I drive across one of the more interesting parts of town on my way to work. Quite a few boarded-up houses. Down one street where a business has one building on one side, and one on the other, so someone might be driving a forklift across slowly. Down one end of a cemetery. I salute the old bones and plan to be alive for the day. At one corner, a commercial-looking building had been creaking down since I started my job. And probably long before that.

Inscribed brick, Neo-Sumerian, ca. 2094-2047 BCE, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

One day on my way home, I stopped at the light and saw a man on the second floor of this building. He was holding some bricks in his hands. There was a weekend, and on Monday, I drove past and saw the whole second floor was gone.

The city can be like a coral reef, full of life and stories and various pieces of flotsam and jetsam are likely to be taken up, rather than left for an official person to officially put them in a bin and cart them off to an official disposal site where dreams go to die.

Further down that street, there’s a house with a front yard chock full of furniture and doo-dads. At first, I thought someone had been evicted, and I said a little prayer. But the stuff is in the yard all the time. Then I thought they might be selling some of it, and you know I’m all in on buying some weird stuff now that I live in six (6) rooms! But it’s just a yard with chairs, benches, windmills, metal snowmen, giant pinwheels and pergolas and bouncy horses and cement saints.

Honestly I don’t remember anything that’s actually in the yard, and school is out for Christmas break, so you know I’m not going to do the drive to work (!) to find out.

Frequently at school our wi-fi is out, or so slow that no one can do anything they are trying to do, like review their vocab in a game, or look up what goes in their paper. Words appear on student computers, with a constantly spinning wheel beneath them. “This makes me want to stab someone,” I said. Being equally frustrated about my lack of wi-fi access, I try to affirm my students’ frustration. “You can stab me,” a student said. “That’s the first time anyone’s said that to me in my whole career,” I said.

My advisory is mostly boys, and they express affection for each other by attempting to wrestle, hiding each others’ laptops, using our classroom mascot Dr. Frog as a football, and talking shit about each others’ racial backgrounds.

It’s really quite precious. Sometimes I have to yell at them to stop touching each other, or to do push-ups. I have one student who can do a complete flip from standing perfectly still, and he’s in ninth grade. His energy could power the island nation of Singapore.

The first Saturday of Christmas break, I was excited to not have to drag my ass out of bed in the dark for a while (no offence, kids), and I padded down to get my packages. My neighbor had brought them inside and set them on our steps. Then I heard someone yelling and (it sounded like) throwing a good old-fashioned tantrum, pounding heels and fists on the floor. One of my neighbors is a three-year-old child, and I thought, oof. Yeah.

My friends came over and we built things our of cardboard and made collages and drank coffee.

Things are falling apart. And coming together.

Sydney Plague of 1900

Now, what about an Australian plague?

What about a plague that wasn’t actually as bad as people thought it was (for a change)?

I give you the Sydney Plague of 1900.

Good news: only 103 people died.

Which is shit for them, but as you’ve learned, a plague of 103 is hardly a plague. It was THE plague, though.

The Sydney Press! The plague! The stuff came from people from China! Those people got plague and hid it! From the good people! Of Sydney!

It was a bad time for people of Chinese descent. I mean, did it come from China? Yeah. But that was only because it came from a place you could get to on a boat from Australia, and that included China.

Because people had finally figured out that rats were a big part of the problem, it was a very, very bad time for rats. As the sister of the lead mascot of the band who wore a rat mask, I regret to inform you that the Rat Squads of Sydney (who need their own prestige drama on HBO) killed 100,000 rats.

Sydney Ratcatchers with some of their spoils.

The Australian government started cleaning up their docks, too. If you lived in the area, you could clean your own place. When the building was clean, you got a plaque to show you were spit spot.

Newspapers said! That the plague! When people died they were! Disposed of in! Horrible ways!

If you got plague, you were forced to move to a quarantine area. First they went to the Woolloomooloo quarantine depot (a sale on “o”s that day I guess) and then they were taken to Quarantine Station at North Head, where at least I hope people were able to joke about the second place name of the day that deserved mockery.

I’m glad Americans never were going into others’ houses and dragging them out and sending them to a quarrantine location. I mean, there’s a lot we went through, but not that.

Australians sometimes resisted being taken into custody and kept imprisoned when they’d done nothing wrong, as you might imagine.

While only 100 or so people died, 1,800 people were quarrantined in the facility.

I’ve just been watching my favorite reality television show, which is getting into its covid-era episodes. A guy on the show was extremely cautious about covid, and family members were not. He got covid even though he was isolating. And then he was rethinking things.

I had such strong feelings during covid about doing the right thing. That I wanted to look back at that time and feel I had behaved ethically.

I think that’s good.

But I also consider the dangers of self-righteousness, and the way, as Vonnegut said, we don’t even know what’s the good news and what’s the bad news. It often depends on who’s looking at the situation, and where in time they are.

So I still kinda hate you for thinking covid was fake, or not dangerous, or that masks don’t work, but I acknowledge I’ve got my problems, too.


This fall, I’ve known six people who have died.

None of them were close to me. I was a secondary mourner for all of these deaths: a cousin-in-law’s brother-in-law, a great aunt and great uncle I had never known well, an old friend’s father, and my aunt’s parents, who both died in the same month.

I didn’t go to my great uncle’s funeral, or my great aunt’s, though I would have, if I hadn’t been overwhelmed. Our family returns to Nebraska for funerals, Nebraska our happy hunting ground (literally for some), our blue heaven.

I went to my friend’s father’s funeral. Well, the event at which I clenched my stomach to keep from crying, and felt my body puff up with pain, secondary pain, holding a paper plate of grapes and yogurt dip and seeing people you’ve known forever broken by one of the things that breaks absolutely everyone and then driving away telling yourself you did what you could though now they have to have Thanksgiving this year without their dad.

My aunt is one of the most hospitable, thoughtful people I know.

Her parents died just weeks apart.

Yes, they were elderly and unwell.

That didn’t mean I couldn’t taste her grief from the front of the church.

Here’s where I’m going to throw my mom under the bus: I was up, dressed in black, and walking in the church door at exactly 9 am, when I ran into absolutely no one because the visitation started at 9, not the funeral.

Being on time is an odd condition for me, and I never know what to do with myself.

I was there for immediate family time, when I was merely the niece of the deceased’s daughter.

But I took a few more steps in, and turned a corner, and my uncle was crouched down with his granddaughter and I’ve already used so many relative descriptions you’re now like who are these people anyway, but they’re important people in my family.

The little girl had eyes blown open in distress.

“People just kind of lost it,” my uncle said. “So I was taking her away for a minute.”

I crouched down, too, and said hi. “Your grandpa died. It’s very sad,” I said.

Little girl was not comforted by this, at least partly because it wasn’t a comforting thing to say. But she didn’t freak out, either.

A funeral is being in the room with the dead person until it sinks into your subconscious, your still living bones: this person is dead.

Like, really dead.

No, they’re gone, and no one can fix it.

No money, no wishes, no genie, no new diet, no anti-aging serum, no exercise regimen, no drug will make the person not dead.

I went around saying hi, watching the memorial slideshow, and generally feeling like a lost sock, until my mom arrived and I could accuse her of lying to me about the time of the funeral.

My cousin read the same lesson I read at both my grandparents’ funerals, ye olde Ecclesiastes being all, oh, there’s a time for everything, a time to step in dog shit, a time to find a $20 bill. A time to have your leg amputated after a car accident, and a time to eat chocolate cake with cream cheese frosting.

A week later, Thanksgiving was clouded by a different kind of death. My stepsister is getting divorced. She and her daughter brought the dark cloud of divorce to the holiday. It seemed a bit darker to some of us because my parents separated at Thanksgiving 36 years ago.

I wanted very much to hug them and be with them and distract them and listen to them. On the other hand, I had begun to feel, emotionally, like I was traipsing through the deserts of Iraq through a maze of burn pits.

“I can tell my depression’s not that bad if I have bathed in the last few days,” my stepsister said.

“I can relate,” I said. Once I turn the water on, I can get it done.

We played badminton, if you could call hitting a birdie back and forth with no nets using tennis rackets “played badminton.”

We lost each other in the crowd at the city’s Christmas tree lighting ceremony.

My stepsister told me some terrible things her husband said to her.

We had plenty of mashed potatoes.

We went to the zoo. The penguins had several nests going. We watched them bite at each other. We watched them tick tock around like little fat metronomes. They all followed a zookeeper who brought a shovel down into their reserve snow and dumped it near them.

My niece said penguins were one of her favorite animals.

I remember when she was three she liked to lie in the grass and see the clouds, and she brought my dad a pine cone and begged him to help her plant it so she could see a tree grow.

Everything Has Always Been Terrible

A series in which I reflect on how, as the Buddha pointed out, life is suffering.

Plague of Justinian

It’s the original, the one, the only, first plague pandemic, and it got named after the man in charge, Justinian. For the next 200 years, this stuff, plague, would pop up and destroy, much like a mouse discovering where a teacher’s snacks are and gnawing through the bag of Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies.

Justinian looking damn good in Ravenna do I have a thing for him oh my I guess I do.

I’m a fan of Justinian’s, only because he had a lot of gorgeous mosaics installed as he had Hagia Sophia built. They’re in Constantinople (which is in Istanbul, if you’ve a date).

Justinian was possibly the last Roman empire to speak Latin as his native tongue, and this makes me feel wistful.

But here’s the coolest thing about him: married this woman, Theodora, even though she was an actress. An actress! Justinian’s uncle had just changed the law so you could marry an actress.

He was an all-around friend to women, passing laws related to prostitution, women’s prisons, rape, and the rights of wives to keep their husbands from buying Teslas (or anything else that put them into great debt).

Yes, Justinian was on our side, ladies, as much as a leader from 1,500 years ago could be.

Justinian was living his best life. He was getting the empire back under (Roman) control.

Until, in 535, there was terrible drought and some other crazy weather in the empire. People think it could have been due to a volcanic eruption, or a comet strike. It wasn’t cool and people were freaked out.

And then in 542, the plague.

Bulbonic plague.

Historians are pretty unsure about exactly how bad it was, but it was bad. Maybe 15 million people died? Maybe 100 million? Maybe 25% of Europe’s population? Or maybe 60%? At this moment in history, it looks like scholars think this plague was exaggerated, was not nearly as bad as the Black Death.

It wasn’t great, though.

Justinian himself got plague, but survived. Like many other leaders we’ve discussed here, he had a problem with way too many dead bodies. One unique solution was to put them on boats and give ’em all a burial at sea. Other bodies were dumped inside old military structures and then they bricked them in.

Historian of the day Procopius wrote that people thought the disease was caused by a demon that would come to you in a dream, or right when you woke up. So some people were like, lock all the doors!

Procopius, who would be better looking if he saw the emperor’s barber, rather than the barber who cut the emperor’s barber’s hair. Unfortunately he lived before the invention of the two barbers riddle.

Locking your door and staying home was not a bad idea.

This round of plague technically lasted until the year 750. For 200 years, it waxed and waned.

So if you feel like covid has gone on forever, well, you’ll be dead long before covid competes with plague. That’s the good news and the bad news, I suppose.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this series, it’s that no matter how shitty things look right now, there are vast swaths of shitshow when you start looking at the past. At anyone’s past.