Outside the Bubble

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I keep writing these Life on Lockdown pieces and then not posting them because I decide that they won’t do anybody any good. Neither will this one, probably.

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Before the Sky Falls In

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(Pictured: last day of school hell yeah.)

Here’s more Life on Lockdown, in which we ramble around to whatever seems ramble-worthy.

If my local districts have stuck to their pre-plague calendars, school is getting out right about now. There is no feeling in adult life that’s analogous to the last-day-of-school feeling, except maybe for voluntarily quitting a job in favor of a better one. You walk out with mingled senses of relief, accomplishment, freedom, and expectation—especially the last two, when you’re a kid out of school. Three months stretch out in front of you rich with possibility. You realize that yes, you’ll probably have to work, either chores at home or hours for The Man in exchange for a paycheck, and that it won’t all be golden time. But some of it will be.

What kids are thinking this year, I don’t know. Their world has been gravely circumscribed by the plague. Some continue to work as usual—my nephew, for example, finishing his junior year in high school, has been working the grill at Culvers all through the pandemic and will continue to do so this summer. Others will find their summer plans scrubbed: no hangouts with friends, no music or Scout camp, no family vacation.

I see kids in my neighborhood, sometimes alone, sometimes in pairs or trios, on skateboards or scooters or just walking along, and I wonder what they’re saying to themselves and to one another. Do they understand just how deep is the trouble we’re in?

I am torn about whether I want them to understand it. I have written previously about 1975, when between inflation and international tension and the energy crisis and the culture wars, it must have seemed to many adults that the nation was falling apart—but also how our parents did the worrying for us, and how my brothers and me, aged 15, 13, and 9, barely knew how bad it was. I don’t think it harmed us to be protected from the worst of it. And as it turned out, we survived it as a family, and as a nation. This crisis is vastly worse, however, and all of the potential outcomes seem terrible. Some kids know the score—the number of young people who have been involved in the recent protests against brutal policing is inspiring to geezers such as I. For the youngest kids, there will be a time when they’ll have to understand, but not yet. For now, let them have a little bit of carefree summer before the sky falls in.

On another subject:

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The Big City

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It’s 20 years today since The Mrs. and I officially moved from Iowa, where we’d lived for all but three of the previous 18 years, to the suburbs of Madison. We are still in the condo we bought thinking we’d stay in it three years, and it occurs to me that I have lived in this place about as long as I lived in my parents’ house before I moved into my first apartment at college. Here’s some of a thing I wrote in 2009 about the role Madison played in my life before we got here. Stuff in square brackets has been added for 2020.

I grew up about hour away, but I have no memories of coming here before I was 10. Once the big shopping mall opened, in October 1970, a month in which all things seem to have begun, my family would periodically come up to shop on Sunday afternoons. Malls were not ubiquitous then; they could still amaze with their exotic spaces—sunken lounges, fountains—and stores you wouldn’t find anywhere else. We marveled at the existence of a place that sold nothing but pretzels, and I bought lots of records at the Victor Music store. My aunt and uncle moved here in 1972, which meant that summer vacations with my cousin were now trips to the big city. He was pretty good at navigating the bus system, so we moved easily from their house on the west side to downtown and back. It didn’t take long before I became a connoisseur of the State Street scene, although I’d like to see it back then with the eyes I have now.

But you didn’t have to visit Madison to feel steeped in its culture. Most of the TV we watched came from Madison’s three network affiliates and its PBS station, and I read the Wisconsin State Journal every day. Places you’d never seen became familiar thereby. You knew about Rennebohm Rexall Drug Stores before you ever set foot in one, and Manchester’s Department Store, and the Strand Theater [all of which are gone now]. You knew the names of major streets like Atwood Avenue, Pflaum Road, and Mifflin Street long before you knew where they went. And you knew Madison’s local celebrities, from mayors to sports stars to characters famous and infamous.

It was the mid 70s before Madison radio became as influential to me as Madison TV. I discovered Z104, an automated FM rock station, shortly after it threw the switch in the fall of 1974, and I listened a little to WISM, the AM Top 40 station, although its signal at home wasn’t especially good, and to WIBA-FM during its days as a free-form rock station. [And to WISM-FM, the future Magic 98, where I would one day work and hope to work again, if they ever call me back.] It didn’t take long before a gig in Madison radio began to seem to me like the best of all possible careers—if Chicago radio didn’t work out. When it came time to go to college, I desperately wanted to attend the University of Wisconsin. But it didn’t have the kind of broadcasting program I wanted, so I ended up at another school, which turned out to be the right choice after all. I found radio jobs in Iowa and in Illinois, but I hoped I’d get to Madison someday.

Finally, in 2000, out of radio entirely, we were able to make the move. I remember a conversation with The Mrs. in which I said that even if the job I was taking turned out to be a poor choice, at least we’d be back in Wisconsin. (After it turned out I was right about the job being a poor choice, being in Wisconsin was less consolation than I hoped it would be, although it must have helped a little.) We’ve been here ever since, and while the thought that either of us might be able to advance our careers elsewhere occasionally flits across our minds, we never take it seriously. This is where we belong, and it’s where we expect to stay.

Back to music stuff tomorrow, I promise.

The Message

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(Pictured: Madison, last Saturday, before it hit the fan.)

(Life on Lockdown returns today with political content ahead. Read it or don’t, be offended or not. It’s up to you.)

We read about George Floyd’s murder, and we react to it in horror. Then we read about the riots and other protests around the country, and we react in horror to them as well. It makes us sad and angry. We wish none of it was happening.

But here’s something lots of well-meaning people are saying: From comfortable living rooms—and comfortable privilege—they want to take the moral high ground above the fray. “Both sides are at fault. The cops shouldn’t have killed George Floyd, but the people of insert big city name here shouldn’t have burned shit down in response. How can America hear what they’re saying when all they see is people on TV breaking windows, starting fires, and looting stores? That’s not the message they should be sending.”

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen that, drinks would be on me until time should be no more.

But guess what, Mr. and Mrs. Respectable White People? The riots are the message. People of color have been trying for decades to get privileged white people to see and hear and comprehend the injustices they face and to help do something about it. But nothing ever changes. Asking peacefully hasn’t changed anything. Colin Kaepernick tried it, and some of the same people decrying the current violence turned him into a pariah for it. Voting hasn’t changed anything either, and organized voter suppression efforts aimed at minorities make clear that for them, it isn’t supposed to.

What else would you have them do?

If we have reached the point in this country where people have exhausted all the lesser options, and burning shit down is the only way to effect real change, there’s a great temptation to say that we ought to let it burn. But there’s a broader issue that has nothing to do with burning shit down. After watching police in city after city abuse the legal, civil, and human rights of their fellow citizens night after night—citizens whose only crime, in the vast majority of cases, is exercising their Constitutional right to free assembly—and with the President of the United States ready to unleash the military for the same purpose, it’s hard to argue that the current system is worth saving.

An automatic default to “all violence is bad” without trying to understand why certain people might find violence to be a legitimate response to repression plays into the hands of Donald Trump, who is weaponizing the violence for far more nefarious and destructive ends than broken windows and graffitized buildings. And eventually, not even the moral high ground will save you. Today it’s people of color protesting brutal policing. Tomorrow it could be privileged white people fighting injustices that burst through the doors of comfortable homes in respectable suburbs.

But Jim, can’t you think of something else to write about today? Well, sure.

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The Before Times

In your home, right now, you can probably look up from your device and see objects that you have invested with meaning: the anniversary picture on a wall, the family heirloom on a bookshelf, the concert or game ticket tacked to a bulletin board. Your eyes skim over them frequently on the way to looking at something more compelling. But if you look and linger, you sometimes find yourself feeling what you felt when those objects came into your life, remembering what they represent.

The BBC recently asked people to share the last “normal” photo on their cameras, taken before the virus crisis began. The picture at the top of this post is mine. It was taken on Sunday March 8, when The Mrs. and I were in Minneapolis to watch the Wisconsin Badgers women’s hockey team.

It was the end of a busy week. The preceding Saturday, February 29, was my birthday; Sunday March 1 was the first birthday party I’d had since I was eight. Wednesday the 4th I traveled to Minnesota for what was supposed to be a three-week trip; on Friday the 6th, Ann came up to join me for the hockey weekend, a trip we’ve made several times in the last few years.

We knew about the virus by then. We were already washing our hands umpteen times a day. But we didn’t fear crowds yet. On Saturday the 7th we pregamed in a bar where people were shoulder-to-shoulder (pictured), and we postgamed at places that were equally crowded. After the game on Sunday we drove an hour up the road to where I would be teaching on Monday; Monday morning we had breakfast in a restaurant with whiteray and his Texas Gal before The Mrs. headed back to Madison. That night after class, I sat elbow-to-elbow with fellow barflies in a brewery taproom. On Tuesday the 10th, I had dinner in a crowded restaurant, once again at the bar. By the next day, the United States was starting to shutter. On Saturday the 14th, I taught what turned out to be my last class. The next day I went home, my trip cut short; my final dine-in restaurant meal was breakfast at a McDonalds by the interstate. I would work a week of radio after that, but since Wednesday, March 24, I’ve been on lockdown.

Back on the Friday of the hockey weekend, while waiting for me to get to Minneapolis from rural Minnesota, Ann went shopping, and she bought me a couple of sweaters. On March 1, to decorate for the party, she got me a bouquet of birthday balloons. On February 29, when we visited Madison’s Working Draft Beer Company, I put a brewery sticker on my phone case.

I find myself wearing those sweaters a lot more than my other clothes these days. One of the balloons, pictured here on April 26, stayed aloft for over two months. It has since sunk down behind the TV, but it’s still visible from where I sit in the living room. The sticker is still on my phone case, and I find myself fingering the edge of it while I use the phone. Like the pictures in this post, they are artifacts of the Before Times, when life was what life always was, before it started on the way to whatever it will become.

The sticker will fall off, eventually. The deflated balloon will have to be tossed. The sweaters will be put away until fall. New objects will come into my life and yours, and they will have new meanings. In the After Times, we hope that there will be new pictures to take and new tickets to tack up. But when—or whether—that will happen, we don’t know.

We just don’t.

Lots of people believe that the After Times are here, that states “reopening” this week means that the virus has been beaten and that normalcy is returning. But there’s little or no evidence for that, other than fairy tales told by self-serving policitians, and our own fond and forlorn wishes.

These are still the Before Times.

We are still a long, hard road away from whatever we are one day going to be.

Life on Lockdown: The Middle of the Night

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(Here is a picture of a puppy and a kitten, because I need one and so do you.)

(Life on Lockdown is a regular Tuesday feature, which I write because it’s therapeutic for me. It will continue until it isn’t therapeutic anymore, or until I run out of ideas.)

If I’m going out of my house and there’s a chance I might meet some of the other humans, I wear a mask. I’m terribly self-conscious with it on, it’s hot, and it steams up my glasses. When I get back to the safety of my car at the conclusion of my errands, I can’t rip the thing off fast enough. But I’m not wearing it to protect myself. That’s not the main reason masks are being recommended now. It’s to protect other people. Even though I don’t feel sick today, I could be COVID-19 contagious without knowing it. And I don’t want you to get it from me.

I am not interested in the rationalizations of people who think they’re Batman or Rosa Parks or some kind of freedom fighter by not wearing a mask. What’s applicable here is the adage that says your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins. The Mrs. ticks more boxes on the virus vulnerability list than I do. And you do not have the right to endanger her health, or anyone else’s. Your freedom does not extend that far. It just doesn’t.

The hard-nosed “realists” who have been preparing for the end-times since Obama was elected can’t handle an apocalypse that requires not superior firepower but empathy, patience, and bad hair. I have nothing more to say to those people, and I’m not alone. As Kayla Chadwick put in a Huffington Post essay in 2017, one that deserves recirculation these days: “Our disagreement is not merely political, but a fundamental divide on what it means to live in a society, how to be a good person, and why any of that matters.”

Continue reading “Life on Lockdown: The Middle of the Night”