Journal 1 : And So, It Began
March 18 - May 14, 2020
It struck me that this was the first time in my entire life when I could look out into the world around me, my immediate plain and far off vistas, and not with complete confidence count out the darker scenarios from materializing. I did not grow up in a war-torn country or a remote poor country. I knew nothing of places where anything can happen. I could hardly conjure up what a coup attempt must be like, of what guerrilla style battles in the streets or ethnic cleansing directed by those in charge, of what that must be like. What was it like to live through a complete salt-in-water dissolve of political institutions, a wipe-out outbreak of disease catalyzing a spiral breakdown of society? I never had any reason to war game out such doom-and-gloom scenarios in my corner of the world, in these United States. Nuclear armageddon? Sure. I was of a vintage to have known that as a foreground possibility. But even that had rendered itself remote to my still-gelling brain, something Americans had (it seemed) just learned to live with—like commuter smog, gender roles, old racist uncles. But I knew nothing of societal dislocation that could pull apart the fabric of nations, cultures. And to be sure, all of that was highly improbable now. We would more than likely muddle through. But that it was possible. That it could not be ruled out, completely.
This was all unspooling across my brain waves in the wake of days having rained down like a flurry of blows. Ah, that purple flash disorientation before coming-to, the hazy ring-light drift back into consciousness. Ya, I know that product line of disorientation well, had suffered more concussions than I (or my poor brain) care to remember: collisions in sports with opposing players and at least two thrown baseballs, bike accidents (as in many), having once been kicked in the head (for real). Any long-term worry about CTE seemed remote. But I was no stranger to having your “bell rung,” that warrior wave-away descriptor football announcers very quietly dropped from their on-air lexicon a few years back . . . How many fingers am I holding up? You’re fine, Buckhout. Now get back out there!
And yet a familiarity with head trauma, if minor, provided me nothing to go on this go-round. This was all new: a purple flash of circumstances. The roar of events had been the dealer of blows. I went a good deal of March 25, 2020, not even sure what day of the week it was. The head-smacking wash over of so many pang-pained days, one on another on another on . . . serving up a disorientation foreign as to origin, but all too recognizable in its “bell ringing.”
Wednesday. It was a Wednesday. I had to look it up. So fluid the moment, rushing in with dam-break speed, the circumstances and events fantastical but for their exceptional reality, their blowing away of the boundaries of predictable existence. Wednesday, usually a day that would find me swimming at the YMCA. Closed for two weeks now, that had been the first realization in my own routine that Wuhan and Italy were coming, that they were here, a fellow Y member having tested positive for C19 on March 11. I had been at the Y on March 11: a Wednesday. It was shut down the next day when the positive test became known. It was real, the day it had been declared: a fucking pandemic.
My bleary-eyed stumble about days (staying up too late, poor sleep, too many bourbons). It had me wandering about that Wednesday, which might as well have been Monday, or Friday, or a day without a label but only the grey dawn to gloam-of-dusk progression of forces larger than we vulnerable little life forms, backstopped as it all was by the choral improvisation of songbirds moving on with their Spring. They went about their way as if just another Spring day demanding that full-throated songs be sung. This, as all of humanity settled in for a siege.
I was not able to shake the blur that day, the mental and physical haze like a floater but in both eyes. Stepping through the progression of a concussion: the purple flash instant (let’s call it March 11), stunned in the immediate aftershock, the actual physical shock, the concussed soup of thoughts, groggy, that damned unshakeable blur and low brain ache originating from somewhere deep-lobed. Grey matter settles slowly after being smashed about: that most sensitive of organs, the cloak-over shroud slowly dissipating and angling down before coming to rest within a low background hum. Ya, I knew what a concussion felt like. This felt like that.
And that, at least in part because of this: that anything could happen, that for the very first time in my entire life nothing was off the table.
The resulting measures will attempt to sustain workers and businesses in place as a vast swath of the American economy shuts down under shelter-in-place and quarantine orders, the hope that the economy can rebound quickly once the pandemic ends . . .
This national concussion, puzzling over its long-term effects. Some piece of damage must be sustained, a lump of dead damaged brain tissue forever dormant. This, the out-of-the-blue eye-searing hum, the momentary vertigo and confusion, that telltale dazed look: “where . . . am I?” This would be all the scar we would need by which to remember all the fun we’d had during our pandemic year. That deep-lobed ache suddenly beginning to swell. Another nameless day picking up where the last had imperceptibly left off. . . .
Likely, no. But that it was possible.
New York City
My entire family tree comes out of, or somehow loops through the greater New York City area. The original Buckhout—Jan Boeckhout—arrived from Holland in the 1660s. After five years an indentured servant, his debt for the travel to this new world settled, he was free; a state of living enjoyed by all of his descendants since, free to roam and live as they would, though most stayed close. Buckhout is a common name on the New York militia muster rolls during the French and Indian War, North America’s theatre of the larger Seven Year’s War between France and England. We took up in Westchester and further north in Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow when those were rural landscapes. Great-great uncles were lauded far and wide for championship ice boat designs (think long sleek sailboats on truck-length skates) back when that was a thing in the late 1800s. My grandfather and my many great aunts and uncles grew up in the Hackensack area, just over the Hudson. The Dutch, English, French, Welsh, all white ethnic tribes that took up in the greater New York area, their strands are stitched tight into my DNA. Two generations ago, my maternal grandfather, a Reed, came down to Brooklyn from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, to try his hand at music (trombone, specifically) and for the more steady sturdier outcome of a good school. He stayed, “met a gal,” as he liked to say, and raised a family of Reeds. My Mom, my Dad, both natives; my ancestral roots recursive and deep, a root structure that wraps ever tighter around many an ancestor in the ground. I have attended more than one family funeral out on the Island, there being no more visceral human connection to land than death. Knowing of those who lived in a place, died in a place, and were buried in that place, creates a steel-cable bond to that place. To those free and lucky enough to have and value family, free and lucky enough in their ancestral history to know at least something of that history, it is all part of a larger gift: a lineage. There are more Buckhouts buried in and around the greater New York City area than anywhere else, by orders of magnitude. I am of the first full generation of Buckhouts to consider an entire life lived beyond America’s original national capital as not a rare thing. It was a big deal that my father and uncle moved off, though a part of them was, and will always be, there still. Over three centuries of Buckhouts lie in the ground in and around New York City. I have never lived in New York City. But I am from New York City if I am from anywhere at all.
The death toll for that day in New York was 779. All of them dead at the hands of a single thing, a microscopic creation bent on mortal violence. An eyewitness said the streets were empty and completely silent but for the non-ending wail of ambulance sirens. I rarely pray. I prayed for New York that day as if it were my own. And then I prayed for all, knowing that was all I had.
Who do we as a society feel is deserving of an economic bailout? Small businesses are left to wonder as they struggle to hold on . . . Wearing a mask is mainly a tactic for protecting your community, not just yourself . . . Now that experts posit the virus having arrived earlier than anyone originally thought, many Americans are asking: “Did I have it?”
The head-smack realization that you could be an asymptomatic carrier, unknowing spreader of a voracious lung-smothering virus. That you could have been a walking weapon, C19 on you—in you—for a month or more, and had no idea, no symptoms, feeling just fine. That is a sick twisted killer, if I can personify an indifferent novel germ. So cunning, using our sociable nature against us, script-flipping strength into weakness in using our desire for close proximity and instinctual gathering and our fluent A1 talent for inaccurately gauging risk—using all of this against us. We, against ourselves . . . which did not sound far-fetched. Humans work against other humans in the competition for resources, wealth, stature, power, authority, each and every bloody day. But this was different. The simple acts of talking, touching, hugging, breathing, turned on us, turning us on each other, biologically. Maybe it’s just as well. We had been turning on each other tribally for millennia now. How could we be surprised that a cold efficient killer had simply jumped on the bandwagon? It is just an increment or two more cold, a touch more efficient way to thin the human herd; but for individuals stepping up, to mitigate for the sake of others not yourself.
Asymptomatic. That morning, I had wandered through other ways in which I could have been an anonymous killer. I mean, a virus turning us into unsuspecting unknowing reapers is some cold shit, a gold standard (if a rusted out shot-through gilding). But just knowing that I could have been spreading the disease, could have been killing others I do not know and will never properly meet; going about my way, feeling fine. Likely, no. Possible, yes. . . . But, how else had I flat-lined instants of human interaction across this life? How had I murdered moments, floated in-and-out of scenes as a simmering indifferent killer of moods, “good days,” or positive vibes? How often had my impatience, my short-fuse remarks thrown out as off-handed alkaline barbs—shitty little word grenades—gone on to ruin a person’s mood, their day, a general outlook for one or many? I could not classify myself as a super-spreader of such things, but on occasion I had torn off the mask of decency, let lapse the extension of general dignity to my fellow human, and indulged in the sugar-fat high of selfish venting. I had spread that disease, viral vectors of negativity. How often had a middle-finger fury tossed out in a traffic altercation dragged down an already crappy moment to an even more retrograde one, an even shittier “worse”?
It is a trait I had worked hard to wrangle across my years: a public temper so ultimately useless. Unrestrained, it is the sure sign of a petty ego; and if only because it is so easy. It requires no work to be an asshole, only that momentary lapse into the unrestrained shitty-ness of id. . . . I am almost never pushed to that point in a public space anymore, age having snapped such stark and irrelevant spleen-vents into the sharp relief that I am not adding, but detracting—injecting a harmful negativity into the world that only maims. (Those traffic “furies”? Perhaps some work to do there, still.) And yet, there is no doubt in my head: having committed such killer acts across my years, having perpetuated occasional situational murder on those I do not know and would never properly meet. Yes, I have pushed negativity out into the world because I was momentarily inconvenienced, inadvertently (and most often unintentionally) interrupted, denied but a few seconds of unswerving self-absorbed id-fulfillment.
How often had I infected someone’s good mood with bad, killed a breathe-easy day? How often had I spread a minor malice, rained all over someone’s parade? How often had I been a killer?
It was an odd sense to wake up that Sunday morning, early May, and feel that something had turned. The whiplash snap-back hurricane of information deluging and counter-factualizing and fogging over every waking second (mask + exhale + glasses) that had run over the previous months, suddenly, strangely, felt different. It was the low hum of a lull, a brief pause. It fell into the primal bracket that informs you it is no longer Winter, no longer Summer or Fall. A sense that stirs. The cues filter through you, imperceptible to the eye, but pricking synapses all the same. Mysterious, but there: We had come through a phase. Had we come through a phase?
“At the start of this, wise people had been preparing us,” I thought. I had been preparing all of this time: preparing to meet gale winds head on, and daily; absorbing, settling in, keeping my head. Of course, the wise voices were being drowned out in the unreliable bullshit info-storm part panicked run-on, part wave away partisans and pundits who really had no idea what the fuck they were talking about, but talked louder, louder, and louder, nonetheless. I was absorbing that too . . . the only way is through.
We had only been in deep for a few months now . . . though it seemed longer, longer, and longer . . . having watched it bowl through other places from New Year’s Day on through January and February, knowing it was coming but unable to conceptualize “that” here. Wuhan, Northern Italy, Iran. “Those were places not here,” as if that somehow draped an immunity over “here,” a place somehow elevated beyond such things. But then it arrived and that sense of superiority or programmed hometown prejudice / bias against “not here” disappeared with the warmer air. (At least something disappeared with the warmer air.) Subject to the infrared of a reality unknown (unknown to “here,” that is), whole other bandwidths of real were making themselves available to my previously untrained senses. I had been in training since March: Spring training for this time of disease.
It might just have been familiarity settling in, that blending moment when a previous unknown loses its new car smell, its ability to shock and surprise or even hold close attention, and from that point simply existing—another “usual” among normalcies. But then, how normal could a pandemic ever be? History would say quite so. I would hope not so much. Once would do . . . 3 months? 6? 12? . . . I held no experience-stark reserve by which to consider how fucked up this was going be. Forgetting for a moment the spewing mis- dis- non-information, this thing was confounding even those who did have the credentials to translate such things with authority. It was all new. Novel. Unknown. It would take time to know, as it always does when a thing is new, unknown. It had arrived, and we finally did know. Others “not here” had been through it. And they were now doing this better, in those places not here. And we—here—were beginning to understand who we could trust and who we should not trust. At least that part was clear through the face-shield fog . . . Are you a doctor? No? Good. Then pay attention. . . . For all the confused wind shear of bullshit we were subjected to day on day on day, I was coming to understand and was adjusting. Above all I understood that despite this new normal, this new knowledge, the days on days on days of training, just how dumb-luck lucky I had so far been: still virus-free.
I had watched New York City in deep pain, buckling under the strain. I had watched on in desperation, very much like I did all of that horrific jawdrop September Tuesday in 2001. Except that this was a whole month of September Tuesdays minus the epic shock of a single event; just a slow wrenching churn. Watching that symbolic American metropolis shuttered, put to siege, and suffering—a place I know well, a place with which I carry so deep a familial tie (re: April 8). I—we all—were forced to watch from a distance (via tablet video-link, no visitation for fear of viral transmission) as a relative slowly passed. . . . New Orleans and Miami-Dade, Seattle and San Francisco. The states of Texas and Georgia now reopening and at a clip, as if winning a race for lack of conscientious contestants, dumb-stumbling towards victory . . . we’ll have a bed waiting for you. . . . And all the while, a novel coronavirus doing its highly-evolved thing and we all unable to do a damned thing about it, nothing but ride the high-low emotional swing, train, mourn, push through.
But in the whole, the face of things, I say, was much altered; sorrow and sadness sat upon every face; and though some parts were not yet overwhelmed, yet all looked deeply concerned; and as we saw it apparently coming on, so every one looked on himself and his family as in the utmost danger. Were it possible to represent those times exactly to those that did not see them, and give the reader due ideas of the horror that everywhere presented itself, it must make just impressions upon their minds and fill them with surprise. — Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (During the last Great Visitation in 1665)
It had arrived. It was bad. It was worse than I could have imagined. I had no practical knowledge of a viral pathogen. I had no previous training for such things. Certain Pacific Rim countries did. Certain Middle Eastern countries did. The city of Toronto did. SARS: 2004, H1N1: 2009, MERS: 2012, Ebola in West Africa: 2014, outbreaks not of my world, so isolated, of other places / worlds not here. Sure, I now knew a great deal about the Great Influenza of 1918-20, that long ago pandemic. But that was way back then. That was a more primitive time. That was not something of now—not of my world—nothing that we would see again . . . right? (SARS, H1N1, MERS . . . ) To think that I ever carried such a false sense of security, had in my bubble-wrap world held a belief so naive: that modern medical advances and all the public health departments placed us beyond the reach of nature and history?
Since the face-slap realization on March 11 . . . a fucking pandemic . . . I passed through to something else and someone else, another plane of understanding, despite the non- mis- dis-information. I did not feel the better for knowing it. But I was better prepared for knowing it. I had considered the angles as they made themselves available . . . How does one walk through fog-dense darkness? . . . I had trained hard throughout March and April. I was now prepared for what was next, knowing that I could not know what the hell was next. If anything, I now knew what that parting phrase (re: a cool clear evening in early March) meant, full-frame: “It will be bad, but just keep your head and move through.” A wise voice inside the furious dis-info-storm, a mental buttress. Buck Up! Wise people had told me to get ready, to hunker down, and to do so quickly. I had, hoping that concussed moment would be over quickly so that I could get back to things as they were—a thing that I had come to realize was no longer a thing.
For there would not be an “as it was.” I learned this too. And I was only just beginning to train up, adjust. There was only what was to be. Here was a history-erasing moment, a reset by which only training and improvisation, and a keen use of that training and improvisation, would keep you in the race, head above water. That only two months ago I was out and about, stepping through a normal routine and not thinking twice about it or any of the naive “beyond history” assumptions that coursed through my brain’s veins. All of what had come down since, having been schooled by a real magnitudes more real than I had the ability to previously consider.
Once you fold into the taut tough spikes of life, take that experience in deep, you gain a kind of power. You are not emboldened. It is more like a notch on the walking staff, having lived through. That was my mood that Sunday: having passing through to a new chapter of me. Still a ways to go, still settling in to that point on the timeline where I right then found myself, amazed. It was like passing through a phase, I think. How many more? Anyone’s guess. Still, for all the uncertainty, the sleepless nights, the muscular remake of my bullshit filters to detect and deflect said shit pouring down from podiums and those with opinions and microphones—all the high-low emotional swings, the roaring storm all about us—we had come through . . . Part 1?
That Sunday felt like the sun-pour moment when the eye of a hurricane passes over. For anyone who has experienced this, it is a surreality that is hard to explain to those who have not. It is of a miracle, a brief moment of calm, of being able to fully—finally—conceptualize newfound knowledge. The spin-blown fury halts, if briefly. You are left to make what you will of newfound knowledge, if briefly. For it is also a charged eggshell instant. All the while you know what is coming . . . Part 2.
It had begun. It had done its thing and would continue to do its thing: terrible, indifferent, random. “What now?” How many more parts to go? 3, 6, 12? No wise person could yet say. And so, I settled in waiting for the eye to pass over.