, undeniably, so there might possibly be a correlation with a world-wide pandemic, or it might just be a coincidence. a “cAt of doG,” as dyslexics would say.  $DEITY gets blamed for a lot of preventable calamities these days, whether or not the blamers believe she exists.  Even though the news is mostly still bad, at least the 5:00 am tweet storms stopped when Twitter pulled the plug on the Tweeter-in-Chief.

We’ve passed the first anniversary of the Great Lockdown, when The Machine Stopped.  Keeping isolated, participating in group activities over videoconferencing and putting on shirt, pants, shoes and mask before leaving the house is second nature.  Everything has changed.  The Old Order is gone, perhaps forever.  The New Order may be still-borne and all will collapse as the plague continues to ravage the land with a ferocity not seen in other corners of the planet, except possibly other places where compliance with precautions is seen as a subversive political act.

Clouds In My Coffee…

This new year began with the realization, a few hours before 2021 was ushered in to be a continuation of 2020–the year everyone wanted to forget–that I am slowly going blind, having flunked my biennial eye exam with no arrangement of lenses able to make the eye charts readable.  The medical system moves ponderously, but there is a faint glimmer of hope ahead: I’m scheduled for eyeball reconstruction near the end of April.  Meanwhile, I’ve cranked up the magnification on the computer screen and try not to drive anywhere I haven’t been before, though I’m probably not legal to get behind the wheel at all.  Reading has fallen off markedly, and my computer programming class has stalled: I make a lot of typos, unable to distinguish {} from [] or (), which have different meanings in programming, and there are a lot of them.  And, research involves a lot of reading.  As noted, my writing has slowed as well.

The surgery can’t come any too soon.  I’ve chosen to be rebuilt as a far-sighted person, having lived nearsighted for the past 65 years, ever since my music teacher sent me for an eye exam when I kept knocking over the music stand to get close enough see the notes and got them wrong anyway.  I’d just to like to see what it’s like, and being of an age when I needed readers anyway, but to remove correction to see close, I’ll need a collection of drug-store “cheaters” yet to add correction to read and work on the computer, afterwards.  I may regret the choice, as some have, but the majority of cataract patients choose distance vision.

The Quarantine Budget:

A month or two ago, I fired up the old Windows computer in order to file the annual Federal Income Tax, for which we use a software tool only available on the Microsoft platform (and Apple’s macOS, which we don’t have: the Windows machine cost less than $150, refurbished and upgraded, when we bought it several years ago to replace our out-of-date Windows XP virtual machine installation.)  In the process of filling out the forms, I had an opportunity to go over the financial records for the past year.  Here’s an interesting view of how our life changed, by looking at expense categories for some of our activities in 2019 versus the period March 2020 through March 2021.

Not surprisingly, the fixed household expenses remained pretty much the same.  Fortunately, the Social Security checks kept coming regularly, so the lights stayed on and the bank didn’t come for the house, but a lot of what we call daily life changed a lot:

Combining together the categories of Auto Fuel, Clothing, Groceries, Dining Out, and vacation travel, those expenses overall were cut in half.  But, the distribution was shocking:  Auto Fuel cost reduced 80%, and the rest, except Groceries, were reduced by 90%.  Groceries increased by 30%.  Our overall food budget decreased by 22%, and the drastic reduction in all forms of travel accounted for the other 23% of the 50% aggregate reduction of those expense categories.

Interesting things happened: I had to add more salt in my cooking, since everything was from scratch and we didn’t eat out.  We cut our grocery trips to once a week instead of nearly every day.  We ordered a lot of food on-line, either for UPS delivery or drop-shipment to a pickup site.  I collected a wider variety of ethnic recipes, and ordered spices on-line, adding Spanish, Moroccan, Turkish, and Ethiopian vegetarian dishes to our repertoire of mostly East Indian and Asian Fusion dishes.  We bought lentils, chickpeas, and black beans dried in bags instead of canned, and use our Insta-Pot to cook them for stews, soups, and hummus.  A grandson gave us the sourdough starter he made as a home lab project for remote schooling, and we bought another bucket of wheat berries to feed into our flour mill, so my weekly bread-baking branched out to whole wheat with sourdough and from no-knead round dutch oven artisan loaves to using the European by-weight ingredient ratios and kneading techniques to make cinnamon rolls, batard loaves, and focaccia, baked on a stone.

More medical issues:

Unfortunately, Judy’s battle with adhesions from past surgeries returned with a vengeance this spring.  She had been dropping favorite foods one after the other for many weeks, and finally went to Urgent Care when no amount of GERD remedies remedied anything.  She ended up in hospital for several days, but no nasal-gastric tube and slowly weaned off clear liquids and sent home, stable but not better.  Consequently, she’d been living on smoothies and soft foods, leaving me to figure out how to cook for one with all of the staple stores we have accumulated, and how to eat up recipes for 4-6 servings before they go bad.  She has a consult scheduled with a specialist, but, like all specialties these days, appointments are booked many weeks ahead.  But, life is what happens when you are making other plans, and at the first of this week, we made an emergency trip to Olympia, where she was admitted to hospital and immediately wheeled into surgery, complete with the dreaded NG tube. Now, at the weekend, she is finally back home, slowly recovering.  No resection this time, but a bit more invasive surgery, so the normal light activity rules apply.  We’ve conscripted our son to chauffeur us to Tacoma and back for my eye surgery next week, and to our second COVID-19 vaccination, since she will be on driving restrictions, as will I.  Does this mean we’re grouped with “old people” now?

Van Life in the Age of COVID:

Meanwhile, in the chaos of 2021, the wet winter brought yet another round of fuzzy clumps of mold to our 25-year-old bicycle hauler and stealth camper.  We managed to subdue it long enough to make a couple of forays out on the bicycle: once on a weekend excursion to the Rain Shadow “up north,” and another to the airport for a quick  spin around the industrial park.  The Check Engine light came on and stayed on during our trip north, and we needed front tires and new shock absorbers.  After some thought and, with reluctance to keep throwing money at the old beast, we made a crucial decision: we looked at the availability of newer vans, preferably taller, more suitable for camping.  Our quest took us to Auburn, to the commercial truck dealer, where we traded both our vehicles, the 2015 C-Max hybrid and the 1996 E-150, on a brand-new bare-bones Ford Transit high-roof van, and spent our economic stimulus money on a commercial liner for the interior.

We’re not going to live in the van, and need to haul big items from time to time, so the industrial look is just fine with us.  We didn’t add any extra insulation, since we live in a mild climate, don’t intend to camp in extreme heat or cold, and have a three-season sleeping bag anyway.  We did add wood rails bolted to the structure hardpoints on both sides, to which we we will rig a bike holder and secure the bed frame and cushions we recycled from the old truck, and Judy sewed up a new curtain for the front of the cargo area.  Other than plans for a storage cabinet between the driver’s seat and the bicycle, that’s the extent of our camper conversion.  Even our electrical connection will squeeze through the rear door gasket, so there’s no external indication that it’s a camper.  As of this writing, the liner installation has finally been completed, but there’s lots of work yet to get the bicycle stowage and storage for gear designed and built.  Wood has been cut and the project is proceeding, hopefully to be mostly complete by the time I go under the knife to get my eyeballs refurbished with cloudless lenses.

We’ve started our round of COVID-19 vaccinations, at last, on the eve of the state opening up to all age and occupation groups.  We’re still observing full precautions, however, and probably will for the foreseeable future.  We’re still conducting all of our social activities through Zoom, two to four sessions per week, moving the computer around the house as needed to best support the venue.

So it goes.  We’ve survived the Plague Year 1, but we are a year older.  It shows.  My van-building video (in editing) shows a a slow-moving, slow-talking old geezer explaining how he overcame numerous mistakes, while peering intently to see what he is doing, though clouded eyeballs.  Judy is struggling to get enough calories without overloading her distressed digestive system.  Still, we’re hoping to get out on walks and bike rides when the weather gets warmer, and spending some time between Zoom sessions exploring in our new ride and visiting friends and relatives once everyone is vaccinated and travel restrictions lifted.