The air quality on a recent day here in Los Angeles was “unhealthy for sensitive groups.” But the next day’s was just straight-up “unhealthy,” even for the insensitive. When I took out the trash — a major excursion for me these days — the air tasted of wood smoke. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine that a neighbor was barbecuing meat. A savory herd of cattle. On a bonfire of aged California redwoods.
I’m struggling here not to idealize the past, because nostalgia doesn’t help anyone. But it’s hard to forget how good we had it a few weeks ago, when our only problems were the global coronavirus pandemic and the incipient collapse of our democracy.
The saddest thing is that we didn’t even appreciate our good fortune. Which is of course human nature, but still embarrassing. We complained! We felt sorry for ourselves. We “didn’t like” wearing masks at the shops. We found them “uncomfortable.” They caused our glasses to “steam up.”
What a bunch of prima donnas. We should have celebrated every masked breath we took containing only “moderate” levels of ozone. Shouted with joy over each of our footfalls along the open road, uphill though it may have been. Treasured looking at the top halves of our friends’ beloved faces across six feet of distance at a backyard party, rather than having to triangulate their positions through dense, eye-searing smog using a kind of primitive sonar.
Why didn’t we exult each morning that the sky wasn’t orange? When the view from our backyard parties did not evoke a Hieronymus Bosch hellscape?
I suppose there’s no point in beating ourselves up about it. We have to move on. We adjusted to the coronavirus lockdown, and we can adjust to the new malignant atmosphere too. We’ll find different ways to unwind and de-stress, now that almost every hobby and pastime we depended on to sustain our mental and physical health has become a deathtrap.
I do miss taking socially distant walks with my friend Charlie through Beverly Hills, admiring houses that may or may not have been owned by celebrities. Charlie brought along a paperback guide the first time (it had been a gift), but it turned out to be organized by celebrity rather than by address, so we used our phones to Google each house we passed, finding out with a few clicks everyone who had ever owned it and its current market value. If you don’t think this sounds like particularly rigorous exercise, or you worry that we were playing fast and loose with the perils of real estate envy, you’re right on both counts. But that was basically the only exercise I got, and now I can’t do it without incinerating my remaining alveoli.
As they say, you can’t go home again. Or even to celebrities’ former homes, it turns out.
So what should I be doing now that I’m not supposed to breathe air? By now it’s clear, incidentally, that this isn’t just one of those wacky California problems, like having too many ripe avocados. President Jimmy Carter once said, “Whatever starts in California unfortunately has an inclination to spread,” and smoke plumes from our fires have already reached the Atlantic. (And of course, Oregon is on fire, too.) Your sky may not look quite as much like a lava lamp as ours yet, but give it a few days.
And then let me know what you’re up to, because I’m low on ideas. I don’t want to spend this time in a fetal position in my closet, gibbering in existential terror! Because how bummed will I be when the next cataclysm arrives and I realize I failed to appreciate the relative luxury of my current situation — including having a closet? Won’t I look upon the smoldering ashes of that closet and wish that I’d organized it, or at least enjoyed it, rather than merely gibbering in it?
I have no doubt that we’ll eventually figure out ways to fill this time, even though we’ve been driven back indoors just as we were tentatively venturing out. We’re a resilient species, and one thing history tells us is that those who survive extinction-level calamities don’t then die of boredom. Once the dust settles, they roll up their sleeves and get to work rebuilding society.
History doesn’t always mention what they did while they were waiting for the dust to settle, unfortunately. Well, we do know that Giovanni Boccaccio wrote “The Decameron” during the Black Death of 1347-1351, and it’s a surprisingly dirty book.
Which means, of course, that he had hope. He didn’t think the Black Death meant the end of the human race. He proceeded on the assumption that it would be an unfortunate interlude, that it would end at some point, sparing at least some of his contemporaries, who would appreciate a little erotic stimulation as they set about repopulating Europe.
It’s still very dusty in L.A., what with toxic ash sifting down from the sky. And we have no idea whether we’ll ever be able to resume the comfortable rituals of our pandemic lifestyle — which, lest we forget, were themselves just ways to kill time before we could get back to our “normal,” pre-pandemic reality, which a lot of us hoped would itself prove to be a finite interlude before the next election, when we would restore our “normal” democracy with a “normal” government. Is “normal” just going to keep receding further and further into the inaccessible past as worse and worse things keep befalling us?
If so, maybe we have to give up the hope of “normal.” We can value the few life-affirming human activities still available to us, but we should resist getting too attached to them. Like, the people who “just don’t feel right” if they don’t spend at least some of their day on solid land — that’s not the attitude that’s going to get them through the deluge. My one piece of practical advice is that if you, like me, are allergic to horses, now’s the time to stock up on EpiPens. Get at least four. The way things are going, those horsemen can’t be far off.