Get Big Pivots


This may be the sweet spot of tragedy in my world, the calm before the pandemic storm. I’ve not lost loved ones or even liked ones. I may yet, as one model predicts 940 deaths in Colorado by late June, when it may peter out.

But, for a time at least, the world has slowed down and quieted. Cars and trucks have diminished to an extent rarely see other than on Christmas and Thanksgiving mornings. Instead, I see young couples pushing baby strollers or walking dogs. It makes me wish it was always this way. I hope this memory, this lesson, lingers.

Traffic always was somewhat annoying, but my thriving neighborhood in metropolitan Denver has become the sort of place highlighted by leisure magazines. Byproducts of that popularity have been the bustle of trucks delivering beer and food, growling trucks hauling away waste, and here as everywhere, the big pickup trucks and also little cars outfitted to produce big noise. 

We are slavishly devoted to our internal combustion engines. We love their freedom, so we constrain them very little. We give them space and more space, until it’s almost impossible to avoid their arrogance. Big trucks or small cars, even your ordinary SUV barreling down the street — they swing their sharp elbows wide.  

Those who can afford it build their castles out on the edge, beyond the din, even as they contribute to the din. I wonder about self-imposed limits: 10,000 miles per person a year and two plane trips. That’s it. Clean up our cities, clean up our air, clean up our skies.

At times, I am tempted to leave behind the city for some small town on the Great Plains. Crappy coffee. Week-old lettuce at the grocery store. Sparse library. And perhaps some remnant signs from the 2016 election about putting Hillary in jail. But oh, the quiet, the lovely quiet, the ability to hear birds sing. 

As a species, we have tendencies to want to fill all empty spaces. We also embrace all new technology. We can do it, so we do. So bars and restaurants put speakers outside and play rap music, to advertise they’re happening places. To me, it’s just noise pollution, invasion of the public space.

Technology so often has unintended consequences. After a yoga studio opened next door, I was at first puzzled to see people parked in front of my house just sitting there, their cars running, sometimes for 20 minutes at a time. Closer study revealed they were checking their smartphones, the mindfulness of the yoga studio forgotten as they spewed pollution into Denver’s smoggy skies and my already impaired lungs. Who knew that smartphones required internal-combustion engines to operate. Those idling vehicles have vanished in this pandemic. I wish they would never return.

I am reminded of what Patty Limerick, the historian at the University of Colorado, said many years ago, about restraint being one of the great challenges of our time.  I wonder whether we will come out of this more willing to ask ourselves: “Just because we can, should we?” 

This pandemic may be a warm-up for the much greater risk of climate change. As a nation, and as a species, too, we have found it hard to imagine the risk of climate change, just as most of us found it hard to imagine this pandemic. Can we learn from this pandemic something about restraint and cooperation?

This calm comes with cost, though. Some cannot self-isolate, but continue to work, in too-close contact with others. Then there are the businesses. On a recent afternoon I violated my otherwise strict adherence to social distance to patronize my neighborhood coffee shop.  Its proprietor sat on a bench outside, smoking a cigarette. She looked like she had aged two years in two weeks. She had laid off all her employees. Working alone, she was taking in $50 a day, far less than rent.

I bought a cup of coffee from her, this simple transaction now fraught with concerns. I had taken a sanitizer, but then she used her fingers to put on the plastic lid. I recoiled. She assured me of her care, holding up a bottle of cleaner.

How long could she hang on? She didn’t know. None of us know. Certainty has vanished. Everything is up in the air — and maybe COVID-19 spores, too.

I opened my wallet. I had a $20. I gave it to her. She accepted it, but I hope she laundered the money. She has children at home.

This was first published in the Colorado Independent.

Allen Best
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