Saint Barbara | Credit: Courtesy

IMMINENT DOOM, ANYONE?  I would be remiss if I failed to point out today is the Feast Day of St. Barbara, the namesake for both the city and county of Santa Barbara. Like so many saints, the story of St. Barbara is pretty grisly, and the details explain why she has long been considered the patron saint for those facing imminent doom.

Barbara grew up somewhere in modern-day Syria, and her father — a merchant trader — depended upon the good graces of the Roman authorities for his livelihood. While he was out of town on a business trip, Barbara — then a good-looking young woman — succumbed to the theological charms of a charismatic, handsome Christian evangelist. Christianity at the time was strictly verboten. Inspired by the Holy Trinity, Barbara ordered three windows to be inserted into a tower then under construction as part of a major remodel of her family home.

When her father returned, he flipped his gourd that his daughter had converted. Rather than turn her into the authorities, he took her out behind a nearby hill and smote her himself. God, not looking favorably at what was clearly a hate crime, responded in kind and zapped Barbara’s father with a bolt of lightning, leaving him a pile of smoldering embers.

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All this goes to explain why Barbara became the patron saint for architects and artillerymen on battle ships. For eons, she was prayed to by those facing immediate peril — like architects who blew their deadlines or cannoneers whose cannons blew up. In the 1960s, the Catholic Church concluded there was not sufficient historical evidence to conclude she actually existed, that these events took place, or that certain miracles attributed to her could be adequately documented. So technically, she is no longer considered a saint.

Whether she is or is not seems utterly beside the point in the current COVID context, which in my mind qualifies as imminent doom on the installment plan. We now find ourselves caught in the crossfire between the indomitability of the human spirt — aka stupidity — and the fragility of the flesh.

Yesterday, December 3, Santa Barbara County reported 134 new cases. Right now, health experts say there are 428 active cases; 138 have died. The number to watch is how many are hospitalized and in the ICU. Right now, it’s 50 and 13, respectively. Of those 30 are at Cottage.

A month ago, November 3, we had 10 new cases reported and 105 active cases countywide. At that time, there were only 10 COVID patients so sick they were hospitalized and three recovering in the ICU.

The good news is that we still have considerable play in our medical capacity. But it’s getting tighter, and the numbers are moving in the wrong direction. Among the murkier statistics released by county public health officials has to do with number of medical professionals who’ve gotten infected. These are aggregate numbers that show only grand totals. So it’s hard to tell at any given time how many health-care workers are sick. Or what kind of health-care workers they are. Or where they work.

But the numbers are illustrative. A week ago, the number of infected health-care workers was 584. Two weeks before that, it was 534. On October 20 — not really that long ago — the number was 502.

The way I do the math, that’s a jump in infections among health-care workers of 82 between October 20 and November 26. I am assuming that each of these workers has to quarantine for at least two weeks. That puts a strain on the system. As the numbers go up, the real question is not the number of available beds anymore or number of ventilators. It’s the number of skilled staff who can work them.

I mention all this because yesterday, I was gratified to hear I tested negative. I took the test early Sunday morning, so I was less gratified by the delay. A friend of mine with whom I eat breakfast every Thursday had tested positive. We eat outside on a bench. We sit as far apart as the bench allows. And when we’re not eating, we wear masks. Still …

COVID happens.

On the way home from work yesterday, I strolled past the explosion of Christmastime booths popping up on State Street in a display of stubborn optimism in the face of crushing reality. It was touchingly festive. It also felt desperate. In the moment, it seemed self destructively ill considered. We all need tent poles to keep our skies from crashing down. But did I really want to risk exposure by perusing the wares with strangers breathing too close?

I’m afflicted by the same mixed feelings about the State Street Promenade. There’s an undeniable magic to the whole mess that makes me feel as if I’ve wandered onto the set of some Italian movie. It makes my heart glad. But with one notable exception: I avoid it like the plague. Too many people breathing too close. When it comes to dining out, I’m strictly Mr. Takeout.

Still, I will be sad when Governor Newsom lowers the boom — as he is expected to do — and outlaws outdoor dining. Gone will be the lights and dogs and diners of State Street. Gone will be the hopeful clamor and din. Exposed by their absence will be the true geologic reality of empty storefront after empty storefront.

It may not be a real ghost town, but it will feel haunted none the less.

Back when I was a kid growing up back east, bomb shelters were all the thing. Big enough for there to be TV advertisements. I didn’t know anyone who actually had one, but we ducked under our desks in elementary school to train for what we would do should they drop the Big One. After the threat of the Cold War grew less imminent — and, yes, toilet paper supplies were scarce then too — a number of bomb shelters were converted into backyard wine cellars. A lot of them just filled up with gunk.

I have since been told that a group of anti-vaxers plan to host a protest marching up State Street. They will be protesting the new vaccine. They will be protesting the new lockdown rules as well. Most strikingly, they will not be wearing masks.

This, of course, calls to mind the story about St. Barbara. With people who refuse to wear masks — perhaps the single most effective thing anyone can do to limit the spread of COVID — who needs one’s father to dash one’s brains out to become a saint? We seem intent on doing it to ourselves.

That calls to mind yet another wonderfully gruesome saint story. I will spare you the details, but the punch line is the phrase, “cutting off your nose to spite your face.” Excepting, of course, it’s not their face to cut off. It’s ours.

Happy St. Barbara’s Day. Imminent doom, indeed.

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