Tag Archives: current affairs

Monday Musings: That Which Divides Us

But there I was, with my mask and my recyclable bags. She might even have seen me pull up in our Prius, just to complete the portrait. And I think I was a convenient target for more generalized resentments and hostilities.

I went food shopping this weekend and when I presented my recyclable bags to the check-out person, she told me that they’re really not supposed to use customers’ bags because it’s not safe. She was not wearing a mask or gloves when she told me this (I was wearing a mask). Nor did she say anything to the dozen or so people who entered the store without masks while I was there.

Fine. I took my groceries, in their store-supplied, eco-nightmare plastic bags, and I left.

But I’ve been pissed off about it ever since.

To be clear, I am not angry with her for telling me that they couldn’t use my bags. I understand the concern – she doesn’t really know me (although I see her every week) and she doesn’t know where those bags have been. What bothers me is the lack of consistency, the fact that she professes concern enough to make me use those plastic bags, but she doesn’t take the time to protect herself with a mask or gloves. She scolds me for trying to use the bags, but doesn’t bat an eye at the customers who refuse to wear masks.

We live in a small, progressive college town in the South. This grocery store is in the next town over, which is not at all progressive. Many in the surrounding communities resent the university and the people it brings to their part of the world, precisely because we are “liberal” and “elite.” They resent our privilege, and I get that. They resent the privilege and obliviousness of many of the students, and I get that, too. They tend to ignore the fact that the university is far and away the largest employer in the area and that many in their conservative communities seek and secure employment at the school in a variety of positions. I tend to ignore the fact that the university and the outsiders it draws to their area intrude on every element of their collective existence, forcing them to live and work in ways that they likely wouldn’t choose to if we weren’t here.

There are legitimate grievances on all sides.

But I think what bothered me most about the incident at the store is that it probably had nothing to do with safety, or with policy. It was all about politics, about the ever-deepening divide between the left and right. In other ways, my interaction with this woman was perfectly pleasant. But there I was, with my mask and my recyclable bags. She might even have seen me pull up in our Prius, just to complete the portrait. And I think I was a convenient target for more generalized resentments and hostilities. I don’t think there was anything personal about it.

And in a way that makes it worse, not better.

I heard a story on NPR the other day (yes, I know: more ammunition for the right-wingers who hate me and all I stand for) about a guy who had been vocally and obnoxiously anti-mask, who then contracted the coronavirus and died. Members of this guy’s family are now putting up with trolls on the left who are saying that he deserved to die, that he got what was coming to him. Really? Yes, I will agree that his death is the very definition of tragic irony. But did he deserve to die? Do the people who loved him, who are now mourning him, deserve to be mocked, to have their grief compounded by the self-righteousness of those who see the world differently?

Should I be angry with that woman at the checkout counter, or should I feel badly for her? She works in a grocery store along the interstate. She interacts with strangers every hour of every day. She might have refused to touch those canvas bags I brought in, and she might have gotten some small satisfaction out of our interaction, but she has to work a job that has become as risky as any first responder position. She’s still going without a mask, without any real precautions. She is at much greater risk of contracting the illness than I am, and I would bet every dollar I have that her health insurance isn’t nearly as good as mine.

For those of us on the political left, particularly those of us who are as privileged and fortunate as I am, it’s all too easy to express contempt for the people protesting at state capitals across the country. I know, because I’ve done it. And I do think they’re putting themselves at risk. I do believe that their threats of violence against governors – both explicit and implicit – are utterly inappropriate, bordering on criminal. But I also understand their rage. They are, most of them, low income workers who are screwed either way. They are most vulnerable to an economic calamity AND they are probably in jobs that are most likely to expose them to the virus. Sure, their beef ought to be with the Trump Administration and its failure to address this crisis promptly or competently. But the Administration is a remote target for rage. Governors less so. And the progressive “elites” in their communities even less than that.

This is the point in the essay when I ought to have some fitting platitude at hand. I don’t. Yes, our leaders have failed us, deepening our national polarization by word and by deed. But we’re grown-ups and we ought to be able to act like it, even if our President can’t. Given the chance to go back to the store and speak with that woman, I honestly don’t know what I would say. Everything that comes to mind would sound patronizing and judgmental and defensive. We are in the midst of events that will shape our politics and society for years, perhaps even decades, to come. The numbers of casualties – of the disease and of the downturn – are staggering. We ought to have come together as a nation. Instead, our divisions have grown more pronounced. I fear that the histories written about these weeks and months will judge all of us harshly.

I have no remedies to offer beyond those I give each week. Today, they seem especially apt.

Stay safe, and be good to one another.

Monday Musings: Covid-19 and Hope

Last week, when I wrote my Monday Musings post, I was pretty ticked off at the world. And this week, after watching “protesters” in Michigan, North Carolina, and other states take part in the worst sort of astroturf demonstrations, one might expect that my mood would be even worse.

I mean, think about it. People in NC drove to the state capital to demand that their state be opened up because, they claim, the governor has overreacted to the crisis. Yet, many of these protesters remained sequestered in their trucks wearing face masks! You can’t make this shit up! Then there are the Michiganders who showed up for their protests carrying high-powered rifles and Confederate flags (dude, I live in the South, and the flag has nothing to do with my heritage. It sure as shit has nothing to do with yours…). One guy carried a banner that read “Trump Pence” and that displayed between their names an enormous Swastika. Yes, that ought to help their reelection chances. Hard to believe they haven’t yet turned it into a lawn sign…

Kellyanne Conway, one of Donald Trump’s most visible flunkies, was on Fox News the other day trying to justify the Trump Administration’s withholding of money from the World Health Organization, and she actually said “This is Covid-19, not Covid-1, folks…” implying that health officials should have been better prepared. The problem with this “logic” is that we didn’t have Covid-1, Covid-2, Covid-3, etc. The disease is called Covid-19 because it was identified in 2019. But, hey, it’s not as though Kellyanne is a senior aide to the most powerful political leader… Oh, wait…

On Saturday, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis opened Florida’s beaches. Yep. And Floridians flocked to them, unprotected and, it seems, utterly clueless. This after DeSantis was caught on camera putting on a face mask the wrong way – he put one of the ear loops around his head so that the mask hung sideways over his face with the other ear loop dangling below his chin.

We’re fucking doomed.

Except we’re really not. And that, actually, is the point of today’s post.

My wife is the provost of the university here in our little college town, and as the Chief Operating Officer of the school, she is tasked with coordinating the Covid-19 response. The other day she sent out a message to the university faculty and staff that concluded with a personal note about how much hope and solace she took from the community’s response. And I was amazed at how similar her thoughts were to my own percolating ideas for this very post.

Let’s start with the obvious: many of the reactions we see to the crisis – on all sides – are rooted in fear. I am observing social-distancing and stay-at-home guidelines because I don’t want to get sick. I’ve read enough about the disease to harbor a healthy fear (as it were) of contracting it. In the same way, the protests we’ve seen – however wacky and misinformed and filled with rage and hate – are based in people’s legitimate fears of an economic depression. Fear is, and has always been, a powerful stimulus for political action and governmental response.

But I see more than just fear at work here. I am worried about the economy, too. I don’t know anyone who isn’t. A large swath of the population, though, has made a conscious choice – a supremely rational one, in my view – to sacrifice their short-term economic security for the health of their families, their friends, their communities. We have said, “Yes, I know this is going to be painful, but I want to keep my children safe, my elderly parents safe, my neighbors and friends safe. And I want to be safe, too.”

We have done this despite the utter absence of Presidential leadership, and often despite the absence of leadership at the state level as well. Sure, there are people who thumb their noses at safety, at community. And yes, every day we see new idiocy from our leaders and opinion shapers – Doctor Mehmet Oz telling Sean Hannity that losing 2-3% of our school children would be an acceptable outcome if we reopened schools; Bill O’Reilly telling us that many who have died from the coronavirus were “on their last legs anyway.”

For the most part, though, people throughout the country and the world have put material concerns aside in order to save lives. And that ought to give all of us grounds for hope. If we can do this to stop the spread of Covid-19, might we also be capable of doing it to curb global climate change? Might we be willing to make the far, far smaller economic sacrifices necessary to ease social inequality, combat the historical economic and social impacts of systemic racism, and find solutions to our ongoing health care crisis?

This is a rare moment. A historical inflection point. A tragic moment to be sure. We are being tested daily. Some days we are found wanting. Too often, our elected leaders and media outlets fail us. And yet, I’m hopeful, perhaps naïvely so. People keep saying that even after we emerge from this crisis, our society will never be the same. I believe that. And I believe the differences between the old normal, and what my wife calls “the next normal,” can be ours to choose. Likely we will find ourselves in a more cautious world, maybe a less physically intimate world, at least at a societal level. But I choose to believe that it will also be a world in which we will appreciate more fully the potential of cooperation, communal action, and commitment to something greater than ourselves.

Wishing you all a healthy, wonderful week.

Monday Musings: Flattening the Curve, Projection “Hoaxes,” and Righteous Anger

I’m angry today.

The pandemic – the isolation, the uncertainty, the steady stream of tragic news, the underlying fear – elicits different emotions at different times, running the gamut from those I’d expect (sadness, fear, numbness) to those I might not. At times lately, I have looked with renewed appreciation at the blessings I have and have had, and I’m thankful, even peaceful.

Today, for a whole host of reasons, I’m pissed. Why? Well, if you really want to know, read the articles about the so-called “Red Dawn” emails. Read the articles about red state Senators getting ventilators for their states, while blue states, where the virus is MUCH worse, have to beg for masks and tests, as well as ventilators. Read the articles about how dangerous it would be to “reopen the country for business” at the end of this month.

But it’s not just those things. How many of you have heard people claiming that, because the national death toll is now projected to be lower – “merely” 64,000 rather than 100,000-240,000 – the more alarmist projections were a “hoax” and symptomatic of panic and overreaction? Never mind that 64,000 is more Americans than died in either the Korean or Vietnam War. Never mind that it’s more people than die in traffic accidents or are killed by firearms each year. Never mind that it’s comparable to annual drug deaths in this country. And never mind that even this new projection could have been much, much lower if only our nation’s leaders had taken action more quickly.

Those crying “hoax” ignore the fact that the projections fell because we (belatedly) reacted to the crisis. They refuse to acknowledge that social-distancing saves lives, that shutting down the economy, though excruciating, saves lives. The best analogy I have seen for this insanity comes from a Tweet I read the other day: Claiming, based on the new projections, that we have “overreacted” to the crisis is like saying, “The fire department told me my house would burn to the ground, but they were wrong – it’s still standing and now it’s all wet…”

In the same way, the President’s talk of opening up the country before his own health experts deem it safe is a recipe for disaster. We are in the first wave of this pandemic. More waves will come. Flattening the curve now does NOT mean we have won. It means we have bought ourselves a bit of time, during which we should be making more masks, building more ventilators, increasing the capacity of our hospitals, and, one hopes, developing a vaccine for the virus.

There will be another wave. It may well be worse than this one if we don’t avail ourselves of this time we’ve gained. The next wave will certainly be every bit as bad if we end the social distancing and self-quarantining too soon. This is not my opinion. It is basic epidemiology (and yeah, I live with a biologist). So, in other words, we have succeeded in slowing the first wave of the pandemic, and in doing so have likely held down the initial infection rate and death toll. And that’s great. But that’s all we’ve done.

Again, flattening the curve is a delaying tactic, a way of marshaling our resources so that we’re not utterly overwhelmed by a highly contagious and deadly illness. It is not the ultimate goal, but rather an interim strategy. Which means that even after this curve has run its course, we will not be done and we will not be safe.

Finally, consider this: Despite early reports to the contrary, this is not an older person’s disease. Yes, fatality rates are higher among those in older age groups. But young people are getting this virus, and young people are dying from it. For whatever reason – and thank whatever deity you worship for this – children really do seem to be relatively immune. But the recurring conservative talking point about how Covid-19 is only killing the elderly and infirm, like it’s some sort of airborne wolfpack, is complete bullshit. Remember that the next time you hear someone saying that we should be willing to make sacrifices to open the country for business again. Yes, recessions and depressions take a terrible toll, not just economically, but also in terms of our physical and mental health. But look around at your family, your circle of friends, your community of professional colleagues. Who among them would you be willing to consign to an early death?

So, yeah, I’m angry today. Angry because we as a society are still not doing all we can to stop this thing. Angry because our leaders are failing us again and again and again. Angry because the information we need to combat the virus is not as readily available as it should be, leading to false narratives and unrealistic expectations.

Stay safe. Stay hunkered down. Be smart. Be careful. Not only because your health and life are at stake. But because so are mine, and so are those of the people I love.

Monday Musings: More Thoughts on the Pandemic

So, you’re tele-working now. Or you’re home with kids whose schools have closed. Or, like me, you’re just back from driving fifteen hours round trip to pick up your kid from a college that is closed for “two weeks,” but really indefinitely, until this clusterfuck of a pandemic is over.

Our routines seem so solid, so established. We take for granted that they will remain constant, that the foundations of our lives are sound. It’s disorienting to realize how fragile these things truly are. Think about it: On New Year’s Eve, none of us had ever heard of Covid-19; most of us didn’t even know there was a collection of pathogens known as coronavirus. That was the day when health officials in Wuhan Province, China, first reported a cluster of mysterious pneumonia cases. The first case has since been dated back to November 17. But even that is only four months ago. And returning to December 31, most of us spent that night with friends and family, celebrating the New Year, unaware that THE dominant news story of 2020 was already underway.

Eleven weeks later, the world is a changed place. Hundreds of thousands ill, thousands dead. Who knows how high those numbers might climb? For many – too many – life will never be the same; for the rest of us, it will eventually return to normal, but the dislocations will be profound and unsettling.

Please allow me to pause here, and to be clear: None of what I am about to say is meant to in any way downplay the seriousness of the situation. For those most at risk – the immunocompromised, the older members of our communities, those who already have underlying medical issues – this is a matter of life and death. Others among us face huge economic hardships that most of us can’t even imagine. The most vulnerable among us – in physical terms AND economic terms – need our support, our love, our compassion, and the attention of our policy makers.

That said, placed in perspective, the disruptions the most fortunate among us – myself included – have endured thus far seem pretty minimal. We hope they will remain so. But in talking to my wife and my kids and other family members, in corresponding with friends and colleagues, I see already the toll taken by the sheer uncertainty of it all. That is another cost of the Trump Administration’s bungling response to the crisis. Yes, they have squandered precious time, and this WILL result in more sickness and, ultimately, more deaths. But even for those who will be fortunate enough to remain healthy, the cost in uncertainty and anxiety is significant.

I got really ticked off at myself the other day because I realized half the day was gone and I had accomplished nothing. I’m finding it hard to concentrate, to resist the temptation to check the news for the latest event to be called off or the next celebrity to announce that they Have It. And as I result I’m getting nothing done.

Which probably doesn’t matter right now. Do I really think publishers are immune to the economic dislocations impacting every other industry? Do I really expect them to be contracting new books or sticking to publication schedules for the ones already in production?

And this leads me to the next thought.

Have you read about the environmental impact of Covid-19? Economic activity has ground to a halt in China and Italy, among other places. And as a result carbon emissions are way, way down in those areas. Now, I am NOT celebrating this. We need to curb carbon output, but subjecting the world to a deadly pandemic is NOT the way to combat climate change.

My point is that many of us – even as we’re expected to “tele-work” (an inelegant phrase, by the way – surely we can do better) – are going to have time on our hands. We’re not going out as much. We’re probably not traveling. Professional conferences are on hold. We’re not going to movies or concerts or sporting events. We won’t be watching March Madness or the end of the professional basketball season or the opening of the Major League Baseball season.

So what will we be doing?

Last week, I went on a hike and took a bunch of photographs (if you haven’t already, check out last week’s Photo Friday post). I have a ton of books to read. Lately, I haven’t been playing my guitar nearly enough. It’s almost time for bird migration, which means more hikes. Yes, I’ll probably be watching TV and movies from home. All of us are going to be binging something, I’m sure. Yet, even the most dedicated bingers can’t spend ALL their time in front of the screen. Those of us who lament never having enough time to do all the stuff we’d like to… well, we finally have that time. It’s been imposed from without. It comes with anxiety-inducing social costs. But if ever there was a time to slow down and enjoy the simple things that modern life too often encourages us to ignore, this is it.

And that’s where I’ll leave you today. This is what I’m musing on this odd Monday. We are in a dark time, to be sure. I’m nervous, as I’m sure most of you are, about the economic and social and biological and political implications of the pandemic. There is plenty to fear. As with all things, though, there is also a flip side. I have thought for a long time that I would like to simplify elements of my life, but in my rush to be productive and to keep all of my professional and personal commitments, I have allowed that wish to fall by the wayside. Now, I have no choice in the matter. For good or for ill. As it were…

Wishing you a good week, whatever that means at this moment in history.

Monday Musings: Uncertainty — Thoughts on Current Affairs

I am home from a great weekend at the Saga Professional Development Conference in Charlotte. Terrific people, great workshops and panels, and good humor all around when it came to dealing with the looming threat of the coronavirus. Containers of hand sanitizer were everywhere, including in the swag bags we were given at the start of the weekend. Handshakes and hugs – fixtures during most con weekends – were replaced with fist bumps, elbow bumps, and knowing, slightly nervous smiles. People wiped down everything in sight, hoping that would be enough to stave off a disease that we had no reason to believe was any threat to any of us in that particular place at this particular time.

To say that it was weird, is to vastly understate the matter.

But weirdest of all were the farewells at the end of the conference. “What’s next for you? Where will I see you next?” These are normally questions my friends/colleagues and I ask one another during such goodbyes. This time, our answers were tinged with an ominous uncertainty. We made light of the situation; there was lots of gallows humor.

The fact is, though, we know nothing. Clearly the financial markets expect this to get much, much worse. Major universities, from Stanford in California to Columbia in New York, are cancelling in-person classes and moving to online interactions. School systems are shutting down schools in Washington State and Westchester County, New York. In other countries – Italy, South Korea, Iran – where the outbreak is already far more advanced, remedial measures are even more severe. They could very well foretell our near future.

I’m not trying to be alarmist. These Monday posts are called “Musings” for a reason. This is where my mind is this morning. We are dealing with a situation that could go off the rails pretty quickly. And at the risk of veering into politics, I have to tell you that I have no confidence in our government’s ability to deal with. Or, to be more precise, I believe the CDC and other agencies could deal with it if we had a President who was capable of confronting the truth and allowing the experts to do their jobs. Unsurprisingly, he has shown through the early days of this crisis that he doesn’t have those arrows in his proverbial quiver. He can lie, he can blame others, he can deny and deflect and then double-down. He cannot lead.

I hope that his shortcomings won’t cost lives and won’t deepen the already-serious crisis before us. I’m not confident.