Sitting at my computer looking at a blank screen. Thinking about … well, about nothing really. Not that this is unusual. It’s an affliction that affects writers all the time.
But what it really is, is that I’m trying not to think about what I’m actually thinking about. Meaning, I’m trying not to think about politics, about the bureaucratic incompetence and incoherence that is the Trump administration, about its cronyism and corruption, about its mendacity, rapacity, and greed. “Mendacity” and “rapacity” … very Faulknerian, isn’t it? I’m trying not to think about Trump’s abdication of his role as America’s leader, this nation, this country. My nation. My country. Despite my best efforts, I can’t help but wonder how many literal lives all this has actually cost us. How many brothers and sisters, wives and husbands, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters have needlessly died.
So, no, I don’t want to write about that because I don’t have anything to say that you haven’t heard day after day going on four years and, in particular, since the onset of this pandemic. That’s true, I suspect, no matter where you think you are on the political spectrum. You really don’t want to hear about it anymore. Except you do. You can’t help yourself.
On the other hand, yesterday morning I went on my deck and much to my delight, there was my 30 foot tall flowering cherry in full bloom, its small flowers a cloud of pink having burst forth overnight. Talk about miracles! I shouldn’t have been surprised. Every year around this time our flowering trees begin to show off. Soon the magnolia, crab apple, and red buds will make their debuts, as will the weeping cherries and dogwoods. But every year it’s a miracle.
One difference between this and other years is that my wife is here to witness it. During her working years, she traveled for most of April and May and would miss this whole glorious period. Thanks to the coronavirus, she’s been here for the past couple of months and will witness the entire springtime pageant for the first time in all our years together. There’s not much to be grateful to the virus for but there’s that.
We’re lucky, I suppose. We worked hard, never spent more than we could afford, made sure we saved. Unless a far greater calamity strikes the country, we’ll get by. It could happen, of course, but we think we’re in pretty good shape.
I think back to my younger days when I was starting out in life as an adult. My first wife and I were living with our newly born son in a small, dark, 2 bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. We were living virtually paycheck to paycheck, as is usually the case with young people. What would have happened to us if a pandemic had broken out and we were isolated in our apartment? Our relationship was somewhat strained as it was. Would week upon week of forced isolation have driven us irrevocably apart or would we have rediscovered what had brought us together in the first place? I have no idea. What I do know is that without the pandemic, over too many years we found ourselves unwilling or unable to resolve our differences and the marriage collapsed.
The stresses put on people in this time of covid 19 are unimaginable. Or, rather, they are all too imaginable, the stuff of nightmares. We can talk of social distancing, and Zoom parties, and 7 pm applauding of health care workers, of the increasing desperation of the poor, of the reopening of the economy but we have no idea what any of it really means. We have no idea how it will change us, change things between people, between families, between employees and employers, between citizens and government, between nations. We can make guesses, but we know nothing.
So, what do we do these days? Our 5-year-old grandson is with us. He goes to school (on the computer) every morning with my wife serving as a TA. It’s an evolutionary process as schools, teachers and boards of education try to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Our 20-year-old granddaughter is also with us. She’s a sophomore at RISD. In the morning she goes to class remotely. In the afternoon she works on her school assignments. Somewhere in there she’ll entertain her brother, which she’ll do until he goes to bed and then she’ll start in again on her schoolwork or her own projects before she goes to sleep around 3 a.m. Sometimes she’ll show us what she’s created, and I’m always amazed at how talented she is, and, now, how facile she’s become with the same software tools that were once used to create my own videos. My wife will fix breakfast and go to school with the 5-year-old, and one or the other of us will cook dinner and take care of the dishes and then she’ll put him to bed where she’ll usually fall asleep with him, waking up about an hour later after which she and I will have a couple of hours with each other.
As for me, aside from some household chores, I sometimes do some writing and sometimes do some nothing, which is something most writers spend a lot of time doing. And I read. For example, I’m currently reading C Pam Zhang’s “How Much of These Hills Is Gold,” an impressive debut novel about the racism, greed and degradation upon which much of this country was built. A few weeks ago, I read Catherine Chung’s “The Tenth Muse,” about a young woman yearning to be accepted as a mathematician in her own right while searching for her own identity in a shrouded past. And then there was “The Swerve,” Stephen Greenblatt’s non-fiction tale of a two thousand year old poem, the only known work by the ancient Roman philosopher-poet Lucretius, and it’s influence on thought in the modern world (e.g., Did you ever wonder where phrase “the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence comes from?).
I try not to think too much about our president and our country and the virus plaguing us all. I think about novels I’ve read that remind me of him, of Sinclair Lewis’s snake-oil salesman, “Elmer Gantry,” and the too real possibility of “It Can’t Happen Here,” of Charles Lindbergh’s admiration of Adolph Hitler in Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America. But the truth is that from the moment he set foot on the national stage in 2016, I reflexively thought of William Faulkner’s Flem Snopes.
Flem, Faulkner said, was “a thick squat soft man of no establishable age between twenty and thirty…with a broad still face containing a tight seam of mouth stained slightly at the corners with tobacco,” and “eyes the color of stagnant water, and projecting from among the other features in startling and sudden paradox, a tiny predatory nose like the beak of a small hawk…It was as though the original nose had been left off by the original designer or craftsman and the unfinished job taken over by someone of a radically different school or perhaps by some viciously maniacal humorist or perhaps by one who only had time to clap into the center of the face a frantic and desperate warning.”
“No,” you might say, “that is not what Trump looks like,” and you’d be right. Yet it is exactly how he looks, how he feels.
But no, I’m not going to think about Trump and all he has brought us. I lift my eyes from a blank screen, to look out the window at the budding Bridal’s Wreath beyond and wonder if the Mimosa has made it through the winter. I listen to the squawk of the geese as they settle down in the pond and try to think of … nothing.
Michael Saltz is an award-winning, long-time, now-retired Senior Producer for what is now called “PBS NewsHour.” He is a resident of Hillsdale.