At press time, Milpitas air quality is reading in the Green. Translation: “good.” Translation: no smoke. Translation: hallelujah!
Have you watched the air maps over the past 30 days? It’s become a pastime, or addiction, among many here. The map’s looked not unlike a metastasizing cancer: curving Orange-Red-Purple-Brown blotches. Like a stew steeped in poison. A maze where the exit door’s melted off. A swirling mirror image of the pinch in your throat and the ache in your clenching lungs.
It’s impossible to describe what this past month has been like, to those who weren’t here on the ground. We’re still experiencing a record-breaking Spare the Air Alert, which has just now hit its 30th day. That means it’s illegal throughout the Bay to burn wood or other solid fuels, lest we create the risk of more smoke and fire. The last record was in 2018, when the deadly Camp Fire up in Paradise had us Sparing the Air for 14 days straight.
Naturally (unnaturally?), things are getting worse.
My body doesn’t trust the shift. The outdoors is strange and mystifying terrain. I’m writing these words in my backyard. As a writer, I’m supposed to have command over sentences. But as the smoke kept sludging up my soul, I couldn’t extract emotion from within the words—couldn’t make the sentences buckle and snap the way I like them to.
I’m sure that’s a microcosmic reflection of the greater macrocosmic upheaval. I doubt concentration, sharpness, focus, precision, and exactitude have been in long mental supply for most of us since mid-August, let alone those greater gifts of the mind such as revelation and/or epiphany. Instead, it’s just been a chainsmoker slog. As fish are to water, we’ve been to smoke. Every time I heard Gavin Newsom’s thickening rasp, I couldn’t help but think of Joe Cabot, the boss from “Reservoir Dogs.” Let’s go to work.
What now, though? The prison doors are open. The sunlit courtyard beckons! Sure, meteorologists are eyeing Sunday, when a shift in winds could turn the Bay into a chimney in reverse, sucking smoke down from the north, but that’s 4 days away. And like the second lightning storm—the predicted follow-up to the first one, which hurled down 12,000 golden bolts to start off this whole holy mess—the coming winds might turn out to just be nothing, a bunch of…smoke? (Ok, my metaphors aren’t yet fully awake…)
Like a computer booting up after a long vacation, I’m awaiting the restoration of my mental hardware. Not only do I not trust the yard, with its space and its wind and its crisp, cool air, but I don’t trust the flow of life in general. We’ve been returned, after all, to our regularly scheduled pandemic, which was jolting enough to begin with. I remember when my wife first spoke of sheltering-in-place, moments after the County first dropped the news back in March, and feeling a lick of panic within my sternum. But it was only a lick; its tongue was fast to withdraw. For I asked her, picturing the lockdown in Italy at the time, “Can I go out and take a walk?”
“Yes!” she replied, eyebrows aflight, ever the enthusiastic messenger of good news.
My sternum unwound. Then for 5 months, I took it: the uncertainty, the dead days, dead and dying people, the narrowing daily options. The smoke, though? It was all too much. Something caved in, then. I would say it was emotional, but my emotions were flattened out from fatigue, and from my stale, beige, desert-cave sinuses. Which is not to say people didn’t lash out at the post office. Which is not to say I myself wasn’t tempted at times to run my fingernails down the walls.
Like I said: hard to explain.
We’re coming back now, though. Regularly scheduled pandemic/regularly scheduled reality. What’s allowed now in Santa Clara County?, I wonder. Oh, right. Haircuts! And massages, even! And apparently I can even go over and walk half the Great Mall…
Will the dawn light retreat again? Will God hit rewind on us, puppet-stringing our innocent, blinking turtle heads back into the darkness of our shells? Who knows/who can say? Where’s all this going? When’s the vaccine due? And Election Day? And could there be peace on Earth and love in our hearts and tranquil treaties drawn up breathlessly amongst the tribes? Or will we find, upon drawing our next breaths, that our lungs catch and crumple, setting (wild)fire to our blood and making us wonder, suddenly, Wait. Is something wrong?
Ha. It’s 2020, baby. Everything’s wrong. What’s right is wrong. What’s right side up, upside down. White is black and black is white but don’t ask either to relate to the other, ‘cause gunfire rings out and the nights grow pinched and short and the sun, so early in the morning lately, smiles down on us, now—for now—through cloudless skies, saying to us, “Wake now, child. Another day of exerting and sustaining lies ahead.”
Fine. OK. Time to get up. Time to locomote.
Relax. It’s all part of the plan.
I’m taking a walk.