“The ability to understand and share feelings of another…”,
Lorenzo Rodriguez, Madrid
photo @Lorenzo Rodriguez, Madrid, April 29, 2020
Very early this morning I received this letter essay from my dear friend Lorenzo Rodriguez, a citizen of the world, quarantined in Madrid, a successful man in his profession in the investment world, with a great passion in contemporary art and literature; Directly from my desk, no editing or corrections. (Munich, Venetia Kapernekas)
The month is March in the year 2020, it sounds like I am starting a science fiction story, although it feels like I am living in one at this moment. The corona virus has become a part of history, in particular my history. It was not by choice but rather it was put upon me and the world with no permission or even a warning. Its origins are not so important, that time has passed as it is now part of the global landscape. I think about how something so small as a molecule could wreck so much havoc. I am 57 years old and have lived through and seen so much. Going back as far as I can remember, to events that were shaping the world, most of those were forged by human endeavors. The television brought these great feats into our living room. So for me, it starts with landing a man on the moon. The vivid pictures are imprinted in my memory, the grainy images and the crackling voices of that event that changed the world. As child it was a remarkable time, my brothers and I would gather around the television, religiously as live feeds from the moon were projected magically. I think that the entire human race was awakened to the possibility that anything was possible. We as human had achieved a sense of immortality or at least the illusion that we could control our own destiny. Maybe it was this event that allowed me to see a future that had no boundaries.
As time moved forward, world events would unfold as a testament to both the wonder and tragedy. It was clear that human existence could not only achieve ongoing progress but could also plunge itself into endless sorrow and destruction. If I had to name the the achievements most of these would include science, technology, medicine, infrastructure, agriculture and of course the longevity of the human race. The antithesis of this would be wars which would range from Vietnam all the way to Bosnia and continue to the Middle East. We became used to these tragedies as, once again social media would bring these far off conflicts into our daily life instantaneously. In some sense our tolerance for these events became somewhat immune to the terror.
However their were events that would begin to shape me personally, as they began to include people that were close to me. They were no longer stories of far off places with names and faces that had very little to do with me. The first would be the Tsunami in Bali – cataclysmic wave that would consume and decimate an entire city. Unfortunately one of my oldest and dearest friends was there with his wife and two small children. He would later tell me of the horror he witnessed that day. He would describe running up a hill with his two children in his arms and his wife behind him as the desperately moved to higher ground. It was unimaginable for me to comprehend what he went through. Later they would make movies to try and at least portray the magnitude of this natural tragedy. For me this was the beginning of an awaking that despite our growing sense of immunity, maybe we are not so safe and not so out of reach from nature’s wrath.
The second would be incited by the human touch and would demonstrate the true nature of our depravity. That is of course would be September 11th. I was living in New York and would experience not only the devastation of a city but also a country. It was one of those moments that shaped my very existence and has remained not only as a scar but ghost that still haunts me. We have all seen the image that flashed across every media outlet worldwide. However, to have lived there and experience the trauma firsthand was something I am still not able to articulate. Though just an attempt, all of my senses would be to the point of being compounded. The visual would be only the beginning as my olfactory would begin to absorb the flesh and metal that became the scent of the city. The blare of constant sirens and the occasional explosive would immediately push my thoughts to another attack. I would be reminded, the loss of a group of firefighters whom were a part of my life and local community. They would all perish in the blink of an eye.
Yet here I am. I have been under self quarantine in Madrid for several weeks now. This situation has given me time to reflect and to consider many things. I have had on going dialogue with friends, clients and associates. My network is quite extensive, that is to say it not only spans continents but also demographics, incomes, occupations even intellect. That is a ambiguous word intellect -, those with higher education and others that have learned through life experience. Currently we are all sharing the same fate, whether in self quarantine or about to enter self-quarantine. This corona virus had unexpected consequences. We have all been thrust into this new paradigm, a seemingly alternative universe. Times of sickness require us to stay put, to hunker down. I have had to reflect on not only myself but also the world and society that is part of my community. The personal changes that have occurred these past weeks. Being isolated in one place over a long period of time does not happen often. Times of sickness require us to stay in bed and are usually accompanied by a mix of medicine, fever and doctors. However for many, circumstances in this case are quite the opposite. We are being told to just isolate, not leave the house or apt. There is nothing forcing me to do this other than the fear of contracting the virus .
I am writing these thoughts because I am part of this theater in which the entire planet has set the stage for either actors or extras within a global drama. It might be for the first time in my life I am beginning to understand that we are all part of this, that this virus has made this all inclusive. It doesn’t matter the color of our skin, the demographics, the language we speak or the neighborhood we live in. Its doesn’t discriminate in its sexual preference or our beliefs. It actually has become the great equalizer, it has in a strange way united us as human beings. Its like a alien landed on the planet and has declared war on all of us, just as in the movie “War of the Worlds”by H.G Wells, but now it has appeared as a molecule.
During this quarantine time the first thing I did was order books. I started with SPQR The History of the Roman Empire. A fascinating book on the rise of Rome from obscurity. It carried me through the history of how this great empire came to be. As I read this it became clear that the issues that faced these ancient people are the same issues we are facing today. You have to put this into context as well, Rome at is peak was a million people. There was no other city that even came close to the population of Rome. In fact, close to a million people died in the colosseum alone. What became clear to me is as society becomes more advance, it simultaneously falls progressively more victim to over population, immigration, sanitation, disease as well as social unrest. The division between the haves and have nots always seems to widen and, in the end, is one of the reasons for it collapse. As I sit here in quarantine I see that not much has changed.
The next book I read was a story about the immigration of a family from Vietnam to Hartford Connecticut. The title of the book in itself is so moving,“On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous “. Quite apropos for the moment we are currently in. The book is almost a letter to the mother from the main character. It is a an accurate account of the hardships immigrants face when coming to America. Being first generation Mexican American the book resonated with me and reminds me of stories my father told me when he first came to the United States. One of the most striking themes of the book is how all the immigrants, from the Hispanics working the farms, to the Asians doing manicures and pedicures and even working class Americans all share the same fate. They are forgotten and the ones with a small voice. It is also the class struggle of big pharmaceutical that places opioids in these communities and completely devastated them. The addictions turned small towns into dens of despair with no way out but prison or death. I was moved to tears as the story of hope seems so far removed from these communities. Yet the writer was able to escape well those around him would disappear into the landscape. The question for myself is how did I escape from my social class that most of my friends remain? I often think that it was books and stories that gave me a glimpse of something that was far beyond my reach, yet at the same time I saw possibilities.
The final book I completed was the story of Churchill and the bombing of Britain. The title was “The Splendid and the Vile”. Is it a coincidence that I am reading a book about one of the most devastating moments of history of the 20th century? I understood World War II quite well, however I really was not able to comprehend the onslaught of Nazi Germany on the cities and people of the United Kingdom. The odds that were completely stacked against them as a nation. They were entirely alone and the rest of Europe had already fallen to Germany. The United States was not interested in global politics, in fact the slogan, America First was the theme and isolationist led the charge. What the UK had was Churchill and his unending focus and will to press ahead. The premise of the book is about leadership in a time of crisis. Churchill had the ability to garner support in the most dire circumstances. His honesty and empathy was the shining beacon that guided a country to eventual victory. He would always begin by telling the truth no matter how difficult it was. It was imperative to him that the population understand that the current situation was not good, in fact it looked quite grim if not hopeless. The next part of his speech would be to consider the possibilities, to look at what we do have and how we can improve to better the chances of survival. His uncanny ability to mobilize his staff and the industry of the country was remarkable. Finally he would speak about all of the United Kingdom being part of one community and also history itself. That together they would withstand the tyranny and if it cost them everything then so be it. He was able to lead and invigorate everyone, from the working class to the high minded. Yes this would be their finest hour !
Words seem to define and express the moments and emotions we are currently feeling. I find myself strong, yet fragile, happy yet a moment away from despair. Tears fill my eyes over the slightest story or image flashing across the television. It’s if my entire being has been tampered with, the strings that were firm and well tuned have become somewhat out of balance. Reading these books it has occurred to me that human existence continues to falter and simultaneously excel. Nature reminds us that though it may appear that we are superior, educated and cultured these traits are only fragments of the entire story. One of the reasons I am writing this “essay” or “narrative” is because a dear friend of mine said that when this is over, we will return to the way we were. Humankind’s need for conformity and consistency is much more bound to us than the premise of change. I am not certain of this, I feel the very fabric of my existence is slowly splintered and is beginning to unravel. I believe that something inherently has shifted and I will be unable to return to the life that I once had. It has dawned on me that experience both positive and tragic begin to alter our sense of reality. That is not to say that most people may just fall back into the life that they lived regardless of the circumstance that we currently face. Maybe the old idea of free will and determinism is much more relevant. I am trying to grapple with this on a daily basis. My idea of freedom has been fractured, blown apart and redefined. Being incarcerated for over a month you start to see yourself in a different light. Physically the changes are subtle, the measures of these are only the length of our hair and the color of your skin. Grooming and dressing slowly evaporates, the need for that is no longer relevant. Recently, I attended a video conference call for work, I urgently combed my hair, shaved and tried to present myself professionally. Ironically, from waist down I was wearing shorts, no shoes or socks.
This past month I have been on WhatsApp, WeChat, Skype, BlueJean, Zoom, FaceTime as well as on the phone. My parents who are 88 and 86 years old live outside of Chicago. Last year I gave my mother my old iPad and also put WhatsApp on her cell phone. Luckily my mother who is incredibly resourceful learned to use these apps in spite of her age and lack of technological prowess. This has been the only way to physically see them and check on them. I can hear their voices and see if they were showing symptoms. I was also able to send them information on how to live in this time of social distancing. It is hard to imagine how excruciating it would be not to have this technology and being so far away. I speak to my mother often, she just tells me about her day and what she is doing. Her appreciation for these calls is evident as each ends with a sigh and tear. For my parents this isolation took sometime for them to realize that it would not end anytime soon and that they are very susceptible to the virus. However, they are selfless and only encourage me to be strong and to always be hopeful. The appreciation that I have for them and the time that they have left has become so crystalized. It has occurred to me that I am very lucky and that everyday is somewhat a gift that has been bestowed upon me. In this confinement I find comfort in the uncertainty.
There have been so many conversations with friends its hard to find a place to start. They all began with the questions; How are you? Where are you? My friends are located across the globe, New York, London, Paris, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Rome, Madrid, Los Angeles, Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Washington DC, Houston, Austin, Tokyo, Osaka, Charlotte, Miami, Big Sur, Seattle, Stockholm, Milan, Mexico City, Guadalajara, São Paulo, Moscow, Rio, Bonifacio, Zurich, Athens, Sevilla, Williamsburg, Venice, Sydney, Greenwich, Darian, Mallorca, Ibiza, Hamburg, Berlin, Istanbul, Dallas, Antwerp, Brussels, Clinton, Oswego, Naperville, Frankfurt, and Philadelphia. If I am forgetting someplace, its probably due to my emotional state. We discussed the virus and the impact it was having on our personal lives as well as our community. Assurances were made that we were all taking every precaution and that we would let each other know if any issues would arise. The love and affection that I felt was sometimes overwhelming. Their were moments that I would weep uncontrollably knowing that I was blessed to have such friends as part of my life. The backgrounds vary, from artist, entrepreneurs, bankers, tech, porters, chefs, restaurant owners, doctors, writers, drivers, curators, art dealers, furniture sales, architects, moms, hotel owners, hairstylist, jobbers, dads, grandparents, designers, translators, contractors, lawyers, screenwriters, waiters, chauffeurs, salespersons, teachers, professors, economist, researchers, motivational speakers, bloggers, and the list goes on and on. I wanted to show that no matter what we do and where we are, all of us are bound by this human existence. Now, at this time we also share the same fate, as the pandemic has become the thread that has woven this pattern.
Throughout this past month, conversation with friends has been some of the most illuminating times of my life. The spectrum has been wide with respect to cause, blame, effect, outcome and possible resolution. These conversation have sometimes been quite heated. Anger and rage directed to China as the main cause for the current state of affairs. I have been quite surprised by some of the language and xenophobic words used towards that country. Yes, the virus originated in China and that the government didn’t inform the world in a timely manner. What concerns me is that the vernacular used and the detrimental consequence not only to people of Chinese origin but also to Asians in general. Unfortunately, humans tend to categorize ethnic groups into clusters. Americans especially have a tendency to define race in order to identify origin. I know this first hand being Mexican American. How many forms did I fill out describing my ethnic background. The terms Hispanic or Latin or other. When we begin to put identity on diseases we fall into a perilous place. That is why scientists are careful not to label them as ethnic designation.
Recently I watched a comedian and social commentator rant about why we shouldn’t call it the CHINESE VIRUS. He went on to describe other viral outbreaks; West Nile, correct me if I am wrong is that an ethnic group, Zika from the forest, Ebola from the Ebola river, but if I am not mistaken they are not countries or ethnic group but rather a region. The whopper, which he should have taken a history lesson, the Spanish Flu as that did not originate in Spain. Cause which then transforms to blame. There is a fine line which can be perilous. The history of the Japanese Americans during the Second World War is an example. Its understandable as it creates an enemy that we can see, identify and label. Its very difficult to blame a molecule or a virus. I think it’s important that we are cognizant of the consequence of words and labels. We have seen too often the detrimental effects it can have. I have often tried to diffuse these conversations and try to focus on the problem at hand. I think we are far beyond the position of blame. Our world is in turmoil and the enemy is the virus. So if the enemy is the virus the army must be the scientist and health care workers who are on the front lines of this so called war. I am often amazed at the compassion and fearlessness these health care workers take on a daily basis. The world has come together to try and find a solution to this dilemma. The great thing about scientists and science is they don’t see borders, countries or even language as a barrier. To them the problem lies solely with the molecule and how to stop it. Watching the news its astounding seeing cooperation of governments around the world not only to share information, data and research but additionally provide medical supplies as needed. Madrid, where I am currently under quarantine, every evening at 8:00 pm the windows are open and the city claps and shouts. Its not of anger or distress, but of praise to the sanitation workers that are daily disinfecting the city streets and making sure that city remains hopeful. I too have participated reaching outward from the window with my arms outstretched clapping and applauding. You can hear the echos of so many hands together in unison as well as sirens and music. I find this moment quite moving and almost ephemeral, we cant see each other but we share this feeling of gratitude as well as unity.
The effect that virus has caused seems to be endless. I could start with the health issues that lay before us. The magnitude of the social displacement has been unimaginable. The world has suddenly stopped other than the typing of the keys on-computers and cell phones. Socially we have been asked to separate and stay inside. I cannot remember in my entire life this being so wide spread. Yes their have been storms, tornados and even hurricanes that required diligence and shelter. Yet this has taken us to another level. The effect of this for me is both a blessing and a curse. I found this quote the other day by Gabriel Garcia Marquez “ ….time was not passing…it was turning in a circle…” it was taken from the book One Hundred Years of Solitude. I find both the quote and the title of the book appropriate if not prophetic. Time is not passing the way that is use to, it is moving in a foreign way. We are not able to discern its true direction. We are in solitude, some actually alone in their homes others alone in their thoughts. How long will this timelessness endure?
Personally and professionally my life has had an abrupt change. My work which included me getting on an airplane at least 2 to 3 times a week has comes to a standstill. Interaction with my clients is solely via emails or video chats. However, there seems to be a greater connection to some of them. As we are all in this uncertain time the need for trust and confidence becomes so much more important. In addition there is more intimacy in the nuances of our conversations. We speak about investment opportunities not as just a numerical exercise, but also what impact it will have on our respected countries, and even sometimes families. I can’t recall ever having these types of conversations in the 20 years I have been doing this. I am working on a deal that is closely tied to the underclass in Los Angeles. The urgency of this project has also come into light by several of my investors. They feel that something needs to be done to help during this crisis. I often wonder why now, why at this time do we now feel this urgency?
Personally my passion is contemporary art. For the last three decades I have travelled across continents to see and experience art. My closest friends are artists, dealers, collectors and curators. The art world has always presented itself to me as an alternative to not only my profession but also a sanctuary for my emotions as well as my critical understanding of the world l live in. It has given me countless measures of pleasure as well as hope. That is not to say that the art world has not been disrupted and chastened before. This time it feels different and much more systemic. Maybe because the art world has expanded in leaps and bounds these past 10 years that it felt that it was part of this new boundless world. As in all things it may have reached it’s zenith and has become part of the devastation that the virus has placed on all things. I know that it will reinvent itself and adapt and hopefully for the better. What I am certain of is that it will endure not for the financial or economic reasons. I believe that part of it will continue as wealth will maintain its presence. I do believe that the idea of art will be a reflection of this time and the time to come. I have been asked many time why art is so important to you? In short, there was a time when I studied theology. I was a believer which is the catch word used by ‘Christians’. I went to seminary and my life and belief was centered around this idea of faith. However over time, and after extensive education I eventually lost that belief. I realized after studying theology, sociology, anthropology and so many ideas. It soon occurred to me that many have come and gone and others adapt and change. Empires have also risen and fallen with remnants somehow continue but the days of their glory has long passed. What has remained is always the art. It finds its way as a testament of the human experience. Even when man has laid waste to itself, the art rears it head in the most unlikely way. This for me is very comforting as my time here is so limited. So I am not so concerned about how this will impact the art world, as in the end it will always find a way.
As I write this essay it has occurred to me that the overall effect of this pandemic is that it has required all humans to stop and think even for a moment. The silence sometimes is deafening as for this brief moment all of us are at least aware that something has happened. Nature is acutely aware as the pollution has stopped, and the waters are clear. Even the animals that were so reclusive have appeared in our cities and towns. Its springtime and the flowers are blooming as nature reminds us that this is the season of renewal. I have gotten so me photos sent to me of flowers and trees and green fields. No more images of parties, gallery openings or even cities. If feel like people are much more aware of nature which also requires time. What I don’t want to negate is that there are many that don’t have the privilege or luxury to stop and listen. What has emerged so clearly is the indifference and injustice that our society has created. As someone very dear to me said society is broken and unfortunately it took a pandemic to shine the spotlight on something that has been simmering for a long time. I received an email from a friend of mine in London who quoted a statistic to me about Chicago and the number of fatalities in the African American neighborhoods versus the deaths due to the virus. I was quite upset as these neighborhoods on the West side of the city have been plagued with violence and gun related mortality for years. However, it was only noticed in respect to a pandemic sweeping across the states. The stark reality of this became clear to me when a map of the virus was enhanced of New York City. The city includes 5 boroughs ( Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx, Staten Island and Manhattan) Manhattan being the most recognized and the wealthiest. The remainder are working class neighborhoods that hold every ethnic group across the city. They say you can take the A line and travel across the globe. The colors showed the areas with the highest level of the pandemic. Darker colors highlighted the outbreak as hot spots. The darkest colors were the lowest income zip codes with the lighter ones mostly in Manhattan except for Harlem and Washington Heights. I am sure this repeats itself in places like Chicago, Detroit, New Orlean, Miami and other major cities. I think about these neighborhoods and the people who live there. They work two maybe three jobs to cover living expense and keep food on the table. A friend said many send their children to school to make sure they get one nutritious meal at lunch time as money can be tight. However they don’t complain nor do they have time to think about the virus. This reality is what most Americans face and this income gap is only growing. I was recently in Iowa before the virus lock down in the Midwest. I was with an old friend who grew up in one of these American towns. He drove me around telling me about how the farms were the back bone of the economy. Family farms that had been run for generations. Now most of corporate farms, you can tell by the machinery in front of the barns, brand new equipment. Also the lights are off in farmhouse properties. We also drove through the town which was empty and boarded up. He told me that it was a great town always busy with people. Then Walmart came. They warned the citizens of the town not to shop there as it would destroy the community. However the low prices and quantity of goods was irresistible. So slowly the entire town closed it shops and soon it was empty. Then came the opioids which would be the nail in the coffin. My friend said this story repeats itself all along the banks of the Mississippi where all these towns use to thrive. I think that something is inherently wrong with our society and the virus is a symptom of the sickness. I believe we deeply care about our country as well as its citizens but is that enough?
The world is in lockdown mode and quarantines are part of the social, political and daily lifestyle across the globe. Economies have come to a standstill and unemployment has skyrocketed. For many this is a spiral with an outcome of instability. Social unrest is growing especially in the United States where the average family has $400 dollars for emergencies. People are feeling desperate as governments try to grapple with the virus spreading and economies shrinking. It’s a daily battle that doesn’t seem to be letting up. I know that I will be able to weather the storm as well as many of my friends and peers. You see we are part of that generation who learned to adapt as well as save. Adversity has always been a part of my life personally. My parents didn’t have money to spend and with that they instilled a strong work ethic of self reliance. The motto being “ you don’t work you don’t eat and if you don’t ask you don’t get”. Everything was a struggle, if we wanted something we had to find a way. So this ideology strengthened my resolve to always be ready for the worst case scenario. The irony is my parents are retired living on a fixed income with their savings a little else. My twin brother, unfortunately is part of the paycheck to paycheck society. He works extremely hard but has little to show for it. In addition he must pay child support as well as keep himself above water. So I ask myself how does this happen? Why him and not me? It occurred to me that most of the people I grew up with are similar situations. Hard working, honest and admirable people who just cant seem to get a break. Yet my world is completely different, even in the crisis we face today. I know that I will be fine and that in the end not much financially or lifestyle will change for me. Yet I feel a sense of despair as well as embarrassment. To achieved what my parents wanted for me, success, independence and freedom from the burden of class struggle.
All this being said what will be the outcome of all this? How then shall we live? I just started reading “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius. I find the words profound and articulate. The idea of responsibility to society but also to oneself. It talks about being a citizen and how that defines the person. Of course he was talking about being a citizen of Rome, however the same applies to a citizen of humanity. To examine our responsibility to our community, family and country. The idea that nature will runs it course is somewhat comforting. “Time is a river, a violent current of events, glimpsed once and already carried past us, and another follows and is gone.” This pandemic will eventually end or come to some sort of resolution. Either a vaccine or inhibitor will be created. Yet the impact will linger and its effect continues to define the present as well as the future. I hope with all sincerity that society has come to understand that we are all part of the same. As human beings we are all exposed to the possibility of this virus but also to the aftermath of its destruction. The question that rings constantly in my consciousness is have we heard and are we listening? Humanity is sitting on the razors edge, slowly inching it way trying to stay balanced and at the same time avoiding the blades sting. How we manage this moving forward is the question. As individuals we must choose and decide what this means for us as well as our community. That community is our friends, coworkers, family as well as the strangers who walk among us. I know that the geopolitical and economic outcomes will be decided between governments. Those outcomes we have very little say in that decision process. To be honest governments have failed us in these times. Their inability on a global basis to consider individuals and the actual effect it has has on them is overshadowed by political agendas and economic rhetoric. The voice of the people have long been drowned out by money and power. I was never a proponent that change comes from speeches or sweeping policies. Those tend to get lost in the excitement that soon becomes bogged down in technocratic gibberish. However, I do believe in the individual and the community. The opportunity to shape our own life and those around us. This idea is organic and grows from within itself. It may not be glamorous or exhibit to the world how advanced society is. Yet it is personal and effects people immediately. It gives us the opportunity to feel and understand each other and hopefully broaden are perception of the world around us. This is not a political agenda or a ideology that requires a label. Its neither right nor left or even center. It’s a personal choice that requires a bit of compassion and empathy. That word that I hope will define all of us moving forward into this unknown future. “The ability to understand and share feelings of another”. The corona virus has left its mark on history this is certain. Yet at the same time has given us, you and me a opportunity to also be affected by its outcome. There is a hope here that I believe can have a much deeper and profound impact on humanity and society. This can be remembered as a new beginning.
Lorenzo Rodriguez, Madrid, April 29, 2020, 8 am