Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Coronavirus Blues

If I could have any single superpower in some alternative Marvel Comics World I should like to have hindsight as a gift from the gods. As superpowers go it would be pretty useless for everyone except myself because I have found that knowledge does not overcome prejudice, that common sense does not overcome fear and proof never overcomes conviction. Yet had I the ability to project myself forward six months and see where the world is before returning to the present I should count myself a lucky man.
I sit here in the Keys, so far free of reports of the disease, and ask myself where shall we be in six months and I have no answers. I want to lay my hands on Márquez' book Love in the Time of Cholera and see if I can find any useful advice. Probably not - as a love triangle in Colombia doesn't seem especially relevant despite the alluring title. When I read the book a global pandemic was far from my mind so the cholera details are sketchy in my memory. I could I suppose refer to our leaders for useful advice but as the scientific and medical personnel in the US are pushed to the background the politically laden advice we hear minimizing the disease seems rather unreliable.
I have read the harrowing stories coming out of Italy where the entire country is now under a lock down and movement is prohibited for all but essential travel. There is a nationwide curfew and still they die by the hundreds every day. There is a Facebook post circulating in Italian but the best I could find in English is a link HERE from a New York Post article highlighting a little of what he wrote. Read it if you want to get the pants scared off you. In it an emergency room doctor in Bergamo has written a long post about his experiences in an Italian hospital overwhelmed by people seeking help. They triage and set aside the hopeless cases to die and struggle to save who they can, and even young people they tell us struggle to breathe. It is no normal flu he says, panic is justified.
Sitting on my deck watching Rusty sleep after his usual long morning walk on my days off, watching the cold  gray clouds overhead as another front hovers over the Keys, it's hard to imagine people suffocating in Italy Iran and China by the hundreds, and even now here and there in our own country. It seems inevitable that this will get worse before it gets better. And yet life is so normal, so placid, so even tempered. At work when we take calls from people wanting an ambulance for an unspecified illness we have to ask questions about the possibility of exposure to the virus and the paramedics approach the patient accordingly. The newspaper reports plans to cope if we get a high number of sick people and locally preparations seem measured calm and sensible. And I look around and get a feeling much like I do before the arrival of a severe hurricane, and I have sat through several. I wrote THIS prior to the arrival of Hurricane Irma in 2017.
So what price now my superpower? Would you believe me if I came back from next September to report thousands dead and a country struggling to find equilibrium? Or would you prefer a report saying the whole coronavirus was a damp squib in a well fed first world country with top flight medical care (for those like me with insurance)? I'd love to know the answer myself.
My sisters in Italy are like everybody else confined to their homes but they aren't travelers by nature so it's hard to imagine their hardship as the continue living close to home, tilling fields and killing their own chickens for lunch. Situation normal. Other than the economic losses of a country shut down and vacations abolished, and the usual flow of money dried up. Unimaginable. I had planned a trip to Britain to see my other sister during our Spring Break next week, but the doctor said not to travel especially as my wife has a weakened immune system and could be at risk. She takes, weirdly enough, cancer drugs to suppress her rheumatoid arthritis which in turn suppresses her immune system. Coronavirus could kill her as she is precisely the type of person at risk. Me? I dread looking after her as well as she looked after me when I was unable to move in a hospital bed.
I hope some good will might come out of this crisis, I'd like to think the people who have died will leave a mark that our ideologues will pay attention to, the value of a public health system, universal access to health care and why not, a bit more consideration in public discourse. In Italy the national health service is accessible to all and free hospitals don't have to worry about billing or insurance oversight and they make no economic judgement on the value of a patient. I know I got 58 days of proper rehabilitation after my accident because Cigna was made to pay, largely by my wife's bulldog insistence they meet their obligations. And today I walk normally. I wonder what our society will do with people who have Covid-19 and can't pay? Pushing them back onto the streets will create an ever wider more profound epidemic and suddenly not having the means to pay becomes everybody's problem. There is a lesson in that but I know knowledge doesn't promote sensible decision making. Fear of Socialism will triumph over Fear of Epidemic after this crisis has passed and our society will sink back into a social torpor until next time. And there will be a next time, count on history to tell you that.
We've seen this pattern before and we shall see it again. Hurricane Irma is but one example of rebuilding where disaster has struck. I'm sure your own neighborhood has seen the same, rebuilding in flood plains, under land slide prone areas, etc... On our good days we call it resilience and in moments of enlightenment we scratch our heads. I crashed through no fault of my own and I paid a high price. Are you surprised I no longer ride the same highway where I lay in the road dying?
I'd like to think that by September the world will back on an even keel and as we in the keys gird our loins for another damned hurricane season economies are flourishing Fantasy Fest looks promising and not filthy and coronavirus is a joke in the rear view mirror. I actually rather expect it to look that way. I would be astonished if we had a catastrophic death rate like the Spanish 'Flu of 1918, but what I do fear is indifference to experience.
If in 2021 we aren't talking seriously about the challenges facing us all, be it climate change, energy independence or future pandemics all this fear and panic buying and public hand wringing and political haymaking will have been for nothing. I hear the President blame his political opponents and I hear his political opponents tear him down. Of constructive dialogue I hear nothing. Perhaps it's there behind the grand standing but I feel like a child watching his home burn down while his parents bicker about which photo album is worth saving. 
I wish my camper van were finished and ready for occupation right now. Perhaps it's as well it isn't, else I might be tempted to use it. In a time of cholera we have to stand up and keep on keeping on. There is nowhere to run to or to hide, unless like Webb you could cast off and not touch land for a few weeks and listen to Bach and eat freeze dried food and read books and ponder what to do when the Laphroaig runs out. For the rest of us coronavirus means showing up and doing our jobs and hoping against hope the people in charge learn the real lesson here. I admire Webb and his carefully thought out possibilities.
Its not about washing our hands. It's about getting along.

Silhouettes

I find myself thinking a lot these days about how i will use a camera on the road, when away from Key West. I have been taking these pictures for 13 years with much better technical capabilities in telephones and dedicated cameras. I look back over my early forays into digital photography and I cringe a bit. 
Even now I struggle to define what it is I do as I wander around recording mangroves and mudflats, historic homes and little street eccentricities. In an era of personal pocket cameras it's hard to imagine my trove of tens of thousands of street pictures of wildly varying quality will be of any interest to anyone, certainly not in the form of pioneering photography. I see photos taken a hundred years ago, smudged blurry and banal in composition yet they will live forever because they were first, they broke new ground and all that follows is a pale imitation of the pioneering shutter click.
In the twenty years I have lived and worked in Key West the city has undergone radical transformation as the Internet and improved utilities and remote delivery have made this outpost of non-conformity accessible to the mainstream. I am unapologetic in saying that before the Internet and before the rebuilt highway Key West was too isolated for me, but I have equally done my best not to tread on those parts of this town that I cherish in others, the ability to behave oddly in public and not be berated for it. 
I remember vividly an encounter a good few years ago when someone on Pohalski Lane asked me what I was doing and i replied taking photos because I think it's pretty. Do you live here she asked as though interrogating a low life... No I said but I work in town and I like to walk around and enjoy it on my breaks. She looked accusingly at me and said I've never seen you around. Well I said I go to work then I go home to my wife and I don't  go to parties at bars. She gave up on me. Which exchange about sums it up. I would rather poke my eye out than parade down Duval Street in my underwear, or attend a party dressed as a pirate or even spend a day chasing fish on the water under a burning sun or post pictures of myself doing any of that.  I flit  like  a shadow, a not very agile shadow but out of the limelight nonetheless.
If it is abundantly clear from the nearly 5,000 entries on this page key West for me is somewhere else, a place not populated by bikinis and bars, or sunsets and margaritas but it is mine own, a place of odd signs and elaborate gingerbread decorations, a place where being yourself allowed for a measure of freedom from the herd. My colleagues tell me I am weird because I like to walk and take pictures. I think they are weird because they live and work here and seem to have no curiosity about this town filled with history and physical beauty. 
I wonder how, when traveling with wife and dog I shall find the space to seek out these quiet spaces along the way, to be alone with my thoughts and my camera. My Rusty is an excellent partner in that he waits when he is leashed and he amuses himself when he is off leash as I frame and focus and press the shutter. My wife is very patient and encouraging, pushing me out of the door and making suggestions as to what to photograph, suggestions that used to irritate me until I came to appreciate her eye and her wisdom. I have tried to encourage her to take pictures but it is a seed that sprouts imperceptibly slowly.
I had a thought the other day while reading the blog of a man I dare call a  friend now that I have met him: Scooter In The Sticks . Steve's meditations on riding and photographing and finding serenity on a Vespa in Central Pennsylvania never completely translated to my own use of two wheels. I had a very different riding style which makes it all the more ironic I got knocked down while riding as gently as Steve habitually does. I never found riding to be a meditation, it was exhilarating and engaging and offered lovely solitude but not meditation. I suddenly realized that my camera offers me similar sensations to those so deftly observed by Steve on his page. Where he rides a Vespa to look inward I make pictures to do the same. 
I don't view myself as an artist, my Asperger-ish brain  doesn't much allow flights of fantasy and I struggle to see the abstract in the world around me, or heaven forbid, manipulate the world to create an image pleasing to my artistic mind.I guess I have to settle on being a documentary photographer inasmuch as I like to document the world around me. Were I inclined to seek drama I would rate this as being a journalist but I am tired of the nonsense of pursuing the news as I once did.  
I like to walk around the keys with a  camera and make pictures. That's all. I shall do the same and try to make them interesting to accompany my stories on the road. How I'm going to do that I'm not at all sure but I expect we shall muddle through.