We're Number Four!

Or, "Oh, to be young and hopeful again...."

Last February when I received my COVID vaccine I felt like I was participating in something momentous. It was the closest thing to a “patriotic” act that I could remember being part of; I was doing it as much for the people around me as I was for myself, and it seemed like that was a common refrain among people. It felt great! There was an almost jubilant vibe in the air from everyone gathered in the cavernous, abandoned grocery store where the stabbings were taking place. Everyone was friendly, people were smiling and getting along. With the vaccine rolling out, it seemed like maybe we were rounding a corner, that maybe we were going to turn back the tide of this relentless illness. Trump was out, he was banned from social media, and there was still a lingering fantasy that Joe Biden would shut down Line 3 and that Kamala Harris wouldn't go to Guatemala and re-establish that the USA doesn't care about Brown refugees it creates.

Oh, to be young and hopeful again as I was all those years ... wait, was it only months ago? Ugh.

It's a testament to my own failure as a misanthrope to admit that I didn't foresee just how vigorous and committed the anti-mask/anti-vax crowd would be to keeping this country a flaming dumpster fire. Today, August 19, 2021, in Montana—per Maritsa Georgiou, a local journalist who has been on top of all this stuff from the get-go—there are "499 new confirmed cases, 1,752 deaths, 3,269 active cases, and 200 active hospitalizations." Missoula is the fourth most vigorous county when pursuing Glory in Ignorance as it relates to new COVID infections. What can even be done about it? Earlier this year, the "Montana Legislature, led by Gov. Greg Gianforte, stripped local health officials of their ability to manage the pandemic at the local level, and so far the state has refused to take action on the virus’ rapid return." Now, with schools about to be back in session, and a state government that would rather harass TRANS kids than actually help people, we can expect things to get a lot worse before they get better. It's already worse now than it was this time last year; at St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula, "hospital beds are full, staffing is short, and COVID-19 cases are rising amid a surge in the delta variant." Local health officials are imploring the governor to help. We’ll see what happens.

There are plenty of stories of health care workers, who were cheered and howled for last year, being threatened and abused over masks and vaccinations this time around. Not to mention food service people. There’s this gem about “a case involving a Helena man accused of assaulting restaurant employees and threatening them with a gun after being told he had to wear a face-mask,” and the Montana State Attorney General Austin Knudsen, an utter nutbag, “ordering local prosecutors to drop two gun-related charges against the man.”

On a personal level, the Little Shell powwow that was slated to happen at the end of this month, and all the events scheduled around it, have been cancelled. I’ve had a reading in Billings cancelled. I kind of expect that upcoming events in Great Falls, Livingston, and Missoula will probably be cancelled. If they aren’t, I have to question my willingness to go through with them because they probably should be cancelled. I have a Little Shell-related trip to Minnesota planned in October that I am worried won’t happen. These are all changes that have occurred just in the last week or so. Small potatoes compared to people dying but it still bums me out.

“Anyone with any degree of mental toughness ought to be able to exist without the things they like most for a few months at least.”

— Georgia O’Keefe

This morning out my window the cliffs and forested ridge are clouded in gray and it’s a welcome sight. This is actual mist; there are drops of water clinging to the branches of the cherry tree, and the air is cool and wet. Such a welcome change from the layer of smoke that has choked the valley all summer. A brief reprieve too from summer mornings that were already hot by breakfast, and sweltering by mid-afternoon. These conditions have made all this hand-wringing worse. Not just for me, but for everyone. Tempers are short. Compassion is … strained.

I wish I could believe that this summer marks a turning point. That the relentless pandemic, the West in flames, the funky weather everywhere, the dire reports on climate, all of it, would somehow compel people to evaluate just how unhealthily we live our lives. But if COVID has taught me one thing it's that people are not really willing to set aside their own short term desires in favor of a happier future. We are not willing to exist without “the things we like most” a moment longer. There was so much talk about how our lives would be different once we came out of the pandemic but that didn’t happen—except for people who lost their jobs or their rentals and certainly can’t afford a house anymore—and as a result we are still very much in the middle of the pandemic. Just a little more committment to each other, to the world, and maybe we would be on to whatever is next. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Remember what it was like when things were locked down? No jets in the sky making noise. No traffic. I miss all that. I miss what it was like when people weren’t hellbent on constantly doing, and constantly going. That is the world I want to live in. How do we keep the good parts of that world and fix the bad? Get schools open again and get rid of shooters. Fix domestic violence. Curb the explosion of drinking that occurred during those months. Give people time to live.

I generally feel like COVID has my relationship with the human world on, at best, life support. A couple close personal relationships certainly didn't survive this false emergence from the virus, if one measures the COVID Coming Out Party as the week I returned from my May-long Colorado residency, the month when pretty much everyone said, "Woo hoo, it's over, belly up to the bar and let's all start getting after it!" The Missoula I came back to in June, with hotels overflowing and everyone feeling frisky again, was not the one I left. I miss THAT Missoula. The one where it seemed like people kept things close and cared about each other. Maybe I was foolish for thinking it was ever like that. Maybe I'm wrong about how things are today. I just know that I don't trust anyone. I don’t trust people going maskless in public. I don’t trust people who think just because they have the vaccine that suddenly they are superheroes immune to getting it or spreading it or any of that. I don’t trust allowing anyone open access to my heart yet here it is, still wide open and absorbing hits. I left my bookstore gig for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I can no longer trust my ability to remain on the high road when it comes to dealing with entitled out-of-towners. It was bad last year but there was some solidarity and hope for a future. This year I can’t be part of it because nothing about it is fun anymore and I feel foolish for allowing any hope to linger.

I’m not willing to throw in the towel on people though. If I am going to live at all I need to live with people, all kinds of people. Even if only at the length of my arms. There’s no mountain cave I can retreat to with a door I can close against the world. I struggle as much as anyone to find compassion for people who have chosen not to vaccinate, who choose not to wear masks. I don’t want to be around them. But I also despise the clever memes and name-calling and all that that is so prevalent in online circles. What purpose does that serve than make US feel superior to THEM? No amount of stupid-calling and hate posting is going to convince those folks that they are doing anything wrong. It simply fortifies their ideas that those of us who are responsible and concerned with being part of our idea of a healthy community are actually just a bunch of sheep in service to some bullshit opposed to theirs. I think a good percentage of these folks are simply ignorant and afraid—something we all are to varying degrees about plenty of things in our lives—and there are massive budgets in the media throwing mountains of cash at crafty people to stoke that ignorance and fear. I don’t want to be part of anything that keeps that fire burning. Some of these people we are so angry with are irredeemable. Most are not.

There will be a world we have to live in on the other side of all this. I would prefer it be a quieter and more peaceful world. A more compassionate world. A world of listening to each other rather than a world of spitting and yelling at each other. It’s easy to be just another loudmouth asshole digging deeper trenches separating communities. I don’t want to be one of them.