Tag Archives: current affairs

Photo Friday: Late-Afternoon Vista, and a Message

Last Friday, at the end of another week of work and screaming headlines, I spent my late afternoon, exploring our little college town, enjoying the golden light and ever-changing cloudscapes. As I’ve mentioned before, our town is perched atop the Cumberland Plateau, and we are fortunate to have several viewpoints that offer dramatic vistas of the valley and extensions of the plateau. This particular one, which faces north, is called Green’s View. Nancy and I lived a short walk from it many, many years ago, when our first daughter was just a baby. Despite the passage of more than twenty years, the view has remained stunningly beautiful.

This has been sad, painful week — another police shooting, more protests, another senseless act of gun violence, a national convention that offered little more than falsely apocalyptic warnings, blindly revisionist history, and a cult of worship for a man who deserves anything but.

And so I offer this simple image as a reminder — to you and for myself — that beauty remains in our world, that even as things seem to be getting darker and harder, there remain places of peace and solace untouched by the passage of years. We will get through this. Better days lie ahead.

I wish you a peaceful weekend filled with laughter and love. Stay safe, be kind to one another.Green's View, Late Afternoon, by David B. Coe

Monday Musings: How Are You Doing? How Am I Doing?

How are you holding up?

No, really. I’m asking. I’m asking you, and I’ve been asking myself over the past week or so.

This is a remarkable time we’re living through. Obviously, I don’t mean remarkable as in “This is great!” But remarkable as in, “We’ll be talking about this, and recovering from this, for years to come.” It is fraught and troubling and disorienting and challenging and, well, insert your own adjective here. I tend to be a news junkie; I rarely tune out the world. But I know many people who do, who prefer to keep politics and social issues in the background except for those moments – Election Day, for instance – when they feel they need to tune in.

Right now, though, we are living the news on a daily basis. There is no escaping it. There seems to be no distance between the world and our lives. There’s a direct line from those Covid maps on CNN and MSNBC and the cloth masks we put on to shop or go to the bank. Nor does it help that the Administration, which has failed utterly to develop a strategy for combatting the pandemic is, nevertheless, more than happy to exploit it in the most cynical ways possible for political gain.

But I have addressed those issues in past Monday Musings, and I’m sure I’ll do so again in future ones. Today, I’m focused more on the personal costs.

How am I doing? Thanks for asking. As I say, this is something I’ve been asking myself recently.

I’ll start with this: In all ways that matter I’m fine. My family and I have been fortunate so far and have avoided the virus. I am also fortunate in that I’m self-employed and have resources to fall back on even as the publishing industry has ground to a halt. I’m white, upper-middle class, and I live in a relatively isolated area. For those who are non-white, who lack financial security, who live in cities or crowded suburbs, all of this is far, far worse.

That said, I find that I’m struggling. I miss my kids, who I haven’t been able to see in months because of Covid concerns. Our older daughter is supposed to come pick up our old car tomorrow – our first time seeing her since December – but even this visit will be brief (just the evening) and distanced. Our other daughter we haven’t seen since March, and even that is far too long. I also miss my brother and his family, who we likely would have seen at some point this summer or fall.

I honestly don’t mind masking at all, but I miss seeing people – friends and even strangers. I miss going to a restaurant or bar. I miss travel. Problems of privilege, I know, but I’m being honest here. I really miss conventions – hanging out with friends, talking shop with fellow writers, interacting with fans. This past weekend, I was supposed to be in Calgary for a writing festival. A couple of weeks from now I am supposed to be in Atlanta for DragonCon, a highlight of my professional year. I work alone, and most of the time I enjoy delving into my imagination each day. That’s my job. These days, though, it feels particularly lonely.

I walk every day, but I miss my more vigorous workouts at the gym. And because I’m dealing with an unrelated medical issue that is affecting my shoulder, I have had to cut way back on my home workouts as well, which I find deeply frustrating, even depressing.

Mostly, I am weary of thinking about the pandemic, about the politics of the pandemic, about the logistical gymnastics we all have to go through for even the most mundane of errands because of the pandemic. This is exhausting – and way more so for those who have compromised immune systems and/or belong to at-risk groups. It would be terrifying if we had no health insurance, or lacked faith in the medical professionals in our area. Again, I recognize that I am very fortunate.

(And this, by the way, is what makes the Trump Administration’s mail-system machinations and its blindly foolish insistence on opening schools — just to name two of its worst offenses — so insidious. We are, all of us, dealing with heightened emotions, tensions, apprehensions. I can hardly imagine being the parent of school-aged children and, on top of everything else, worrying now about sending them to school.)

I get mad at myself when I am less productive in my work than I would like to be, or when I let everyday chores slide. The truth is, I should be cutting myself a bit of slack. We all should. The stress induced by this particular moment in history in unlike anything I’ve experienced in my lifetime. To my mind, it is rivaled only by the aftermath of 9/11.

I am, in the end, tired of it all. And I’m tired of whining about it. But for all of us who care, who take the threat as seriously as it merits, this is hard. I have no answers, no wisdom to dispense. As I said, I’m struggling, too. I do believe life will get better. I won’t say I expect us to go back to the old normal, but I expect the new normal – whatever that looks like – to be far more enjoyable than this.

Until then, please know that I am wishing all of you good health, simple joys, moments of peace and laughter and love. Stay well, be safe, take good care of one another. We will get through this.

Monday Musings: The Day I Fell In Love With Baseball

I was seven years old, the youngest child by far in a household that revered baseball. I didn’t remember the exact date, but today we live in an age of marvels, and all I had to do was Google a few key phrases from the storyline of the game. August 30, 1970. That was the day I fell in love with baseball.

We were a family divided. My sister, Liz, and my brother Jim, the siblings closest to me in years, both rooted for the Yankees. Liz was — and remains — a fanatic. Jim cared less than the rest of us, but in our household, at that time, one chose a team. My oldest brother, Bill, had been a New York Giants fan until their relocation to San Francisco. He idolized Willie Mays all his life. He attended college in Boston, remained there after graduating, and — to this day, I struggle to speak the words — became a Red Sox fan. In the battle of New York teams, though, he and my father rooted for the Mets. Bill hated the Yankees the way my father hated Richard Nixon. Only my mother remained above the fray. I believe she refused to root for one particular team because she didn’t want to appear to favor one child over another.

Liz and Jim convinced me that I liked the Yankees. Jim lived at home; Liz was in college, but came home with some frequency. I attribute their victory on the battleground of team loyalties to proximity and, in Liz’s case, her single-minded determination that I. Would. Be. A. Yankees. Fan.

In that summer of 1970 I was still learning the game. I have no memory of having watched baseball before then, though no doubt I did. My baseball consciousness dates from that summer, from that day. August 30th.

Why?

Because on that day Mickey Mantle, our household’s Most Beloved Yankee, made his debut as a Yankee coach. He’d retired the year before, after a Hall of Fame career foreshortened by knee injuries and, the world later learned, excessive drinking. Mantle’s return to Yankee Stadium, and in particular his appearance in the first base coach’s box in the fourth inning, was a big deal in New York. So much so, that I resolved to watch the game. We had a color TV at that point, but it was downstairs in the family den, and clearly my father and mother were watching something else on the good set.

I was exiled to my parents’ room, home of our old black and white television. The game was on WPIX, channel 11, the Yankees’ local affiliate. It was sponsored, like all Yankee games at that time, by Schaefer Beer — “The one beer to have when you’re having more than one.” Yes, that was really the slogan. Quite a distance from “Please drink responsibly.”

Roy White, Yankees # 6, LF. 1972 Topps cardThe Yankees were playing the Minnesota Twins, a powerful team lead by perennial all-star Tony Oliva and future Hall of Fame slugger Harmon Killebrew. The Twins jumped out to an early lead, gave a run back, but still led 2-1 in the fifth inning, the second inning of Mantle’s stint as coach. The Yankees managed to load the bases and, with two outs, their left fielder, a guy named Roy White, stepped to the plate.

At this point, I was riveted to the game. I was in the process of realizing that I really, really liked baseball. I enjoyed following the broadcast on my own, without anyone else trying to explain stuff to me. But, of course, I was desperate for the Yankees to tie things up or take the lead. It didn’t seem right that Mickey Mantle should lose his first game as coach.

The Twins pitcher was a nineteen-year-old rookie named Bert Blyleven. I later learned that he was from the Netherlands, like both my grandparents on my father’s side. For much of his stellar career, he was the only Dutch player in the Major Leagues. He won a lot of games and struck out a lot of players with a strong fastball and a wicked curve. He, too, was eventually inducted into the Hall of Fame. In 1970, I knew none of this, and wouldn’t have cared. We needed runs!

Roy White hit Blyleven’s first pitch to what was known in New York as Death Valley, the vast expanse of Yankee Stadium’s left field. Oliva, a fine defensive player, drifted back to the wall, but could only watch as White’s fly cleared the fence for a grand slam home run. Yankees 5-2. I am certain that I cheered and jumped up and down, no doubt earning a rebuke from my father downstairs.

That proved to be the final score. Mickey had his first coaching win. And I had a new favorite player. From that time until his retirement in 1979, Roy White was my hero. He wasn’t as well-known as some other Yankees, but he was quietly consistent. He got his share of hits, drew a lot of walks, hit the occasional long ball, played a solid if unspectacular left field, and always comported himself with class and dignity.

My memories of that day fifty years ago are remarkably clear, but the game as I was getting to know it then feels a long way removed from where we are now.

With baseball’s return this past weekend, to empty stadiums with pre-recorded cheers and, in some cases, cardboard cut-out fans, I feel especially nostalgic for the baseball of my youth. I still love the game, though I find my affection for it tested by too many strikeouts and an over-reliance on the home run, by unbearable delays in play and rule changes that rankle, by steroids and cheating scandals, by labor disputes between millionaire players who are barely older than my children and billionaire owners who seem to care only about their bottom lines.

I haven’t stopped rooting for the Yankees, although I will admit to a brief flirtation with the Mets in the mid-80s, when their young, dynamic stars were New York’s darlings. I tend to attach to players as much as to teams. Roy White. Dwight Gooden and Daryl Strawberry. Derek Jeter. Now Aaron Judge. But it is the game itself that I love. Yes, I complain about the pace of play, but part of what draws me to baseball is the absence of a clock. Time is meted out in pitches and outs and innings — the perfect units with which to mark the passage of a languid summer afternoon or evening. And there is nothing in sports that I enjoy more than the baseball playoffs and World Series. I watch every game and lament the end of the postseason the way I once lamented the end of summer vacation.

That said, I can’t get as excited about the game as I used to, for all the reasons I mentioned before, and for a host of reasons that have everything to do with me and nothing to do with the game. Perhaps it’s inevitable that middle age should lessen our passion for such things. Family, friends, work, a world in need of salvation and healing — these are the concerns that consume me today. And yet, on some level, I remain that seven-year-old kid waiting for the clutch hit or the crucial strikeout. I miss the days when my greatest worries were about the Yankees’ upcoming series against the Sox and the possibility that this year’s Roy White wouldn’t be in the pack of baseball cards I’d just bought.

A simpler time.

I wish you all a wonderful week.

Monday Musings: Covid-19 and America’s Character Flaw

Many of you know that I have a Ph.D. in U.S. History. My years of studying America’s past have taught me a lot and left me fully aware of the dangers inherent in making broad, sweeping generalizations. And yet…

I believe our nation is failing so completely in combatting Covid-19 at least in part because we, as a society and as a nation, are not capable of doing what we must to succeed. The ethos of American culture, such as it is, revolves around “individualism” and “personal liberty,” values that are fundamentally antithetical to communal sacrifice and collective thinking. The pandemic was bound to hit us hardest, because we are not wired for the sort of social solutions needed to combat it.

Right now, the United States, which accounts for about 4% of the world’s population, has seen approximately one quarter of all reported cases and deaths worldwide. Yes, there are legitimate questions about the accuracy of the figures released by a few other countries, but there can be no doubt that the U.S. is faring far worse against Covid-19 than it should, and far, far, FAR worse than the countries we consider our peers and closest allies. Some of the blame for this falls squarely on the Trump Administration, whose response has been scattershot, ineffective, and deeply irresponsible. Some of the blame falls on local politicians, who have parroted Trump’s denials and lies. Some of the blame can also be tied to the size of the United States, and the diffuse nature of our various levels of government.

But that is also where we start to see the impact of our obsession with “liberty.” Months ago, the Federal Government should have issued an order requiring the use of face masks in all public places. But many state leaders would have screamed bloody murder at such “Federal overreach.” Localities, they would argue, ought to have the final say in what sort of dictates are imposed on their citizens.

Unless those dictates are deemed too onerous by the Liberty Junkies. Brian Kemp (Moron — Georgia) has sued the mayor of Atlanta, Keesha Lance Bottoms, and the Atlanta city council, because they dared to issue a mandatory mask order, in violation of his ban on such orders from all localities in the state. Kemp claims to believe that people ought to wear masks, but he is adamantly opposed to making this mandatory. Similar debates are taking place all across my state of Tennessee. A coalition of doctors here asked our governor, Bill Lee (Spineless — Tennessee), to issue a mask mandate. He refused, instead authorizing county mayors to issue such directives if they so choose. Too many have chosen not to, including one who said explicitly, “We were debating masks when we should be discussing liberty, freedom, and personal responsibility.”

I want to ask these people if their belief in personal responsibility extends to driving 100 mph on their county roads, or if their troopers will still be ticketing for that. To my mind there is little difference between speed limits and mask requirements. Experts tell us that filling the roads with drivers who drive at excessive speeds will lead to property damage, injuries, and deaths. Controlling speeds is a matter of public safety. Experts tell us that the spread of coronavirus will be slowed by people wearing masks that protect themselves and others from the spray of infected liquids that results from human respiration and conversation, not to mention coughing and sneezing. It, too, is a matter of public safety.

Will wearing masks prevent all new infections? Of course not. Nor will speed limit laws prevent all accidents. Is it possible that someone not wearing a mask will manage to avoid getting sick and infecting others? Sure, it’s possible. And it’s possible that some asshole driving 97 on a twisty county road will reach home alive. That doesn’t make it a good idea.

The problem is, the Liberty Junkies have never gotten over being nine years old and shouting “It’s a free country!” every time someone tells them to do something they don’t want to do. Honestly, I don’t understand the vehement reaction of mask-wearing. It’s just not that big a deal. Even if it were more onerous, though, that wouldn’t change the essential facts: Wearing a mask makes each of us less vulnerable to the disease. It makes it less likely that we will spread Covid to someone else. And, by keeping us healthy, it also protects our friends and loved ones from subsequent infection. That, to my mind, should be the end of the discussion.

In New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and many European countries, infection rates spiked and then subsided because people took quickly to masking, to social distancing, and to complete and prolonged economic inactivity. And, actually, those steps briefly worked here, too. For just a moment, we had started to get a handle on this thing. The advice of the experts worked. (And, I’ll add, it also didn’t hurt that all of the other countries I mentioned have universal health care coverage, making it easier for the sick to get the treatment they needed.)

But here, too many people still refused to wear masks and to distance, and attempts to close down the economy were met with impatience and outright resistance. It doesn’t help that many in Congress have been unwilling to extend the sort of financial relief that would make a lengthy economic shutdown less destructive. That’s part of the American obsession with individualism as well. As a nation, we don’t want “socialized” anything. We don’t want to give people “handouts,” even when such benefits are precisely what circumstances demand. Because somehow catering to the public welfare in such a way is equated with “weakness” and moral turpitude.

Lots of factors have contributed to our country’s disastrous response to the pandemic, and I believe the Trump Administration bears much responsibility. But I would argue as well that Trump and his lackeys couldn’t get away with their demonization of experts and their rejection of masks and other simple, proven methods to contain the virus, if our national culture didn’t make such tactics so easy. For too long, we have idolized America’s “rugged individual” and fetishized “personal freedom.” Is it any wonder that so many in this nation find it perfectly acceptable to ignore the common good?

Monday Musings: Covid-19 Anger Redux

Back in mid-April, I wrote a post about the pandemic that drew a bit of attention. In it I expressed a good deal of anger. Anger at claims that the virus was not as bad as some were making it out to be. Anger at people who were calling dire projections of high fatalities a “hoax” because the CDC had lowered some of its worst-case estimates. And anger at government leaders who were calling for an early re-opening of the economy because, really, how bad could the virus be compared to a steep recession.

If you think I was pissed off then, how angry do you think I am now?

Let’s start with those fatality projections. Here is what I wrote in that April post:

“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?”

First of all, how quaint that experts were projecting a death toll of 64,000 in April. We’re beyond twice that number now, and deaths in the U.S. are rising again. We’re over 135,000, heading toward God-knows-what. When I wrote that piece, the U.S. had 682,000 Covid-19 cases (we’re over 3.2 million now) and 23,000 deaths. And we thought things were terrible. It was a crisis. We took solace in that 64,000 death projection, horrible though it was.

As I said at the time, those who were shouting, “Hoax!” because the projections had gone down, ignored the reason those estimates fell: namely that the country had adopted safety measures recommended by health experts. We were washing our hands, starting to wear masks, distancing ourselves from the people around us. And we cut way, way back on our economic and social activity. The popular phrase was “we closed the economy.” Those measures worked. That’s why the death toll seemed to be falling, why the outlook improved so markedly.

Let me pause here to say this: The pain of a recession, particularly one that begins so abruptly and dives so deep, is no trifle. People are hurting. Those who have lost jobs are in danger of losing their homes as well. They may lose access to health care, in the short term at least, and in the long-term as well if the Trump Administration’s attempts to destroy the Affordable Care Act finally succeed. I do not mean to ignore the suffering caused by this economic downturn.

But the fact is, we opened up too soon. Here’s something else I wrote back in April.

“…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.”

Look, I’m not trying to engage in a gotcha game of “I Told You So.” I’m not a medical expert, and I don’t claim to be. Everything I said in that first post I learned from others, from reading articles and listening to reports from respected news sources. Anybody could have written that post, if only they had been paying attention. Anybody should have been able to see coming what has happened in our country over the last month. Cases are spiking all through the South and the Sunbelt. All those states that looked at New York and New Jersey and said, “Well Covid-19 is their problem,” are learning now what they should have understood then: New York was not the exception, it was their future.

It is too simplistic to blame one party, much less one person. But let’s be honest about this, too: Donald Trump helped set the stage for this by engaging in wishful thinking, by downplaying the danger of the virus when all his medical advisors were telling him how bleak our future might be. And people like Greg Abbott and Ron DeSantis and Brian Kemp and Doug Ducey (the governors of Texas, Florida, Georgia, and Arizona respectively) were all too happy to parrot him.

As a result – and this is the truly tragic and infuriating element in all this, as pointed out recently by Rachel Maddow – the sacrifices we made back in March and April, when we did close the economy, when millions upon millions of people lost their jobs, when social distancing denied so many grieving families the opportunity to mourn properly for lost loved ones, have turned out to be for naught. We sacrificed so much, and because we were careless and impatient and overeager, we are suffering mind-numbing losses anyway.

And still people don’t get it. Every day throughout the country, people whose definition of “liberty” suddenly means “not having to protect themselves and others from infection by wearing a mask” are making matters worse. They have decided that being “free” is more important than being part of a community. They have decided that their right to risk their own health is more important than your right, and my right, not to be placed at risk. Pardon my bluntness, but fuck them. We wear masks to protect ourselves and to protect those around us. We wear them to protect our families and friends who might be at risk if we contract this vicious disease. We wear them because smart people, qualified people, people who are experts in medicine and epidemiology, tell us that doing so is the prudent thing to do.

Those same smart people are now trying to warn us, to warn our President and the political sycophants who run so many states, that reopening schools without taking extraordinary precautions could put our children at grave risk as well. The President is having none of it. Same with too many governors.

Are we willing to see tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, or millions of school children infected with Covid-19? We have already seen this sort of scenario play out. We know how this could end. We have gotten so much wrong since this pandemic began. Our leaders have failed us in so many ways. We cannot take this chance.

Please.

I don’t want to write another post like this three months from now. I certainly don’t want to write it about children.

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.