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Summer vacation and the viral life

I enjoy vacation cruises in my mind without paying for gas and parking fees, and what I call work most people would call play.

To vacate means to empty out or go away, but I’m still at home with my Social Security check locked in for another few months, perhaps.

Minnesota winters have hardened me to viral life. In winter I circle and swirl, mainly in my head where thoughts rise like yeasty bread, half-baked. I’m also fortunate to suffer from imagination deficiency. Try conjuring the faces of thousands of virus victims. I can’t. I’m also unscientific enough to conclude the virus is Nature’s way of asking us all to try Business as Unusual. It’s a tiny, horrendous disease, with a grim sense of humor clever enough to leave in its wake cleaner city air, back-to-basics behaviors, inner resource development opportunities, and a widespread sense of mutual dependency.

Emilio DeGrazia
Photo by Jon Swanson
Emilio DeGrazia
As a retired college prof I brood about how the virus will infect public education systems already being undermined by billionaires who want to privatize them all. Most of all I’m troubled by Progress pandemics pushed by careless entrepreneurs. They’re all for Growth, even as some growths swell out of control and turn poisonous. I tell everyone that Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” written when she was 18 years old in 1819, is the most important book of the 21st century. The monster in it, the brainstorm of a Ph.D. mind, was engineered by a privately enterprising doctor hooked on what he could achieve without seriously asking about where his project might lead him by the nose. (Mary Shelley’s last novel, “The Last Man,” is about a disease.)

The technologies we so brilliantly create keep morphing into monsters out of control, like those industrialized weeds that make Roundup gag. My car is useful and fun, but I try to banish all thoughts of the oil wars and pollution pandemics car grilles cheerfully bring to us. Now I see a digital pandemic coming my way, already at home in my home. My computer is smaller than my car, and it too has uses and fun potential. I type and print with it, and respond to hundreds of emails every week. I also try to be less unnatural. No cellphone owns me yet. I’m shaky and mouthy, but I don’t tweet yet. I ache when I run, so I don’t like to Zoom. I prefer to spend time with my nose, not my face, in a book. And now remote learning, its Progress smoothed by digital addiction of innocent young people with stooped necks, is becoming the “higher ed” rage. Learning is “distanced.” No one says “less humanized.”

I see silent liberal arts heads rolling off the chopping block, wide-eyed with backward gazes at college campuses that once upon a time were actual places where young people performed rites of passage with a few new good ideas turning in their minds. I recall smallish classrooms full of the energy of those ideas. I have dimming memories of honest, hard-earned research, grounded in humane debate, contributing to a cumulative body of knowledge. Campus life — especially the liberal arts and humanities that have been its heart, soul and mind — is an endangered species now, slyly being eased out, privatized. I see science, civics, civility, critical thinking and knowledge losing institutional presence and authority, devolving into distracting ads and info-bits that disappear into a black hole internet dominated by business and entertainment profiteers, political operatives, and whackos. I see us rushing wildly into that black hole, unhappily.

Meanwhile, I feel very lucky. I’m a material beneficiary of all the terrible wars politicians and business leaders failed to prevent. In 1967 I ventured scared and alone across the Berlin Wall into East Germany, just to look around. One main impression remains: a grocery store with empty shelves, one solitary orange and one chocolate bar pathetically on display. I, however, have plenty of goodies on my pantry shelves. In stores I buy big bags of flour to keep my half-baked ideas rising well fed out of bed every day.

I have a big house and a garden in my yard. I have three really nice children, a kind, smart, hard-working and lovely wife, Monica. I have plenty of paper and pens, too many unread books, and wonderful neighbors and close friends. I enjoy vacation cruises in my mind without paying for gas and parking fees, and what I call work most people would call play. I don’t have to hurt my back picking the beans I buy in stores, or slaughter the pigs, or cut them into tidy chunks. Nameless poorly paid migrants do most of that, and I’m socially distanced from them. I do miss long, talky dinners with good friends. But I follow doctors’ orders. I can’t wash my hands of everything, but I wear my mask. Everyone says it improves my looks.  

Emilio DeGrazia, of Winona, has written several small press books of fiction, creative prose and poetry. His latest book is “What Trees Know,” a collection of poetry published by Nodin Press of Minneapolis.

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