Here it comes, here it comes, here it comes, here it comes
Here comes your nineteenth nervous breakdown”
Here comes your nineteenth nervous breakdown”
--Lyrics from “Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown,” written in 1965 by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones
Everybody's feeling it. It's all piling up. Disaster upon disaster. A global pandemic that is both ravaging and humiliating our country, shocking systemic racism, economic blight, and every day new revelations about a President who seems intent on exacerbating our every crisis. Maybe you had yours a month ago, maybe yours is coming next month, but Steve is sure feeling it as he discusses, with apologies to the Rolling Stones, our widespread societal agita in “Here Comes My COVID-19th Nervous Breakdown.”
“Um, Steve, can you focus for a minute? …Uh, there’s a reason why we are all on this ZOOM call…”
I continued hovering over the CNN alert that had popped up on my Apple watch and then gradually shifted out of multi-tasking mode and looked up at the grid of images. Six guys were staring intently into their cameras, looking mighty somber.
“Hey, guys!” I called out, mustering a semblance of enthusiasm. “How’s everybody?”
Fred cleared his throat and began, appearing to be speaking for the group. In the rectangle to his left, I could see John, arms crossed, nodding grimly as Fred spoke.
“Steve, we all felt that we needed to talk to you. All of us.”
So summoned, I awkwardly lurched so far forward into the camera that my nostrils fleetingly filled my entire ZOOM rectangle.
“Shuuuure,” I said, forcing an air of nonchalance as I twitched uncomfortably, feeling the laser stares of six buddies. “So, whassup, dude?”
“Dude,” Fred parroted back, clearly annoyed with my ‘tood, “We need to talk. I mean, man, your last few BTRTN columns… total downers, pal. All total bummers.”
I suddenly realized what was going on. Fred and John were staging a ZOOM-tervention! Damn, I had only heard about these for the first time a couple of days ago, and my buddies were suddenly trending on this one. Fred, having made his point, stared at me, expecting a response.
Danny jumped in to fill the awkward silence. “Steve, it’s just that… you know… you used to be, you know, funny. Funni-er, anyway. Funnier than you have been recently. That last one you wrote? I mean, come on, that was sort of harsh, don’t you think? We have a lot of friends who live in the South and the West…” Joe vigorously nodded as Danny spoke, emphatically seconding the message like a overly-shaken bobble head.
John had been waiting patiently. “It’s simple, Steve. Your blogs used to be funny. Now you are a goddam firehose of depression. It’s non-effing-stop, man. Last week you essentially accused every Southern Republican governor of being an ignorant sycophant enabler who was sending their citizens to the slaughter, the week before was the doozy about how what divides the United States is now bigger than what unites us, and, oh, then you accused Trump genocide. Hey, man, we get it! Bad news everywhere!! Apocalypse now! But we count on you to at least try to lighten it all up a bit… slip in a few jokes, some word play, that’s all we’re asking for, really… is a little word play so hard?"
I slumped in my chair and pointedly pretended to read some urgent alert on my iPhone, like an insolent child absorbing a tongue-lashing with aggressively passive-aggressive immaturity.Then it hit me. They were right.
“Look, guys, you have to understand, this is an awful time to be a blogger! Basically, everything sucks. The pandemic sucks! The embedded, intractable, systemic racism in our society sucks! The unemployment rate sucks! Our police suck! The carnage the pandemic is causing to our educational system sucks! Trump sucks, Barr sucks, McConnell sucks, Jared sucks, Ivanka sucks – I mean, it all effing sucks!!!! Sucks! Sucks! SUCKS!” I paused to catch my breath. “Maybe I didn't realize how much it is all getting to me..."
Suddenly the room began swirling and I was sweating profusely and panting. I was dizzy and hot and had a Charley horse the size of Indiana in my right thigh. I bolted upright, and realized I was in my bed. I jumped up, hopped wildly about my room to ease the ferocious clench in my quad. I had fallen asleep with the tv on and now Seth Meyers was flying at 70 mph through his antic attic monologue, the bathroom lights were on, and I had knocked my water glass over onto my iPhone, which was still flashing with three alerts from The New York Times.
Of course! The ZOOM-tervention had all been a miserable nightmare.
But I realized what was happening.
After months of sheltering-in-place, I have been hanging on to my sanity by just a wispy gossamer thread, and suddenly that last tenuous connection had been caught in the backwash of a 747 take-off. Time to let go…cue the Stones…
“…here it comes… here it co-omes… here it CO-OMES! HERE COMES MY COVID-19th NERVOUS BREAKDOWN!”
Hey, it’s a thing.
It’s already happened to a lot of people.
Have you had yours yet? That sudden plunge into the deep-end of despair as the enormity finally sinks in?
It is that dissonance between “enough of this already,” and “our country has not even begun to solve this thing, indeed, many parts of the country are busy making it worse.”
It is the anger of “we did everything we were told to do,” and “the Federal government did nothing.”
It is the frustration of “we stayed home with the expectation that the government would implement a contact tracking and tracing system so that we could re-open safely,” and a President intentionally undermining the creation, centralization, and funding of such a program.
It is the reality that the people who are doing all the right things are depriving themselves of hugs, touch, embraces, or kisses, while the people who are cavalierly doing the wrong things -- defying social distancing and shunning masks -- are the ones enjoying hugs, embraces, and kisses.
It is human to simply want to relax, to begin to engage in some semblance of normalcy. We are all doing it, each in our own ways. But the risk has not been reduced. Rather, we have merely increased our tolerance for risk. All, just in order to stay sane.
It is the soul-crushing daily death tally, and the knowledge that a stunning percentage of those deaths are only partially attributable to a potent virus, but must also be blamed on the callous indifference, ignorance, appalling selfishness, and corruption of our president and the Republican leaders who kneel before him.
I can’t say I’m surprised that I am losing my grip.
What triggered it now? It could well have been the massive display of ignorance, arrogance, and selfishness that is causing wild contagion rates in the South and West... and still the utterly inadequate response from governors in Texas, Florida, and Arizona. Maybe it was William Barr’s latest torpedo to our system of justice, or the newest evidence of Putin's sickening hold over Trump. More than likely, it was all of the above and then some, the accumulated despair and ruin of three and half years of Donald Trump.
But I am smack in the middle of my COVID-19th nervous breakdown, and today – bear with me -- I am well into my rant and I am just going with it.
We’ve spent one hundred days wandering in a desert of social deprivation, thinking each visit to the Whole Foods meat counter is going to be our last, coping with dopey ZOOM backgrounds, second guessing whether the social-distancing walk we took with that Match date is going to take down our whole family, and now the “Y” claims to be re-opened and the only piece of equipment I want to use has already been reserved through July.
Those simple, simple human activities that leaven the daily burdens and bring comfort – a dinner out, a ballgame, a neighborhood cook-out, a 5k race, a baby shower, pounding IPAs while dancing to a decent bar band on Saturday night – it is as if our very humanity been locked behind unseen gates.
The people who are doing the right thing are behind masks, so we don’t even know if they are smiling at us. The smug smiles on the people who defiantly don’t wear masks sicken us. Literally, and metaphorically.
For so many, the pandemic has suddenly intensified reality, creating a sine curve of emotion in which each swing of mood is a greater deviation off the horizontal axis. Loneliness is intensified, despair hangs a like a dead weight on top of daily frustration. Fleeting moments of joy – a video of a baby’s first birthday – can send the heart soaring, but only for the duration allowed by your Instagram feed.
People who live together in cramped, overcrowded apartments face the daily trauma of heightened risk, stakes, and stress… contagion to one is contagion to all.
Many couples are experiencing an entirely new and profound stress on their relationship: one partner remains extremely cautious, while the other is eager to embrace the re-opening of bars, restaurants, and gyms. Tensions build.
People who have long lived on their own realize intensified isolation, but they have also discovered that in many ways their experience coping with life as a single person has made the adjustment to sheltering-in-place easier than what they see in married couples and families. It's not a brutal adjustment, just business as unusual.
The virus shocks us with an entirely new understanding that our society is brutally unfair. Those with the ways and means to opt out of urban life are finding that zero-commute sheltering-in-place near water, grass, and trees is an idea whose time may have come for the long term. Those without choice must ride the subway, eat at the distressed deli, and work alongside the person who is coughing too often. Once again, it is the minority populations who are bearing the brunt of the suffering caused by the entitled, white, wealthy one percent that manipulates the strings of puppet politicians.
Everyone – everyone – can tell you how COVID-19 has turned their life upside down. There are a handful of people who can tell you (and I am extremely fortunate to count myself among them) that the pandemic has actually created unforeseen positive circumstances and silver linings. But for every such fortunate soul, 999 will grit their teeth and describe a world traded-down, diminished, and with hardship at every turn.
The pandemic will only exacerbate societal inequity. Public schools in well-to-do suburban towns are doing a good job of remote schooling, and a town full of suddenly-stay-at-home parents who have aspirations for an Ivy offspring can helicopter their children like never before. But in the urban school where the parents are scrambling just to make ends meet? What will the long-term societal cost be of a year of schooling dramatically reduced or essentially lost entirely?
All of this could be an overwhelming burden to the most effective of governments and the most brilliant and inspiring leaders. That we chose this particular moment in our history to hand the keys to the country to a malignant urinary tract infection of a human being makes us cry out in anguish.
And now we are realizing that many states – mostly in the South and West, dominated by Republican governors who suck up to Trump -- tried to return to normal too quickly, and now are only prolonging the perverse abnormality, intensifying the suffering, and -- yes -- creating the very real possibility that the pandemic will roar back into the Northeast and Midwest. Sure, we have our share of idiots here, like the individual who traveled to Florida, returned, and immediately attended a high school graduation ceremony, triggering an outbreak of COVID-19 infections. Andrew Cuomo is wary that the sloppy, lax, and casual governance of Southern and Western states will undermine the success New York has shown in wrestling the virus to a draw. He announced that "any New York employee who voluntarily travels to a high-risk state will not be eligible for COVID protections we created under paid sick leave."
So the point is freely conceded: my last few posts have been a dystopian vision of what happens when entire regions of the country ignore science, and how the ignorance and politics of those states could set the entire country burning anew. But mine was a more accurate depiction of what is unfolding in Texas, Florida, or Arizona than anything local citizens are getting from their government officials.
Let's face it. The entire Presidency of Donald Trump has been one, long, agonizing exercise in learning that every time you say “things can’t possibly get any worse” you are simply goading the gods into proving that you are mortal, unimaginative, and foolishly steadfast in a flawed belief. Things can get worse. And as long as Donald Trump is President, things will get worse.
More executive powers will be seized. More lines will be crossed. More racists chanting "White Power!" will be retweeted. Those who stand on principle and in defiance will become the targets of an utterly corrupt Attorney General. Voting procedures will be undermined.
And maybe we have finally learned a lesson about our humble place in the cosmos. At this point, we’d be fools to rule out asteroids, hurricanes, volcanoes… or domestic violence not witnessed since Gettysburg.
One good thing that may come of all this is that Americans finally stop their utterly fallacious and egregious belief that this country is the greatest nation in the world. We have been humbled, humiliated, exposed, embarrassed, and revealed to be a country that is comprised as much of weak, selfish, lazy, ignorant cowards as we are persons of decency, compassion, and worth. Europeans are banning us from traveling there. Good riddance, you stupid Americans. This is the first world war in which you are not needed and not welcome. Indeed, in this war, you are enabling the enemy.
My Dad, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, would have felt betrayed that the country he risked his life for was now a palace of corruption, greed, self-interest, and exclusion. My mother, who never suffered fools, would have felt her blood pressure rise nigh to bursting were she expected to countenance the coarseness, malevolence, ignorance, and stupidity of this President.
They would both have been disappointed to see how my generation squandered of the sacrifices of theirs.
Sure, let’s all do everything we can to get Joe Biden elected.
Let’s hope it will be the first step on a very long, very painful, and very difficult process of re-educating the citizens of this country that unless we create a land of equal rights, equal opportunity, equal justice, and equal aspiration to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we are fated to sink once again into the cesspool of the next Donald Trump.
For my part, I will make a renewed effort to find the few flickers of humor in Donald Trump’s dungeon of cruelty and self-involvement.
Ok, there it was. I think it's over now.
There it was, there it wa-as, there it wa-uz… there was my COVID-19th Nervous Breakdown.
I really want to wake up from this nightmare, but this time I don't think I will be able to.
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