“We had to do something.”

The ongoing tragedy of the Covid-19 pandemic is overwhelming. We hear statistics day after day. Over 200,000 dead. Millions infected. They numb our conscience. So Bethesda, Maryland artists Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg acted. I asked her why and she said “We had to do something.”

So she designed an art project called In America. In a swath of grass 20 blocks east of the Capitol, she is planting row after row of white flags, one for each covid-19 death in the United States. She expects there to be about 240,000 of them from today until November 6.

A volunteer uses a template to place flags.

The orderly flags remind me of the white headstones in military cemeteries like Arlington and Colleville-sur-Mer. So clean. So white. So much death. How could this happen in America?

To drive home the point, on the western front of the installation is a set of over 300 white flags. To the side are 26 more. The 26 flags represent the total covid-19 deaths in New Zealand. The 300+ flags show the covid-19 deaths that New Zealand would have had if it had followed the haphazard response that occurred in the United States.

If only we had responded as New Zealand did

There is something about this particular part of DC that draws the sad and the bizzarre. The last time I had ridden a bike to this space was to participate in a BikeDC event shortly after the attacks of September 2001. A massive crowd of bicyclists stood somberly. We were there to show that no matter what we would carry on. We sang God Bless America then rolled off en masse.

Three years before that I attended the Tibetan Freedom concert in RFK Stadium across the street to the east of the flags. In the middle of the concert I went to the concession stand. I heard a loud BANG. Lightning had struck a person some 20 rows or so below my seat. (She survived.) The concert was stopped and the massive crowd was told to leave the stadium in the middle of a raging thunderstorm.

And so here I was again observing another sad and bizzare moment in history.

Volunteers are welcome to come and install flags. Sadly, there will be about 1,000 new flags every day for the duration of the display. Wear a mask and observe social distancing, of course. Or just come and bear witness.

Prapanca stay away from me

Today was my first day off the bike in a week. My legs were really tired yesterday. Oddly, after about 15 miles they seemed to come to life. I found myself cruising along at 18 miles per hour. This is the sort of thing happens on long bike tours. (It’s a good thing because, otherwise, you’d never get where you’re going.) If this crisis hadn’t come along, I’d be ready to tour in a couple of weeks.

I learned today that two people have tested positive in the building where I worked for 25 years in DC. I don’t know them but I still know quite a lot of people who work there. A description from one of the victims who is currently in the hospital in Maryland describes truly awful illness and extensive lung damage. That’s what worries me most; my lungs are already damaged from illnesses in 2016 and 2018.

Generally speaking, descriptions of the disease vary wildly. Some people get no symptoms at all, others get what feels like a bad cold, still others, like the victim above, have high fevers, coughs, and escalating pulmonary distress. The randomness of all this is enough to drive you insane. And, since it takes days for the symptoms to arise you or just about anyone you interact with could be infected and not even know it. One truly odd thing about the disease is that all the physical distress is caused by your body’s defense mechanisms going haywire as they fight off the invading pathogen.

I have a strong fear of suffocating. When I was a kid, I hated it when other kids held my head underwater. When I was in the hospital with a collapsed lung in 2018, I rolled over onto my good lung. It compressed my good lung and left me without the ability to draw a breath. Climbing my first big climb in Colorado last summer, I found myself leaning across the top tube of my bike on the side of the road in the Rockies unable to catch my breath.

Stress is sometimes useful. When it’s under control, stress can help you concentrate on an exam or get your adrenaline going for a burst of effort. It’s not useful when it just wears you down mentally and emotionally. What we all especially need to avoid is that runaway narrative in our heads that builds bad scenarios on top of each other. It doesn’t matter what your personal situation is; your brain can hijack your stress defenses and carry you away to a place of despair. Buddhists call this prapanca. Prapanca stay the fuck away from me.

Today did have a few de-stressing moments. Instead of riding, I mowed the lawn. Fresh air. Mindless. Repetitive. Not a bad combination. And no interaction with potentially infected, two-legged disease vectors.

Late in the day my wife did a yoga class online. Just as it was about to start a woman came to our door. It was one of her yoga class friends, a psychiatrist, bearing a gift in a black bag. It turned out to be a bottle of gin and and one of tonic.

Gin and tonic, the doctor recommended cure for prapanca.

Return to Dr. Pain and other adventures

Yesterday, in anticipation of my appointment with Dr. Pain, I walked 3 1/2 miles. I experienced some discomfort in my left leg but it never amounted to much. In fact, several times I stopped using the trekking poles. I also found that I am no longer walking on the balls of my feet, which is really awkward. Oddly, I seem unable to walk slowly. My body is full of mystery.

I had a minor, split second twinge of pain in my lower back when I was taking off my shoes but I haven’t had any symptoms of nerve pain shooting across my lower back for a week.

I almost cancelled the appointment out of an abundance of caution about the coronavirus but decided to go and be super careful. No one was in the waiting room. I used hand sanitizer three times while in the office.

After a short wait in an examining room, Dr. Pain came in and sat as far from me as physically possible. We discussed what I’ve been doing (e.g., riding a bike like a boss, walking more than a mile, physical therapy exercises twice a day) and she said that she wasn’t giving me any more shots for now. “That first shot has allowed your body to heal itself. Don’t stop what you’re doing.”

The plan going forward is for me to come back to see her in early May, but only if I have pain. Otherwise I am good to go on my annual bike tour, coronavirus willing. One thing is very clear, I am riding much stronger than I have since my 2018 tour.

After the doctor’s visit, I went to the drug store to secure some shaving stuff and paper products. They had a few shaving things. I decided to buy the expensive stuff thinking the cheap stuff was more like to have been handled by virus vectors. (Great name for a sports team!) There were no paper products. Big surprise.

When I checked out, I didn’t let the clerk (who was wearing gloves) to touch my items. It pays to be paranoid.

Then I took off for parts north. I rode the Mount Vernon Trail 15 miles to Rosslyn and crossed the Key Bridge into Georgetown. Traffic on the adjacent GW Parkway was light as it was on the bridge. Georgetown lacked its usual chaos. Mostly, the people I saw were alone or in groups of two or three. I rode past the White House and made my way through Lafayette Park. There I encountered three teenage boys on scooters as I entered the west side of the park. When I prepared to use a curb cut to leave the east side of the park, the scooter boys cut in front of me. No problem. Then I let three people on Segways, a guide and two tourists, also go in front of me. As the third person started down the curb cut she turned and sneezed over her shoulder.

I had been keeping my distance and I am glad I did. Still I waited a few seconds before proceeding into her germ cloud. I saw no point in lecturing her about her hygiene as I was pretty sure she sneezed as she did to avoid losing control of the Segway on the curb cut.

I rode the 15th Street cycletrack back toward the Potomac River. At the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance to the Ellipse I saw a group of at least 25 tourists walking across the street. Normally there would be dozens of similarly sized groups all over the tourist areas but today they were the only big group.

At the Washington Monument, DC’s famous cherry blossoms were starting to put on their show. A few trees at the Tidal Basin were also putting in a decent effort. Here’s a view looking back toward the Washington Monument across the Tidal Basin.

As I began crossing the Potomac on the 14th Street Bridge I spotted a whopper of a cherry tree in bloom. This tree is quite old and, for some reason, seems to be the first to reach peak bloom. The ramp to the bridge puts you right on top of the tree. You could go snow blind looking at it.

The ride home was uneventful. When I got home I put my clothes in the washing machine just in case Madam Segway was packing coronaheat.

Introvert’s Delight

Ah, social distancing. It’s right up my alley. I can ride for hours all alone and know I am doing the right thing for my community.


Sadly, this pandemic didn’t happened while I was working. It would have put an end to the extroverts trying to push everyone into this meeting or that. Brainstorming get togethers? Not any more! Three-day office retreats. Fuggetaboutit! Teambuilding exercises. Pshaw!

I do feel like I’ve fallen into a creepy science fiction movie. Here I am riding along on the prairie when I stop for food. Is the clerk at the register infected? Do the old men sitting around the table at the truck stop carry the dangerous contagion? Will I get out of this gas station alive? AYYY!

I am one of the high risk folks. I have compromised lungs in three ways. I have mild persistent asthma. I have had a lung infection in the last five years. And let’s not forget those lovely pulmonary embolisms. Also, I am 64. Take me out to the ballgame? I think not.

Meanwhile, my stenosis pain is in rapid retreat. Lord knows why. I am scheduled to be treated for lower back pain next Monday but that pain, too, is gone. Do I even bother with the treatment? I even tested my lower back by riding Little Nellie, my wee wheeled Bike Friday, yesterday. Normally, this bike beats up my back. Today, no pain.

The only problem I am having is a sore left knee that woke me up at 7 this morning. I have lowered the saddle on all my bikes and I suspect this is the culprit.

My thoughts are with Gio and Cristina, the Italian bike tourists I met on the side of the road in Eureka, Nevada. They are back in Italy. Stay well.

As for the rest of you all, don’t panic. Exercise good hygiene. Bump elbows. This too shall pass.