Bad Choice Road

In 2014, I spent three months as a counselor at a summer program for blind and visually impaired youth. My time there was largely an exercise in futility. It was, among other things, a stark reminder of why I have no desire to be a parent. I did, however, try to impart certain universal truths to my teenaged students.

One of those truths was, for every action, there is a consequence. Every time you sneak out after curfew to smoke a joint, there will be consequences. Every time you get freaky with another student because you think your blind counselor is clueless as to his surroundings, there will be consequences. Every time you cheat with your sleepshades, there will be consequences.

Six years later, I have no idea whether my message took or not, but I get an A for effort.

Rush Limbaugh always said, “Elections have consequences.” The election of 2016 was no exception. The country chose to elect a man whose professional credentials included bankruptcy, beauty contests, gambling casinos and a successful reality TV show. His personal credentials included open sexual predation, a string of high-profile divorces and unashamed boorish behavior. Four years ago, the GOP (the party of family values) made a collective choice that personal character in a president no longer matters. Four years later, we have seen the consequences of these choices.

Yes, President Trump has enacted some public policies and made some judicial appointments that are favorable to conservatism, but they are overshadowed by chaos wrought by his erratic behavior. His contraction of COVID-19 and the infection of many prominent Republicans in his orbit is merely the latest (and most ironic) example of consequences befalling a leader and a base of supporters too incompetent and thickheaded to affect a course correction.

I think Ben Sasse is exactly right. We are in for a political blood bath. I think Trump is going to lose next month. I think Republicans are going to lose the Senate. I think local races in red states will feel an impact as well. Trump supporters love to tout the so-called, “shy Trump vote.” This is the phenomenon in which those who are secretly supportive of Trump don’t admit it openly to close associates or anonymous pollsters. I think the opposite will and is occurring. I think we’re in for a Trump fatigue vote. I think many voters who did take a chance on Trump four years ago are now exhausted with his antics, particularly in light of COVID-19, and are ready for a return to normalcy at the top of the electoral chain. Given the nature of many of Trump’s supporters who tread a very thin line between persuasion and bullying, it’s easier for these quietly exhausted voters just to smile, nod and go with the flow when pressed. This includes everyone outside of the base from operatives inside the D.C. Beltway to fellows and gals at the local pub who just want to have a beer in peace without being inundated by the MAGA crowd.

Sidebar: I’m not talking about the opportunistic huxters who are raking in the eager suckers through sham operations such as The Lincoln Project. I’m talking about average voters.

I don’t know, of course. Two weeks is an eternity with Trump at the helm and the chaos factor is always high. If the GOP loses, it will be a loss much deserved by a party that was all too quick to abandon its long-held principles for short-term victories. Yes, they’ll successfully appoint Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, but it will come with a very large price tag.

I take no pleasure in this forecast.

The Democrats have also squandered much of their credibility. They refused to loudly and roundly condemn the mob violence that has erupted in the wake of George Floyd’s death. They insulted the intelligence of the electorate by equating racism as a comparable disease to the Coronavirus. They constantly move the definitional goal posts of long-held terms such as, “court packing,” “sexual preference,” and “white supremacy,” all in the name of a strategy of domination and cultural subjugation in the public arena of ideas. Their ‘blame and shame’ tactics with respect to all things white is reactionary, short-sighted and it will prove to have a very short shelf life before the public at large cries, enough!

Moreover, the Democrats have chosen as their candidate a man whose chief claim to the White House was won upon the coat tails of Barack Obama. Joe Biden was never a politician known for his deftness, and he now seems decrepit in comparison to his glory days in the ‘90’s. His running mate is a woman who is clearly an authority junkie, given to her own fits of political hyperbole. When they win and enact their leftist policies, whether it be packing the Supreme Court or implementing the quixotic Green New Deal, there will be consequences.

The left is lampooning Trump for holding rallies while numbers of new COVID cases are spiking around the world. This is a valid criticism. Yet, as I type this, the Women’s March is holding a national protest in Washington D.C. This protest is populated mostly by the blue state, pro-lockdown crowd. The CDC is advising people to reconsider Thanksgiving holiday dinner with family, but they are happy to go out and flaunt CDC guidelines when it suits their purposes.

Whatever happens in November, neither candidate has won my vote. Both men are singularly unfit for office. I miss the GOP, but I plan to remain an Independent voter for the foreseeable future.

To any of my former students, have you guys figured it out yet? Have you learned the lessons that the GOP forgot on election night, 2016, and the Democrats forgot after Memorial Day Weekend, 2020? Have you realized that the Bad Choice Road really exists and it only gets harder and harder to steer away from the further along you travel upon it?

If you’re reading this, I will try to impart one final lesson as a nod to the ghost of Ryan O, teacher. At some point in your life, you will face a test. Someone (likely someone you know, love and respect), will ask something of you that you know is wrong. They will have seemingly good and sound reasons for asking you to do, think or speak something that you know in your heart and mind not to be true. At that moment, the courage of your convictions will be tested. You will be standing at a fork in the road of life. One path leads to a road shrouded by the mists of uncertainty, unpopularity and disenfranchisement. The other leads to the bad choice road.

Both political parties have stood at this fork in the past four years and both have taken the wrong path. But then, who am I to judge? I have faced this test more than once and I too have failed.

Take heart, former students. When your time comes, rejoice in the knowledge that you were warned beforehand.

Ben Sasse for Senate!!!

Don Bacon for Congress!!!

Jean Stothert for Mayor!!!

Optimus Prime for President!!!

The Corona Diaries: Week 10

In the Spring of 2014, I sent a mass Email to some close friends and several family members. I can’t locate it now, but the gist was:

“Hi, folks. Money is a little tight right now, so if you try to call or text me over the next few weeks and I don’t respond, don’t be concerned. I am starting a new job after Memorial Day and will be able to catch up on my bills at that time. Please don’t worry about me. I’ll be all right.”

Later that day, several close friends informed me that they were helping me with my phone, electric and internet bills. Furthermore, they informed me that it was a gift, not a loan. One of those friends was my oldest buddy, Wes.

Two years later in August of 2016, Wes was visiting me for a much-needed vacation. Four months earlier, he had been struck by a car while crossing a street in Lincoln. The encounter messed up his knee and didn’t do his emotions much good either. He had received a surgery and physical therapy, but his knee was still giving him trouble. He just wanted to get away from work for a long weekend and Denver was always his favorite vacation spot.

One night, we came home from a baseball game between the Rockies and the Cubs. We walked in and Wes casually said, “Hey man, better take a look at your desk.”

On it was a brand new computer. A brailled card was taped to the top of it which said:

“Merry Christmas from Katy, Marty, Marshal Dillon, Alicia and Wesman. May this serve you well.”

I had been without a working computer for over a year. It was the perfect gift at the perfect time.

Week 10: Who Was That Masked Man?

Saturday, May 23, 2020

At 12:57 PM, Jane texts me with her usual one-word summons, “Here.” I grab the backpack by the door and head down. Jane is talking to her nephew on her phone as I slide deftly into her front seat. It’s a little easier to wiggle and wriggle now that I’ve dropped some quarantine weight.

Jane pulls out of my parking lot and we head off as I press “start” on Google Maps. I fight the urge to grab a pre-wedding beer for the road, deciding to wait for Kelly before I imbibe.

45 minutes later, we’re wandering around in Lincoln in Kelly’s neighborhood trying to locate her home. I guess we may as well have started drinking early. I call her and Jane finally finds it. Kelly slides in and I hand her my back-up folding cane from my bag. Kelly is dogless since Jane is not a fan of animals. Somehow, Kelly’s cane got snapped in half, but I don’t ask her to share the story of how it happened. I secretly wonder if she whacked her neighbor a time or two with it, but I’m too tactful to ask.

We head South on 33rd, then hang a right on A. Street. I pull up the YouTube feed of Wes’s wedding as Jane drives. Unfortunately, I am not able to chorale my inner audio snob. My first thought is, damn, that audio hum is annoying. My second thought is, ‘tsk, tsk.’ The holy man is a little hot on the mic. We listen up just in time to hear the pastor say, “I now present to you, Mr. and Mrs. Wes and Allison …” Then, Clint Black comes on with his folksy instruction that, “Love isn’t something that we have. It’s something that we do.” Weird, I think. Shane and Amy used that same song 20 years ago next month.

We pull into the parking lot. Jane informs me that there are few cars around, so we locate a parking space. Then, I grab a cold can of Coors and pass a Mike’s Hard Lemonade to Jane and Kelly. We roll down the windows, feel the cool breeze and sip alcohol. It finally feels like a Memorial Day weekend. All I need is a cigar.

We sit and soak up the sun. Jane and Kelly sip their froufrou drinks in a very ladylike fashion. I chug my beer like a middle-aged bachelor. Time passes. The sun shines and the breeze wafts through the car. More people arrive. I say hi to Wes’s mother. I can’t believe I recognize her voice. I call Shane and ask, “Where are ya?” He says, “We’re right down the street gathering at an elementary school.” I tell him that we’ll probably be gone by the time he gets there. Later, I learn that a group of them drove by the newlyweds in a pick-up and said hi from the back. A COVID wedding greeting, redneck style.

Then Jane says, “There they are. Wow! Her dress is beautiful.” She starts her engine and pulls up to the happy couple.

I honestly remember very little about the conversation. I only had half a beer in my blood, so I can’t blame the buzz. It was all very brief and perfunctory. Both the bride and groom wore masks. We did not. I remember asking Wes how he felt and he said something like, “Pretty good.” I think it lasted all of two minutes. Then we pull forward, we each get a cupcake as our reward and we’re off. I eat the cupcake hanging out the window so as not to drop crumbs on Jane’s car seat. It is chocolate with white frosting. I play a secret game in my mind in which I name the cupcake Kelly, then lasciviously lick the frosting.

We pull around to another parking lot for a while, wondering if anyone might come over to socialize. No one ever does. Finally, Kelly says, “I’m hungry. Let’s go get Runza.” I love a woman that takes charge.

At this point, I have to blame the beer buzz for interfering with the structured discovery function of my brain. If I were sober, we probably would have located the Runza at 39th and Randolph in a matter of mere minutes. As it is, we spend the better part of 40 minutes searching for it. It boils down to the fact that we don’t know whether we’re going North or South on 40th Street. The heady combination of beer and cupcake buzz causes me not to ask the very obvious question, where is the sun located right now.

Eventually, we locate a convenience store, we all eject some processed beer and Kelly says, “Let’s ask the guy behind the counter where Randolph is.”

The clerk starts to explain where we need to go and I blurt out, “That’s not a guy.” Kelly is mortified. Welcome to the 21st century.

Honestly, it seems funnier to experience it than it does to write about it.

At long last, we locate Runza and sit outside alone at a big concrete table. Kelly shares her fries with me, so I guess she didn’t stay miffed. I get an order to go. I can’t help but feel that this drive-through wedding reception and the search for the drive-up Runza serve as some great metaphor for our current pandemic plight, but I don’t have the wherewithal to process a philosophical corollary.

Later, we drop Kelly back at home and make the long trek back to Omaha. I drink the last Mike’s Hard I brought for Kelly because she doesn’t want it. The comedown makes me realize that I no longer like sugary alcoholic beverages. They give me a headache. Jane talks about her marriage, which gives her a headache, so we’re both in the same condition when she drops me at my apartment.

I come home to a heat wave rolling out of my front door. Alexa informs me that the inside temperature is 85 degrees. I turn on the AC, slump into my recliner and ponder the enormity of the fact that Wes, the oldest friend I have, is now married. This was the inquisitive kid I met in 1987 at blind camp. He was the little guy who had no end of questions about everything from the inner workings of an APH tape cassette player to the name of the actor who played Charlie Moore on Head of the Class. Now, it’s his wedding day and the real questions are only beginning for him.

Some might wonder why I disrupted Jane’s Saturday afternoon to take a trip to Lincoln so that we could talk to a bride and groom for two minutes through a car window. My answer is simple. Wes is my friend. If our positions were reversed, I would feel honored and humbled if my friends made the effort to come support me during such a momentous occasion. Of course, our original plans were quite different. The wedding was supposed to be an in-person affair and I was going to make a three-day weekend out of it. Kelly was going to be my actual date and the gender of a convenience store clerk never would have entered into the equation. But then, a bunch of unfettered germs spoiled everything. What if Trump is right? If not for China, I would’ve thrown Wes one hell of a bachelor party. As a protest, I’ll never eat Crab Rangoon again. I think The Donald would approve.

As I drift off for a nap, the thought occurs that, when my wedding night finally arrives, I hope I won’t be too drunk to discern North from South.

Sunday, May 24

SHOCKER!!! Joe recorded the audio feed of Wes’s wedding. I give it a listen as I wait for my Chipotle order to be delivered. The pastor opens the ceremony by saying, “She looks beautiful, Wes.” I’m sure every sighted person who heard that gushed like a Saudi Arabian oil well. Every blind person who heard it probably silently said, “Ahh, for Christ sake.” I catch myself thinking that, if it were my wedding and my official said something like that, despite the solemnity of the occasion, I’d be thinking, she’s gonna look even more beautiful out of that dress, preacher man!

Later on, the pastor says, “I’m smilin’ beneath my mask.” I try to figure out at what point in history in western civilization one might hear a line like that at a wedding. I can’t help it. I giggle like a Cheeto-snarfing pothead. Maybe it’s a good thing I wasn’t there after all.

Lunch arrives and it is indeed okie dokie.

Monday, May 25

Happy Memorial Day.

1,636,222 confirmed cases in the United States. 97,276 deaths.

PS: In case you’re wondering, Marshal Dillon was really my other best friend, Joe. That used to be one of his nicknames before Miss Kitty made him hang up his guns. God bless married life.

The Corona Diaries: Week 4

One of the most overrated series in the pantheon of old-time radio is the CBS Radio Mystery Theater. It was actually a resurrection of classic radio drama that aired 12 years after network radio purged itself of the last remnants of the theater of the mind. Collectors like myself classify it in the same category as fare from the golden age of radio because it was produced and directed by Hyman Brown, a veteran of that bygone era, and usually starred voice actors who were also actors from the ‘40’s and ‘50’s. It aired from 1974 to 1982. It was a very prolific series that ran nightly, seven nights a week, 365 days a year.

The quality was telling. There were probably about nine mediocre to horrible episodes for every one good one. The music was canned, the sound effects were minimal and the audio quality was standard ‘70’s A.M. network vintage. But America loved it. Our audience at Radio Talking Book loves it. I run an episode every weekend.

One of the few good offerings was a story called, “The Black Room,” written by Elspeth Eric. Larry Haines plays a man who is abducted by unknown government forces and isolated in a room devoid of light and human companionship. The guy spends months in solitary confinement in the dark room and starts to go crazy inside of his own head. Then one day, a mouse sneaks into the dark room and the guy befriends him. He adopts the little mouse and starts to feed him crumbs of cheese, bread and even an apple. They strike up a kind of friendship that’s sort of cute in a twisted Disney sort of way. Then on one occasion as the guy goes to feed Mr. Mouse, he bites his hand. After that, the mouse disappears and the guy collapses into lethargy. He finally says to Mr. Mouse, “I don’t care.”

Week Four: WWHD?

Monday, April 6, 2020

412 confirmed cases in Nebraska. The death toll has climbed to eight statewide. An outbreak has occurred in Grand Island, which is far too close to my hometown of Kearney for my liking. A note of cautious optimism creeps into the stock market as signs indicate that certain hot spots may be leveling off. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been transferred to the ICU after his symptoms have not abated after 10 days. The governor of Wisconsin tries to postpone his state’s primary until June 9, but is quickly overruled by both the state and national Supreme Court. Kroger announces that all Baker’s stores in Omaha will cap the number of customers at half their maximum capacity. Dr. Pour recommends masks for all who venture out in public. I watch part of a presser with Trump and his medical minions. With apologies to his full-throated supporters, this guy doesn’t appear to be a man in control. He’s not in control of the country, he’s not in control of this crisis and frankly, he’s not in control of himself.

I work from home all day. All goes well with my remote operations. I undercook bacon for breakfast on the Foreman Grill. Maybe the oven would be more effective. For dinner, I make garlic-Italian burgers with a pinch of Ghost Pepper Salt. I do a lot of my work in the evening with the windows open and a cool spring breeze wafting through my living room. Maybe I could get used to this.

Maintenance has been stomping and clomping up and down the stairs all day. I recognize Happy’s voice. They seem to be doing something in the empty apartment across the hall. When I take the trash out at 4:30, I catch the distinctive odor of fresh paint. Am I about to get a new neighbor? No one can replace Lisa, who used to look after Mags for me when I would go out of town. I need to check on Lisa and see how she’s doing. My cleaning lady Maria also calls and confirms that she will be here Wednesday morning. I am surprised that she is still working, but she says several restaurants and stores that paid her are closed right now. It seems that she feels the needed income is worth the risk.

Tuesday, April 7

478 positive cases statewide. 12 souls lost. Folk music legend John Prine has died at age 73 due to complications from COVID-19. Somewhere, Mike Floyd is inconsolable. Wisconsin goes ahead and holds its election. Nebraska University campuses restrict access to essential personnel only. I have a niece and nephew of college age and I envy them. At least they have a legit reason to cut class. I was never this lucky 25 years ago.

I am sleeping well, but finding that I am having more vivid dreams, particularly in the early morning when I would usually be arising for the workday. Years ago, my sleep doctor told me that dreams tend to cluster in the hours directly before the end of a natural REM cycle. I’ve also heard that dreams are more intense when someone naps during the afternoon. I can attest in the affirmative to both of these assertions. No, I don’t dream in color.

More stomping and banging doors across the hall. At around 10 in the morning, someone pulls the fire alarm. The bell sounds like one of those old-fashioned school bells with the loud, long peal, rather than the ear-splitting electronic squeal that characterizes the modern variety. It only lasts for two seconds and does not result in a mass evacuation. At 4:30 in the afternoon, Happy drives below my balcony and hollers, “That looks like a gud cigar!” I ask him what’s going on across the hall and he says they’re getting the place ready for someone to move in. He also says he got stuck in an elevator in another building this morning. I hope he remember his raccoon jerky.

Wednesday, April 8

523 confirmed cases in Nebraska. 15 deaths. Dick’s Sporting Goods announces it will furlough most of its 40,000 workers. Gun nuts read this headline and sneer. Katy tells me she will be going back to work at the Seattle Lighthouse for the Blind next Monday. This is good news, because it turns out she wasn’t getting federal sick leave pay after all. Mayor Stothert closes all public parks and trailheads through April 30. Police threaten to enforce her order with citations, arrests and towed vehicles. The Omaha Farmers Market is delayed until June.

We knew it would happen sooner or later. Today was sooner. Our morning volunteers ran afoul of Dropbox and we were scrambling to get their files in time for the morning papers. We failed, causing the show to be 10 minutes over. I was running around in my ratty robe and blown-out slippers when Maria showed up to clean. Then Jane texted and said, “I need to go to the office. Want to tag along?” I texted back that I did, then tried to run to the shower. This is only fair to Jane as I haven’t taken a proper shower in six days. I accidentally flashed Maria as I come out of the bathroom, but she takes it in stride. I don’t think she has the same flexible attitude about my junk that my coworkers do.

We spend about four hours in the office and I program as far ahead as possible. When we arrive at 10:45, the sun is shining and the air is mild. When we leave at 3:10, the wind has picked up and I’m fighting off goose bumps. On the way home, we listen to Mayor Stothert’s presser on her decision to close all city parks.

Thursday, April 9

587 confirmed cases in Nebraska. 15 deaths. Another record-breaking week of national unemployment claims; 6.6 million. Boris Johnson is released from the ICU and his condition is upgraded. UNL, my old school, announces its first case. It was a worker in the Selleck dining hall, which was my dorm when I was there 25 years ago. Six new cases confirmed at the YRTC in Kearney. Animal shelters announce that they are placing record numbers of cats and dogs in homes. My heart aches when I read that one.

On the latest episode of Better Call Saul, our hero drinks his own pee while trekking through the desert. I’m not making it up. YouTube it. As I watch the scene with Katy on Facetime, I catch myself wondering if this pandemic will reach the point where our water supply will be infected by dead bodies and we’ll all have to drink our own pee to survive.

Truthfully, I’m approaching COVID fatigue. Today marks a full week that I’ve been away from work and my normal routine. I haven’t seen anyone socially since…I don’t know when. My gut used to tighten every time my phone chimed with a news alert. Now, I’m just mildly curious. How many infected now? What is the latest sophomoric utterance of our president. Inane debates on social media rage on. Should Governor Ricketts institute a ‘shelter in place’ order? Do we have enough ventilators? Should we wear masks? Is blaming China for the virus racist? Is the virus itself racist since more African-Americans seem to be disproportionately affected? I’m starting to become apathetic toward the whole bloody business.

I make garlic teriyaki chicken for dinner and write a review of Star Trek: Picard, which is almost as bleak as our current situation.

Friday, April 10

643 confirmed cases statewide. 17 deaths. The worldwide death toll hits 100,000; a number that is unfathomable. It is a good Friday for stocks, which continue to rise despite the mounting body count. The IRS promises that the first round of stimulus paychecks will go out next week. The FDA warns Alex Jones to shut the hell up. Every guaranteed constitutional right comes with fools who will inevitably abuse it. The U.S. Olympic Swim Team promises that it will return to Omaha next year. Experts promise that we are almost at our peak projections of infections, but that we need to keep restricted health measures in place. The National Federation of the Blind finally announces that its annual convention scheduled in July will switch from Houston to virtual.

I’m in Westroads Mall trying to find a Cinnabon so I can meet Jean, the manager, who is really Saul Goodman, who is really Jimmy McGill. I want to get his autograph and ask about Breaking Bad, because it is the superior series. I know we’re supposed to stay home, but I hate authority, so I ignore the governor and the mayor. The mall is a ghost building. My cane taps echo off of the walls and ceiling. I try to call AIRA to guide me to Cinnabon, but Rossana from Boulder keeps answering. I try to talk to her, but she will only respond in Spanish. “Ryanito! Ryanito!” she laughs at me before the connection goes dead. Then I hear laughter coming from off in the distance, so I head for it. I find a large table with a group of people around it. I know them all, but they couldn’t possibly all know each other. Martin, Shane, Steve the Piano Player, Haylee, Bekah, Dave from Gallup, Deb, some volunteers from RTBS, Bridgit, Marco from college, Mitch, Marty, Jamie, Brent from the CCB, Kelly, my sister-in-law Missy on a horse, Kim Ann, a theater kid from high school who’s name I can’t remember, Rachel, Chris F, Mike H, Hunter, more people I can’t remember now. Five different women named Amy that I’ve known are all playing cards. They’re playing Pitch, which I don’t know how to play, so I don’t join in. I keep walking around this huge table looking for a seat, but no one will point one out for me or invite me to sit. Many of them get angry that I interrupt their conversations. Then I strike out for Cinnabon and follow the smell until I find it, but it’s The Cookie Company. Katy is behind the counter and she hands me a cookie shaped like her cat Ty. I bite off the tail and she screams at me, “You weren’t supposed to bite him! Bastard!” Then I run off and eventually find Cinnabon. Robin and Bryan Cranston are working there. Not Robin Bryan’s wife, but my ex-girlfriend. Bryan hands me a box full of cinnamon rolls. He tells me not to lick the frosting because it’s blue. I try to say hi to Robin, but she just says, “Fuck. Off.” She’s still left-brained. I walk back to the huge table and everybody suddenly goes dead silent. They all blame me for carrying a box of cinnamon rolls during a pandemic. I turn and flee toward an exit. Outside, the sun is shining, but there are snowflakes on my nose. I hear an idling car and run toward it, pull the passenger door open and fling myself in. Jane is in the driver’s seat. She says, “I’m disappointed in you, Ryan. Flowers smell better!” I turn to the back seat and Alicia and Wes are sitting there. Wes is crying because his wedding is canceled. I hand the box of cinnamon rolls to Alicia and say, “You’ll like these.” She mutters, “It’s too late. I already have cancer.” Then, my old boss David pulls open the car door. Declan and Hallie are with him and I somehow know that their parents don’t know where they are. He says, “Ryan, Joe doesn’t have any room left in his car. Can I ride with you and your charming boss?” My phone rings. I drop the cinnamon rolls. David laughs. Jane says, “That was stupid.”

I jolt awake. Alexa tells me that It is 7:23 AM. I run out to the computer and write down as much as I can remember of the dream.

That night, I take a Unisom before bed.

Saturday, April 11

One month ago today, I sat at Bridgit’s dining room table and shared Indian food with her. We talked like two normal people. Declan and I discussed the merits of eating toast with toothpaste on it. Within a 20-minute window, President Trump restricted travel to Europe, the NBA suspended its season and Tom Hanks announced that he and his wife had contracted COVID-19. I think this was the last time I socialized with anyone outside of work.

I brave the Hy-Vee jungle. Sadly, Sheila is too busy to assist me, so I shop with a guy named Chris. He tries very hard, but he reiterates that he is new at this location and doesn’t know the store very well. I want to make a cheesy bacon and chicken ranch casserole for Easter dinner, but I don’t have the patience to find all of the ingredients necessary with Chris as my guide, so I just get the basics and go. Chris sounds as if he might have a developmental disability, but who can tell? He might just be from Blue Heaven, Idaho.

I talk to Shane for a while. He’s in his garage looking for parts to their trampoline. Amy doesn’t know how to cook eggs over easy. I also talk to Mitch. He’s been working from home for a month now and he’s sick of it. He forbids his wife to go to Hy-Vee, but she ignores him and goes anyway. Alicia auditions a new Christian music show on an internet radio station.

I get into an argument with Maida on Facebook because I joke about hiring an escort during the pandemic despite social distancing rules. She is disgusted with me for being lighthearted at a time like this. Honest to God! I’ve spent the last month alternating between sadness, anxiety, hopefulness, anger and boredom. If I can’t laugh at our current situation, what the hell is left?

I view it the same way I view my blindness. Blindness can often be frustrating, enraging, depressing, annoying and occasionally, hopeful. At the end of the day, you just have to sit back and laugh at the circumstances. Either that, or descend into the maelstrom of madness. I think of it as The Hawkeye Syndrome, patterned after the main character on M*A*S*H who finds his circumstances so absurd and deadly at the same time that his coping mechanism is to act crazy. I think he spent most of his time in his bathrobe, too.

Sunday, April 12

Happy Easter.

Facebook is littered by posts with sentiments ranging from, “He has risen, indeed,” to “Why can’t our conservative governor order us to shelter in place,” to, “Happy police state!” Other than a few extra bunnies and talk of a guy who rose from the dead, not much different.

I try an Instacart order for my casserole. At first, it looks like it won’t be here in time and I try desperately to cancel the order. Then, my shopper makes it to the store and ultimately delivers my groceries right at the end of the window.

The cheesy chicken bacon broccoli ranch casserole turns out wonderfully. I spend Easter dinner on a Zoom call with Joe, Sharonda, Wes, Kelly and a lot of people I don’t know from Iowa. I last about two hours before I get a call from Dad, then take a post-dinner nap. I write a little bit and engage in some overdue music therapy. The NFB of Omaha chapter tries to hold a catch-up conference call in the absence of an in-person chapter meeting, but our phone conference number doesn’t seem to work, so it’s a bust. Later, Wes, Kelly and I have a quiet call to wind down the day. Kelly drinks a glass of wine before her new job starts tomorrow. I indulge in one cold can of Coors Light and a bowl of sugar-free instant pudding. Wes abstains.

Honestly, gentle readers, this may be the last Corona Diary. Even though some signs point toward resolution, this crisis feels interminable. I’m running out of words. The days really do feel as if they are melting together, high-lighted by bad news from the media and petty drama from social media that now seems more ridiculous in a heightened pressure cooker environment. What is left to say? If I say it, who would hear it? It’s like being in that ghost mall, circling around that huge table full of people, screaming at people who are intent upon acting in the same manner they always do. COVID-19 is temporary. People are permanent.

How did the story of “The Black Room,” end, you wonder? Well, I shouldn’t spoil it. I’ll just say that it wasn’t Mr. Mouse at all, and it turned out that she had more important things to occupy her time than a human with bread crumbs.

555,398 confirmed cases in the United States. 22,073 deaths.

The Corona Diaries: Week 3

From: Jane Nielsen
Sent: Thu 9/7/2017 3:17 PM
Subject: RTBS Offer Letter

hi Ryan,

Welcome aboard, I am so happy to have you as part of the RTBS team!
Attached is an offer letter for you. I don’t know if a screen reader will catch a handwritten statement, but after typing the letter I added the 3% RTBS match for retirement as one of the benefits.

If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to call me at the office or on my cell after hours or on the weekend.

Also, Paul said for an apartment The Martinique was a good place too. That is where he and Ann lived before moving to Council Bluffs. He said he would be happy to talk to you about it too.

Have a great rest of your vacation and see you in 3 weeks.

Jane

Jane Nielsen, Executive Director
Radio Talking Book Service
7101 Newport Ave., Suite 205
Omaha NE 68152
402.572.3003

Week Three: The Anna Karenina Principle

Monday, March 30, 2020

145 confirmed cases in Nebraska. DCHD confirms a third death due to the Coronavirus. Governor Ricketts extends the statewide social distancing restrictions until April 30. I guess we can all play catch with our Easter eggs. The EPA urges everyone to only flush their toilet paper, not their disinfecting wipes. I read that and start to believe that humanity deserves what it’s getting. Methodist Health System has created a hotline for those in need of mental or emotional support during this crisis. I jot down the number and make a mental note to pass it along to every stay-at-home parent I know.

Jackie is the cheerful lady who’s been working the screening table right outside the back door of our studios. When I first discovered the screening table a week ago, I jokingly said, “The least you guys could do is put out donuts or brownies for us.” She laughs and tells me she’ll get right on that. I’ve been giving her our extra copy of the Omaha World Herald so she can work on the crossword puzzle in her ongoing battle against boredom. Today as I greet her, she tells me to stick out my hand. “I made a chocolate cherry dump cake this weekend and I brought you a piece. It’s not as good as brownies, but I hope you’ll like it.”

I am deeply touched. This lady has no way of knowing that I’m deep in the Keto diet and I’ve just squeezed into a pair of jeans that wouldn’t fit after Christmas. I thank her and promise that I’ll eat the cake for breakfast. Later, I give it to Jane as I choke down agonizing waves of regret.

I feel so bad for Jackie. She’s been mandated to wear a mask since last Thursday and she complains that it fogs up her glasses. But I feel even worse for myself. I really, really want that cake! I actually need it. Earlier that morning, the bus with the new driver pulled up and opened the back door, but I didn’t find it right away. A well-intentioned fellow passenger got off, grabbed my arm and pulled me toward the door.

Any blind person will tell you that they hate being touched or grabbed by strangers, well-meaning or otherwise. It’s not necessary to violate one’s personal space when simple verbal directions would suffice. But now, we have an even more compelling reason to detest random contact. You sure as hell can’t maintain social distancing when you’re feeling up on some blind guy.

The morning goes well. I wait until after I bribe Jane with the cake to ask for early dismissal so I can go to AT&T to get a new phone. She agrees. At two PM, I’m in a Lyft with Rick. He’s not very talkative, so I don’t ask him what he thinks of the Coronavirus.

When I walk in the front door of the AT&T store, I am immediately greeted by a guy named Colton. I’m a little gun-shy at this point, but I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess that he’s white. He’s married with a one-year-old and a newborn. He sounds like he goes home every day for lunch and has a grill cheese sandwich and a cup of tomato soup; very much a white guy’s meal. Colton loves AT&T because they gave him two weeks’ pay while he was benched at home, even though he’s been there less than a year. Maybe I could get word to my Asian buddy at Metro Transit Omaha that he’s in the wrong business.

I anticipate that upgrading from my fried iPhone 7 to the iPhone 11 will be a pain in my slowly shrinking ass, but it’s relatively painless. It doesn’t even hurt my hip pocket; that part will come later. The most arduous part comes when Colton restores my phone. AT&T has lousy Wi-Fi and it takes forever for everything to download.

Then, Colton offers to help me with the face ID authentication. I have to admit that this is the part I’ve been nervous about, so I take him up on his generous offer. But then, he touches my face. Worse… He then touches my neck in an effort to show me how to rotate my head so the camera on my phone can capture my impeccable visage from all angles. I wince inwardly every time he touches me, but I say nothing.

I’m also tense because, although I can’t verify it, I’d swear there are more than 10 people in the store. I see a few people come and go as I sit there for the 45 minutes it takes for my software upgrade to complete and my apps to restore from the cloud. I overhear another sales rep chatting up an older-sounding guy who claims he’s, “just running errands today.” IDIOT!

In my previous entry, I explained why I felt that buying a phone was, in fact, essential travel. I genuinely need it for my livelihood, my safety and my mobility. Yes, I also need it so I can continue to play virtual dice and flirt with Kelly long distance, but that’s beside the point. That said, I wonder if I’m not a hypocrite as I sit there and quietly fume at the other people who are milling about the store.

After my phone is partially restored, Colton shows me how to access the home button, which is no longer a home button. In order to do this, he takes hold of my hand several times. Dude, I think! You got a wife and kids!

… That’s not as dirty as it sounds.

After I leave, I spend the rest of the evening struggling with my new phone. I eventually get the gist of the basics, but Face ID frustrates the hell out of me. Still, I take a chance that it will work if I set it to unlock my phone.

… It doesn’t. It claims I don’t have a face and keeps going to sleep. Damnit! I’m locked out of my phone and, for some reason, my pass code won’t come up. I panic! If I can’t get into my phone, I’ll have to call in sick tomorrow until I can get back to AT&T. I’m as mad as a hornet and, if I stay this way, Colton won’t have to worry about the virus, because I’ll put him in the ICU.

20 minutes later, someone whom I suspect to be Terra rolls me in Dice World. I tap on the icon and my pass code prompt comes up. I unlock the phone and immediately turn off face ID. Thank God! I am whole again!

Tuesday, March 31

177 confirmed cases in Nebraska. CNN host Chris Cuomo (aka Fredo), has tested positive for the virus. At his daily presser, President Trump warns the public that the next couple of weeks are going to be really, really hard. Two cruise ships can’t find a port at which to doc due to infected passengers. Shades of the novel, Pandora’s Clock. The stock market closes out its worst quarter since Black Monday in 1987. Mayor Stothert spanks some retail store managers around town for allowing crowd sizes to exceed the recommended maximum. We haven’t all been grounded and sent to our rooms yet, but it feels like we’re getting close. Coach Scott Frost says we need to take the threat of COVID-19 very seriously. If that doesn’t flatten the curve in the Big Red State, nothing will.

On the KFAB morning show, Gary Sadlemyer and Jim Rose interview Dr. Adi Pour, Director of Douglas County Health. They actually argue with her over whether or not it’s a good idea to encourage social distancing in big-box stores. Jim Rose has always been a pompous ass, but I thought Gary had better sense. Dr. Pour still has an aura of tranquility about her, as if she’s the great calm in the center of a storm that is bound to increase in its ferocity.

Bekah tells me that the entire staff at CHI are now required to wear masks. I hope they all use contact lenses. A staff member saw her in the loo and asked why she was walking around with a naked countenance. If we all wind up under masks, I wonder if they’ll let me make mine look like The Green Hornet.

As I walk home from the bus, I encounter a maintenance man named Happy. His real name is Justin, but he goes by Happy. He is redneck through and through. He once told me that he shoots raccoons in the field in back of his house, then cooks and eats them. I have absolutely no reason to doubt the veracity of his claim. He fits the part too well. I used to bribe him with beer to come fix my screen door whenever it went off the track, but I haven’t seen him in a while.

“We’s just puttin’ some sans up on all the dowers for the buildin’s. I ain’t read’em yit, but I’m sure it’s about that vahrus,” he says.

Later, I receive an Email from my apartment complex with the subject line, “Covid-19.” It says:

“Please view the letter regarding Covid-19 that was left at your door earlier today.

Thank you,

Martinique Management”

This is the first communique I’ve ever received from management that has arrived electronically.

I reply:

“I sure would if I could read it.”

Their reply states:

“HI Ryan. It was left at the door of your apartment. Let me know if you can’t find it.

Lyndsay M”

I reply:

“I’m a blind guy. I’m not able to read it. Can you please Email me an electronic copy?”

My last message was sent at 6:27 PM. No response as of 10:52 PM. I’m off to my lavender bath.

Wednesday, April 1

214 confirmed cases statewide. DHS reports a fifth death attributable to COVID-19 in Nebraska. According to a report submitted to the White House, the U.S. intelligence community has concluded that China lied about the extent of the outbreak in Wuhan when it first occurred. The Grand Canyon is the latest national park to close in an effort to curb the spread. The governor of Florida is the latest to issue a mandatory ‘stay at home’ order for the entire state. Denver’s paratransit service is offering free grocery deliveries to their disabled customers. What a concept. Omaha police make it clear that they will enforce the governor’s directed health measures. They likely put out this statement because of the beautiful, sunny weather we had in Omaha today.

I’m standing at the front door of my building at 7:39 AM. The AIRA Agent says, “Hi, Ryan. Thank you for calling AIRA. My name is Rosina. How may I help you today?”

That is the only complete sentence I ever hear from Rosina. I try to get her to read the printed sign taped to the front door of our building, but she keeps breaking up. It turns out my Wi-Fi is still connected, but the signal is too weak to allow for stable reception. I turn off the Wi-Fi and try to call back, but no one answers. I don’t have time to make a third attempt.

AIRA has definitely made a positive difference in the lives of blind people. They’ve been a big help to me in many ways, particularly when I was faced with my inaccessible thermostat. But don’t let anyone kid you that it takes the place of real accessibility offered on the part of companies, property owners and websites. AIRA is a workaround, nothing more.

At about 11 that morning, I go into Jane’s office. After much soul-searching, it is time to force the issue. I tell her that we really should strongly consider closing down the office for two weeks. I feel like the guy on death row telling his lawyers not to appeal my case any longer, but we’re coming to a point where it feels like the right thing to do for the company and for my coworkers.

Jane agrees with me and calls the chairman of the board of directors. By the time I finish breakfast, she’s talked to him and they agree that it’s time to pull the trigger. Bekah was going to work from home today, but after Jane sends an Email to her and MeMe explaining our new plan, she’s there by one. We all have a conference call and discuss remote measures going forward. We decide that we will wrap up loose ends tomorrow, but as of Friday morning, Radio Talking Book will be closed for at least two weeks.

After I walk out of Jane’s office, my will breaks. I head straight for the fridge and grab the small, square plastic container. I don’t bother looking for a plastic fork, but just shovel Jackie’s chocolate cherry dump cake into my greedy maw with one hand. Thank you, Jane, for not getting around to eating this. Standing there with my fingers coated with crumbs and cherry pie filling, I am the consummate emotional eater.

That afternoon, Katy helps me try to figure out why NVDA won’t cooperate on my Dell computer. Our efforts prove fruitless. I call Michael and he says he is willing to work from home on weekend mornings if it means he can stay on the payroll.

When I catch the afternoon bus to go home, I am in for a shock. For the first time during my two-and-a-half years in Omaha, I have to search for a seat. Social distancing is impossible because there are people sitting directly behind me, in front of me and across the aisle. I am ultra-conscious of one guy a couple rows ahead of me who keeps coughing. I guess people love a free ride.

Someone from Martinique management finally replies to my Email and attached an electronic copy of the mysterious sign per my request. Of course, it was an image scan, so my screen reader couldn’t decipher it. Jane was very obliging. In short, they made it clear that, if anyone is going to forego paying rent, they must submit proof of loss of employment and related income. Jane has assured all of us that we will continue to be paid, but for how long, I wonder?

Very funny, God. April Fool’s! You can knock it off now.

Thursday, April 2

255 positive cases in Nebraska. The death tally climbs to six statewide. 6.6 million new unemployment claims, far higher than expected. Starting tomorrow, Costco will limit the number of shoppers to two members per card per visit. Omaha cops busted a bartender for allowing two customers to share a pitcher. UNL has agreed to make their dorms available as quarantine quarters if needed.

Today is all about doing as much as possible before we close. But first, I decide that it’s time to rub some lotion on the dry skin of my knuckles, which feel more like scales than skin. Copious hand-washing has taken its toll. I rub in the lotion and marvel at the cool, soothing feeling it has upon my hands.

Jane comes in a while later and says, “Hey, you got something white on your shirt and the fly of your jeans.”

“Where?” I ask. She directs my finger along the seam of my fly until I touch a moist drop. Then I take my fingertip away and sniff the moisture. I’m glad MeMe isn’t here right now, because if she were to walk in and witness me fingering my fly and then sniffing it… She might have some serious questions.

“Damnit! It’s lotion. I’ll go clean it off.”

“I’m sorry I had to tell you that,” Jane says. “I know you need to know, but I feel so bad telling you.” I long ago had to explain to Jane that blind people need to be aware when their clothes are stained so they don’t look like jackasses walking around with drops of white stuff on the fly of their jeans, even though it might make for good speculative gossip in the break room throughout the work day.

I run to the bathroom, wet a paper towel, wipe down my crotch, wipe it dry with another towel, feel a momentary flash of guilt for using two towels instead of one during this time of peril, then walk quickly over to Jane’s office.

“Hey, Chief,” I say as I walk in. “How’s my junk look?”

“Your junk looks good,” she says.

“Glad to hear it,” I say.

Enter, Bekah.

“Hey, Bekr,” I say. “When you wanna come back and help me with my computer?”

“I can’t,” she retorts. “I’m gonna be too busy getting’ all up in your junk.”

“You know what… As long as your husband is all good with it, I’m all good,” I say.

And that’s how things stand at 9:45 on the last day of office hours at Radio Talking Book before a semi-mandatory two-week hiatus; a killer virus all around, the economy slowly tanking and no chocolate or coffee to be had anywhere in our office. I guess all of us figure that the sexual harassment policy that was implemented several months ago was only good as long as the volunteers were within earshot.

Bekah does indeed try to help me reinstall NVDA on my computer in hopes that we can get it to update properly, thereby granting me remote access. Unfortunately, the computer is about as slow and sluggish as I was after my 45th birthday party. After an hour of more F-bombs than an episode of Deadwood, she finally gets in installed.

The rest of the afternoon is spent programming as far ahead as possible. Even though both Bekah and I can gain access remotely, I want to have as much done as we can. The mood at work is not somber. In fact, all three of us seem as if we’re in a pretty good mood. Even MeMe sounds a bit more chipper than usual during our daily conference call.

At approximately 4 PM, the following message is posted to our Facebook page:

“As you may know, RTBS ceased in-person volunteering out of an abundance of caution in light of the COVID-19 concerns on March 17. Our staff and volunteers
are working hard to provide uninterrupted programming for our listeners. We have over 50 volunteers reading remotely, providing the vital, local programming
our listeners rely on now more than ever.

RTBS has made the decision to close our office for at least two weeks. Team RTBS is set up for successful remote work and the show will continue to go
on! Today will be our last day in the office. Please contact us at info@rtbs.org if you have any questions! Stay Safe and Be Well!!

gif description: Homer Simpson, in a flowered mumu and white shower cap, sits on his couch, extending a broom across the room to a desk, randomly hitting
computer keys with it while staring the opposite direction.”

I bum a ride home from Jane. She’s ready to go at 5:15. I get my stuff together including that pesky lotion, my favorite thermos that Katy gave me for Christmas two years ago, several cans of Diet Dr. Pepper and lots of hot dogs. Jane almost forgets her raincoat. Bekah calls her husband Bart to come pick her up. I head toward the door… And start to fight back tears.

Why am I fighting back tears? Most people would be crying tears of joy at the prospect of working from home, especially if they don’t have kids. Working all day in a ratty robe and blown-out slippers. Conference calls from the bath tub. The return of the three o’clock siesta. What’s not to love?

I guess I’m going all emo because it’s dawning on me that my coworkers at Radio Talking Book really are like my family. I have a real family, of course, but these guys have worked with me and had my back for the last two-and-a-half years. Sure, they cover my shift when I’m gone and laugh at my boorish jokes, but it’s more than that. Bekah helps me fill out my check every month so I don’t end up sleeping with the raccoons. MeMe tells me about her grandkids, her favorite books and her former work as a librarian. Jane runs me to the store every month so I can get a bus pass. We all talk to each other about our families, our worries, our goals, and even our junk. We attend each other’s birthday parties, support each other in theater projects and provide council when one of our staff mulls over a senatorial bid. Sometimes, we butt heads a little, but we handle it. All of our volunteers are like my extended family. I don’t see them every day, but I’m always delighted when they drop in.

I’m going to miss them. What deepens my sadness is the fact that I truly don’t know if this two weeks will mark the end of our temporary situation. When will I see any of these wonderful people again? What will our lives look like in two weeks?

So here I sit in my living room. The weather alert on my phone is burring at me. “Winter weather advisory tomorrow until 1PM for your current location.” Yesterday, it was 73 and sunny. I guess Mother Nature hasn’t figured out that April Fool’s Day ended 24 hours ago.

At any rate, gentle readers, this diary is about to get a whole lot more dull.

Friday, April 3

285 confirmed cases in Nebraska. Employers cut 701,000 jobs, snapping a 10-year job growth streak that was a bragging point of our current and immediate past presidents. Uncle Sam recommends that Americans wear masks in public, but Trump says he won’t join the latest fashion trend. States are beginning to squabble over medical supplies such as ventilators. Governor Ricketts places the entire state under directed health measures. Omaha Public Schools announces that there will be no graduation ceremonies in May. Kids will have to hold Prom via Zoom. Not sure what those after prom parties will look like.

I wake up a little past 5 AM. Damn, I think. Over an hour to go till… Wait.

At 8 AM, I am jarred out of a restless sleep by the voice of Gary Sadlemyer. “Alexa,” I mumble through a dry mouth, “Set the thermostat to 76.” I get up, wipe away the weird dream I was having from my mind, put on my robe and slippers and head out to make coffee. I hear the sound of wind and sleet pelting my balcony door as the Keurig heats up. Even though I hate the circumstances, I’m glad I can stay home today in my comfortably warm apartment. The spring weather of two days ago is a wistful memory.

I text my coworkers good morning and answer one from Bekah that says, “Weather’s in our Dropbox.” After I start the coffee, I sit down at the computer to access work remotely.

Over 20 minutes later, I finally get Bekah’s weather downloaded from the Dropbox website and locked into the morning playlist. It should have only taken a minute or two.

Let me pause to explain to the uninitiated about digital accessibility for the blind. When a screen reader doesn’t play nicely with a website, whether due to flash, graphics or improperly tagged links or labeled buttons, it is a real pain in the bum for those of us who cannot navigate visually. Add to that the fact that I am using a free screen reading software package in conjunction with a dinosaur of an internet browser (Internet Explorer), and a cumbersome website, and you have a really stress-making experience.

Let me try to draw a broad comparison to better enlighten you. Reflect back to a time when you went into a Runza, ordered a nice meal complete with a milkshake, then sat down. After a few bites of a salty burger and/or crinkly fries, you pick up the shake and suck on the straw. Your tongue and palate eagerly anticipate the feeling of that sweet, cool, creamy, cold flood of empty calories as it bathes your throat and fills your gut.

Only, nothing comes through the straw. You can taste the flavor of the shake (chocolate or vanilla for me) and you might even get a tease on your tongue, but the ice cream is too thick to make it through the tiny aperture afforded by that whale-killing plastic. So, you either return to your deliciously salty Runza and fries, or you go grab a glass of water.

Except, instead of empty calories, we’re talking about information. It may be as important as an update on the COVID-19 virus in your area, or as frivolous as SugarDaddy.com, but either way, it is information that we as blind people do not have equal access to. And there’s no cup of water for temporary relief. Our relief only comes if a company decides to play nice, or if a person or organization files a lawsuit, or if the government decides to step in and get tough. Any of those options can take years.

Note: If you live outside of Nebraska, just substitute Burger King or Arby’s for Runza in your mind.

That is why I called a Lyft and got dressed. There were no Lyft rides available, but Chuck, an Uber driver, is there in 10 minutes. Chuck is a friendly guy who knows about Radio Talking Book. Apparently, he used to volunteer there long before my time.

I make it to the building with 10 minutes to spare. I download Ralph’s file, plug it in the playlist and make a mad dash to the bathroom. God, getting old sucks!

I spend six hours at the office. I discover that Firefox plays much nicer with the Dropbox website and NVDA than does Internet Explorer. I call two of our favorite listeners and check in on them. They both have a friend from church who brings them weekly grocery deliveries. They pay us the ultimate compliment when they say, “You guys are still sounding good. We’d never know the difference if you hadn’t told us that people are reading from home.” I also call two volunteers who are not able to read remotely and let them know that they are missed and that they will have a place with us when things go back to normal. I rattle around the office like a lonely specter. There is no life blood there without MeMe, Bekr and The Chief.

At four o’clock, I head out to the bus stop and grab my usual ride home. The driver is a guy who used to drive me in the mornings when I first moved to Omaha.

“Where were you yesterday, man? I waited for ya for a couple of minutes but you never showed.”

I apologize profusely, explaining to him that he probably won’t be seeing me for at least two weeks because we are shut down.

I get off at Walgreen’s and pick up a couple of items so I won’t have to brave the Hy-Vee jungle tomorrow; Diet A&W, Blue Diamond almonds and hot sauce. The clerk is a coquettish girl who calls me “honey,” a lot and brushes my hand when she hands me back my debit card. Somehow, it doesn’t bother me nearly as much as when Colton did it.

When I get home, a care package from Mom and Dad is in front of my door. In it are a bunch of my old cassette tapes with old-time radio shows, a canister of Clorox Wipes, two rolls of toilet paper, a box of Caribou Coffee K-Cups and a box of Munchies Peanut Butter Sandwich Crackers. Too bad I can’t take them to work to share with everyone.

For the third week in a row, I offer my Doordash delivery driver a ‘no contact’ option and for the third time, she declines.

Browsing Facebook, I see a post from an acquaintance who is currently compelled to home school her kid. It says, “Not even 2 PM yet and I’m already considering a drink.”

Puts it all in perspective.

Saturday, Apr 4

Once again, I try to unplug from the news. Michael’s first morning working from home goes well. Both volunteers get their files in on time. Jane and MeMe both read segments for our Catholic program, which is three weeks out of date.

One of the items enclosed in the care package from my folks is an old braille thank-you letter I sent to my grandparents after Christmas. Mom always drilled the importance of thank-you letters into us when we were kids. Read this 34-year-old text and see if you can envision the figure of my mother hovering over my shoulder as I write:

“January 5 1986

Dear Grandma and Grandpa,

Thank-you for Preceptor and Ramjet. I always wanted Preceptor and I have a use for my Ramjet I liked the Red, White and Blue shirt. I wear it all the time.
Skiing was fun and thank-you for paying for our Condow. I liked skiing also. Tell Christopher that I hope to see him and his Mom and Dad again soon. My favorite part of skiing was skiing.
I can’t think of any else to say. See you soon.

Love,
Ryan”

Friends, with raw ability like that, is it any wonder that I was a member of the Talented and Gifted program for two years?

Notes: Preceptor (Perceptor) and Ramjet were Transformers, the hottest commodity for pre-pubescents of the mid-1980’s. Cousin Chris and I played with them a lot when we were on said skiing vacation at Copper Mountain, Colorado. I’m sure it would have broken Grandma and Grandpa’s hearts to know that I really didn’t care about any clothing in comparison. I would always braille out the letters, then read them to Mom so she could transcribe them. None of my family members ever learned how to read or write braille, which never seemed unusual to me.

Sunday, April 5

Aside from one hiccup with Dropbox, all goes well with Michael. I hold another afternoon virtual Farkle game, which has triple the number of players over last week’s. Even Mike from Lincoln was there. Who knew he had the time? The weather is warming up again, which allows me to enjoy my weekly cigar on the balcony. Bekah stops by and brings me a bag of apples, along with a surprise dinner from Runza. God bless her and Bart. Katy and I watch another episode of Better Call Saul via Facetime. Saul says he is a god in human clothing. Sure, but can he swipe away a virus? John de Lancie was able to cause two airplanes to collide over Albuquerque and then survive to torment Captain Picard 300 years later, so I think he has the better claim. Sundays do indeed appear to be a day of rest.

The all-day down time makes me think about Mags. I’m missing her acutely today. I remember how I felt during the last week of her life, just three months ago. I remember lying next to her at the back of my large bedroom closet as she lay curled in her kitty bed. Her breathing was shallow. She refused to take food or water. At first, she would purr softly when I would stroke her fur, but eventually, she just lay there with her face to the back wall. She wouldn’t even raise her head when I talked to her.

My friend Dana once said, “Cats know things.”

The Friday before she died, I became angry with her when I woke up to discover that she had yet again peed outside of her litterbox. As I went to work, I thought, Goddamn you, Mags! I’m getting sick of this. I’m busting my ass to take care of you and you’re rewarding me by pissing outside of your box. I’m fed up!

The flair-up lasted until I got to work. It was quickly replaced by guilt for feeling anger in the first place. That afternoon, I bought her a second litterbox, wondering if she just needed a change of scenery. It still sits on the top shelf of the hall closet. I never did get around to taking it back to PetSmart within the two-month return period.

Dana used another expression that now comes to mind. “Caregiver burn-out.” Is that what drove my momentary frustration that Friday morning? I always knew Mags was going to leave me sooner than later. Her kidney disease was progressing and the two years of regular trips to and from the vet for shots and examinations had taken their toll on both of us. But why did she have to pee outside of her litterbox? Was she mad, or in pain, or getting back at me for something? And why was I getting angry? Was I growing weary of a daily struggle that was destined to prove futile?

Friday night, I sat in my hot bath, Mags resting in her customary place beside me on a folded towel. I stroked her gently, so happy that she was there. “I’m sorry for getting mad, baby,” I whispered softly.

Saturday morning, I awoke to find her at the back of the closet. That is where we spent our final four days together.

Is Dana right? Do cats know things? Did Mags sense my irrational anger that morning? I always thought that my decision to put her to sleep was the ultimate act of mercy. Did she know what was coming? Was Mags actually showing mercy to me? Do cats really know things?

If Mags did perform an act of self-sacrifice, it was hollow. I still wake up every morning with her kitty bed next to my arm, wishing it was her. I would give anything to hear her soft purr, her mournful “Meow,” or the jingling of her collar as she jumped on the bed. I am very much looking forward to seeing her again after I leave this world. I hope she knows now how much I deeply love her.

Every cat is a control freak. Like humans, they need to dominate their space and their interactions with humans and other animals as much as they can. For me, watching Mags die that early morning in the back room of the vet’s office wasn’t the hardest part. The hardest part were the four days prior to her passing, as I kept a tearful vigil beside her bed, knowing that the end was near, but not quite knowing when. Droplets of hope kept evaporating in the gale of her growing suffering.

For those of us who are in desperate need of control, the prelude of the ticking clock is the ultimate agony.

My apartment is silent now, filled only by the ghost of a cat who once lived and filled my heart with love. A cherry wood box with her name printed on top is all that remains of my beloved girl. Mags is gone. Now, I only hear distant thunder.

… And it’s getting louder.

Mags Marie Osentowski

Born: ?
Came to live with me: Saturday, May 28, 2016
Passed away: December 18, 2019

She wasn’t my pet. She was my family.

337,620 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States. 9,643 dead.

The Corona Diaries: Week 2

“Cause and effect, chain of events
All of the chaos makes perfect sense
When you’re spinning round, things come undone
Welcome to Earth, third rock from the sun.”

“Third Rock From the Sun”
Performed by Joe Diffie
Written by Sterling Whipple, Tony Martin and John Greenebaum

Week Two: Control

Monday, March 23, 2020

I plug back in. Happy Monday!

61 cases of COVID-19 confirmed in Nebraska. The state legislature comes back into session and moves a 100 million dollar appropriations bill forward with no dissenting votes. Who says bipartisanship isn’t possible? Harvey Weinstein has caught the Coronavirus. Silver linings and all that. Rand Paul is the first senator to catch it. Former presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar’s husband also has it. Sad end to her campaign.

Bekah comes in shortly after I do and places a bag of Fuji apples in my hands. It’s a kindly gesture that she’s been repeating for about three months. I thank her profusely and wish I could give her a hug. I silently wonder how much longer these luxuries will be available.

Jane feels we should truncate office hours for our own health and safety. Bekah and I are both using this job as much for an emotional crutch as anything. Both of us want to be here to feel structured and productive, if nothing else. Easier for me than Bekah since I have no social life and spend a lot of time alone anyway. Bekah has friends, support groups, art stuff, etc. I just have my job and my apartment.

Bekah says, “I plan to keep on coming in until I’m told not to.” I point out that, even if we are in limited contact, we might still risk contracting or spreading the virus. It’s an obligatory argument and I don’t press too hard. Privately, I wish we’d keep the office open but lock the doors. We’re doing 100 percent of our business by phone, text and E-mail as it is. I floated that idea to Jane on Friday but she resisted because they don’t carry their keys on them as I do and they might get locked out. Jane wants to put up a sign warning away visitors, but Bekah seems to disapprove. The issue is resolved with the office hours remaining as they are; eight to five.

Bekah and I nearly get into a verbal shoving match over the substitution of the Entertainment On the Go segment, which has been put on hiatus until the Go Section of the Omaha World Herald returns. The nature and tone of our disagreement is out of proportion to the issue itself, and I think both of us know it. Why is it so important whether Tom Shomaker or Frank Herzog runs in that slot? That question is never fully answered. It almost feels as if we are two people both trying to grab the same bar of soap floating in a bath tub.

Late evening. I get annoyed when I realize I left the sack of apples at work. I try to post The Corona Diaries: Week One, only to discover that WordPress has rearranged the dashboard. It takes me forever to figure out how to post it. I finally get the date right, but the time won’t update correctly. Pricks!

I cut short my nightly hot bath, complete with a Lavender Lullaby Bath Bomb, just so I can try again to share my inane thoughts with my limited social media circle. Wrestling with WordPress counteracts any relaxation I gained from my bath, and I just go to bed annoyed and weary.

Tuesday, March 24

65 cases confirmed in Nebraska. Over twice as many next door in Iowa, who reported their first COVID-related death today. The Summer Olympics in Tokyo have been postponed for a year. Trump is getting presidential cabin fever. He wants to, “Open things up,” by Easter. What was that I heard about July or August a week ago? Trump did give Governor Ricketts a shout-out, saying that we’re doing a great job of keeping our numbers low. Of course, we haven’t really ramped up testing yet and thus, we have no idea what the numbers really are, but why bring reality into it? Both the federal and state tax deadlines have been pushed back until July 15. The DCHD strongly suggests that all beauty and tanning salons, barber shops, tattoo parlors, etc, close down. Nebraska Furniture Mart, a staple of household buying in the region, announces that it will be closing on Friday until the crisis abates. Guess I shouldn’t have waited to switch out my too-soft mattress for a firmer one. Who knows how long I’ll be waking up with a pillow between my legs and a crick in my neck.

When I board the morning bus, the driver tries to tell me something once we get rolling.

“Hey, man. Can you wait until we hit Benson? I can’t hear you because of the loud rattling.”

20 minutes later at Benson Transfer Center, he tries again. “Sorry, Ryan. Old bus. I wanted to let you know that they are gonna reduce this route. Maybe next week. We’ll probably be going to a weekend schedule, which means the half-hour runs will be cut and we’ll only go once an hour. I won’t be on this route until this thing is over.

“Does that mean they’re going to bench you?” I ask.

“Probably” he says. “A lot of drivers are sidelined for now.”

Early afternoon. Bekah comes into the control room and tells me that, as of tomorrow morning, the North door (the one I usually use) will be locked. They are still seeing patients and only want to keep the South entrance open so as to funnel all people past the new screening station, which just happens to be located right outside our back door.

Bekah says, “You can take the sidewalk around the other way. If you follow it, you will eventually come to the sliding doors. There’s a shortcut, but you’d have to walk through the grass.

Jane doesn’t want me walking through the grass either. “Ryan, you could get your shoes all muddy if it rains.”

At three o’clock, I put on my ridiculously expensive and ineffective Columbia coat and go outside. I exit the North door, hang a hard right and almost immediately, my shoes touch soft, spongy grass. I can feel a little mud as I walk forward, but soon, I encounter solid grass again. I bear right, clicking my tongue once or twice in the absence of my tapping cane so as to produce an echo off the wall of the building. Within two minutes, my cane taps pavement, the sound of the metal tip acting as a sonar off the building, which is still to my right. I turn toward it and soon, I’m walking in the South entrance.

Just for good measure, I go back out the North door and trace the sidewalk in the other direction. I follow Bekah’s instructions and again locate the South door easily. The lady at the screening table is impressed.

“I was outside for about seven minutes total. Do I need to get screened,” I ask. She chuckles dryly. I think she’s bored.

Truthfully, this is a good feeling. I haven’t done a lesson in structured discovery cane travel in about six years. Nothing satisfies quite like the accomplishment of conquering a travel route. I think again of all of those CCB students who have had the misfortune of interruption in their education.

Bekah and I finally shatter all current social norms and share a friendly hug before I leave. If I get the virus, blame her.

Wednesday, March 25

66 cases confirmed in Nebraska. Late last night while I dreamt of a female acquaintance (who shall remain nameless) in a state of undress in a hot tub, Congress finally got serious and agreed upon another COVID stimulus bill, mostly pork-free. Ben Sasse was one of the few senators to vote against it. I respect the hell out of the guy’s willingness to stand on his beliefs against a tidal wave of opposition, but I wonder if he’d be willing to deliver a few Cheese Runzas to my door when he is returned to private life this November. In Denver (my adopted home town), RTD announces that they will be going to a weekend schedule for all buses and light rails. This change could last until September. The catch… They’re not implementing the changes until April 19. So, about the time that President Trump’s economy is supposed to come roaring back from slumber, Denver mass transit spins down. Meanwhile, back in Cornland, Governor Ricketts signs an executive order postponing all evictions across the state until May 31. There was a time when I would’ve felt sympathy for my land lord, but that was before management allowed raccoons to frolic unencumbered in the crawl space above my apartment for the better part of a year. That, plus the dirty trick they pulled when they switched out my thermostat for a touch screen one without telling me, hardens my heart against landlords everywhere.

When the morning bus pulls up, the driver informs me that they are no longer charging fare for riders. When the afternoon bus comes, the driver pulls up so I am compelled to enter through the back door. Social distancing comes to the Omaha Metro bus lines.

My best friend Katy tells me that, as of last night, everyone at the Seattle Lighthouse for the Blind was sent home. They are all forced to use their own PTO until April 2, when they are supposedly going to start receiving federal sick leave pay. She has enough PTO to make it, but she’ll have to burn it all. This doesn’t come as a shock. The Seattle Lighthouse contracts with Boeing Airlines, and we all know how their bottom line is doing these days.

Katy sounds bummed when she speaks of it. Like me, she’s not crazy about the city in which she lives, but she loves her job. Part of me is relieved. I’ve been worried about Katy even before I was worried about myself. Seattle was one of the first places to amass an outbreak. Katy shrugged it off; another of the NBD crowd. At least she will be home and out of circulation. She’s better at living in seclusion than others, but she lives with her boyfriend. Who knows how a sedentary lifestyle will affect them.

Back in Omaha, my work day is the first smooth one I’ve had since I came back, though there is still an undercurrent of tension in the office. All programs air when they are scheduled to air. Dropbox behaves itself as it should.

Thursday, March 26

81 cases confirmed statewide. National unemployment claims are off the chart, with 3.28 million filing for benefits in one week, which is more than quadruple the previous record. America now has the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the world. I am dubious about this claim, since we cannot trust the information that comes from China. In fact, I am stunned that so many people who rightly call President Trump out on his BS will swallow propaganda whole from the Chinese Communist Party. The gang at The Dispatch Podcast drags Logan’s Run out of mothballs in response to a growing chorus on the right who feel that the country should sacrifice its elderly, at-risk population in favor of stimulating the economy. Personally, I think the analogy is more appropriate to Star Trek: The Next Generation. You remember the episode where Winchester from M*A*S*H is euthanized because he commits the grand crime of turning 60, right after he falls in love with Deanna Troi’s mom? This was back when Captain Picard was younger and much happier.

At 7:10 this morning, two minutes before I walk out the door, my phone dies. I know it is dead because Voiceover suddenly stops and the heartbeat click when I touch the home button is non-responsive. I plug the phone in and, 30 seconds later, it “Blee-bloops!” to life. The battery level is 11 percent. This is odd, since I just took it off the charger after it was plugged in all night. A quick check of my battery health shows that I am at 73 percent battery capacity. Small wonder.

This disturbs me. My phone is three years old and I’ve been due for an upgrade for over a year. I haven’t bought a new phone, mostly because a lot of my extra money went toward Mags’ vet bills. I’d half thought of buying a new iPhone during my now-doomed vacation to Des Moines so I could get used to it in the company of my tech nerd buddies, Joe and Wes. But now, is it even safe to buy a new phone? Can I practice social distancing in an Apple Store? Can an Apple employee work a phone with gloves?

My phone is my life line. I do everything with it; communicate with friends and family, interact with social media, monitor my travel, hale Lyft and Uber, order deliveries, listen to music, play Dice World, get anxiety over news alerts, and even work. I use the Dropbox app on my phone to move files around from place to place and also monitor the RTBN audio stream with TuneIn Radio. If I were to be without a phone, I’d be screwed.

When my bus shows up, my driver refuses to let me board through the back door in compliance with Metro’s new policy to maintain social distancing. I try to gently educate my way past his groundless fears.

“My driver yesterday afternoon opened the back door for me and I boarded just fine.”

“What! That’s just wrong! What a prick!” the guy protests. “What was his name? Did he drive you yesterday afternoon? What time?”

“No, I don’t know his name. I left work early yesterday,” I lie.

I’m in the middle of Kylie Minogue’s “Timebomb,” when we hit 90th and Maple. Over the music, I can hear a steady beeping coming from the front of the bus. I stop the music, pop our my earbuds and listen. The bus is running smoothly, the motor seems solid and we’re rolling. Eventually, I resume the music.

Later as I debark, I hear two distinctive beeping sounds from the front. It sounds a lot like those obligatory crisis scenes in every medical TV show.

“What’s that,” I ask the driver.

“Oh, uhh, that’s just my hazard lights. I got’em turned on.” I am less than confident in his forthrightness. Why would he turn his hazard lights on just to drop me off?

It turns out that the phone and the bus are harbingers of the chaos that is to come. It starts when Bekah sends a text to us that says, “I won’t be in early today. MeMe will send you a weather, Ryan.”

Then I realize that I forgot to record the birthday announcements for the upcoming week. I grab my antique Perkins braillewriter, roll up some makeshift paper and bang out the birthdays. I barely get them in on time.

9:30 rolls around and I have neither paper that is due for the 10-to-noon block. Quick calls to the two volunteers reveal that both are having issues with Dropbox. Then, in the midst of trying to trouble shoot for them, the broadcast goes dead. It turns out that the volunteer who recorded the Columbus papers left huge gaps of silence in her file. It’s not her fault. Her audio probably dropped out and she didn’t realize it. But the timing sucks worse than my jump shot. I have to air the shows in reverse order, which is no big deal but stressful.

Then another volunteer calls in and says that Dropbox is giving him fits, so I help him through it. Bekah comes in by 11 and helps take up the slack, but before noon, I end up helping five volunteers with uploading issues.

As I sit in the bathroom, the tinkling sound of processed coffee and Diet Dr. Pepper splashing in the water below, I take quiet solace in the knowledge that God is reading my writing. He even reads it before it is published on the internet. He was hovering over my shoulder last night when I wrote about a smooth work day. He was also eavesdropping on our staff meeting yesterday when I asserted that I was sure we had ironed out most of the bumps in our remote reader system. Why else would he deliver a swift, celestial kick to my man parts in an effort to refocus my attention?

A little before one, MeMe asks if she can be excused from our daily meeting so that she can finish some work. Jane agrees, so we abort the usual conference call. I talk to MeMe on the phone and she sounds tired and beleaguered. She is at the greatest risk of contracting the virus, so she works from home and seldom goes out. I worry that it is taking a toll on her.

Jane and MeMe are both senior citizens. Jane is still in the office, but MeMe is self-quarantined. Still, she works her fanny off every day to help Radio Talking Book keep rolling. Susan also calls to check in. She’s a nice old lady who doesn’t read for us, but comes in twice a week to do administrative work with our radios and database. She also reads my mail for me once a week and has been known to run me to the store a time or two.

So when I hear of a segment of the population suggesting that MeMe, Jane and Susan should sacrifice themselves for the greater good, I want to cancel some life-clock crystals.

On the plus side, Bekah lets me read a grant proposal that she wrote and asks for my feedback. It makes me feel pretty good.

When I catch the afternoon bus, the driver has no problem allowing me to enter and exit through the back door. I notice two strips of tape strung across the aisle about half way back.

Further proof that God is pushing the pendulum. Tonight, I get an Email from AT&T. Part of it says:

“To further insure we’re taking the proper steps for our customers and employees, we’ve adjusted our retail store presence to focus on handling first responder and critical customer needs. We’ve also reduced hours and taken extra cleaning and social distancing precautions.”

There’s a rumor going around that broadcasters are first responders. I am a licensed broadcaster in the state of Nebraska. Hmmmm.

Friday, March 27

89 confirmed cases in Nebraska. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announces that he has tested positive for COVID-19. President Trump signs the stimulus package, which will cost American tax payers $2.2 trillion. Nebraska has seen its first two casualties from the virus, both reported on the same day. If the good folks are depressed over this, they can now drown their angst by ordering take-out liquor from bars and restaurants, as long as they keep a lid on it.

When the morning bus arrives, I decide to practice a little civil disobedience. As he pulls up, the front door opens, but I move toward the back of the bus, sliding my cane along the metal side until it touches the groove indicating the seam where the back door is located.

“Ryan, you can come in the front! Ryan! Ryan,” the driver yells.

“It’s okay. I’ll come in the back. Open the door, please,” I holler. After a few seconds, I hear a click, indicating that the lock on the door has been released. I step back and wait for the door to swing open, but it doesn’t. There is no way to pull it open, so I’m stuck.

“The door won’t open,” he says. “Come up front.”

I decide not to argue, so I go in the front. Once I am seated and we’re rolling, he says, “The back door is for other people, not you, man.”

I’m sure Rosa Parks is having a nice chuckle somewhere in the Great Beyond. I find it ironic that I’m being told not to go to the back of the bus by an African-American driver.

Later, after we leave Benson Transfer Station, I decide to deal with the issue. I pocket my phone and earbuds, get up and walk toward the front of the bus. There are no strips of tape to block my path.

“Hey, man. I want to ask you a question. I hope you won’t find it intrusive,” I say.

“Go ahead,” he says.

“Are you African-American?”

Without hesitation, he answers, “Nah. I’m Asian, actually.”

“Ahh. Got it,” I say. I quickly shift gears in hopes that he won’t have time to inquire why I’m asking about his race. “If I can ask another question that I hope isn’t presumptuous, do you get offended when people refer to the Coronavirus as, The Chinese Virus?”

“Well, yeah, kinda,” he says. “I think people who call it that are inconsiderate. I mean, I know the virus came from China and all that, but there’s a lot of people all over the world who spread it from place to place. It’s not like our country took it seriously at first, anyway.”

I can’t argue the point.

“Are you worried about getting the virus?”

“Yeah, a little,” he says, his voice lowering a bit. “I have a wife and kids. I really worry about them catching it. I just try to be careful at work and wash my hands a lot.”

“But what if I have the virus,” I ask? “Don’t you worry you might get it from me if I board at the front of the bus.”

He waits a beat, then says, “Well, you’re not really that close to me, anyway. I know you’re good.”

At that point, we turn off of 72nd Street on to Newport, he pulls up to my stop. We both wish each other well. “God bless,” he says as I step off.

This will be the last time we see each other for a while. Monday morning, he goes on to what is called a Waiting Board, while I get to sleep in an extra half-hour before going to work in the wake of Metro’s route reduction.

My pal Bridgit would scold me at this point if she were here. She’s previously cautioned me about judging the race of a person by only their voice. I truly do hope I encounter this guy again. Maybe we can go out somewhere and have a beer summit. He can tell me all about his culture, and I will impress him by taking the stairs unassisted, rather than the elevator or a, “Handicap ramp.”

The day is notable because Bekah and I have a candid conversation about control freaks. I won’t share most of it because a lot of it is personal, but she and I both admit that we’re very much alike in our need to control our space.

After the weight of killer viruses, racial and ableist stereotypes and heartfelt discussions about control, my day is leavened when I teach Jane how to use Dice World to play Yahtzee. It only takes her 15 minutes to figure it out.

“I don’t really like this game, Ryan,” she mutters. “I don’t like playing games on my phone.”

“Ok, boomer,” I reply.

“Asshole,” she retorts. I guess the threat of unseen death all around us has slowly eroded the veil of professionalism that used to exemplify our idyllic work environment. I think she’s really upset because I came from behind and won the game. If any of you reading this play Dice World, barrage Reubenjane with game requests.

Truthfully, I’m trying to cheer Jane up because she seems down. In her own way, I think this change in routine has hit her the hardest. Bekah, MeMe and I are all scrambling to make Radio Talking Book sound as close to normal as possible. In some ways, my days are busier and longer than they were when we were operating under standard conditions. Yet, Jane is the public face of the company. She is a hard-wired extrovert who has sales and public relations in her blood. During normal times, she was constantly on the go at breakfast meetings, luncheons, afternoon seminars and evening gatherings. If she’s not out on the road spreading our good word or visiting listeners to help them with their radios. She’s bringing in people for tours, on-air interviews and fundraising chats. In the wake of the cancelations of all of the fairs and conferences we usually attend at this time of year, Jane’s professional life has largely been put on hold.

I talk to my folks on the phone. They are headed to the lake this afternoon for the weekend, even though the weather is supposed to be lousy. Mom plans to send me a care package and she promises to toss a couple rolls of toilet paper in. She’s sent other care packages to her grandkids up at the ranch, but they seem to be taking longer and longer to get there of late.

That night, I again order delivery from Doordash. Once again, I call the driver and ask if he wants a ‘no contact’ delivery. Once again, he says, “That’s alright. I’m not really worried about it.”

Saturday, March 28

I try to unplug from the news again, but my phone won’t let me. Due to expanded testing, Nebraska has seen 95 confirmed cases. But I’m really worried about Iowa. They have 298 confirmed cases. My pal Wes lives in Des Moines. I was supposed to be waking up on his air mattress this weekend with an aching back and a need for strong coffee. Joe and Sharonda live there. They just celebrated their one-year wedding anniversary last October. Sharonda has underlying health conditions. Ross just moved to Des Moines a month ago to take a new job. He may be stranded and unable to come back to visit his family if things get worse. Alicia and Dana live in central Iowa. I wonder what’s next for all of them.

When the morning bus pulls up, the driver opens the back door instead of the front. The crime scene tape is strung across the aisle just in front of my seat. He drops me at the wrong spot, but it only takes a few extra seconds for me to retrace my steps and locate the building.

As I walk around to the south door, I stop in the moist grass. The air is chilly and smells strongly of rain. There is no distant traffic. But the thing that really captures my attention are the sounds of many birds singing in the nearby trees. I stop on the lawn of Medical Building Three and just listen. The birds sound as if it’s just another normal day in paradise. I have no idea what kind of birds they are. Mom or Grandma would know. But their chorus is a peaceful counterpoint to the chaos of this new normal. A flock of geese flies overhead, honking their way westward. Where are they headed? Can they fly some place safe? Is there any place safe, I wonder?

I stand in the grass for nearly 10 minutes, just soaking up the bird song and mercifully cool air. Then, the serenity of my morning is blown to hell when my phone beeps. “On my way,” Michael texts. I remind him to park in the south lot and use the sliding doors because the north door is locked.

Things go smoothly. Both remote readers get their papers in on time. Michael does just fine and reads a magazine in one of our recording booths. At 11:15, we’re all done and we decide to take off early. Michael drops me at Hy-vee again. He tells me that things are still crazy where he works. His manager, normally a belligerent fellow in temperament, threw a tantrum the other evening, complete with cursing and flying objects. When Michael drops me at the store, I hand him a $10 bill, careful not to let our hands touch. I tell him to fill his tank, but he tells me he’s going to use it for lunch at Raising Cane’s. Lucky duck.

Once again, Sheila is my shopping aid. She is maintaining her positive attitude and generous spirit. I only buy a few things. In case I suddenly have to shelter in place, I have enough food and toilet paper for two weeks.

I check out. Sheila walks me and my cart to the front entrance. I bid her goodbye, dip my hand in my pocket to grab my phone and summon a Lyft… And my fingers flutter like bird wings against the cloth of my jeans. I left my phone on the charger at work. My stomach plummets, my balls tuck up and my head spins like a Tilt-A-Whirl.

What now? Can I borrow a land line in the store and call someone to come get me? Jane would certainly do it, but I don’t know her number. Could I call Kevin, Robert and Bonnie, Mitch and Jenni, Bob and Laurie, or Nancy? Impossible. I don’t know their numbers either. The only Omaha number I can remember is that of Radio Talking Book. Remembering phone numbers is so ‘90’s.

Sheila finally uses her own cell phone to call me a cab. She has to Google the number for Metro Taxi because I’ve never used it. She offers to wait with me until my ride comes, but I tell her to get on with her busy day.

It’s a long wait without my phone. I can’t monitor the progress of the cab, or call them to get an ETA. I can’t pass the time on Twitter or Facebook, play Dice World or flirt with Kelly on WhatsApp. I can’t listen to music or check Email. All I can do is guard my grocery cart and wait. What am I going to do if they take an hour?

Actually, it takes a cab about 15 minutes to show up. My driver is named James. Turns out that he knows a predecessor of mine who used to work at RTBN. He knows a few other blind people. It takes me back to a time when, for better or worse, cab drivers were more interwoven in the blindness community than are ridesharing drivers of today.

James has a speech impediment. At first, I wonder if it’s an accent, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to ask him where he’s from. I’ll guess Asia or India, and he’ll turn out to be from some place like Blue Heaven, Idaho. He drives me home, waits while I dump my groceries in my fridge, then drives me to work so I can pick up my phone. He keeps talking to me on the way, but he’s hard to understand at times. I am grateful for the music he plays. Billy Joel, Styx, The Pretenders, Night Ranger and Boston, along with the moist breeze from the open window, help me relax as we drive.

James drops me at the south door and I pay him $20. Thank God I have cash! I run inside, snatch my phone off the desk, unplug the charging cord, check the time and realize that I have two minutes to make the bus home. Not enough time to wash my hands. I run outside, dash across the empty street and make the bus stop. I made it!

There’s a fine drizzle, but I whip out my phone anyway and decide to leave Katy a quick message telling her about my crazy day. The message is about two minutes. I finish, send the message… And my phone dies. My stomach drops. My balls tuck up. The bus rolls to the curb and the back door opens.

I manage to restart the phone during the trip. It tells me I have 3 percent battery, yet I make it all the way home with Foreigner, Electric Light Orchestra and Grand Funk Railroad for company, all while the battery level remains constant.

It’s 3 PM when a sudden, loud peal of thunder heralds the arrival of a storm. I think it may be the first of the season. I go out on my balcony to bring in my folding rocker. The rain feels good on my face and arms. The thunder booms and the wind rattles my screen door. My robe billows up and I wonder if God cares that I’m au naturel underneath. Are any birds watching? Do they care? I stand there until I start to shiver, then come back in, peel off my soaking wet robe and crawl into bed.

Then I remember to call AT&T. After deftly navigating the maze of menus, I finally reach Bryson, the store manager at the Dodge Street location. Yes, they are still maintaining limited store hours locally. Yes, they have all models of the iPhone 11 available. Yes, they can work with me on setting up the phone and it won’t violate their new social distancing policy. No, they are not open tomorrow. No, he can’t help me with account details until I get there. I tell him I’ll probably see him Monday afternoon and hang up. I am relieved that AT&T is still open so I won’t have to venture to the Apple Store, which is clear over in Village Point.

Finally, I begin to relax. The storm has died down. It was a short one. For me, it felt like a much needed purge. I slap on my mask, turn on a Robert B. Parker book and begin to doze.

Shit! I forgot to take Bridgit her newspapers for packing!

Sunday, March 29

For the first time in 13 days, I sleep in. I don’t go anywhere or do anything all day, except help Michael with programming remotely. He does a fine job running the computer and I tell him he’s ready to fly solo next weekend. He’s lonely at work with no one but the ghosts in the empty building to talk to.

I am bound and determined to unplug for the day. I believe my mental health depends on social distancing from current events for a time. I read my book, grill some breakfast sausage, play virtual Farkle with Wes and Kelly and get annoyed by an AT&T customer service rep who jive talks me about an upgrade package. Maybe it’s time to switch to Verizon.

Bridgit sounds as if her voice is coming from the depths of a pressure cooker. She and Ross picked the worst time to move and their landlord isn’t very sympathetic to their plight. Luckily, she doesn’t bust my chops about the newspapers. Instead, she tries to explain to her eight-year-old that Santa’s elves are social distancing up at the North Pole.

Katy and I watch the latest episode of Better Call Saul via Facetime. At one point, Saul and Kim have a major fight. Kim says, “Either we end this now and enjoy the time we had and go our separate ways, or…or…or maybe we get married.” This cracks my shit up! I wonder how many relationships around the country are now cases of life imitating art in the wake of compulsory isolation.

All in all, a quiet day.

Then, at 3:40 PM, reality roars back into my life like a pickup truck. Wes texts me and says, “Damn! Joe Diffie passed away due to this virus.”

Channel Six confirms the story. Joe Diffie, age 61, was diagnosed with COVID-19 on Friday and passed away from complications stemming from the infection today. Damn! He was younger than my parents, my boss and many of our volunteers.

Joe Diffie. Staple of my latter teenage years when I came back to country music. I gave my pal Shane his second album, Regular Joe, as a high school graduation gift. When we were roommates at the center, Shane would crank up “I Ain’t Leavin’ Till She’s Gone,” and belt it out at the top of his lungs. A television sitcom was named after one of his songs, “Third Rock From the Sun.” I saw Joe in concert in Council Bluffs in the summer of 1995. I had the pleasure of shaking his hand after the show. He seemed like a humble guy. Alicia and I saw him again in the summer of 2002 when he was touring with Tracy Lawrence and Mark Chesnutt. I saw him for a third time at the Nebraska State Fair in 2007 just before I left for Denver. He never failed to put on a crowd-pleasing show.

I text Shane and break the news to him. “Thanks for alerting us to it dude. I’m just stunned.” Shane was always rather laconic in his emotional expressions.

When Kenny Rogers passed away a week ago, no one was surprised. He was 81 years old. But this… This is a shocker. And as I prepare to head out to the balcony for my weekly cigar and beer, I don’t listen to the usual book or radio show. Instead, the neighbors are treated to “Good Brown Gravy.” It’s a beautiful day with the sun out in all of its glory, a gentle breeze and a temperature of 61. A nice day for your last one, if you have a choice.

Joe was best known for his frivolous novelty songs; “John Deere Green,” “Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox,” “Pickup Man.” To me, his best work was his serious stuff. “Ships That Don’t Come In,” was kind of an anthem for me during my college years. But it was his very first hit, “Home,” that was always my personal favorite. The lyrics now seem darkly prescient. Life seemed so simple at first, but as we travel onward toward an unknown destination, our path becomes exponentially more fraught and circuitous.

“Now the miles I’ve put behind me ain’t as hard as the miles that lay ahead
And it’s way too late to listen to the words of wisdom that my daddy said.
The straight and narrow path he showed me turned into a thousand winding roads.
My footsteps carry me away, but in my mind, I’m always goin’ home.”

RIP, Joe. At last, you’ve made it.

108 confirmed cases in Nebraska.

“Home”
Performed by Joe Diffie
Written by Fred Lehner and Andy Spooner

The Corona Diaries

In 2010, I read the book, One Second After, by William R. Forstchen. My former pal Eddie, bona fide conspiracy theorist, recommended it to me. I devoured it in a day and a half.

The premise is simple. A foreign power detonates an Electromagnetic Pulse bomb (EMP) over America, causing all power to fail. Society quickly crumbles with no electricity to run it. The action centers on a small town in South Carolina and illustrates the changes that take place as order breaks down.

As I reviewed the book with my friends I said, “If this ever were to really happen, blind people would be the first to go.”

No one disagreed.

Week One: Anatomy of a Hoax

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Shit gets real when I wake up with a sore throat.

Your brain has a way of lying to you when you’re first getting sick. You tell yourself things like, my CPAP mask just slipped while I slept and I just have a dry throat. But after an hour of wakefulness when that swollen feeling is still in your neck, you know it’s not a dry throat.

We had been discussing measures to prepare for the spread of COVID-19 for several days at work. Other radio reading services around the country have already asked their volunteers to stay home. Some are discussing the possibility of closing altogether. The day before, I’d tried to phone a former coworker in Boulder, only to be greeted by his voicemail. I didn’t bother to text him.

In staff meetings, the other ladies have a plan. Bekah pulls up LogMeIn and figures out how to access all of the computers in the control room. At one point in a meeting, she says, “I Don’t mean to be a dick, but if we get shut down, I can cover your end, right Ryan?”

And I can’t argue with her. Whatever happens behind the scenes, the show must go on. But I get quietly furious inside. But this is a nice little pond where I work and I don’t want to create ripples. I want to scream, I’m not being paid a salary of $$$ just to sit with my thumb up my ass! I just sit quietly and absorb, knowing I can’t work from home remotely because, for some unknown reason, NVDA won’t interface as it did last winter.

So I get up on Saturday morning with the hope that I can still bring Mitch over from Plattsmouth and we can connect JAWS Remote Access from work to home. But first, I have to conquer the grocery store.

The night before, I call Hy-vee customer service and they inform me that they aren’t delivering for at least the next week because they are all jammed up due to their transition back from a central distribution center to deliveries from their local stores. Their timing is worse than my dancing.

So, I get up and grab a Lyft over to my neighborhood Hy-vee. Sheila helps me shop. She is an angel. She is cheerful, positive and she knows what the hell she’s doing. I make it home an hour later with nearly everything I wanted, except for distilled water, which is essential for my CPAP.

I call Mitch and tell him that I can’t find the password to the router at work, which is apparently necessary to make JAWS Remote Access functional. This is more complicated than NVDA, which relies on a central server. I don’t yet tell him that I have a sore throat and developing cough. He thinks that everyone is overreacting to the virus. I can’t blame him much. I was fairly flippant over it a week ago.

Later, I go to Walgreen’s and buy two jugs of distilled water. It strikes me as strange that they have a full supply. Then, I go to the pharmacist and ask where I might go to get tested for COVID-19. I tell her that I may have symptoms. She tells me she’s been getting a lot of calls like that all day and no one at either Walgreen’s or CVS knows what to tell their customers. I leave feeling disheartened.

Later, I sneak over to work to put in some programming, suspecting that I won’t be in on Monday. I also use AIRA to locate the password written on the back of the router. I stay for nearly two hours, wiping down the control room with Clorox Wipes before I leave.

ON the way home on the bus, my phone blows up with news alerts about a joint press conference with Governor Ricketts, Mayor Stothert and official from the Nebraska Health Department. The reason… The first community spread case of COVID-19 has been detected in Douglas County. For the first time, I hang on every word uttered by public officials.

After the presser, I call my boss and explain that I will not be attending our annual fundraiser the next day. She sounds disappointed but understanding. I go to bed that night feeling depressed and defeated until the Alka-Seltzer Night Time cold medicine kicks in.

Sunday, March 15

One more case confirmed in Douglas County. More schools set to close as of Monday. Even public libraries are closing. Thank God MeMe is no longer a librarian. I wonder if she misses it.

I self-quarantine. The hardest part of the day is between 4 PM and 6 PM when I know that many people are having a good time at Wining in the Dark.

When I first went two years ago, I objected on philosophical grounds. Those ‘In the Dark’ experiences are gimmicky and don’t really give anyone a true glimpse into what it’s like to be blind. Quite the opposite. They often play on fear and stereotypes in the name of profit. Yet, the fact that the sleepshades are optional and that the event did not take place in darkness made it much more palatable. My abiding affection for the participants bridges the remainder of the gap. But I stay home and drink a couple of Coors instead.

Monday, March 16

I watch my first presser of the White House COVID-19 task force. Trump appears exhausted and ineffectual. After everything his enemies have thrown at him, could a germ be the thing that pierces his armor?

It’s the worst day of the week emotionally. My sore throat is worse, the cough is dry and I keep obsessing over news reports and social media anecdotes. I wonder if I’ll have to be isolated for weeks on end.

I call Nebraska Medicine first thing in the morning. They can’t get me into see my regular doc for 10 days. The first available doc at my usual clinic isn’t available until Wednesday afternoon at 4:20. They check other clinics and discover that I can get in at 8:30 on Wednesday morning. I snatch it up like a fat guy grabbing a cookie, even though it’s down town.

I spend much of the mid-day alternating between pacing, checking the news and trying in vain to focus on a C. J. Box mystery that I’ve already read.

Then, at three in the afternoon, Mitch calls me from my work. I don’t know how the hell he does it, but we somehow get NVDA Remote to work again. Katy and I tried for over an hour nine months ago and we couldn’t make it function. When I got into the computers and hear the tell-tale, “Beep beep!” alerting me to access, I nearly cried.

20 minutes later, Adrienne from the Nebraska Commission for the Blind came over and helped me connect my touch screen thermostat to both Siri and Alexa. For the first time in almost three weeks, I can control my thermostat without having to call AIRA. If I catch a fever, at least I can jack up the heat independently.

As I take a hot bath before bed, I realize that my sore throat is nearly gone. The day had started off with anxiety and gloom, but I went to bed that night in a great mood.

Tuesday, Mar 17

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day. Mayor Stothert tried to keep the bars open, but ended up limiting crowd sizes on recommendation of the CDC and HHS. This effectively killed the holiday, which is the biggest for bars and pubs.

It was a sad day at Radio Talking Book because we made the decision to ask our volunteers to stay home starting Wednesday. So Tuesday was their last day to come in and read at our location. This was a heartbreaker, but necessary. Like our listeners, most of our volunteers are retirement age and fall within the highest risk. It’s the right thing to do, but it’s sad. I spend a lot of time checking the playlist remotely, but still feel sidelined during the most impactful event we’ve faced since I started working there.

Wednesday, Mar 18

23 confirmed cases in Douglas County. The second community case is detected, which means Governor Ricketts will take more drastic steps to limit the spread. I find Dr. Adi Pour, Douglas County Health Director, to be a calming presence. Maybe it’s her accent. Mayor Stothert declares a 72-hour state of emergency for Omaha. All restaurants are limited to delivery and take-out. All bars are closed.

I get up at 7 AM, shower, slam two large cups of coffee and hale a Lyft. At 8:05, I walk into the Clarkson Family Clinic. At 8:15, I’m stepping on a scale, answering questions from a grumpy nurse. At one point she says, “So… Could you not get into see your regular doctor?” I answer politely, deciding to cut her some slack. She’s on the front lines of this thing and the days ahead for her will likely get worse.

I can’t remember my doctor’s name since he’s not my regular physician. He is young, cheerful and relaxed in a casual manner that typifies professionals under 40. He examines me, asks about my symptoms and checks my throat. He only finds slight redness. He and I agree that I probably have a cold. After all, it’s cold and flu season in Nebraska. He prescribes Tylenol, Mucinex and one or two more days of self-isolation before I go back to work. I thank him, bump elbows and leave with a large weight off my heart.

In the afternoon, I participate in a work conference call. Much of the talk centers around our new remote methods, getting volunteers set up with Dropbox folders, assigning them digital recorders or phone apps, etc. There seems to be some debate as to when and how we should air regular COVID updates. I realize that work won’t look the same as it did when I left it last Friday.

After the call, I take a catnap and realize that the only thing I will miss about my temporary isolation are my afternoon siestas.

Thursday, March 19

Four more cases confirmed in Nebraska. It is now considered to be a statewide epidemic. The governor of California issues a statewide order for everyone to stay home during the outbreak. Everyone on the Commentary Podcast sounds nervous and out of sorts.

It’s raining cats and dogs, so I take a Lyft to work. The driver tells me that he things COVID is, “No biggie.” When I get to work, everything feels normal. 10 minutes later when MeMe calls instead of walking in, I realize that things aren’t in fact normal.

And that’s the whole day. No live newspaper reads. No volunteers poking their heads in just to say hi and shoot the breeze. No snacks to share. Jane seems preoccupied. Bekah is in stress mode, so I keep my distance; more than six feet. I want to give both of them huge hugs, but of course… I buy lunch for Jane and Bekah. Bekah wants all three of us to eat together. This is odd since she is in ‘le’me alone’ mode, but Bekah is a study in contradictions, so I roll with it.

Many volunteers call and Email to test their new remote recording capabilities. I spend an extra hour at work making sure everything is operating as it should, but I am delighted to be there so it doesn’t matter.

Bekah comes in near the end of the day and asks how I feel about her taking tomorrow off. I tell her to go for it because she’s earned it. Jane kindly gives me a ride home so I won’t have to catch the bus in the rain. When I get inside my apartment, I immediately wash my hands. Grandpa would be proud.

Friday, Mar 20

Omaha’s third community case is confirmed. The Dow Jones continues to plummet, spending four of the last five weeks in decline. Illinois goes on lockdown.

I take the bus into work. The driver warns me that the powers that be are talking about reductions in service due to low ridership.

Bekah is gone for the day. Things go smoothly at work. Jane and I share lunch from Village Inn. I push her out the door at 3:30 and am gone an hour later. A group of us were supposed to have dinner at Shuck’s Seafood Market, but I go home and order Smitty’s instead. I ask the Doordash guy if he wants a ‘no contact’ delivery. He says, “Nah, I’m not worried about it.”

I call Hy-vee customer service again and they tell me that delivery is available, but the first open time slot won’t be for another week. Instacart isn’t available for 72 hours. I haven’t tried Baker’s or Target yet.

Saturday, March 21

I decide to unplug from the news for the weekend. I go into work to help Michael with the changes. It’s rough, because Dropbox decides to automatically upgrade everyone to a trial work plan. This jacks up my JAWS and confuses Michael. We have to get Bekah out of bed to figure it out. Michael goes on the air to read the Omaha World Herald live because our volunteer can’t upload the recorded file. The volunteer sounds frustrated and I apologize that he had to waste over an hour of his time. Michael sounds nervous on the air, but he gets through it with a smile.

Afterward, Michael gives me a ride to my neighborhood Hy-vee. He works at a different Hy-vee during the week and says that it’s a madhouse. Apparently, the cashiers are ordered not to wear protective gloves because it makes the customers nervous. He is tempted to quit, but won’t because he’s getting a lot of hours and is being paid Christmas wages.

When I get to Hy-vee, I again am blessed to get Sheila for a shopping assistant. She is still positive, friendly and competent. I ask her if she is tempted to quit. She says, “A lot of us think about it, but I know that a lot of people need our help.” God bless her. Again, I find everything I need, including Diet Dr. Pepper. I don’t waste energy checking on toilet paper. I nearly bump my head on the plastic barrier at the check-out counter. The clerk scoffs at its obvious ineffectiveness.

I send Wes a message that evening telling him that I’m canceling my trip to Iowa to visit him the following weekend. We will try to postpone it to a later date. He tells me that his wedding is up in the air. They want to get married, but are not sure about the reception or guest list. Later, I am depressed when I learned that the Colorado Center for the Blind sent all of their students home for the duration of the crisis. Long term interruption in skills training can be crippling for someone in the learning mode.

Sunday, March 22

On the way to work, my Lyft driver, a circus artist by trade, says to me, “I feel like ridesharing services should all be suspended and the state should be responsible for getting people in need where they need to go.” These are the idiots who can’t even get testing up and going! Out loud, I say, “If it weren’t for Lyft and Uber, I’d be well and truly fucked.” She laughs.

Michael and I hit it again that morning. He tries to record the World Herald, but he battles with his inner perfectionist and spends too much time editing his work. His show is eight minutes short. Otherwise, the morning is smooth. I drive through Runza on the way home. At 12:30 on a Sunday afternoon, there are no cars in the drive-through and my order is ready right away.

I talk to my old pal Jeff in Lincoln and he tells me that he cut his foot in the shower and had to make a run to an emergency clinic. While checking out, he passed a girl on her way in who subsequently reported that she might have COVID symptoms. Jeff got the hell away from her, choosing to wait outside in the chilly air.

As I read an emo account of a COVID victim in Chicago on Facebook that strikes me as a bit forced, I realize that the most anxiety-inducing factor in this whole business is the notion that we have no idea how long it will last. President Trump told us that it will probably be well into July or August before we get a handle on it. Ironic, since he was calling it a hoax almost a month ago. I have never seen a crisis like this in my lifetime. I have no idea where it will take our country, emotionally, spiritually or financially. I have no idea what my life (or my ass) will look like a month from now.

At 5:15 PM, I put on my favorite Bumblebee Coat, go outside to the balcony and fire up my first cigar in two weeks. It feels like two months since I’ve had one. Oh well, I think… I may as well enjoy it while my lungs are still good.

Fly in the Hot Tub

I think I have a better understanding of why Walter White wanted so desperately to kill the fly that invaded his super lab.

I was talking to a friend earlier, explaining that the happiest day of my life was when I left Lincoln, NE in 2007 and moved to Denver. I remember packing my stuff, leaving the apartment on Lincoln Mall, driving through Runza on the way out of town and heading Westward with my parents, my nephew Hunter and a trailer full of my stuff. The next day, we drove to Littleton, moved into my new apartment, said hi to my best buddy Joe, then they checked into a hotel in Highlands Ranch. There, in the warm, dry September air, we all sat in the hot tub and drank in Colorado. I sat amidst the bubbles, broken dreams and failures behind me, limitless vistas like the Rockies in the distance ahead of me. Not one buzzing insect anywhere nearby in the twilight. Nothing but warm water, cold beer and possibilities. “Mom,” I said, “I’ve never been this happy.”

I could have stroked out right there in the tub and slipped beneath the surface of the water and died in a state of perfect bliss.

I’ve lived too long.

Radio Man

I went to school at Kearney High, graduating in 1993. I hated school. I viewed it as a prison. But it wasn’t without its charms. Most of those charms were wholly unavailable to me because, frankly, I was completely clueless about girls. Aside from that, Kearney High was one of two high schools in the state of Nebraska blessed with an open campus during the lunch period. An open campus simply meant that students were allowed to leave the school and stuff themselves with wonderfully unhealthy fast food before returning to the drudgery of the classroom. If you were under 16 and confined to walking, you might have been able to make it to 7/11 or Dairy Queen for a quick bite before the clock ran out.

My dad availed himself of this policy by taking me to lunch once a week. One day, in the autumn of 1990 when I was a sophomore, I jumped in the truck and heard a rich, robust voice coming out of the radio. He was going on and on about the Democrats. The only line I remember from his monologue was something to the effect of, “If Bush wins this war, the Democrats won’t have a prayer in two years.” This was about three months after the U.S. had invaded Kuwait.

“Ryan,” Dad said, “You would do well to listen to Rush. He is a very analytical thinker.”

To solidify his point, Dad drove us through Runza and I ate my cheese runza and crinkly fries sitting in the passenger seat of his Blue Ford pick-up somewhere in a park with the windows down as Rush H. Limbaugh III went on and on about the war, President Bush and evil Democrats.

At the time, I assumed that Dad urged me to listen to Rush because he wanted me to be informed about current events from a conservative perspective. Many years later, I came to suspect that Dad had an ulterior motive. I think he wanted me to be inspired by Rush so that I would pursue my dream of one day being a radio personality, just as Rush had done back in the 1970’s.

I was not a popular kid in high school. Like Rush, I was the overweight kid with few friends and no social life. Unlike Rush, I was the sole blind kid at my school. Aside from my dad and a kid named Mike, I seldom went out to lunch with friends, nor was I invited to sit at anyone’s table in the cafeteria. I began to use the school’s Resource Room to eat alone. One day, I found a dusty old clock radio sitting in a corner behind a box of paper. I plugged it in, clicked it to A.M. and spun the tuning dial until I heard Rush Limbaugh’s unmistakable voice issuing from the tinny speaker.

For the next two years, it was not uncommon for me to be sitting alone in the Resource Room during the lunch period with a cheeseburger and fries, orange juice, a chocolate sundae and Rush on the radio. Michelle Obama would’ve been proud.

I won’t revise history and tell you that I preferred this daily scenario. I would much rather have been copping a hurried feel in the back seat of a car with Amy, Jennifer, Heather or a dozen other girls. I had fantasies of steaming up their windows as they panted, “Ryan! Ring my bell before KHS rings theirs!”

With fictional dialogue like that, gentle readers, you can probably understand why I didn’t come to know a woman carnally until I was 18. At first, Rush was a coping mechanism. If I was going to be alone anyway, I may as well be entertained and informed.

One day, Mrs. Redman walked through, stopped, poked my shoulder and said, “Ryan. What. Is. That?”

“Wuhhsss ermmmbawww,” I said around a mouth full of cheap pizza.

“Bummer. I thought you were smarter than that,” she said, and stormed off.

Mrs. Black, one of my Special Ed teachers, also wasn’t a fan of Rush.

“I hate the way he talks about teachers. Paid summer vacations? BS! I’ll bet I put in more hours on nights and weekends grading papers than he ever did on the radio.”

Not all of my teachers were anti-Rush. Mrs. Wolfe, my other Special Ed instructor, liked his style and flair. She even routinely read to me from Rush’s Limbaugh Letter. In fact, her husband worked at KGFW, the local radio station that carried Rush’s daily program.

Like Rush, I started doing gigs on local radio while I was still a teenager. Rush was a D.J., while I merely did little news spots. My official title was, KGFW’s Kearney High Correspondent. It wasn’t sexy work like being a D.J., but it was my official entrance into the radio field.

I wasn’t as lonely in college as I was in high school. I still wasn’t popular. I wasn’t a frat boy. I was more of a dorm rat, though I did serve in student government for a time. I did form a few friendships and got laid here and there. I skipped a lot of classes, hid my lousy grades from my folks and eventually, became active in the NFB. Despite my decided lack of enthusiasm for academics, I attended enough classes to hear the siren song of liberalism from the mouths of professors of all stripes; English lit, Sociology, History, more English Lit, Criminal Justice, political science, Broadcast Journalism and yet more English Lit when I needed to fill a credit here or there. I was almost seduced. My fellow students didn’t pull me back from the brink. Rush was responsible for talking me down from the ledge.

Like Rush, I ultimately dropped out of college in 1998, much to the disappointment of my parents. Dad wanted me to emulate Rush, but this wasn’t what he had in mind. Unlike Rush, I never went back home to live with Mom and Dad. Eventually, I did return to college and repaired my decrepit GPA in 2002.

In retrospect, Rush was in his prime during the ‘90’s. Like every great drama, fiction or nonfiction, a hero is only as good as the villain whom he faces. Rush had the perfect foil in President Bill Clinton. Not only did the 42nd POTUS champion every liberal cause that Rush decried, but he typified the lack of character that Rush claimed exemplified the entirety of the political left. Rush didn’t have to embellish a thing. President Clinton made himself a susceptible target. From Hillary to White Water to Monica Lewinsky, Slick Willie proved to be Rush’s most prominent foe again and again for eight glorious years. Many credited Rush for the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994, which lead to the so-called, “Gingrich Revolution.”

It wasn’t just that Rush spoke plainly to the masses about conservatism. He was in the Republican culture, but not of it. He shattered the esoteric crystal ceiling, carefully forged by high-brow types like William F. Buckley, George Will and Charles Krauthammer, filtering politics and culture down to the lowly pond dwellers in The South, Fly-Over Country, the rugged West and all of those lonely souls in big, blue cities where leftism holds sway. As he put it, he was the man who, “Made the complex understandable.” And it wasn’t merely a facade. He was a man who was truly erudite in politics, but who was able to translate beltway snobbery into decipherable colloquialism.

It was not uncommon to hear Rush spout off self-referential phrases such as, “Talent on loan from God,” “… With half my brain tied behind my back, just to make it fair,” and “Having more fun than any human being should be allowed to have.” His numerous critics would accuse him of having an ego surpassed only by his ample frame, but I call BS. His apparent outsized bravado was pure radio shtick; part of his carefully-crafted public persona meant to endear himself to his fans and rankle his detractors. Every celebrity does it to one degree or another. I always suspected that he was a man of humility bordering on diffidence off-mic.

I loved Rush not only because of what he believed, but because of how he delivered his message. Radio had been in my blood since I was eight years old. It brought me voices as wide-ranging as Michael Jackson, Madonna, Jim Bohannon, William Conrad, George Strait, Jack Webb, Rick Dees and Casey Kasem.

Sidebar: Does anyone remember Talknet? Gawd!!! How did I ever get so bored that I listened to the likes of Bruce Williams and Sally Jessy Raphael? That further explains my unwanted teenaged celibacy. I was really a loser radio nerd.

From the moment that I heard his first utterance, I knew that Rush Limbaugh was a master of the medium. Everything from his massively controversial “Caller Abortion,” to his deliberately noisy rending of a newspaper in front of the mic after reading a repulsive story, to the parodies delivered by white comedian Paul Shanklin, proved that Rush was born to be on the air. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Rush wasn’t merely a former politician, political pundit or hack journalist slinging hash on the side. He was the real radio deal. How can you not idolize a guy like that?

It’s worth pointing out that Rush almost single-handedly saved A.M. radio in the 1990’s. He owed a large debt to President Reagan, who repealed the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. This antiquated, inflexible legislation forced radio stations to air both sides of any controversial issue, subjecting said stations to hefty penalties from the Federal Communications Commission if they failed to comply. It had the intended consequence of stifling political speech. Many stations, particularly in smaller markets, found it easier to avoid controversy altogether, rather than paying punitive fines. This is why the ‘70’s and ‘80’s airwaves were cluttered with innocuous fluff such as the afore-mentioned Talknet, Larry King, music, hard news and of course, sports.

In the ‘90’s, Rush spiced up the A.M. band with his distinctive style and viewpoint. It didn’t take long for an army of Rush imitators to rise up in his wake. They were an entire cadre of talk show hosts who all sounded different from Rush, but yet, very similar. Sean Hannity, Michael Medved, Hugh Hewitt, Laura Ingraham, Dennis Prager, Mark Levin, Michael Savage and Bill O’Reilly all owed their success to the big man seated behind the golden EIB microphone. He created a format that still dominates the medium to this day.

The proliferation of cable TV in the ‘90’s also heralded the rise of Fox News, which gave half the country a small-screen voice. Rush rightly needled Roger Ailes, claiming that Fox News merely mimicked his style with camera-friendly blonds rather than fat guys with faces for radio.

My interest in Rush ebbed a bit after I left college in 1998. I worked at Gallup for a time and was often in my cubical when Rush’s show aired on KLIN from 11 to two. Then, in November of 2000, our one-way love affair was rekindled when the great Bush V. Gore fiasco went down. Luckily, I had transferred to early evenings at Gallup, so I could hear Rush’s show during the day. Thus, I sat transfixed as the whole drama unfolded, until Al Gore finally conceded on December 13.

After W won, Rush’s critics predicted doom. They were certain that his popularity would wane now that his arch nemesis was out of office. But, like Jack Bauer, Rush’s popularity only grew, with no small thanks to Osama bin Laden, along with the Iraqi and Afghani conflicts and No Child Left Behind.

Rush seemed all but invincible when he bounced back from acute hearing loss in 2001. A deaf guy working in an audio medium!? Ain’t life ironic? His bulletproof status was further crystallized when he took a hiatus and underwent rehab for addiction to pain killers in 2003 and came back to an audience who readily forgave his apparent legal transgressions. I didn’t know it then, but our haste in overlooking his evident hypocrisy regarding his hardcore views on the selling and using of narcotics would serve as a bit of dark foreshadowing of things to come.

I stuck with Rush through it all; W’s second election, Hurricane Katrina, TARP, my move to Denver, Obama’s two elections, the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, the GOP victories in the House and Senate and the Gang of Eight.

Contrary to what you might think, Donald Trump was not responsible for my conversion away from Dittohead status. My passion for Rush had already cooled before Trump’s grand descent on his escalator in June of 2015. This was due to a local conservative host on Denver’s A.M. blowtorch, KOA, named Mike Rosen.

When I first heard Mike, I instantly compared him to Rush. This guy is as dry as a popcorn fart, I thought. I can’t believe he’s lasted this long.

That was in September, 2007. Two years later, Rosen was my go-to guy. I couldn’t help but notice that, while Rush seldom had callers who disagreed with him on the air, Mike Rosen welcomed them. Rush would usually hang up on a caller before delving into the guts of a debate. By contrast, Mike would revel in substantive disagreement. Sometimes, he would keep after a caller, often holding him/her over for two or three segments until the topic of choice was exhausted. While Rush was the radio guy adept at translating the nebulous world of politics to its lowest common denominator, Rosen was the irascible professor who performed deep, nuanced dives on issues. It wasn’t Rush, but Mike Rosen who kept me sane through most of the Obama years, especially when I went to work in The Peoples’ Republic of Boulder in 2014.

Sidebar: Years before I moved to Denver, Mike Rosen was a guest host for Rush while he was in rehab. He only filled in once or twice. He was always very tight-lipped about why he had never been asked back more frequently. Possibly, it was because of Rosen’s dryer, more intellectual style, or maybe it was because Rosen was less concerned with social issues like abortion or gay marriage than was Rush.

I was shaving in the shower at my folks’ place on Labor Day weekend, 2015. I had Rush on my waterproof blue tooth speaker and I was putting lather on my face when he said, “I know a lot of people are wary of Trump, or don’t like Trump, but I gotta tell ya, folks… I know him and I think he really means what he says.” I nearly slipped and cut my lip.

If Rush had been my man crush, this was where it officially ended. Still, though I seldom listened to Rush after that, I kept a place of affection for him in my radio-loving heart.

This all changed in August of 2016, when a call between Rush and a listener named Rick made a splash on social media. It was after Trump had conquered the GOP primaries, but before the general election. Rick was beseeching Rush to explain how he could support Trump when he knew Trump was lying about his stance on immigration, specifically his intention to deport entire families, including native-born children.

Rush retorted, “I guess the thing is, this is gonna enrage you. You know, I could choose a path here to try to mollify you, but I never took him seriously on this!”

Rick responded, “10 million people did!”

Rush’s response was very illuminating:

“Yeah, and they still don’t care. My point is they still don’t care. They’re gonna stick with him no matter what.”

More dark foreshadowing. Forget the man crush. The genie was out of the bottle and could never be returned. If Rush never took Trump’s rhetoric seriously, what else didn’t he take seriously over the years? What other disingenuousness did he impart under the banner of rock-ribbed conservatism? Did he really reconcile the lascivious behavior of Donald Trump to that of Bill Clinton, or did he just, “Evolve,” as Barack Obama did on the issue of gay marriage?

In fairness, I don’t think Trump was Rush’s first choice for the Oval Office. I think Ted Cruz was his guy, but Rush was too smart to openly endorse him. Rush often admitted that his first order of business as a radio personality was to part people from their money. This is consistent with capitalism. However, the product which he was selling to his advertisers and his audience was truth, refracted through the clear lens of conservatism. “America’s truth detector,” he would often call himself. Yet, the truth detector seemed to undergo a massive recalibration once Donald Trump stormed the beaches of the GOP establishment.

Rush was careful not to alienate Trump and his fanatical base in the early stages. Once Ted Cruz was out, Rush read the tealeaves and realized that, if he wanted to stay relevant, his best bet was to go all in for The Donald. He simply capitulated much earlier than did many of his D.C. beltway counterparts. As a businessman, I understand him. As a principled conservative, I felt betrayed. In the wake of his admission, and with the retirement of Mike Rosen at the end of 2015, I began to ignore Rush altogether in favor of podcasts by Ben Shapiro, Jonah Goldberg and John Podhoretz.

Sidebar: My only exposure to conservative publications such as National Review, The Weekly Standard and Commentary Magazine came when Rush would read an excerpt and analyze it. Those were niche offerings that were not available in braille or audio format. Now, with the internet and my accessible phone and computer, I can read it all. How times change.

Six days ago, I was sitting in the control room fighting off the mid-morning black hole when The Chief came in and informed me that Rush had announced that he has been diagnosed with advanced stage four lung cancer. He was taking a few days off for immediate and aggressive treatment. My emotional response was muted. There was a time when I would have cried on the spot. There was a time when I might have taken the day off work. As it was, I just stopped for a few seconds and absorbed the sorrow, not for Rush so much, but for the respect for him that I once carried. I had already grieved for the passing of Rush Limbaugh three years ago.

The responses to the bombshell were predictable. His fans prayed for him. His enemies rejoiced. The media pounced, feigning empathy mixed with barely-suppressed glee at the likely demise of one of their fiercest critics. Even President Trump was predictable in his unpredictability, awarding Rush the American Medal of Freedom at the State of the Union address.

I rightly anticipated the mirthful reaction to Rush’s announcement by many on the left. It was the same response I saw on social media when Andrew Breitbart died seven years ago. It was the same reaction I felt when I learned that Ted Kennedy had died. To a point, I get it. Rush was an agent provocateur of the left for decades. From Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, Rush showed no mercy to those who carried the banner for the other side. I’m sure they feel justified in their vitriolic response to his predicament.

But I wonder how many keyboard warriors have stood at a loved one’s bed side and watched them gasp out their final breaths as the cancer finally claimed them. I wonder how many of them have sat and wept with a cancer victim as they try to decide whether or not to endure the interminable agony of chemotherapy for a result that may ultimately be rendered moot. Some things transcend the bitter divide of politics, and one of them is cancer.

I don’t think there’s a single person who hasn’t been touched by cancer, either directly or indirectly. In 1995, my mother had a brush with it. It was a very scary time for all of us. She had surgery and lost part of her shoulder and a small spot was removed from her lung. Aside from the surgical scars, she’s been healthy for the last 25 years. I’ve also had several friends who have lost parents, spouses, siblings and friends to cancer. I wouldn’t wish that experience on my worst enemy.

As for Rush, I wonder if he has any sense of the irony of the timing. Cancer has now invaded Rush’s body, but it has been all around him for five years, infecting the Republican Party and the ideology he once claimed to champion. How fitting that his announcement should kick off a week that included a political debacle at the Iowa caucuses, truly toxic behavior from political and spiritual leaders at the State of the Union and the National Prayer Breakfast, an acquittal of the President on impeachment charges based on partisanship over fact, and the castigation of the loan Republican who voted his conscience over party loyalty. Does Rush even remember that he gave his full-throated support to Mitt Romney in 2012? Hell, Romney was his early favorite in 2008!

And yet, I sit at the microphone in the control room at Radio Talking Book every day and feel right at home. I count myself lucky each morning when I come into work, knowing that I love what I do. Even though I work in a niche industry, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if not for Rush Limbaugh. I reflect upon him often as I turn the mic on and hear my own voice filtering back to me over the headphones. I have lost so much of my identity over the past five years, but I am still a proud radio man.

And tonight, as I ponder Rush’s legacy and my own, I contemplate the half-filled humidor behind me on the bookcase. I can’t think of a more fitting tribute to Rush than to have a cigar. I say this with the full knowledge that the cancer may very well kill him. “Don’t be afraid to live,” he would always tell his listeners when the topic of liberal health Nazis came up. I’m sure he would approve of my tribute, as would my dad.

Thank you, Rush. Thank you for filling all of the lonely hours in high school. Thank you for my alternative education in college. Thank you for being a beacon of hope in the dark days after 9/11. I will pray for your recovery. If it is your time to leave us, I will pray that your soul finds peace.

Mythology

In my previous entry, I said that I seem to find great comfort in Star Trek during times of emotional turmoil. When I moved from Denver to Omaha two years ago, I began a major binge of the original Star Trek series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and many of the feature films. Recently, after Mags died and as a prelude to the premier of Star Trek: Picard, I again began to re-watch great chunks of the franchise. I also re-watched the original Star Wars trilogy over the holiday season.

I have some random thoughts about Trek overall, but I want to focus on a common thread that I see running through the major reboots of our time, especially Star Trek and Star Wars.

When we first see Han Solo in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, we quickly discover that he is a vagabond. Far from the relatively happy person he was at the end of Return of the Jedi, he is a galactic burn-out who has separated from Leia and who is now reduced to near homeless status. By the end of the movie, he is murdered by his own son.

In the sequel film, The Last Jedi, we discover Luke Skywalker, another major hero of the original trilogy, living as an embittered old hermit on a secluded island. He voices regret for everything he did as a Jedi, feeling that his efforts made little difference. He ultimately becomes a force ghost, and even though subsequent writers quickly tried to retcon Luke’s initial sentiments in the final movie, the contrast alone signifies major tonal discords in the Star Wars universe.

Now, we meet Jean-Luc Picard after 20 years in Star Trek: Picard. Again, we find a defeated, embittered old man, living on his family vineyard in France, looking back regretfully at his life. Time will tell as to where Picard will end up, but it’s safe to say that he is not in a happy place when we first rediscover him. In interviews, Patrick Stewart seems to refer to the TV series that re-launched his career as flawed in some way.

Why does Hollywood insist in tearing down its own mythology?

It’s not a stretch to lay much of the cynical mindset of the creative community at the doorstep of current-day politics. Stewart did that himself in his own pre-show interviews, siting Brexit and Donald Trump as the key inspirations which drove him back to the role 17 years after the last movie in the franchise.

In a strange, twisted way, we can link these recent events in the fictional world to those in the real world; specifically, those of The 1619 Project, launched last year by the New York Times Magazine. IN it, a series of authors and historians claim that the entirety of America’s existence must be viewed through the lens of slavery. It is an impressive body of work, but it has been disputed by many historians from across the political spectrum. Still, The 1619 Project is now slated to be included in the curriculum of many education systems across the country.

Why are we living in a time when our mythology, as well as our own history, must be torn down? I have no concrete answers. I do think that a good deal of it has to do with the blurring of the lines between fact and fantasy. Terms like, “Fake news,” can easily be reshaped into terms such as, “Fake history,” “Fake philosophy,” or “Fake science.” In this hyper-flexible environment, it is easy to tear down someone’s reality in an effort to supplant it with another. If one’s own substitute reality isn’t readily accepted by the masses, better to plant seeds of doubt with a giant question mark, rather than allowing crystallized reality to continue.

We are eight days away from the Iowa Primary; the first in the 2020 election cycle. I have absolutely no idea where our country will be a year from now. As I age, I seem to know less and less about the real, static world around me.

But I know this. We all need heroes in our lives. As a child of the ‘80’s, I found Luke, Han and Leia to be a great comfort to me. In the ‘90’s, I found Captain James T. Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Data, Worf and all the rest of the Enterprise crews from both centuries to be a continuing comfort. More than that, even as I questioned the possibility of Gene Roddenberry’s utopian future, I found peace in the hope of it. Apparently, I still do 25 years later.

I can’t say that I believe in Roddenberry’s vision for the future. There are far too many holes in it. As I grow older, I fear that my worldview comes closer to that of Game of Thrones than Star Trek. This is why I liked Princess Leia much better as a female hero than Daenerys Targaryen.

More than anything, I find classic Trek to be the best form of escapism for me. I love the constant rumble of the engines of the Enterprise D, the childlike musings of Data, the growling observations of Worf and the calm, paternal presence of Picard.

I agree with Irvin Kershner that Star Wars is a fairy tale. Many categorize it as science fiction, but there is very little of actual science in it to explain lightsabers, blasters, droids or The Force. Star Trek tries a little harder, but it too is unlimited by its own ever-changing rule book. I treat them both as fantasy. They have different props and settings from Harry Potter, but they are tonally and thematically similar. In all three cases, they served as fictional beacons of optimism in a volatile world for three generations.

The character arc of Han Solo is particularly tragic to me. When we first met him, he was a criminal; rakishly handsome, callow, arrogant and charming. His self-seeking nature was transparent. He made it clear that he was not rescuing Leia out of any sense of the betterment of his world. He was only doing it for money. Yet, Luke and Leia lifted him up, showing him that he too had a stake in working for something larger than himself. At one point, Han tried to run away from his responsibilities, but he never quite made it before he ended up as a screaming carbonite statue. Yet, his friends risked everything to save him. Han discovered that the price of growing up was friendship, loyalty and honor.

But his story ends with Han as an old space bum who gets a lightsaber in the chest; a lightsaber wielded by his own son. Many young men might very well examine the trajectory of Han Solo and ask, “What the hell was all that for?”

Luke Skywalker did very little to advance his own arc, even before he died. Leia could not do more to empower the next generation of women warriors everywhere due to the untimely death of Carrie Fisher, but given our current political climate, it’s safe to guess that the woke writers in Hollywood would have been kinder to Leia’s legacy than they were to the other two heroes in the original trio.

Captain Picard may yet be able to restore the legacy he holds with classic Trek fans everywhere. It is likely that he will rise from the ashes and redeem himself. He will likely do it by forcing the United Federation of Planets to redeem itself for its wayward ways since he left. Yet, if the first episode is any indication, the tone of the show will be much darker and may prove to be inhospitable for Picard’s calm, measured approach.

Many critics would argue that the time for the wide-eyed optimism that used to characterize Star Trek has passed. Nonsense, nonsense, nonsense!!! One need only look at the time period in which the original series was conceived to know that there is always room for hope and optimism. When Star Trek premiered in 1966, America was in the middle of the most divisive military conflict in the 20th century. Rioting occurred in the streets of most major cities as minority groups rose up and marched for their civil rights. Every American institution was questioned and criticized down to its very core. In the ‘70’s, when Star Trek Flourished in syndication and really captured the imaginations of the public, the country also experienced an energy crisis, tension with the Middle East, a mounting drug epidemic and the resignation of a sitting president one step ahead of impeachment. Sound familiar? So please don’t tell me that the times don’t allow for hope and optimism in our culture.

Sidebar: I find it interesting that Captain Kirk’s legacy seems to be unblemished, even though the younger version played by Chris Pine didn’t perform very well in two of the three reboot movies. Perhaps it is because the character was killed off when Trek was still in its creative prime. Even though the manner of his death did not go over well with fans, he died a hero, unlike Han Solo.

I mentioned Harry Potter before. I think he, more than Kirk, Picard or Han Solo, signifies the hopeful hero of our current generation of youth. They didn’t grow up with the U.S.S. Enterprise or the Millennium Falcon in their subconscious. They grew up with Hogwarts. Wouldn’t it be a shame if someday, we learned that Harry, Ron and Hermione did it all for nothing?

Sorry, Katya, but fanfic doesn’t count.

The Collar

The first time I experienced real grief was when my grandpa died in 1996, just five days before my 21st birthday. We knew it was coming. He had been deteriorating for months and finally had to go live in a nursing home.

My second grandparent (Grandma) died almost seven years later. In her case, it was a relief. She was felled by a massive stroke in November of 1998 and spent the last four years of her life in a nursing home. She could not speak coherently, or remember who any of us were. She was a shadow of her former, formidable self.

My last two grandparents passed away within a year of each other. In both instances, I came home from Denver to attend their funerals. As with their previous mates, we knew their end was coming and I think the family was relieved. All four of my grandparents had lived full, happy, fulfilling lives. We shed tears over their passing, but their deaths felt like the natural conclusion to their lives.

I grieved for all four of my grandparents when they passed, but it was a gentle grief. In my life, I have experienced other forms of loss that have resulted in grief. The move from Denver to Omaha would certainly qualify as a loss. The loss of friendships, break-ups with certain girlfriends, the loss of our family pet dog, Yogi.

But I have never experienced anything like the grief I feel over the loss of Mags.

One month ago today, I took her to the vet and made the ultimate sacrifice in the name of the alleviation of her pain and suffering. 13 days after that, Dana went with me to the Completely Cat Clinic one last time so I could reclaim her ashes. They are in a beautiful wooden box with her name printed on top. I placed them on my bookcase right next to the clock, just as I said I would.

Sometimes, I randomly walk over to her box and just touch it. It is a comfort to me to know that her ashes are nearby. Even more of a comfort to me is her kitty bed, which rests against the pillows on my bed, exactly where she would often lie when she was next to me. Her bed is the last thing I feel at night before I drift off and the first thing I feel in the morning when I wake. Sometimes, I still tell Mags goodnight, or good morning. In fact, I think I may talk to her more now than I did when she was here.

I’m not going to tell you that there aren’t benefits to Mags being gone. My heat bill is a little lower; cats like it warm and this apartment has lousy insolation, so I kept the temp at a constant 76 degrees during the cold months. The frequent vet bills and Lyft fare to maintain her health no longer strain my paycheck. I can come and go as I wish, not having to be bound by Mags eating schedule. If I want to take a trip out of town, I no longer have to make arrangements for her. I seem to be sleeping through the night, not being awakened by the sound of her jingling collar, or by thumping cupboard doors. I can now smoke a cigar indoors without fear of hurting her little kitty lungs.

Yet, I would trade it all in a heartbeat, if I could just feel her brushing against my legs, or leap up on the bed after I am settled in. My nightly hot bath Is a lonely one. We just had our first major winter snow yesterday and it seems colder than usual without her here.

I no longer get teary when I walk in the door and she’s not here to greet me. I can now listen to our Pet Pause program at work without breaking down. I can hear about other people’s pets without getting irritated. Often times, I think I’m doing better. Then, some random thing creeps up on me.

Star Trek fans remember that Data, the android from The Next Generation, had a pet cat named, Spot. I was watching the seemingly innocuous episode, “Data’s Day,” not long ago, when I heard Data feeding his cat in one of the scenes. I lost it.

Sidebar: Strange how I always seem to turn to Star Trek as a source of comfort when I’m going through a tough emotional time. As it turns out, “Data’s Day,” was the very first episode to feature Spot. Her last appearance was in Star Trek: Nemesis.

Even though I have Mags’ ashes, I am still angry with myself about one thing. I wish I’d kept her collar. I should have asked for it after she passed, but I wasn’t thinking clearly. Sometimes, I think I can hear it in the stillness of my apartment… Or is it the wind rattling something outside?

People keep asking me when/if I’m going to get another cat. My answer is always the same. I probably will at some point, but I’m just not ready yet. Maybe when I’m done grieving for Mags, I can move on and find another companion.

I wonder if cats chase mice in kitty heaven, or if mice go to heaven and it’s separate from cat paradise.