Smoke and haze

A few days ago I woke to a muted orange sun, shining sluggishly through layers of haze. This wasn’t the orange of sunrise—the subdued light lasted well into the day—and it wasn’t caused by the clouds of a late-season desert thunderstorm, either.

It was wildfire smoke. Again.

It’s been more than a month since Tucson’s Catalina Mountains burned. That fire, too, filled the daytime sky with smoke. It made my eyes itch and left ash on our backyard trampoline.

[Orange smoke over Catalina Mountains at sunset]
Those look like rain clouds over the Catalinas, but they’re not.

My eyes have been gritty this past week, too, but it’s no longer Arizona’s mountains and grasslands that are burning. Now California, and Oregon, and Washington burn instead.

The fact that these wildfires are hundreds of miles away doesn’t matter. Air moves, after all. Wind blows. Ash and smoke travel. The entire planet is in motion, and what happens in one place affects all places, in small ways and in large ones. Smoke in California becomes smoke in Arizona, and New York, and Europe.

If your air is polluted, my air is polluted, too.

[Sun through wildfire haze]
California smoke or Arizona smoke? They look the same.

This is, of course, the lesson of the current pandemic, as well. I breathe air out. You breathe the same air in. I cough, and where that cough lands determines whether someone I’ll never meet lives or dies.

It’s not enough to keep ourselves safe and ignore everyone else. It’s not enough for you to wear your mask if I don’t wear mine. It’s not enough to only douse the fire we can see, not if we ignore everything else that’s still burning.

Judaism has taught me that, “If you save a life, you save the world.” As I move toward Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, I’ve been thinking about that teaching a lot.

Thinking about the ways it is may be literally, and not just figuratively, true.

Nursery rhymes, pandemic edition

Or, Mother Goose for the Covid era.

Twinkle twinkle little star,
How I wonder how you are.
Up above the world so high,
Socially distanced in the sky.
Twinkle twinkle little star,
Text and tell me how you are.

[Illustration of star wearing mask]

Little Miss Muffet,
Sat on a tuffet,
Waiting for curds and whey.
But the Instacart driver,
Came unmasked to find her,
And frightened Miss Muffet away.

The wheel on your tablet
Goes round and round,
Round and round,
Round and round.
The wheel on your tablet
Goes round and round—
Too bad, I need the wifi.

[illustration of computer with spinning loading wheel]

This little piggy went to Walmart.
This little piggy stayed home.
This little piggy bought toilet paper.
This little piggy had none.
This little piggy went wee wee wee all the way home.

Humpty Dumpty sat on the Wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men,
Were out of personal protective gear so 
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

Feel free to share your own in the comments.

“Be kind and respectful. Be responsible. Be safe.”

At my daughter’s elementary school, every child learns three things from the first day of kindergarten on: “Be kind and respectful. Be responsible. Be safe.” These principles inform every aspect of school life, creating a caring atmosphere that’s one of the reasons I love her school and want to send her back in person this fall.

But I can’t.

Our school is currently offering both online and in-person options, and at first I struggled with which to choose. Yet if I ask myself the same questions my child has been taught to ask, the answer is clear.

Is returning in person kind?

I recently attended a (virtual) school board meeting. District teachers spoke, often tearfully, about how they were being forced to choose between a career they love and—quite possibly—their lives and the lives of their loved ones. Unlike district families, teachers aren’t being given a choice. If they’re assigned to teach in person, they need to either show up or resign.

It’s a cruel choice, and kindness demands I not ask teachers to make it. Instead, by agreeing to learn remotely, I help increase the number of teachers who can teach remotely.

Is it respectful?

Throughout the United States, teachers are terrified of returning to face to face learning. Here in Arizona educators have already died, even while socially distancing, even on relatively empty campuses. What will happen when our facilities are closer to full?

Respect demands I recognize that our teachers’ lives are just as important as our children’s lives. If I respect educators, I can’t put them in harm’s way for my own benefit.

Is it responsible?

Arizona’s per-capita rate of Covid-19 cases are among the highest in the country, as are the resulting deaths, and our hospitals are running out of ICU beds.

Responsibility demands not giving our tapped-out public health system more cases to treat. It demands I step up and do my part to help my community maintain the capacity to treat all who are sick, so that our hospitals don’t have to make life-or-death decisions about who receive care and who doesn’t.

Is it safe?

Remote learning has been challenging for my daughter and me, as it has been for so many families, and I have a new appreciation of the ways the benefits of face-to-face learning extend far beyond academic achievement. I want so badly for my child to experience those benefits once more.

But like my child, I have to accept that sometimes, being safe means we can’t always do what we want. Evidence is growing that single greatest Covid-19 risk is simply sharing an enclosed space with other people, breathing the same air for an extended period of time. That’s pretty much the definition of classroom learning, and I’ve yet to see a plan effectively mitigates that risk.

Safety demands I not send my child into this dangerous situation, even if she wants to be there, even if I want her to be there, too. Not yet.

Not until Arizona’s Covid-19 numbers drop—and our understanding of the virus grows—enough that we can return in a way that truly is kind, respectful, responsible, and safe.

“The only way to cope with something deadly serious is to try to treat it a little lightly.”

1. I have a piece in the Weekly Humorist this week.

Buy My Book, It Will Protect You from the Coronavirus, Says Author Whose Public Appearances Have All Been Canceled

(For the record, I didn’t have any launches or appearances planned. But a great many authors have, and you should totally buy their books.)

2. Good Unicorn, Bad Unicorn.[Good

(Good Unicorn: “Feeling ill? Here, let me cure you with my magical horn.” 
Bad Unicorn: “Get your unicorn-purified hand sanitizer here—just $500 a bottle!”)

Hang in there, everyone.

To save a life is to save the world

[Iris buds in the backyard]The irises are getting ready to bloom in our backyard, just as they have faithfully for many years, in spite of whatever neglect we can throw at them. I’ve been spending time outside with them this week, weeding, catching up, keeping my family occupied as best I can. We’re sticking close to home, aside from grocery runs, but I’m grateful for that outdoor time, and for the irises left to us by our house’s first owner, a yearly gift from someone we’ll never know.

Yet more and more, I’m thinking about those who not only can’t get outside, but are stuck indoors in close quarters, including the many immigrants currently in ICE detention. There is no real social distancing in detention, and it doesn’t  take much to imagine how quickly COVID-19 could spread through a detention center—and how quickly those centers could turn into death camps.

The vast majority of those in detention have not committed any violent acts. They are not a threat to society, and at this unique moment in time, they need to be free to be with their loved ones and keeping distancing themselves from everyone else the same as the rest of us are.

I called Governor Ducey today and urged him to use his emergency powers to free those in ICE detention now. Those of you who live in Arizona may be laughing at that, knowing our governor—but we have to try, and the more people who call, the more pressure there will be on his office to act. I have to believe that no one truly wants to be responsible for  so many deaths.

Whatever state you’re in, please do the same. Governor Ducey’s number is 602-542-4331, but the numbers of the nation’s other governors are easy enough to find online, and many states farther from the border than we are also house detention centers.

[Iris buds]We can’t gather in large numbers on the steps of our state capitols right now, but we can do this much. Call your governor, and then urge your family and friends to do the same. You could be literally helping to save lives.

Feel free to share this post widely, or to write one of your own.

Overheard

One person walks up to another in a local coffeeshop.

“Are you ———?”
”Yes, I am.”
”I’m ———. Twenty years ago you saved my life.”
”Well. I’m glad you’re still here.”

The first person proceeds to share photos of his daughter, who is now starting college, with the second.

I know no more than that.

Well, no more except that the world is a strange and wondrous place.

And also that the things we do matter.

Moving Day

My website has a new host and a new look. Come on by! I’ve ported over all my previous Desert Dispatches blog posts, whose urls should be unchanged.

  The design still needs some tweaks, but my first priority was on making sure all the content—which I still believe is the most important part of the web—made it over.

The site should be easier to update on the run now, so I look forward to updating that content, including this blog, more often.

And of course: if anything doesn’t work, or there’s something you can’t find, let me know!

Light one candle …

… and then another, and another, and another after that.

On this final day (and after the final night) of Hanukkah:

Light one candle for the strength we all need
To never become our own foe
And light one candle for those who are suffering
The pain we learned so long ago

Here’s to lighting candles in the dark, and believing in miracles, and all the ways we all have in us to continue spreading light in this world now that the candles have burned down.