I quit this “blog” a while back because the writing seemed to hover in that barren place where boredom and meaninglessness have dutiful, passionless sex. Clearly, being asked to skim-read the musings of a washed-up, middle-aged American man going to seed in the Netherlands was about as exciting as the prospect of being forced to binge watch all eight (EIGHT!) seasons of According to Jim while sitting on a second-hand, generic cola-stained Ikea sofa with Ben Stein.
I spent most of my adult life believing that making connections between America and the rest of the globe mattered. At the very least, I hoped that a better understanding of the lives of people beyond South Cornholio, Indiana would teach me how to stick myself into the world with a bit more grace and dignity. Has that worked? Smart money, and this paragraph, say no.
For a while, I even dared to think that I could make other Americans realize the value of this effort as well. “See, people the world over have the same problems, the same dreams and aspirations and challenges and heartbreaks, that you do!” Snort! What a crock, right? I get it now. It has been, is, and always will be “of limited interest and value,” a phrase which I’ve just decided will serve as my epitaph. Timely, with corona and everything.
I suspect that not even this week-long account from the frontlines of the Transatlantic COVID-19 Shitshow will convince you otherwise. Who’s going to fix the potholes?! When’s the McRib coming back!? Why is there no cucumber water in this hotel lobby!? Where’s my goddamn toothpick???
I can’t compete. And yet…
Monday, March 23
Today, the Dutch government’s gentle nudging ends. We’re going into corona lockdown. An “intelligent” one, though. Unlike the French, for example, we won’t have to carry official paperwork explaining why we’ve left the house. But non-family gatherings larger than three or four people, even indoors, are banned. The Dutch Prime Minister threatens fines for non-compliance. “Non-essential” businesses must close. But liquor and pot, he assures us, are still considered vital in the age of COVID-19. Grocery stores must now limit the number of shoppers, or face fines.
When asked to explain why more stringent measures aren’t being taken, the Prime Minister says he’s not “going to tell healthy people that they can’t get a breath of fresh air.” He also begs us not to hoard, or “hamster” as they say in Dutch. Later, he visits a store in The Hague. The shelves heave with hand sanitizer and toilet paper, items missing from our local store in Haarlem for more than a week now. “We can all poop for 10 years!” the Prime Minister tells shoppers. Ironically, the grocery chain he’s using for his “there’s plenty, don’t hoard” photo op has been telling shoppers to hamstereeeeeen! for quite a while now as part of its advertising campaign.
Also, why would anyone have, need, or want to poop for a whole decade?
Four thousand miles away, in Miami, my father-in-law’s been sick with flu-like symptoms for a week. He’s been tested for corona, but the results aren’t back yet. He spoke with my wife on Sunday night. She said he seemed upbeat, and told her he was feeling better.
Tuesday, March 24
Our local grocery store now limits the number of shopping carts available. No cart, no entrance. This will keep numbers down and naturally space people out in the store. Or so we’re told. They’ve also put crime scene tape on the floor to mark where you’re supposed to stand at check-out. When someone gently tries to stop one rule-breaker, he bellows, “Well, I’m sure as hell not going all the way around. Let me in!”
The vet has new rules too. One furry patient at a time. A semi-orderly line of dogs, cats in carriers, and owners stretches down the sidewalk. At the local coffeeshop, people line up in a similar way to buy their take-away tokes. When a group of friends breaks apart, they almost shake hands, but then stop themselves. Instead, they give each other elbow bumps, roll their eyes, and walk away laughing. Small victories, one imagines, wrapped in germ-tainted weed smoke and vapor.
That night, my wife tries to call her father at home in Florida. There’s no answer.
Wednesday, March 25
This is the third day in a row with clear skies and, by Dutch standards, mild temperatures. If we weren’t so intelligently locked down, you can bet your butt (wiped to perfection with hoarded toilet paper) that it would be slinging down the typical Dutch spring mix of rain, hail, pollen, sleet, two flakes of snow, and then a fine mist of despair.
I’m in our back garden, comparing #COVIDIOTS on both sides of the Atlantic. On the plus side, no one in the Netherlands has suggested, yet, that “the cure might be worse than the disease,” or that seniors would be “willing to die” to save the stock market. Still, the usual array of social media “experts” and political hacks is arguing over Lockdown Lite. Tests, masks, ICU beds, flattened curves, the fiscal irresponsibility of southern European countries. Everyone’s got a take, and way too much free time to share it.
One Dutch pundit contends that the Netherlands won’t end up like Italy because, unlike Italians I guess, “the Dutch are disciplined about washing their hands.” Many respond to this with a poll from a few years ago showing that less than 50 percent of Dutch people wash their hands regularly after using the toilet. Smiling, I look up and see, in the neighbor’s bathroom window, 20 rolls of neatly stacked toilet paper glowing brightly in the sun.
At night, my wife talks to her sister. They decide to call the Miami police and ask for a wellness check on their father. Eventually, we learn he was rushed to the hospital on Monday with a shortness of breath. He’s been in the ICU since then. He’s sedated, and on a ventilator. His test results still aren’t back yet, but there’s no question in the doctor’s mind he has COVID-19.
Thursday, March 26
I had back surgery three days before corona shut down all “non-essential” medical procedures in the Netherlands. It had been scheduled for months, so I was lucky to get it done. Lockdown Lite allows physical therapy for those who have recently gone under the knife, but it presents real issues. Today is supposed to be my first appointment. On one hand, I’m not in severe pain and I would prefer not to enter a facility that combines the worst parts of both a doctor’s office and a gym. On the other hand, if I don’t figure out how to heal properly, all the back pain could return.
I don’t have COVID-19 symptoms, so I decide to go.
I sit down in the lobby, and read the posted warning signs. One shows the right way to cough and sneeze. I can hear a nearby patient hacking up phlegm. Another poster politely asks you not to eat in the waiting room. Directly beneath it, a patient unpacks her lunch (a cheese sandwich, of course), crosses herself, and begins to chew. “Eet smakelijk!” says one of the employees cheerily. Bon appetit, indeed.
I’m happy when my physical therapist says I can do the exercises at home from now on.
Outside, the paths are crowded. The Netherlands is a small, densely populated country. Honestly, maintaining distance from another person can be a real challenge sometimes. At one point, I stand aside to let a couple pass. I try to make it look like I don’t think they’re the living dead. They do the same. Luckily there’s a nearby windmill I can pretend to stare at. “I guess the path is too narrow,” says the woman.
We’re all thinking it: “Too narrow for a world infected with COVID-19.”
This evening, we learn that my father-in-law is in an induced coma. They’re trying to give his body a chance to fight the virus. But the doctor is concerned about his kidney function, and asks if the hospital can start dialysis if necessary. There are still no results from the corona test.
Friday, March 27
Willful ignorance knows no borders. Selfish stupidity is infectious.
I’m watching the playground directly across from our house. Each afternoon, children stream in. Their parents stand nearby, making half-hearted efforts at maintaining distance while also sharing a bottle of wine. The children, audibly sneezing and coughing, run from one piece of equipment to the other, then from one parent to the other. They share toys, touch each other’s faces, and then join hands and head home for dinner. The Health Ministry’s campaign slogans of Geen grap, blijf thuis! (No joke, stay home!) and #alleensamen (#alonetogether) either aren’t sinking in, or are simply being ignored.
My eyes move from the playground to my computer screen, where magical thinking also abounds. An Arizona man dies after eating fish tank cleaner containing the non-pharmaceutical version of a drug publicly touted, by the President of the United States, as a potential COVID cure. Another post reminds me not to take any medicine meant for pets.
The US State Department keeps telling us to “come home.” On our own dime, of course, and without any logistical help. But the Netherlands is our home now. Sure, it’s a shitshow, but it’s our shitshow. Plus, the cheese is better.
Then it hits me with full force: the virus doesn’t care whether you believe in it or not. It doesn’t give a damn if you think you’re young and invincible. Go ahead—pray to keep it at bay, choose to shake hands as a political statement. Your beliefs aren’t facts. Your opinions aren’t reality. Just ask British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
As far as the virus is concerned, the farther you stray from the scientific and public health realities, the faster and easier it can grow and spread. In short, corona loves it some stupid. Like many others, I’m wondering why people can’t (or won’t) see that this threat is very real, frighteningly viral, and in some cases extremely lethal. And that right now, the only proven way we know to slow it down is to stay the hell away from each other.
A whining voice in my head screams, “But the path is too small!”
I can hear my wife speaking with the doctor in Florida. Up to now, he’s been neutral in his prognosis for my father-in-law. But this conversation ends differently. He asks whether there’s a living will to guide end-of-life decisions.
Saturday, March 28
Overnight, the local authorities have put flimsy plastic tape around the playground equipment across the street. There’s a single piece of paper, loosely attached to the monkey bars, with a hastily scrawled note on it that says the playground is now closed because of corona.
I promise myself I’m not going to spend the entire morning looking at COVID-19 news, but that’s exactly what I end up doing. Dutch police broke up three “Shit-To-Corona!” parties last night. One person interviewed said: “Ik ben jong en krijgt geen corona.” I am young and won’t get corona.
My thoughts turn to those Florida beaches packed with spring breakers saying exactly the same thing a few weeks ago. The Mardi Gras parades in NOLA. The oh-so-ironic “Fuck Corona!” get-togethers across the United States. And then afterwards, the multiplying effects as all those possibly infected people spread out across the US, and indeed the world.
I think about the parade of politicians, bureaucrats, and media jackals who mocked the danger, who kept telling people to go out to restaurants, bars, and shopping malls. The same leaders and sycophants who now refuse, out of spite, to give medical workers the tools they need, who turn the dead and dying into economic pawns, who throw blame, deflect criticism, and cook up conspiracy theories instead of leading with wisdom and humility in the face of this terrifying new reality.
Saturday night, the doctor in Florida tells my wife that her father is having heart trouble. He asks, again, whether the family is agreed that my father-in-law wouldn’t want to be resuscitated should the worst happen.
Sunday, March 29
The day dawns clear and cold. To avoid the growing sense of dread, we decide to get some of that “fresh air” the Dutch Prime Minister says we’re entitled to. Our little housebound family of three dares to take a walk together outside.
Across the street, in the playground, kids are ripping the tape off the equipment. They wrap their heads with it, wear it like belts. They crawl over the slide, laughing and screaming. Their father stands nearby, scrolling away on his cell phone. He stops to take a picture of his kids.
An “intelligent” lockdown presupposes not only intelligence, but also empathy on the part of the population. You’re not staying home for you. You’re staying home because you assume you’ve been exposed and you don’t want to infect others. Apparently, this requires Herculean levels of situational awareness and unselfishness, two qualities that clearly seem impossible to generate in the myopic, egoistic worlds we’ve constructed around ourselves.
Things happen quickly with my father-in-law after we get home from our walk. The doctor in Florida calls to confirm, yet again, the do-not-resuscitate wish. It’s clear my father-in-law’s heart is shutting down. Less than an hour later, the doctor calls back to tell my wife that he’s passed away. We cry together, #alleensamen, in our little Dutch living room. Outside, we can hear the children playing, the parents talking and laughing. I can hear the wine glasses clinking.
I realize my father-in-law never got his test results back. And that’s when I really get angry.
He’s not some faceless statistic or inconvenient truth for death cult politicians, conspiracy cranks, deluded God-talkers, armchair pseudo-scientists, or any of the other willfully ignorant Chardonnay sippers who think that the realities of a global pandemic don’t apply to them.
He was a graduate of the US Naval Academy. Then he went to flight school, became a naval aviator, and served for 20 years. He served in Vietnam. He liked drinking cold beer, caring for stray cats, and riding his motorcycle. My wife says she can only remember her dad taking two sick days in his entire life—one after he ejected from a jet and had a concussion, and the other after he ran his first of three marathons.
Although he was MAGA through and through, there’s no way he would’ve bought that repulsive “die to save the economy” crap. He gave at the office. He also knew damn well that COVID-19 wasn’t a hoax cooked up by sinister forces in liberal America or by some shadowy foreign power.
For the record, he often carried a licensed handgun on the streets of Miami, thought English should be the official language of the United States, and had no problems with Gitmo at all. If you like your characters drawn in black and white, tough. My father-in-law only offered shades of gray.
Here’s the point. No matter what political or religious fictions you choose to believe, think twice before you launch into thought experiments about how many deaths are “acceptable.” Stop before you make a joke about taking the over/under on Trump’s disgusting “100,000 dead Americans would be a great success.” When COVID-19 stops being an abstraction and gets real, when you fully understand what this virus can and will do to you and your loved ones, it will be a rib-shattering punch in the gut, followed quickly by a devastating right hook across your smug face.
But don’t say you didn’t see it coming.
Later that night, we stand on the second floor of our house in Haarlem and watch planes take off from Schiphol Airport, which is only a few miles away. The skies above our neighborhood have been relatively quiet since the pandemic shut down a large chunk of European air traffic.
I scan my phone. Back in the US, it’s National Vietnam War Veterans Day. My father-in-law always had a flair for the dramatic. I tell my wife, and we chuckle at the irony of it all. But that’s when it hits us. Amid the uncertainties of a pandemic, we have no idea when, or even how, we’ll fulfill the wishes laid out in her father’s will. And we sadly realize that it may be a long time before we get the chance to say a proper goodbye and truly wish him Godspeed.
Stay home. Leave the tape, however flimsy, on the playground equipment. Be kind.
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