April 11, 2020
It’s the weekend, late afternoon, I’m resting on the back patio, and in my immediate environment—that being the several hundred yards around our Nashville house, which is all I know because my family and I are isolated—activity is sprouting everywhere. Across the street, I see that Fran and Cyril have grown stir-crazy and decided to clean out their garage. I have them beat there. Earlier this morning, I figured I should do something with our bicycles, which are all broken. “Honey,” I called to my wife, “I’m going to take the bikes to the shop to get them worked on,” and in no time I found myself at the still-open-for-business store with a mechanic greeting me out front. My wife’s bike is a Trek 310 that I bought her while we were still dating. We’ve been married over thirty years, and I’d hazard that her bike hasn’t been ridden since we walked down the aisle. When I showed it to the mechanic, he said, “I‘ll do what I can. You got a real antique here.”
From the back patio, I can hear my wife and son moving furniture around and firing up the vacuum cleaner and hammering nails in walls because our son has decided to move out of his childhood room—he’s twenty-four—and occupy the spare bedroom in the basement. His decision to move, if it can be called that, has been occasioned by the fact that our daughter and her boyfriend, who found themselves living out the pandemic in a four-hundred-square-foot apartment in DC, had enough of being on top of each other and drove down to join us. This arrangement leaves two possible outcomes: the first being a return to the nuclear family unit and attendant joy and merriment and togetherness; and the second being a long, claw-your-eyes-out survival game.
My wife, a psychotherapist who functions as the family’s Minister of Mental Health, seems to think we’re doing okay. Along the daisy chain of family responsibilities, my wife has delegated what used to be her dinner management out to all of us. My daughter’s boyfriend took to this immediately. He works for a VC firm, and, befitting such creatures of organization, he dug out a whiteboard that I did not know we owned, bought new erasable markers, and set out a matrix for dinners that will see us through the end of the Trump administration. I being originally from South Louisiana and the type of person who would just as soon cook for twenty as two, made a healthy pot of red beans and rice for the family on my first dinner. So far the only confusion is who cleans up, which I’m sure the whiteboard will soon address.
With the house full, and everyone working remotely, we’ve all carved out our various niches in which to work, conduct business, keep our jobs. Daughter has the dining room table. Boyfriend is in my wife’s former office, but he also paces the sidewalks around the house when his cell phone starts blowing up. Wife does therapy from a deep, comfy chair in an upstairs den. Weather permitting, I have claimed the back patio’s chair in the shade. We all Zoom, FaceTime, conference call. In the early days of the nation’s stay-at-home orders, I noticed in some of my Zoom chats that people I was speaking with were wearing business-appropriate clothes. But we’re sliding. I am an entrepreneur in what they call the “digital media space,” and I was on the phone with a New York VC the other day, and he had on a Northwestern University T-shirt. In the background was an unmade bed. With the exception of my wife, the rest of my family looks like they’re going camping.
We had a board meeting last week to discuss: a) my company’s budget forecasts in light of the fact that at the present moment the economy is really nothing but a mirage, and b) the urgent need, as articulated by my VC partners, to jettison all this isolation, fire the nation’s economic engines back on, and avoid total economic collapse, massive unemployment, soup lines, and Hobbesian dystopia. Decidedly free-market types, these venture capital guys are predicting an impending calamity and favor a discussion about “acceptable death rates.”
Consider the following metric that gets bandied about: deaths to GDP loss. What if we lose $8 trillion of our Gross Domestic Product, which, at our present estimated total, runs approximately $30 trillion a year? Let’s also say that 100,000 people die from COVID-19. If you divide lost GDP by deaths, you get the new metric: $80 million per death. If you’re a pessimist, double the number who die: that’s $40 million per death.
Should we allow more death and dying?
Put more personally, is my son’s life worth $80 million? Is my daughter’s or my potential son-in-law’s? Is my wife’s?
Unquestionably. They are worth the world to me. More to the point, why are we even discussing this? What is their life worth in dollars? I cannot put a price on them. Can anyone put a price on a human being? Should anyone? Of course not.
These, then, are wild arguments, in the adjective’s nonevaluative sense of the word. But as business owners continue to lose their shirts, we will hear these lines of thinking crescendo. The relentless American capitalist engine will not stand silent for long, and discussions like this will go public. Where these conversations lead us will tell us who we are, what we want to become, and how virtuous a nation we truly are.
Who do we want to become?
I should mention that none of my six employees come to the office any more, but I’m still paying them. I see sixty days of runway ahead—that is to say, money is still coming in, not as high as it was, but it’s coming in and we’re liquid until then. But I have no way of being able to foretell what lays beyond that stretch. I’m quite serene about it all. Everyone, quite frankly, is in deep, deep trouble, whether they know it or not, and so while I did have one afternoon in which I fell waist-deep into depression, I’ve generally reconciled myself to believe that if I go down, we’re all going down. What I mean by that isn’t “We’re all screwed.” It’s that I find this potential economic black hole so deep and wide, so potentially all-consuming and voracious, that I’m utterly at a loss to reckon with its existential magnitude. I’ve always had a hard time, in the serenity prayer, of imagining something that I could not change, and serenely accepting my inability to change it. I now know what that something is.
Not long after my board meeting, I joined in a virtual Happy Hour with four classmates from college, that being Sewanee. We spent about an hour chatting. It was a little bit of a herky-jerky back-and-forth, I mean this literally, what with Zoom’s server’s being so overtaxed and my home’s router overused, and also partly the result of our not having seen one another in many years. Should I speak during this awkward pause? Who’s the alpha conversationalist here? Should I be funny? Sentimental? Political?
There we were, face-forward, in all our sixty-something, decrepit glory. We were quite a tight bunch back then. We are all Southern white Protestants, mostly Episcopalian, and male. Most of us were English majors, and fancied ourselves as heirs to the Agrarian tradition in which we were steeped. We wrote poetry, essays, and stories in the student newspaper. We read our Faulkner. We quoted Andrew Lytle, which was then fashionable: “A farm is not a place to grow wealthy; it is a place to grow corn.” We memorized the poetry of Gary Snyder and Allen Tate. We pored over Welty and Capote. We hiked in the woods a lot. We split wood, lit bonfires. The Zoom chat had us all nostalgic. We discussed the potential for a return to a more egalitarian agrarianism. We spoke of gardens being planted in backyards. We talked about reports indicating that with factories closed, the air is cleaner and the rivers more clear. We ruminated about the poet’s voice potentially vanquishing the clamor of Wall Street, love and community conquering greed and materialism.
Is Eden, we wondered, lurking somewhere on the horizon? Will fallen man be made more whole? Is this a coming together or a falling apart?
We enjoyed ourselves so tremendously that we appointed a chairman—Mike, a high school English teacher in Durham—who promptly scheduled another chat. Sonny, the son of a priest, reclining on his sofa in Birmingham, brought it nicely to a close. “We still have our spirits guys. Let us pray.”
Yours in faith,
In lieu of payment, our friends and contributors to the Corona Correspondences are dedicating donations to nonprofits and independent businesses in their communities. Dobie’s contribution will be directed to Room in the Inn.